Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central are two seats that have been held by Labour since their creation in 1983 and 1950 respectively, but they will both face by-elections on 23rd February. The 2015 General Election saw the majorities of the two Labour incumbents significantly reduced. Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, secured a majority of just 2,564 over the Conservatives. Whereas Tristram Hunt narrowly fought off strong UKIP and Tory opposition in Stoke, on a turnout of less than half the electorate.
Both Labour MPs have been openly critical of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is languishing in the polls, despite achieving a renewed mandate from the party membership last year. Jamie Reed will take up a post in the nuclear industry, an area in which he publicly clashed with Mr Corbyn, and Tristram Hunt will become the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Although they appear to be voluntary decisions, for Hunt it may have been a case of jumping before being pushed. The new boundary changes set to be introduced at the next election would mean that the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat would likely cease to exist.
Labour will view these elections with a sense of dread. Corbyn has been unable to get a grip of the Brexit issue and has neglected some of his core supporters in failing to commit to strong immigration controls. Both constituencies voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union and such euro-scepticism will play into the hands of Labour’s challengers. UKIP will be targeting the Stoke seat with a view to transferring their considerable grassroots support into Parliamentary seats. Rumours have circulated about Paul Nuttall himself contesting the forthcoming by-election. Even more interestingly, the Copeland by-election carries the prospect of this Conservative Government becoming the first sitting government to gain a seat since the Mitcham and Morden by-election of 1982. Such a victory would be unprecedented and would further embolden those in the PLP calling for Corbyn’s resignation.
Whatever the outcome, these two by-elections will be defining moments for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The prospect of a UKIP gain in Stoke, although hugely significant, pales in comparison to that of a Government gain from Labour in Copeland. All eyes in Westminster will be fixed on the results of these key contests, particularly those closest to the Labour leader.
Image: Financial Times via flickr.