Labour party candidate Gareth Snell (C) celebrates with his wife Sophia in the Fenton Manor Sports Complex after being elected as the Member of Parliament for the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency in a by-election, in Stoke-on-Trent, central England on February 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party defeated UKIP’s leader in a Brexit bastion, but in a second by-election suffered a landmark defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May’s governing Conservatives on Friday.
The results saw the Brexit-championing UK Independence Party fail to capitalise on the June referendum vote to leave the European Union.
But while Labour celebrated fending off UKIP’s bid to replace them in their traditional post-industrial heartlands, the historic loss elsewhere of a seat to the Conservatives was a big blow to their prospects in the 2020 general election.
In Thursday’s two parliamentary by-elections, Labour clung on to its Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, in the British city that registered the highest vote for leaving the EU.
Labour’s Gareth Snell took 37 percent of the vote, beating new UKIP leader Paul Nuttall who garnered 25 percent. In a town where voter apathy runs deep, turnout stood at 38 percent.
Both parties had ploughed huge resources into the contest in west central England, which had been pitched as make-or-break for both sides.
Nuttall insisted the defeat did not mark the end of UKIP.
“This seat was 72 on our target list. There’s a lot more to come from us,” he said.
“There are other issues beyond Brexit.”
But Labour’s relief at retaining Stoke-on-Trent Central could not mask the impact of their loss of the rural seat of Copeland on the northwest English coast.
– Historic swing to Conservatives –
Conservative Trudy Harrison hailed a “truly historic event” after winning the by-election with 44 percent to 37 percent for Labour’s Gillian Troughton.
It was the first time a governing party has taken an opposition-held seat in a by-election since 1982.
“This is an astounding victory,” May said on a celebratory visit to the Cumberland constituency. “Labour have held this seat since the 1930s.
“What we have seen from this victory is that this truly is a government that is working for everyone and for every part of the country.”
Her Downing Street office dismissed suggestions that she could go for a snap general election in the wake of the Copeland result.
“The PM has set out the position very clearly on a general election. There are no plans for one,” a spokesman said.
Many jobs in the constituency depend on the Sellafield nuclear processing facility, and veteran leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s strong anti-nuclear stance may have damaged the party’s fortunes.
“It’s a day for celebration in Stoke, it’s a day of disappointment in Copeland,” Corbyn said.
“Both constituencies — like so many in Britain — have been let down by the political establishment. To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with our supporters and voters in general.”
Labour is deeply divided on Corbyn’s leadership and on accepting Brexit, which was strongly supported in its heartlands but was opposed by its MPs.
Asked by a reporter on Friday if he thought the problem could actually lie with him, he replied simply: “No.”
– ‘Great moment for May’ –
Nationwide opinion polls keep May’s centre-right Conservatives 18 points ahead and bookmakers lengthened the odds on Labour winning the 2020 general election after Friday’s results.
Simon Usherwood, a politics reader at the University of Surrey, told AFP the results showed Labour was in a “bad place”.
“For UKIP, it’s not the end of the party; it looks like a missed opportunity,” he said.
“It shows that support for Brexit doesn’t automatically translate in support for UKIP.
“This is a great moment for Theresa May,” he added.
“Her two main challenging parties have both suffered setbacks, their party leaders look compromised, she got another MP to increase her majority and she didn’t have to get her hands dirty.”
The by-election results leave the Conservatives with a working majority of 16 in parliament’s 650-seat lower House of Commons.