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Why we shouldn’t swear by by-elections

When the results for the by-elections in Stoke and Copeland are announced on Thursday night, a festival of horse-race punditry will doubtless ensue in the media. It is always tempting to view by-elections as proof of decisive swings that confirm national narratives – Labour are collapsing to UKIP in the North; Lib Dems will pick up remain votes; Tory poll lead is unprecedented and unstoppable. Which of these narratives you are treated to on the news Thursday night will be determined by small swings in small constituencies: one Labour loss, two Labour losses; UKIP gain; Tory gain. But will two elections, almost certainly on low turnout and driven by local issues, really tell us anything decisive about the national story of the UK’s future?

Of course not. There are 650 seats in parliament – one seat gained or lost makes virtually no difference on a national level, and by-elections are far more useful as trial-run message exercises for internal party PR people than they are genuine signifiers of political direction. In Stoke, Labour and UKIP candidates have both landed themselves in hot water over controversial comments, while local issues such as the cuts to local hospital and children’s services will likely be just as high in people’s minds as Brexit negotiations. It’s possible that UKIP might have won if Paul Nuttall hadn’t parachuted his way into a cock-up; maybe they’ll win anyway; maybe Labour will win on local issues or campaign ground game (their candidate is a longstanding member of the local council, unlike Merseysider Nuttall). And let’s remember amid the talk of UKIP taking over Labour heartlands that Tristram Hunt MP won the constituency in 2015 on the lowest turnout in the country (49%) and with a shrinking majority.

That being said, I don’t mean to minimise the results pre-emptively to imply that they have no indicative value at all. Make no mistake: at this point in the election cycle these are both seats Labour should be winning comfortably. But we already know that they aren’t going to. That is a testament to national strategy concerns – but these by-elections are a flimsy, unreliable indicator. They do not vindicate or disparage any theories of party success. A landslide result or larger-than-expected swing might indicate something, but even then results will be coloured more by mid-term demographic turnout and local issues than the relevance of national campaign messaging. We know that Labour are struggling to win over voters, particularly on the Brexit issue.

That’s not least because Labour are in the middle of an issue that is inherently splitting people between binary lines. In fact, the Labour position might be closer to the public as whole than any other party: the EU is flawed, undemocratic, but useful. Evidently by a slim majority the public came down on the side that it was best on balance to leave, while Labour and Corbyn came down the opposite way. But compared to a Lib Dem and Green parties full of triumphalist anti-democratic sentiment against triggering Article 50 (positions they can afford to take by virtue of niche status); or an SNP or Plaid Cymru whose ideological positions put them out of line with the reality of support in their respective regions in favour of their own anti-Westminster narratives; or a Tory party that has stealthily transformed itself from reluctant Remainers into UKIP-lite almost overnight.

Labour’s problem isn’t that it’s unpopular on Brexit. It’s that it’s hard to attract voters to the centre-ground when voters of either side of the referendum view any compromise as betrayal. For all the talk of ‘looney-left’ Corbyn leading Labour suicidally away from the centre-ground, on this issue their problem is the exact reverse. It is at this point crucial to bear in mind that, barring a snap general election that doesn’t seem likely, the next general election will not – repeat, will not – be fought on these lines. By that point, immediate negotiations for leaving the EU should be over. Article 50 will disappear from memory just as quickly as it arrived, and the electoral question for the British people to decide will be what kind of international future the country should pursue to navigate the post-Brexit world. That election will be a totally different game to the narrow topical questions these by-elections will be fought on. As a result, they will tell us even less than most do.

The contests in Stoke and Copeland should be taken as a small and unreliable indication of the extent to which Leave voters turn out to a parliamentary election, and that’s about it. In truth, these elections have no impact on the national parliamentary balance of power, and are merely trial runs of a game that hasn’t yet been invented. By all means enjoy the punditry, but take with a mountain of salt.

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