By-elections are curious beasts in that they rarely tell us much about the composition of future governments or even party ideologies. The famous centrist victories, such as the Liberals at Orpington in 1962 and the SDP at Crosby in 1981, were not harbingers of a fundamental shift in the political landscape, while those by-elections supposedly fought over the "soul" of a party (invariably Labour) tend to look absurd with the benefit of hindsight (e.g. the "gay/straight" contest in Bermondsey in 1983 that resulted in the election of the bisexual Simon Hughes). Much of the oddity of by-elections is due to the determination of the media to force a local vote into the straitjacket of a national narrative, but some of it is down to variations in turnout that can skew the result, hence the tendency of some seats that register a "shock result" to revert to their historic norm come the next general election. By-elections are therefore often unrepresentative, but this doesn't mean that they aren't meaningful. To understand them we need to step back and view them in a broader context, rather than treating them simply as a poll on the popularity of party leaders.
The historic significance of the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections is that they occurred in the period between the passage of the Article 50 bill and the start of Brexit negotiations with the EU27. As such, they may well represent the high-water mark of Conservative popularity and the low-water mark of Labour's. The inescapable complexity of the coming deals, and the inevitability of compromise and choices over priorities, will leave the government vulnerable to substantive criticism as well as leaver disillusion. Labour's decision to vote through the Article 50 bill attracted liberal condemnation, but it means that its future attacks cannot be dismissed by government as the carping of unrepentant remainers, though no doubt the Tory press will try and make the charge stick (and the liberal press will flip from obsessing over Labour's leave-voting constituencies to its remain voters). The next two years will be a contest between versions of Brexit. Though it should set out some general principles now, e.g. in respect of EU citizen rights and worker protection, it makes sense for Labour to build its position incrementally on the back of popular disquiet at Tory mis-steps and emerging risks rather than through a composite motion at conference that offers hostages to fortune. We should never underestimate the Tories' capacity for catastrophic error.
Though much of today's media is focused on the short-term drama of the by-election results, notably in respect of the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn (hence Copeland is now centre-stage while former favourite Stoke is being ushered into the wings), the results are consistent with long-term trends. Turnout was down, though that is normal for by-elections. Copeland's drop, from 64% in 2015 to 51% this week, is pretty much what you'd expect, particularly given the bad weather. More troubling is the fall in Stoke Central from 50% to 38%. The disengagement of almost two-thirds of the electorate, despite the high profile of the contest and the insistence on its significance by all parties in the run-up to polling day, does not bode well for democracy. In terms of party share, Labour may have held Copeland (and formerly Whitehaven) for the best part of a century, but it's vote has been in steady decline since 1997 when Jack Cunningham got 58%. Jamie Reed's three elections between 2005 and 2015 saw shares of 51%, 46% and 42% in that order. Gillian Troughton's 37% yesterday clearly owed something to the combination of Corbyn and Sellafield, but it is otherwise on-trend.
A similar trend is visible in Stoke, with Labour's vote falling from a high of 66% in 1997 down to 39% in 2015 and then 37% this week. The fact that 37% was enough to win Stoke but lose Copeland is explained by the more even split of the vote to the right of Labour in the Midlands constituency. Up to 2010 this was between the Tories and Liberal Democrats. In the 2015 general election and this week's by-election UKIP supplanted the latter. In Copeland, where the third party has previously been well short of the second, the collapse in the UKIP vote, from 16% in 2015 to 7% now, closely matched the increase in the Tory share, from 36% to 44%, suggesting that the Kippers focus of their resources in the Potteries was a key factor in the Conservative victory in Cumbria. This, together with the fact that the Tory vote held up in Stoke (from 23% to 24%) and thus denied Paul Nuttall the chance to pip Labour, is a validation of Theresa May's apparent strategy to colonise UKIP's territory by promising a hard Brexit.
The Conservative leader's problem going forward is that the reality of Brexit will alienate some hardcore leavers, who will be disappointed by the necessary compromises, but also some softcore leavers who may not yet appreciate a lot of the negative consequences. Though some of those hardcore voters will gravitate (back) to the Kippers, UKIP is clearly in long-term decline. Paul Nuttall's strategy of challenging Labour in the North doesn't look any more credible today than it did in 2015, despite the extensive and persistent media support for the idea. Increasing its share in Stoke from 23% to 25% is a pretty poor return for all its efforts, not to mention all those Guardian and Newsnight vox-pops. If nothing else, the results this week should indicate that UKIP remains essentially a Tory ginger group, which will perhaps embolden the likes of Suzanne Evans to challenge the discredited and ridiculous Nuttall (or maybe Farage will stage another comeback now that he doesn't seem minded to spend more time with his family).
Assuming Corbyn stays put - and why wouldn't he? - we can expect the liberal media to once more start favouring the Liberal Democrats as the "Labour buster" of British politics, with perhaps a side order of fresh plaudits for the SNP as "sensible remainers". It will be quite like old times and may even lead to a falling off in the number of articles painting the working class as incorrigible bigots and ignorant fools, though I wouldn't hold my breath on that. Theresa May will no doubt be eulogised as the mistress of all she surveys, though this should remind us that pride goes before a fall. Unless more Labour MPs desert (which is not impossible), the next by-election through natural attrition will probably occur in the middle of the Brexit negotiations. By then, Blair and Mandelson will have positioned themselves as more pro-EU than official Labour, which means that they will become increasingly dogmatic and strident. This presents the ironic possibility that the more traditional Labour right might even start to see merits in Corbyn's approach.