The Credibility Gap: Corbyn and Nuttall punished at the ballot box

Last night the results of two Parliamentary by-elections were announced. They provide a curious insight into Labour’s woes – but also UKIP’s. For Labour to lose Copeland is nothing short of a disaster, precipitated in part by the Conservatives’ laser focus on Corbyn’s approach towards nuclear power – the first gain by a Government from the Opposition in a by-election since Mitcham and Morden in 1982.

The Tory approach was just a taster of what Corbyn can expect in the months leading up to the general election. Opposition to nuclear power resurrects memories of the Labour Party’s soft approach to defence in the 1980s when, politically, nuclear power and an independent nuclear deterrent were interchangeable. Most startling was the ease with which the Conservatives ran home in the polls – they are undoubtedly leaving their best material aside for now.

The big lesson from the Copeland by-election is that a Labour campaign that relentlessly focuses on the National Health Service, without a positive response to the primary concerns of the voters – in this case nuclear power – will not work. In this case, the primary concern of the voters was the future of the nuclear industry in Cumbria. Having spent many years calling for the abolition of nuclear power, Jeremy Corbyn’s claim to have changed his mind was not credible – although credit should go to Labour’s Copeland campaign co-ordinator Andrew Gwynne for persuading him to take this step.

Indeed, Labour should have learned this lesson in 2015 when, unable to regain a level of economic credibility equal to that enjoyed by the Conservatives, the party revolved its national campaign around the National Health Service.

Without the basic level of credibility needed to persuade the voters that you are capable of delivering what you promise, all else falls by the wayside. By-elections often focus more on the personal attributes – or character flaws – of the candidates because the voters understand their decision will not usually lead to a change in Government. In 2020, Conservative attacks will focus on defence and the economy. Labour’s credibility gap will be magnified many times over – however credible it is on the NHS, as it was in 2015.

For UKIP to fall short in Stoke, around 70 per cent of which voted for Brexit, is a huge blow to the authority of Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader. Nuttall has long been vocal about his desire to “replace Labour” in its northern heartlands. After revelations about untruthful statements he has made, it is difficult to see how his aspiration might conceivably come to fruition. Stoke-on-Trent Central was the obvious place for this to begin, and this disappointing result will surely leave him considering his position.

It is difficult to imagine a more promising set of circumstances for a UKIP surprise. Instead, Paul Nuttall managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Nuttall should consider this a personal humiliation. 65 Oxford Street, Stoke-on-Trent, will remain empty for now.

Tom Williams, Senior Account Executive

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