Tension mounts as ‘crucial’ by-elections held

Face-off: Theresa May has campaigned in Copeland; Jeremy Corbyn has been to both areas.

In knife-edge by-elections in Stoke and Copeland today the stakes seem high for Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP. Is it exaggerating to say that the results could change British politics?

Activists have been assaulted and threatened. Posters have vanished or been vandalised. There have been complaints of electoral misdemeanours. A candidate has been arrested for stirring up racial hatred.

It has been a fractious few weeks in Stoke-on-Trent. Today voters in the West Midlands city will choose a new MP, as its central constituency holds a parliamentary by-election.

Stoke Central has had a Labour MP since 1950. But UKIP, which has promised to target traditional Labour voters in the North and Midlands, is in contention to win. It has chosen a high-risk strategy: its leader, Paul Nuttall, is personally standing for the seat. Last week his predecessor Nigel Farage said victory was “fundamental” to both UKIP and Labour’s future.

This has led to a bitter campaign. Nuttall has been egged in the street and heavily criticised for an untrue claim about the Hillsborough disaster. Labour candidate Gareth Snell has been dogged by the revelation of embarrassing tweets — including one calling his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, “an IRA supporting friend of Hamas”.

Meanwhile, 170 miles away, the Conservatives are marginal favourites to overthrow Labour in Copeland. No governing party has captured an opposition seat at a by-election for 34 years. But Corbyn’s historic opposition to nuclear power is a liability in an area dominated by a major nuclear plant.

These are local contests, but pundits say it is a crucial day for the UK’s politics nationally — particularly for Corbyn. “A defeat in both would be catastrophic,” says Matt Cole, who teaches politics at the University of Birmingham. “A defeat in one would be a severe blow.”

Most voters in both constituencies voted for Brexit in last year’s referendum, and today will help to explain how voters will respond to a fast-changing political landscape. Stoke, in particular, could be a bellwether for the future direction of Labour’s heartland constituencies.

By the by

The stakes are high, say excited pundits. A Labour defeat in Stoke would be devastating. A Tory win in Copeland would show that Britain is heading for many years of Conservative government. Corbyn’s leadership is on the line. We will find out whether Brexit has rendered UKIP irrelevant or emboldened it. The tension in both constituencies shows how much this matters.

Typical media hype, respond others. Political pundits find by-elections interesting because they give them something to discuss. But ordinary people hardly care. The results will reflect local concerns as much as national ones. They will change just two of the UK’s 650 MPs. And voters’ behaviour in by-elections, when they know they are not choosing a government, means little.

You Decide

  1. Who do you want to win the Stoke and Copeland by-elections?
  2. How important are today’s by-elections?

Activities

  1. You have been rushed to a mysterious part of your country to stand in an election. You know nothing about the area. Write down the first 10 questions you would ask local residents. Discuss your choices in pairs.
  2. Write your own 500-word report about these two elections. Ensure that your piece makes clear how important you think they will be. Use the links in Become An Expert to help.

Some People Say...

“Journalists care about politics far more than most people do.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in either of these places. Has this got anything to do with me?
These results may indicate how people are likely to vote in the 2020 general election. The response to their implications could affect the direction of politics.
I’m not that interested in politics though.
This is a chance to gauge the current worries and interests of people in the UK. It could help to show what British people are likely to value as you get older. And even if you think these elections are not very important, that can teach you about the priorities of the media and politicians.
But I’m not British.
This election may bring lessons for politicians abroad. For example, if UKIP can do well in Stoke, perhaps Marine Le Pen’s Front National might replicate their success in industrial towns in France.

Word Watch

Racial hatred
Independent candidate Barbara Fielding said all immigrants should be repatriated.
By-election
A special one-off election to choose a replacement when an MP resigns or dies.
Traditional
Working class voters in industrial towns are usually expected to vote Labour. But in the 2015 election the turnout (proportion of people who voted) in Stoke was the lowest in the UK.
Hillsborough
A disaster which killed 96 Liverpool FC fans in 1989. On his website in 2011 and 2012 Nuttall said he had lost “close personal friends” in the disaster. He now says that was untrue. He has been accused of fabricating or exaggerating several other stories.
IRA
The Irish Republican Army attacked British troops and civilians during the Troubles of 1968–98. Corbyn has been criticised for holding a minute’s silence for eight IRA members in 1987.
Hamas
An Islamist organisation in the Palestinian territories which organises attacks on Israelis. In 2009, Corbyn introduced speakers from Hamas in Parliament, calling them ‘friends’.
Brexit
In Stoke 69.4% of voters chose to leave the EU, in Copeland 62.0%.

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