A conversation with a Copeland voterFebruary 28th, 2017
“Hello is that Mr. Joe Bloggs?
“Yes. Who is it?”
“My name is Rachel. I’m calling from the Labour party on behalf of Gillian Troughton. Do you have a few moments?”
“Yes, go on.”
“I was just wondering who you planned to vote for in the by-election on 23rd February?”
“I have no idea”
“Okay who did you vote for last time – at the General Election in 2015?”
“I voted Labour. Always have done.”
“So if you could choose between a Labour Government and a Tory Government which way would you lean?”
“Labour. I’d always prefer a Labour Government”
“So why are you undecided?”
“Well, I work at Sellafield and I’m worried that my job isn’t safe with Jeremy Corbyn as leader”.
“If you mean does Jeremy Corbyn support Moorside then yes he does. He released a statement about it the other day, saying he supports it”.
“But I saw him on ITV Border News the other night. Wouldn’t answer a sodding question. He was useless!”
“He made the statement after the interview to clarify his views.”
“But he’s been opposed nuclear for 30 years. He only supports Moorside now because he wants our votes. It’s just cynical – like all politicians.”
“Yes I can see why you might think that. But Gillian Troughton supports Moorside. It’s one of her pledges. Her husband works at James Fisher in Egremont.”
“Yes I know Gillian. She’s great. But would she defy the whip on Moorside?”
“I don’t think that would be necessary. Party policy clearly supports new nuclear. A GMB motion on it passed overwhelmingly at Conference in September.”
“But Jeremy Corbyn will want to change party policy. He’s leader, surely.”
“Well no actually. It’s Conference that determines policy not the leader.”
“So why all the fuss about him being leader if he has no power over policy?”
“That’s a very good question! Look this election is about who will represent Copeland in parliament. Gillian is a brilliant local candidate, she is a strong advocate of new jobs at Moorside, supports new investment in infrastructure and as a trained doctor and volunteer ambulance driver, she’ll help save the West Cumberland Hospital.”
“But she won’t will she.”
“Why do you mean?”
“Well how is she going to save the hospital? Labour isn’t in government, and quite frankly, seems neither willing nor able to get into government any time soon. However much she wants to save the hospital, she will be outvoted by the Tories and services will move to Carlisle anyway. Meanwhile, I will have given the Labour party the “green light” to go down the tree hugging path it wants to go down under Jeremy Corbyn and agree to send me my P45”.
The Copeland by-election is not the first election I have worked on. It is not even the first election I have worked on in Copeland: I was living there in 2010. What was striking about this election was the extent to which voters were saying the same thing over and over again. It was some permutation of the above conversation. It was about Jeremy Corbyn, it was about the nuclear industry and it was about our inability to deliver for them because we had decided we wanted to be unelectable.
It should be said that voters weren’t always this polite: Corbyn was referred to in all sorts of colourful language – even by lifetime Labour voters. “That idiot in charge of the Labour party” was at the milder end of what I encountered. Even many of those who promised to vote Labour were often quick to qualify their support with a statement about their dissatisfaction with the party leader.
I know that the extent to which voters mentioned Corbyn’s name was partly due to the effectiveness of the Conservative campaign in getting their message across about his long-held opposition to nuclear new build. But if our opponent’s primary campaign tool is our own party leader, then we have some hard thinking to do as a party. Replicate their Copeland campaign across the country and we could face wipe-out across our industrial heartlands – and beyond.
It is to the PLP’s credit that so many of them came to campaign in Copeland. They too will have had conversations like these. Among those making the trip to knock on doors included John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Shami Chakrabarti. I have heard from several sources that John McDonnell was very good on the doorstep but that even he had negative comments about Jeremy Corbyn made to him. He knows that activists aren’t making this up in a covert plot to overthrow the leader. On the contrary, activists were out there eight hours a day, seven days a week trying to overcome the leader’s unpopularity in order to win the by-election.
Nobody in the Copeland Labour party wanted the Tories to win. How could they? Hospital services were on the line, council services were being cut to the bone and a local high school was being taken to the cleaners by an academy chain. These issues affect the day-to-day lives of people living in West Cumbria and losing has consequences.
But hear this: the party leadership’s steadfast refusal to take responsibility for the Copeland by-election result may well convince many party members. However, in the working men’s clubs and rugby league terraces of Copeland, they will just laugh. I hear the voices of the retired miners retelling of their four mile walk under the Irish Sea to get to the coal face being told they can’t walk 100 yards in the rain to get to the polling station. Or those who have been flooded out of house and home being told a spot of drizzle would put them off voting. Oh, they’ll moan about the council or that Jamie Reed getting himself a cushy number at Sellafield. But when they’ve stopped laughing and moaning, it’ll dawn on them that maybe they were right all along: those politicians down in London aren’t remotely interested in a word they have to say. They’re only interested in protecting their own back.
The Labour party exists to be a voice for ordinary people in parliament. Copeland no longer has a voice within the Parliamentary Labour Party. The mantle falls on all of us who can hear the voices of people in Distington, Lowca, Parton, Moresby, Whitehaven, Egremont, St. Bees, Cleator Moor, Frizington, Bigrigg, Thornhill, Arlecdon, Rowrah, Moor Row, Seascale, Gosforth, Ennerdale, Eskdale, Millom, Keswick and Bootle, to provide that voice within the Labour party. Their voices are louder than all the boos that can be assembled.