David Nuttall is Member of Parliament for Bury North.
On Friday 23 December, as Storm Barbara lashed the North West, I joined Conservatives from across the country on the streets of Whitehaven. We were there in the wind and driving rain for one reason: what could be the most significant by-election of this parliament. Even after the drama of Richmond, Jamie Reed’s resignation of the Cumbrian seat of Copeland paves the way for a by-election which could have a much greater impact than Richmond and have many more lasting consequences for party politics in the United Kingdom.
We Conservatives will need to work hard over the coming weeks and months to earn victory, but Copeland represents an opportunity for a sitting Government to take a seat off the Opposition and potentially start a chain of events which will be replicated in seats across the North in 2020. The metropolitan obsessions of the Labour leadership have been steadily opening up a gulf with the interests of millions of Labour voters and for many the ties with Labour were severed with Labour’s slavish support for the European Union during the Referendum campaign. Copeland voted 42 per cent for Labour in 2015, but 62 per cent for Leave in June 2016. Having broken the link with Labour many of Copeland’s voters will be looking for a party which genuinely represents their interests.
After Christmas I returned to a happily far drier Copeland for what will no doubt be the first of many action days and from the time I have spent in the seat I am convinced of its potential if our campaign strikes the right tone. With Pendle’s Andrew Stephenson and Carlisle’s John Stevenson we could not ask for a better team leading the fight. John won a Cumbrian seat in 2010 and strengthened it in 2015. He was a founder of Blue Collar Conservatism, which is absolutely in tune with the voters we need to reach. Copeland’s future is best served by the Conservatives and with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of Labour they could not be more out of step with this Cumbrian Constituency. With nuclear energy so important to the county, Corbyn’s Labour Party is a genuine threat to the jobs of thousands.
Our task now is to select the right candidate. Few would doubt our candidate should be a Cumbrian and we have seen two excellent local candidates elected in our two most recent by-election successes. However, it is important that we remember that this is not a seat we are looking to hold, but one we are looking to gain. Labour’s leadership might be a lead weight around the neck of Labour in working class communities, but we should never be complacent about our opponents on the ground and their willingness to fight. Labour’s base is fragmenting, but it is not enough to rely on that fact and we must work hard to earn every single vote.
Based on my experience of visiting the seat and on the impact the referendum has had on voters across the North of England, my belief that is that in addition to being a Cumbrian our candidate must also have been a Leave supporter.
Our party is now rightly committed to enacting the will of the British people and we are the only party which can and will do this. However, if the candidate is to genuinely connect with the voters we need to reach, our candidate needs to do more than simply accept the result. They need to understand why the voters voted the way they did and demonstrate to them they are equally committed to a shared goal and will stop at nothing to ensure it happens. This was an important factor in Caroline Johnson’s stunning victory in Sleaford and North Hykeham.
This genuine commitment to leaving the EU will be important in convincing Leave-voting Labour supporters and UKIP voters to put their faith in the Conservative candidate. It is these voters who will determine the result.
Let us not forget the importance of the UKIP vote in this, the most Eurosceptic seat in Cumbria. Indeed if you look back on the past two election results, despite the Conservative prospects in the seat, we actually lost ground between 2010 and 2015, losing both vote share and the absolute number of votes. UKIP, on the other hand, achieved a 13 per cent swing and picked up an extra 5,154 votes. UKIP voters could therefore prove the difference between winning and losing. With a candidate committed to leaving the EU, hopefully we will be able win over these voters, many of whom by their nature will be suspicious of the establishment. Even if they were previously Labour supporters, we are the party which is delivering the change in our country they want to see.
When Copeland Conservatives choose their candidate I am sure that there will be many excellent Leave-supporting Cumbrian Conservatives who share the desire of these voters to see Britain flourish outside of the EU. As the by-election takes shape against the backdrop of the formal commencement of the process of leaving the EU, we will find that Brexit casts a long shadow over the rolling hills of Cumbria and could prove the decisive factor in determining just how significant this by-election proves.
If we get this right, can you think of a better way of starting 2017?