As David Nuttall wrote on this site yesterday the Conservatives are already campaigning hard in the Copeland by-election even before the candidate is chosen or the date has been set. It is a measure of the state of the Labour Party that the Conservatives are reckoned to be in with such a good chance of gaining a seat last won by the Conservatives in 1931 by William Nunn (when it was called Whitehaven).
But the local election results indicate the scale of the challenge. In 2015 the elections for Copeland Borough Council took place on the same day as the General Election – they saw Labour win 29 council seats to 17 for the Conservatives. However, at the same time an independent candidate, Mike Starkie, was returned as the directly elected Mayor. So that is perhaps an indication that Labour could not take its traditional supporters for granted – even before Jeremy Corbyn became their leader nationally.
Furthermore, there are also four wards in the Copeland constituency which come under Allerdale District Council (Crummock, Dalton, Derwent Valley and Keswick). Three of these were won by Conservatives with one is split including a Labour and a Conservative councillor. Those also took place on the same day as the last General Election – which Labour looks back on fondly as the golden age of Ed Miliband. So that even things up a bit.
There is also the consideration that a large majority of people in both Copeland and Allerdale voted Leave in the EU referendum. That will have included many Labour supporters. How will they react to the messages from many in their Party that the result should be ignored or overturned?
It’s not all about Labour though. There are some positive messages of how the constituency has succeeded under the Conservatives. The number of jobs in Copeland has increased to 37,000 – up from 33,000 under Labour in 2010. The priority given to superfast broadband is good news. West Lakes Academy has been praised for the exceptionally high level of progress its pupils make.
So the Conservatives certainly have some strong messages to get across. Nonetheless victory will surely be a challenge. Labour starts out with a lead among local councillors – and the grassroots network of support that goes with them.