The Copeland by-election will be a fascinating test of whether Brexit can open up more votes for the Tories in the north – the topic of my Daily Telegraph column today. Labour is slowly abandoning its working class voters, with their unfashionable views on human rights and immigration. This was happening under Ed Miliband, and the forces wresting traditional Labour voters away from the Labour Party were laid out in detail by a strikingly prescient report by the Fabian Society entitled 'Revolt on the Left'. It identified the various groups of voters moving away from Labour: typically the low-waged and less prosperous pensioners. Those in work tended to resent those who were not. They resented Labour for losing control of immigration and the abuse of welfare. And they saw, in the Labour leadership, socially-liberal do-gooders who did not care about them and condescended towards them.
One of the authors of the report, Marcus Roberts, joined Isabel Hardman and I for a Coffee House Shots podcast on the Copeland by-election. Here it is:
When the Fabian report was published, they argued that culturally-Labour voters may be fed up with the party but having been lifelong Tory haters they were unlikely to vote for the Conservatives. At worst, they’d vote Ukip or abstain. But as Marcus Roberts says in the podcast, now he would not make the same claim – because of Brexit.
The Scottish independence campaign showed how weakening party allegiances can melt away entirely in the head of a referendum campaign: the SNP supplanted Scottish Labour in vast tracts of the country. Paul Nuttall has dedicated Ukip to doing the same in England, but it remains to be seen if the party has the leadership and apparatus to do this. All Nuttall has to do is neutralise the NHS (which he had once wanted to dismantle). Ukip could gun for even more Labour voters, perhaps by saying that Ukip wanted to give all £350m to the NHS and accuse the Tories of a Brexit betrayal for their refusal to live up to the promise on Boris’s red bus.
Labour’s abandoned voters are now in play – so Theresa May is now racing Ukip to see who can woo them. She stands a decent chance because the social justice agenda she laid out on the steps of No. 10 might well create the 'Big Tent' that David Cameron tried to construct. It’s a battle that could shape politics for the next decade, and the Copeland by-election will be the first test . The 'interesting times' that we live in seem set to continue for a while yet.