Last Thursday, history was made as the Conservatives took the Copeland parliamentary seat from the Labour Party. The seat had been held by Labour for 82 years, and it’s the first time a governing party has won a seat from the opposition in a by-election since 1982. And as the Conservatives have been proudly touting, it’s the first time a comparable by-election win has occurred for well over a century. While undoubtedly a seismic event, a closer inspection of the numbers, and of the events that took place during the by-election campaign, reveals a host of curiosities.
First up, the Tories have not made major inroads into Labour heartland. The Labour vote in Copeland has been in decline for years and in 2015 the party’s margin was only 2,500. Trudy Harrison garnered fewer votes than the Conservative candidate in 2015. She won because the Labour vote didn’t turn out in large enough numbers. While the pundits love talking about swings, there is little evidence of a real-terms swing from Labour to the Conservatives. All the Conservative activists had to do was motivate the same people to vote Conservative who did so in 2015, and they appear to have been very effective at doing this. I’ll leave it to the columnists to analyse why Labour voters didn’t turn out in large enough numbers. But one thing I will raise – which I haven’t seen coming from the commentariat – is that Labour’s campaign didn’t reference austerity, poverty, or the many families dependent on food banks.
Mrs Harrison now joins the ranks of over half of MPs in the House of Commons who have been elected with less than 50% of the popular vote in their constituency. Please note, this is not how first past the post is supposed to work.
Both the Conservative and Labour campaigns heavily implied that this was a two-horse race, and in a self-fulfilling manner it was. Taking a long view, the third parties were all squeezed. Yes, the Liberal Democrats did better than in 2015, but given that they were pushed down to less than 3.5% two years ago due to their conduct in coalition with the Conservatives, one would probably have expected them to do a little better.
Historically, the Lib Dems have floated at around 10-12% in Copeland, so I can’t imagine they’re genuinely pleased with getting 7.2% of the vote in the by-election. Especially when considering the big names they brought out on the campaign trail, the amount of cash they poured in, and the forests they cleared to produce and send more mailings and campaign literature than any other party. Throughout the campaign, they openly stated that they believed they could win.
The UKIP and Green vote fell pretty dramatically too. UKIP by over 4,000 votes, the Greens by over 600. For UKIP’s part, I agree with the pundits that many who have historically supported UKIP are so delighted by the Conservative Government’s Farage-ward lurch that they now believe they can switch their allegiance back to the blue team. It seems more than coincidental that the swing to the Tories was 8.6%, while the swing away from UKIP was 9%. As many noted, Copeland voted 62% in favour of leaving the EU.
So what happened to us Greens? Well, I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t disappointed when I saw our meagre pile of ballot papers at the count in the wee hours of Friday morning. It’s true that with the impending plans to build a new nuclear power plant at Moorside, we were more overtly “anti-nuclear” than we have been previously in Copeland. Sadly, our opposition to Moorside was broadly conflated with a general opposition to the decommissioning work going on at Sellafield, and pretty much every newspaper and TV station tried to suggest that we somehow wanted to close the site and put thousands of people out of work. Despite a breathtaking U-turn on his opposition to nuclear power, Jeremy Corbyn found himself tarred with the same brush.
However, I actually don’t think the nuclear issue had a massive impact here. I can’t imagine many Green voters from 2015 were unaware that the Green Party opposed new nuclear power. No, I believe that for the most part we were a victim of the squeeze imposed by the message of the two main parties – that this was a two-horse race.
When I was out campaigning, I heard very frequent responses that can be collected into two groups. First, the disillusioned voter who simply didn’t care any more, and who wouldn’t be voting. I met a lot of these people and it was very depressing. The second group were those who either had voted Green, or said that they really would like to vote Green, but felt forced to vote Labour due to a fear of the Conservatives getting in. This sentiment was very strong, was held by many people, and was equally depressing. Especially given that as it has turned out, a vote for Labour was as much a “wasted vote” as a vote for the Greens. Except that voting Green might have helped us keep our deposit!
Taking part in this by-election has, among other things, strengthened my view that the people of Britain desperately need to seek a better electoral system. The general election of 2015 is broadly accepted to be the most disproportionate in history. And I say this not out of self-interest; a better system that uses proportional representation (PR) will never help get me or the Green Party elected in Copeland. But I do think it’s time that people didn’t have to hold their noses and vote against what they don’t want, rather than vote for what they actually do want. It is increasingly obvious that Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to join with the Greens to form an electoral pact for PR.
This wonderful video by CGP Grey concisely sums up the problems with the 2015 General Election, and specifically with the first past the post voting system that the UK currently uses:
But electoral reform isn’t just about a voting system. One of the most frustrating things about standing for election for a relatively small party like the Greens, is the perception that we’re playing the same game as the bigger parties. This, sadly, is very far from the truth. Each candidate in a parliamentary election is entitled to one free unaddressed mailing via Royal Mail. The candidate still has to cover the cost of getting the thing printed of course – 42,100 copies in Copeland. And beyond this free mailing, you’re on your own.
Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats each put out at least ten mailings – some addressed, some unaddressed. I don’t know if they did this throughout the entire constituency, but at my home in Keswick, we were inundated. And based on what I heard from constituents across Copeland, the same was true for everyone. Royal Mail’s minimum spend for each addressed or unaddressed mailing is £500. So each time new literature was issued, they had to spend at least this on top of the printing costs. And to send something out to the whole of Copeland runs into thousands of pounds.
To put things into perspective, our budget for this entire campaign was £500. To print 42,100 copies of our one double-sided A5 flyer, we had to spend about £570. So that was us over-budget almost as soon as we began. On the day our flyer was delivered to my home, it was tucked inside an A4 leaflet from Everest Windows. So our single bite of the cherry actually ended up with us being a supplement to some junk mail.
Ironically, despite our very disappointing result, I suspect we will have spent less than any other party for each vote that we gained. Fortunately, we had a few generous donations that helped boost our pot, and we ended up spending about £3 per vote, with a significant chunk going on social media. And that includes the loss of our deposit – another way our system discriminates against small parties and independents. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats must have topped the list of pounds spent per vote garnered. By my estimation, their figure must be over £10 per vote. Both Labour and the Conservatives are probably not far behind. The Labour Party sunk many thousands in wrap-around adverts of the Whitehaven News. I wouldn’t be surprised if their spend is close to the absolute limit – £100,000 in a parliamentary election.
We then also have the party machines behind the mainstream candidates. They’re backed up by a support team of press officers providing them daily briefings. They get media training and a makeover from image consultants. They have tried and tested templates for all of their campaign literature – I noted that the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates all sent out an obviously printed but apparently handwritten note on small coloured paper, in a small coloured envelope with the address also apparently handwritten. This is clearly something that has been proven to be effective in past elections, and something that they have the resources to do.
Further, the larger parties use their formidable resources to very intentionally marginalise smaller parties like the Greens. While Labour and the Tories repeatedly asserted that this by-election was a two-horse race, the Liberal Democrats consistently put out the blatant lie that they were the only political party opposing a hard Brexit.
In contrast, the Green Party don’t have any of this. I wrote and designed my own literature, arranged to have it printed locally myself, built my own website, and briefed myself ahead of media events and hustings.
And so onto the media itself, and another revelation for me. Ofcom regulations dictate that the major parties in this country are the Labour Party, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP. This means that whenever one party is mentioned during a pre-election, or ‘purdah’ period, all three of the others have to be mentioned. There is never an obligation to mention the Green Party – who Ofcom deem to be a “minor party”, despite having the same number of MPs as UKIP. So while the BBC were perhaps generous by giving us a fairly good hearing, plenty of broadcasters, programmes and newspapers simply ignored us. Among them Sky News, BBC Newsnight, and The Guardian. And further, we only received incidental coverage by Channel 4 and ITV. We only managed to get on Michael Crick’s report for Channel 4 News because I literally bumped into him by chance.
When you add all of these factors together, it seems nothing short of miraculous that the Green Party even has an MP. And it’s hardly surprising that the Greens struggle to make an impact in by-elections like the two we have just had in Copeland and Stoke Central.
At university, I took part in an election. The Students’ Union were forensic about electoral fairness. There was a set budget for spending that every candidate received – doing anything that constituted additional spending outside of the budget carried severe consequences. On the ballot papers themselves, names were randomised to offset known biases about how the order of the names can affect the outcome of an election. When it came to the count, we used the single transferable voting system which allows for preferences and is shown to be fairer than first past the post.
It is bizarre, unsettling, and saddening to discover that in the real world, politics is fundamentally much less fair, and to the detriment of the people that really matter – the voters. I have heard countless complaints from people who were sick of all the rubbish being put through their doors, who were so jaded by the system that they didn’t want to vote, or were going to vote but not for what they actually wanted, just for what they didn’t want. For the disillusioned people of Copeland, this by-election should serve as a rallying cry for a better electoral system.
I was the Green Party candidate in the Copeland by-election.