The Copeland and Stoke by-elections on Thursday 23 February are drawing national media attention and speculation about what they mean for Corbyn, Brexit and UKIP. In this piece written by socialists from West Cumbria and Carlisle, the argument is put about paying attention to local factors.
A person once said that politics is more about diagnosis than prognosis. Although he had an eye to other matters, it serves well as a motto for this piece.
The byelection in Copeland takes place on Thursday 23 February and was triggered when the sitting MP Jamie Reed, landed a trumped-up job in Sellafield as ‘Head of Community Relations’.
We will attempt to give readers a view of the prospects for Labour in the Copeland by-election, based on our assessment of local factors, and this article incorporates the views of people who have been brought up in the area and worked in Sellafield.
Copeland and the nuclear industrial complex
Many people will not have heard of Copeland, though they will have heard of Sellafield and many will have heard of Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, from which the cooling towers of the nuclear plant can be seen.
The contrast between England’s most sublime landscape and its largest nuclear re-processing facility tells you everything you need to know about Copeland. It is a place that is split and divided.
The main socio-economic story is one of inequality and stark division, but of a kind that is entirely the product of interaction between planned de-industrialisation and dependence on the nuclear industry and Sellafield.
According to an economic assessment published by the neighbouring local council in 2010:
The nuclear industry has a striking effect on average resident earnings in Copeland (£625 gross weekly earnings for full time workers) which are well above the NW regional figure (£460) and the national average (£489). The figure for [neighbouring] Allerdale (£461), however, is much closer to these averages. These figures on average earnings, however, mask differences between male and female workers. Data suggests that the salaries of full time male workers in Copeland are one and a half times the level of full time females which is a wider gender difference in pay compared to national averages (1.25 times).
This is reflected in a well-publicised report by the TUC, which identified Copeland as the last place in the UK where house prices only three times the average salary.
This not only reflects a stark income inequality, but masks a massive problem around child poverty. The 2013 Cumbria County Council Child Poverty Needs Assessment revealed that despite the county having below average rates of child poverty the following two wards stand out:
Central ward in Barrow has the greatest proportion of children living in poverty at 47.5%; followed by Sandwith ward in Copeland at 44.0%.
This means that in a neighbourhood a matter of a few miles from Sellafield almost half of all children are in poverty.
These are the reasons why Sellafield has such a hold on the people, and not least the trade unions headed by the GMB. For those families who work in Sellafield it is the biggest driver for their political decisions, and the prospect of a second nuclear power station being built Moorside has come with promises of an additional inward investment of £20bn and thousands of new jobs.
Politically all the candidates except the Greens back both nuclear power and the construction of a second plant at Moorside.
How will this affect the election result? The Conservatives have the benefit of national policy and a leader who backs nuclear. The problem is that when May visited Copeland on 16 February, she fluffed her response on whether she would back the second plant if Toshiba pulled out of its investment.
The Labour Party locally are strongly anti-Corbyn, and the candidate Gillian Troughton was prominent in signing a letter among councillors in support of Owen Smith. She has been a long-standing supporter of the nuclear industry, going back to before she formally entered politics.
The GMB have also promised to back Labour now they have a pro-nuclear candidate – so how this translates in terms of votes is moot.
It is worth noting that Gillian Troughton was selected ahead of a local housing campaigner who was to the left, and this reflects the undiminished power and control of the GMB in Sellafield and their control over the party machine in Copeland – and she is Jamie Reed’s succession candidate.
The NHS and the So-called ‘Success Regime’
The other hot topic is the proposed cuts to the NHS. North Cumbria has one of the biggest NHS deficits in England, and this is largely down to the fact that its remote location, poor infrastructure and job prospects have resulted in serious shortages of teachers, social workers and medical staff. This makes the public sector heavily reliant on agency staff, and it is no exaggeration to say that companies providing agency staff are profiting (for brazen nosed advice to the sector see this link).
In response, Whitehall has imposed a system of drastic cuts on the local NHS under the banner of the ‘Success Regime.’ Most controversial of these are the proposals to shut down the maternity services in Whitehaven hospital, so that women in labour would have to travel nearly 30 miles to the nearest maternity unit in Carlisle on a single carriage lane with one of the worst accident rates in England.
In Whitehaven and across north and west Cumbria this has sparked one of the biggest protest movements in decades, and has been publicly backed by a number of Labour Party councillors – on Valentine’s Day 20,000 people mostly from West Cumbria sent Jeremy Hunt a card demanding he abandons the plan. A campaign of mass action has been joined by the local press, and in particular through a series of articles by local journalist Pam McGovern, who has given airtime to the protesters.
Given the national coverage of the crisis in the NHS and social care, and the particularly local campaign around this, the NHS is Labour’s main trump card in this election.
This does make for an unpredictable election as we see an inverse situation with the nuclear question. While Corbyn is known to be anti-nuclear, the local candidate is as wedded to the nuclear industry as Jamie Reed, while in terms of the NHS May and Hunt are on the record backing the so called ‘Success Regime’ proposals, though the local candidate is opposing them (though it is worth noting that her website does not include defence of the NHS among her top six priorities).
UKIP and Brexit
The third and most unpredictable factor is Brexit. Copeland is the archetypal place that voted heavily to leave – a coastal area, de-industrialised, dependent on one industry with rotting housing and infrastructure – the main route connecting West Cumbria to Carlisle and the M6 has a single carriageway and takes an hour to travel approximately 30 miles (the train line has not been electrified and takes roughly the time a train from Peterborough to London would take).
Socially and culturally it is possibly the most isolated area in England, protected by the Lake District to the east, and over 300 miles north of London. Carlisle is the nearest major centre of population, over an hour by car or train. It is also 98% white British.
There has been a history of the Far Right, with the BNP falling less than 20 votes behind Labour in the Kells ward of Whitehaven in 2008. Since then UKIP have made some inroads, but still do not have any County Council seats. Their camdidate is a political hack who was the electoral candidate in Carlisle for the 2015 general election and a shoe-in for any election going. This suggests they have no strong local front-runner.
While there is a significant amount of general racism, and fear of immigration, this does not appear to be a big factor in the election. Likewise, Jamie Reed was a Remain supporter when he was the MP, and this made no apparent dent on his position with Brexit voters (his support for Sellafield far outweighing any Brexit considerations).
So, though impossible to predict, Brexit seems to fall at least into third place behind the nuclear industry and the NHS in the local agenda.
A Tory victory would be a major ideological shift for an area which has been Labour since the 1920s. The deciding issue will be a toss-up between Labour’s ability to mobilise the NHS vote, or whether those working in the nuclear industry vote Tory against the union, on an ‘I’m alright Jack’ ticket. If they do it will be a layer of the working class deciding the outcome who fully meet Lenin’s theory of the Labour Aristocracy – a layer that locally have gained assets and a stake in society that the rest of the population have missed out on (not least the children in poverty whose parents will not be likely to work for Sellafield).
A victory for Labour on the back of a strong NHS campaign, would be the best imaginable outcome. It would begin the process of redefining the local political culture around something that brings together both parts of the working class, rather than enabling one half to stamp its privilege on the backs of the other. Such a victory could begin the process of redefining the politically autonomous working class that existed in the pre-war years, when Copeland was dominated by mining, steel and shipping – giving the workers – many of Irish descent – had a strong class consciousness.
Not all of that class consciousness has disappeared as can be seen not only by the campaign to defend the NHS, but also in the recent strike action against a failing academy which has had substantial parental support.
This rather than Sellafield should be the defining points of the Labour campaign, as a good NHS and good schools would serve as a better foundation for the long term future of all people than another nuclear power station.