Labour’s Copeland campaign taps into local feelings, writes John Woodcock, MP for neighbouring Barrow and Furness
A February by-election in Copeland is not what any of us in the Labour party wanted, not least because it means we are losing a brilliant champion of our values in parliament. Jamie Reed has served the people of West Cumbria with dedication, intelligence and no small amount of humour – he will be sorely missed in parliament and by his constituents.
Copeland is a place that doesn’t do things by half, boasting England’s highest mountain (Scafell Pike), our deepest lake (Wastwater) and the biggest nuclear complex in Europe (Sellafield) which employs around 10,000 staff and is the keystone of the local economy. Nor does it mess around with its politics, returning Labour MPs since 1935 based on a strong message of support for local jobs and local services.
By-elections are always hard fought and it is no secret that the Tories fancy their chances. They have essentially given up on the by-election in Stoke, held on the same day, in order to concentrate their fire on Cumbria. This regressive alliance of the Tories and Ukip is something Labour should watch out for in future general elections. In Copeland the government hope that their strong national polling, combined with Copeland’s vote to leave the EU presages the first Tory MP in the seat since the second world war.
They are wrong to be so confident. Having spent almost every Saturday on the doorstep in Copeland since the by-election was called it is clear that there are serious concerns about Tory plans to downgrade A&E and maternity services. The geography of Cumbria makes these NHS worries resonate even more. Moving maternity services to Carlisle means expectant mothers travelling over an hour, on terrible roads that often flood, in order to see a specialist. People are furious about it and the Tories have misread the strength of local feeling.
Instead the Tories are concentrating on misguided smears about Labour’s commitment to civil nuclear, despite the fact that the Labour’s candidate Gillian Troughton is fully committed to local nuclear jobs, not least because her husband is employed there. Gillian is local, she’s a sensible voice on Cumbria County Council and a well-known blue light ambulance driver who will defend threatened services at West Cumberland hospital with everything she has.
In fact it is the Conservatives who now have questions to answer on the nuclear issue. Really worrying news is emerging from Toshiba, the main backers behind the Moorside nuclear new build project that is set to create 21,000 jobs in the constituency. If Toshiba pull out and leave the project in the lurch it will be a major blow to the government’s narrative that they can be trusted to deliver on the future of the industry. The reputation has also been damaged by the senseless decision to pull out of the Euratom nuclear safety agreement as part of the Article 50 process. Euratom’s regulations underpin much of a nuclear industry and the announcement that we are leaving has caused alarm locally. Labour is trying to keep us in the agreement, outflanking the Tories yet again.
The Tories are pouring resources into the seat but we are working hard to make sure that their confidence is misplaced. An army of local Labour party activists from across the country have been hitting the doorstep every day, making sure that our message is heard the length and breadth of this sprawling constituency. Turnout is always difficult to predict but our canvassing returns are holding up and the mood locally is quietly determined.
By-elections always have a central issue and, as Zac Goldsmith recently found in Richmond Park, it can be hard to control what that issue is. In Copeland people know that this might be the one chance they get to send a message to the government that they will not tolerate the proposed level of cuts to local health and care services. It is a message that Theresa May and her government would do well to heed, and I am sure the people of Copeland will remind her that it is the public that set the political agenda, not the government.
Image: Ashley Coates