Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have long-complained about hostility from the mainstream media towards his leadership. However this week, he could find that it works to his benefit. In normal circumstances at this stage of the election cycle, opposition parties defending seats at by-elections would be expected to hold them without trouble. However the Labour leader’s unpopularity and poor poll ratings have meant that, until recently, he was expected to lose both seats up for election this week – Stoke-on-Trent to UKIP and Copeland to the Conservatives.
However a series of controversies in the last week surrounding Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s leader and candidate in Stoke, have brought Labour back into contention, and most bookmakers now have them as favourites to win the seat. The legitimacy of Mr Nuttall’s candidacy has been questioned, after it was alleged that he had not moved into the house which he recently acquired in Stoke and registered as his home for the purposes of the election. He has also been forced to apologise after claims on his website, which has since been taken down for maintenance, that he lost close friends in the Hillsborough disaster were found to be untrue.
Before these incidents surfaced, Labour was very much second-favourite, after choosing a candidate who has previously described Brexit has a “pile of shit” to stand for the party in the seat which voted 70-30 to leave the European Union. It is this, combined with Mr Corbyn’s perceived weak leadership, which has led to suggestions that UKIP might win the seat.
Meanwhile in Copeland the battle has been far more focussed on issues, with the Conservatives citing Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear power, a major employer in the area, as the focus of their campaign. Labour, on the other hand, is attacking the planned changes to NHS services in the area. The victor is likely to be the party which can convince voters that their issue is more important, and at the moment, bookmakers think that this will be the Conservatives. If they do win, it will be the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982.
Politicians and political parties are judged on how they perform compared to expectations, so the fact that the media have built up Labour to lose these seats means that holding either will been seen as a huge victory, despite the fact that at most other times the government making gains and coming close to winning an opposition seat at a by-election will be seen as a success for them. And even if Labour does lose both seats, what for any other leader of the opposition would be seen as a disaster will only be only a mild disappointment.
That is not to say that Corbyn will be out of the woods if Labour do hold Stoke on Thursday. If they do, it will be with a substantially reduced majority to the benefit of UKIP, and anybody hoping that Labour will win a majority in 2020 will be concerned that the result in Stoke will be symptomatic of opinion across the Labour heartlands, particularly in the north east, where UKIP finished second in a number of constituencies.
Nevertheless, expectations have meant that anything short of a Conservative victory in Copeland will be seen as a disappointment for them, and Labour has the media to thank this.