Labour’s defeat in Copeland is nothing short of a disaster – but you won’t hear that from the shadow chancellor. Instead, John McDonnell said the fact that the Tories snatched away the seat – becoming the first Government to win a by-election since the 1980s – was a ‘disappointment’. His biggest concession to those who say this result shows it’s time for Corbyn to go was to admit there are ‘mixed views’ on the Labour leader. So if it isn’t Corbyn’s fault, who is to blame? McDonnell offered several answers to that question. He said that the ‘macho leaders we’ve had in the past’ were responsible for some of the ‘disasters’ we’ve had. There are no prizes for guessing who the shadow chancellor might have been thinking about:
‘We can’t have a circumstance again where a week before the by-election a former leader of our party attacks the party itself.’
So it was Tony Blair’s fault?
Well, it’s not his fault, I’m just saying some advice: please don’t do that. And the same to Peter Mandelson, three days before a by-election he attacks the party. What I am saying is the central principle of how you win elections is that you have a united party – you don’t divide the party.’
It wasn’t only the ghosts of New Labour who had the finger pointed at them during McDonnell’s interview on the Today programme. The biggest employer in Copeland is the Sellafield nuclear power plant – and Corbyn’s views on nuclear power were anathema to locals. John McDonnell said this made Copeland a ‘pretty unique’ area, with the suggestion being that Labour won’t face this particular problem elsewhere. The only problem with that view? Labour also had a ‘pretty unique’ advantage in the constituency: the row over the proposed closure of maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital was a tricky obstacle for the Government to overcome. Despite making the NHS the central plank of its campaigning in Copeland though – a theme it has also stuck to more generally (Jeremy Corbyn dedicated the entirety of his dismal PMQs showing this week to healthcare) – Labour failed to capitalise in an area where there was a clear open goal on the NHS. Labour will undoubtedly point to Stoke to fend off criticism about its performance in Copeland. But there’s little doubt that the party’s failure to retake Copeland is a dismal – and very worrying – result.