On a night when Paul Nuttall, British politics’ very own Walter Mitty, followed in the illustrious footsteps of his predecessor as UKIP leader by failing to gain entry to Westminster, there were mixed messages again for Jeremy Corbyn. Had Labour failed to retain Stoke-on-Trent Central, a seat they’ve held since its inception in 1950, chances are we may have had to endure yet another leadership election; as it turned out, Labour didn’t lose the by-election triggered by the recent resignation of Tristram Hunt, but it was a different story up in Cumbria.
Until the early hours of this morning, 1982 was the last time a sitting government won a by-election in a constituency held by the opposition; that the Tories took Copeland from a Labour Party that has clung onto the seat since 1935 either suggests Theresa May is the most successful Prime Minister since Mrs T or that the Conservatives are blessed to be up against such weak opposition. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth, though various factors played their part in this upset.
With the Sellafield Nuclear Power Station being a major employer in the constituency, it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn’s famous aversion to nuclear power influenced the 6% swing away from Labour towards the Tories. The Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison overturned a Labour majority of 2,564, which is an achievement not to be sniffed at; the last time a sitting government enjoyed such an impressive by-election victory was in January 1966, a win for Labour in Hull North that filled Harold Wilson with enough confidence to call a General Election that March. Confronted by a Labour Party incapable of holding onto a seat it has owned since the days of Clement Attlee, maybe Theresa May will attempt to strike before 2020 after all.
Had Labour lost Stoke Central, it’d be feasible to claim Corbyn isn’t working beyond his London heartland; as it is, holding at least one traditional Labour seat has given the beleaguered leader a breather, but for how much longer? Yes, he is beloved by the faithful, but half of Corbyn’s own MPs can’t abide him, and his message isn’t exactly sweeping the country when the party in power is hardly the most popular to ever hold office. It seems to be a damning indictment of the dearth of talent Labour can call upon that it has nobody capable of realistically challenging Jezza or of connecting with the electorate outside of metropolitan enclaves. The prospects aren’t great, whenever the next General Election takes place.
Equally, UKIP may have taken the runner-up prize in Stoke, but their hopes were considerably higher in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave in last year’s EU Referendum; if it can’t win there, where can it win? Answers on a postcard to Bongo-Bongo Land. Being the permanent bridesmaid doesn’t amount to much in an electoral system that continues to adhere to a first-past-the-post policy, and for all their headline-grabbing PR it’s hard to envisage that situation changing – especially when the one thing UKIP formed for in the first place has actually happened now.
So, what do last night’s events tell us about the current political landscape? Well, it confirmed UKIP as the No.1 protest vote party again, an honour once held for decades by the Lib Dems; it confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to invigorate voters outside of those who see the sun every time he bends over; and it confirmed that even a Government that, in one shape or another, has steered the country through seven bloody awful years can still keep winning when the competition is so piss-poor. The Revolution has been postponed for the moment.
The decision of the Leicester City FC board to dispense with the services of their manager Claudio Ranieri is the latest example of how the cut-and-thrust tactics that were once the hallmark of continental football have infiltrated the Premier League. The man who achieved arguably the most remarkable miracle in English soccer since Brian Clough captured the league championship with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978 is now out of a job, barely nine months after leading his team to an unimaginable pinnacle.
With last season’s champions now hovering just a point above the bottom three, the Leicester board have panicked and sacked the man whose Midas Touch has deserted the club in a ridiculously short time. But the players deserve to carry the can for the disaster as much as the manager; their performances have been largely lacklustre this season. Perhaps the shock transition from making up the numbers to suddenly being amongst the big-money prima donnas has gone to their heads. Maybe; but there’s precious little other excuses they could come up with to justify their appalling lack of commitment to the cause of defending their title. And now the man who masterminded that title has paid the price for their on-the-pitch indolence.
A sign of how times have changed is that when Leeds United won the league in 1992, they too followed it with an embarrassingly bad defence, finishing the following season in a pathetic 17th position after failing to win a single away game and allowing Eric Cantona to be picked-up by arch-rivals Manchester United for a mere £1 million. Yet manager Howard Wilkinson kept his job for another three years before being shown the door; had today’s rules applied, he’d have bitten the bullet before the end of the 1992/93 season.
Moreover, Alex Ferguson would never have lasted three-and-a-half years at Old Trafford until winning the FA Cup in 1990 were he at the helm for the same period without success today. The great money chasm between the Premier League and the Championship has instilled a fear in the boards of the top division’s clubs that provokes knee-jerk responses when relegation or an empty trophy cabinet stare them in the face. But it negates building the foundations for long-term success when football adopts a quick-fix mentality. That it should happen to a decent man such as Ranieri and at a club all neutrals were delighted to see crowned champions last May says a great deal about the national sport at a domestic level.
© The Editor