Should Corbyn really take the blame for Copeland? An open letter to Owen Jones

Owen Jones’s recent video and column looked to Labour’s rout in the Copeland by-election to question Jeremy Corbyn’s future. Wider questions remain, but this open letter asks whether it’s fair to blame Corbyn for Copeland.

Owen,

My name is Tom Raeside, I am 19 years old, and I joined the Labour party when I was 14 on the principles of fairness, equality, peace and socialism. I became interested in politics after reading your book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, my experience of the NHS, through my mother’s work as a social worker in the north east, and through the Corbyn campaign. I joined the People’s Bookshop in Durham and have been volunteering there for the last 18 months. I am member of Penrith and the Borders constituency Labour party next door to the Copeland constituency.

I campaigned passionately in Copeland over the last month and was heartbroken when the result came in. As someone who has been on the doorstep I would like to share with you the reasons why I thought Labour lost the by-election.

1. Labour is the establishment party in Copeland.

The area has had a Labour MP since 1935. Copeland also has had a Labour council since year dot. Jack Cunningham became Copeland’s MP in 1970 (when the constituency was named Whitehaven); a figure who made a significant contribution to the perception that the local Labour party was the establishment. Cunningham was followed by Jamie Reed in 2005, and it must be said neither was a Labour MP for Copeland but rather the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site. Copeland council is run by a socially conservative Labour administration that has done nothing for the constituency, and it didn’t help that the by-election candidate, Gillian Troughton, was a former Labour councillor in the area. The local party has been tacky; if you were living there why would you jump to Labour?

Not once in this campaign were radical policies suggested by the candidate, e.g. the reopening of a railway to Keswick or taking Sellafield into public ownership. In an area that has had its local secondary school in Whitehaven severely damaged by academisation, I can’t recall it ever being mentioned by the candidate’s office that academisation is detrimental to the values of education. As you mentioned in your video, the health service is a massive issue in the constituency. Unsurprisingly, the fact that Jamie Reed left his role as MP during a process that will destroy the local health service has really has damaged the Labour brand locally. Sadly the healthcare campaign has been led by a coalition rather than the local Labour party. This is not down to Corbyn, but really poor Labour organising around the health service locally at a time when Labour needed to show real leadership on the health service. Instead the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate was a part of the county’s health coalition and the Tories weren’t attacked over the health service as they should have been.

2. Labour North’s organising was shambolic.

The questions I would like to ask Labour North are simple and we should all be curious to find out more:

  • Why were there no tellers on the polling stations?
  • Why were the campaign offices completely inaccessible from public transport and removed from the hub of the community in Copeland?
  • Why was the street data so jumbled? It made the job of canvassing so much harder – when out canvassing in Whitehaven it took us 20 minutes to sort things out.

On polling day, we had registered Conservative voters on the knocking lists! On a lot of occasions we were knocking on doors to people who had already voted! I have campaigned in council elections in Newcastle and for Lee Sherriff’s campaign in Carlisle, and never before have I seen anything like this.

The local ground campaign was disorganised beyond belief. With proper, community-rooted, accessible Labour party offices (and team), we would have done substantially better in Copeland. The Labour party bureaucracy has shown itself to be completely unfit for purpose, and if Labour is to succeed under Corbyn it must be transformed.

3. The coordination of Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed’s resignations was meant to be at the same time to cause maximum disruption as possible.

This is plain to see. Both are ideologically opposed to Corbyn and for them to resign at the same time – with Copeland being one of the most difficult constituencies in the country – obviously wasn’t done to help Corbyn. It was for their own career plans and it was to make sure that from the start the Corbyn project isn’t given space to breathe in 2017.

The nuclear issue did come up on the doorstep, I think it could have been countered with strong leaflets and a strong media response from the candidate’s office which never came…

On a separate note, I think national Momentum have failed to organise again, and that is one real negative I would take from this Copeland episode. I don’t know whether it would have changed the result, but with a coordinated plan like there was in Stoke it certainly would have changed the margin and personally I think we could have held the seat. (NB, I’m not a member of Momentum.)

Having witnessed the defeat first-hand, I am baffled and so upset that Corbyn is getting the blame for it. Owen, I really do take notice of what you say and it is a big influence in my political thinking, but this comes from someone who has been campaigning passionately in Copeland.

Yours fraternally,

Tom Raeside (Youth Officer Penrith and the Border CLP)

Published 3rd March 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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