UKIP leader and Stoke Central by-election candidate Paul Nuttall embraces a supporter after a news conference in Stoke on Trent, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples
Ukip leader and Stoke Central by-election candidate Paul Nuttall on the campaign trail © Reuters

Mark February 23 in your diaries. That is the day that one, or both, of the UK’s political insurgencies will come to a crashing halt. In Copeland, Cumbria and Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, two by-elections will confirm whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party and Paul Nuttall’s UK Independence party have any future. Mr Corbyn has to prove that Labour’s vote is not collapsing, while Mr Nuttall must show his party can win elections.

Some believe that last year’s EU referendum has scrambled traditional political allegiances. Others reckon it was less significant. In reality, it is too soon to say, but these polls should offer some hint of the extent to which voters’ core perceptions have altered.

Both seats were previously represented by hardworking Labour MPs who concluded there was a brighter future outside politics. The party should easily retain them — neither was considered particularly marginal. Until now. The party’s contortions over Brexit has the Conservatives hopeful of nabbing Copeland, while Ukip is eyeing up a surprise victory in Stoke — the first step, it hopes, towards destroying Labour in the north of England.

Copeland is too close to call according to both campaigns. About 60 per cent of the electorate there voted to leave the EU, but Labour has chosen a Remain supporter as its candidate. It would prefer to avoid the subject of Brexit, so the party has retreated to its safe space of talking about the National Health Service. Although that is an issue with salience in a rural area crying out for investment, on its own it may not be enough to secure victory for Labour here or elsewhere.

The Conservatives are confident — why else would Prime Minister Theresa May spend Wednesday drumming up support? Yet eroding a Labour base built over generations will be difficult. So hundreds of Tory activists, local MPs and members of the Scottish parliament have been pounding the streets. They report mixed feelings: while Mr Corbyn is not popular and Mrs May generally is, there is sympathy for Labour’s warnings on the NHS — particularly given threatened cuts to a local hospital.

If the main issue in Copeland is the EU, the Conservatives will win. But if the campaign is dominated by concerns about public services, Labour might cling on. Turnout will be key: both sides are carefully watching disheartened Labour supporters, who might stay at home in disgust at Mr Corbyn.

It is a similar tale in Stoke-on-Trent Central, which heavily backed Brexit and where Ukip is in contention. The result here will be crucial to understanding Britain’s new electoral landscape. Conventional wisdom says that there is no excuse for Labour to lose a seat in its heartland — it had a majority of more than 5,000 at the general election. But in the new politics, this looks like Ukip’s best opportunity to bag another MP.

Both parties have been hampered by poor candidate choices: Labour’s Gareth Snell, who has refused to engage with the national media, has a history of belittling Brexit supporters on social media. Mr Nuttall’s reputation, meanwhile, has suffered after he gave a muddled account of his presence at the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster. After a day spent in the constituency, it is obvious to me that he wants to make the by-election about Brexit, whereas Mr Snell burnishes his local credentials.

Labour is more optimistic about Stoke than Copeland. It has a strong standing in the area and the seat was not top of Ukip’s target list. But, as Mr Nuttall told the Financial Times, “that was pre-Brexit, pre-Corbyn. It’s a very different Labour party now.” Reports suggest that Labour’s voter retention rate since the 2015 general election is barely above 50 per cent. There is a danger that the party’s core vote is melting away. Although there is a sense on the ground that they will just about make it.

We will learn a good deal about the state of British politics next week. I suspect we will discover that the Liberal Democrats are rebounding, peeling off pro-EU voters from everyone else. Mr Nuttall and Mr Corbyn will brush aside any losses, but leadership troubles will be on the horizon. For both men, next Thursday could go down as the day their revolution died.

sebastian.payne@ft.com

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