Voters in Copeland could be left without an MP for more than three months as Labour digs in for a long by-election campaign focused on the NHS, the Huff Post UK can reveal.
The current Copeland MP, Labour’s Jamie Reed, announced last month he would be quitting Parliament at the end of January, triggering a by-election in the Cumbrian seat.
Speaking to Huff Post UK today, Andrew Gwynne - the man tasked with masterminding Labour’s by-election campaign in the seat - admitted there is a “train of thought” in the party that holding the by-election on May 4th would be preferable as it would increase turnout.
If Labour do decide to hold off calling the election until May, it means Copeland would be without a voice in Parliament when Theresa May formally begins the process for the UK leaving the EU when she triggers Article 50 in March.
Gwynne also vowed to focus on the NHS during the campaign, despite a senior party figure warning only last night that such a tactic would not deliver victories at the ballot box.
Speaking to the Huff Post UK in Westminster this afternoon, the Denton and Reddish MP said: “A decision has genuinely not been taken as to when the date will be. There is a train of thought that May is a good date in terms of turnout because you’ve got the Cumbria County Council elections on the same day, so turnout will better.
“The clocks will have changed, so you’ve not got dark nights. You’re probably heading into better weather, given you’ve got the first forecast of snow this week.
“There is a thought that May 4th is a good day.
“We’re planning for that as it’s better to plan for a long campaign and be pleasantly surprised than plan for a short campaign and then realise you’ve got to stretch your resources out for several months.”
Labour are defending a majority of 2,564 in Copeland, making it the tightest by-election for the party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015.
In December, Labour slumped to fourth in the Conservative-held seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham – with the party’s campaign coordinator Vernon Coaker warning that voters were more focused on Brexit than any other issue, including health services.
Gwynne believes the people of Copeland are primarily concerned with ocal NHS provision, as the area is currently undergoing a restructuring in how health services are delivered.
However, speaking on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday evening, ex-Labour Health Minister Caroline Flint warned that campaigning purely on the NHS would not deliver votes for Labour at the ballot box.
She said: “It’s always about ‘crisis... the NHS is on its knees.’ The truth is, that is not winning an election for Labour. We’ve got to be a bit more grown up about this.”
Reacting to the comments, Gwynne said: “I think there’s an element of truth there - just an NHS campaign as just a standalone campaign is us being in a bit of a comfort zone, because people do trust the Labour Party with the NHS, more than the Tories.
“It’s very easy to say ‘Nasty Tories and NHS cuts’ and ‘Labour will always protect the NHS’ and it’s a nice easy campaign, but here in Copeland there is a very real risk, so it’s a bit different to just having a street stall and saying ‘Support the NHS’.
“Actually there’s a very real danger that hospital services that people rely on in quite isolated communities are going to be stripped out and relocated 40 miles away.
“Now, in a city, having services moved 40 miles away would be an issue. In a remote rural part of the country with mountain ranges in the way and so on, the risk of moving hospital services 40 miles away is very, very real.
“People are worried about it and that is uppermost in their mind more than any other issue.”