Jeremy Corbyn and grassroots movement Momentum are facing a key test in the Copeland by-election as one of his supporters emerged as the favourite to fight the seat for Labour.
Rachel Holliday, a community campaigner, was among three women candidates shortlisted by a special panel of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) on Thursday.
Holliday, who founded a local homeless hostel for ex-servicemen in the Cumbria constituency, voted for Corbyn in the leadership race and has impressed his senior allies at Westminster, HuffPost UK has been told.
The by-election follows the shock decision of sitting MP Jamie Reed to quit for a job at the nearby Sellafield nuclear power plant.
No date has yet been set for the contest but with a narrow majority of just 2,564 over the Tories at the last general election, Theresa May is hoping her party can take the seat.
After interviews in London, the longlist of Labour candidates was whittled down to include Holliday, as well as local councillors Gill Troughton and Barbara Cannon.
But party sources say that Holliday, who is also a member of the Unite union, is the clear front-runner as Momentum has thrown its weight and resources behind her.
She has a brand new Twitter account and Facebook page and the group is mobilising to treat Copeland as its first proper by-election test, using the same phonebank and online technology that helped power Corbyn to victory in the Labour leadership contest last year.
The GMB union, which dominates local party membership, is also now expected to back Holliday after another councillor Tim Knowles failed to make the shortlist.
Party insiders say that Corbyn’s allies have ensured that Copeland will be the first by-election that fully has the leader’s stamp on it, from the selection of the candidate to the running of the campaign and full use of Momentum.
The NEC panel that selected the shortlist comprised veteran leftwinger Christine Shawcroft, who was also installed as Momentum’s new Director on Thursday, and senior Unite official Jennie Formby.
Shadow Cabinet minister Jon Trickett, Labour’s national elections and campaigns co-ordinator, was not present for the meeting and fellow panellist and MEP Glenis Willmott was in Brussels.
One Labour insider told HuffPost UK: “Jeremy’s supporters have done exactly what Tony Blair used to do to ensure the best chance for ‘their candidate’. It will be his campaign and his victory if we win.”
In the party’s two previous big by-election wins, neither Jim McMahon in Oldham nor Rosena Allin-Khan in Tooting were considered ‘Corbynista’ candidates.
Holliday has spent three years campaigning to protect West Cumberland Hospital, where plans to downgrade its maternity and A&E units are being seized on by Labour as central to the coming by-election.
Born and raised in the seat’s biggest town Whitehaven, she won Cumbria’s Woman Of The Year 2015 award for setting up the Calderwood House hostel for the homeless. Her husband works as a police officer at Sellafield.
Her campaigning work for homeless military veterans led to her to be described locally as “the woman with a heart the size of a house”.
A Labour MP added: “Rachel is both the ideal Copeland candidate and the ideal Corbyn candidate. She’s very impressive and will make a great MP.”
Another party source said: “She’s not a Trot, she just happens to be someone who likes Jeremy’s politics and his message. That’s the difference between being a Corbynista and a far-left activist.”
Holliday was “not a parachuted-in, machine politician - she’s real,” a Corbyn ally said. She had worked across party lines to set up her hostel and her candidacy is backed by local councillors from all wings of the party.
The Copeland constituency Labour party holds its hustings and final selection vote next Thursday.
It is expected that Corbyn will travel to the seat the following day in a strong show of support, one of several trips he intends to make to defend it from the Conservatives.
Although some bookies have made the Tories the favourites to win the seat, many Labour MPs - even ‘moderates’ - believe it is very unlikely they will lose.
Even though the party lags in the polls nationally, the NHS winter ‘crisis’ is a growing issue and no sitting government party has taken a by-election seat for decades.
In a sign of Tory nervousness, Theresa May used Prime Minister’s Question Time this week to reverse her previous support for the shift of maternity services from West Cumberland Hospital.
But while the campaign will be fought on local issues such as the NHS and the threat to Sellafield worker’s pensions, the Tories have already flooded the seat with leaflets attacking Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power and weapons.
And HuffPost has been told that the Labour leader has sparked a mixed reaction among local voters. One Shadow minister who had been on the stump this week said: “Jeremy himself didn’t once come up on the doorstep as an issue. It was all about the NHS and local issues.”
But another source said that the party’s phonebank drive from London this week included several responses from Labour voters in Copeland who disagreed with Corbyn’s views on defence and other issues. “I’m not voting for you until you’ve got rid of him,” said one.
An additional factor for the Tories will be that all three candidates on Labour’s shortlist voted Remain in the EU referendum, and the seat has a big ‘Vote Leave’ majority.
Labour MP Andrew Gwynne, who is leading the by-election campaign, told HuffPost this week that it could be held as late as May 4 to allow longer daylight hours and county council elections to boost turnout. Like many Labour seats in the north, Copeland voted by more than 60% to Leave the EU.
Others in the party think that a March by-election date would be preferable as it avoids the Tories getting a further bump in the polls once Brexit is formally triggered at the end of the month.
Caroline Richardson, a Momentum activist in Cumbria, has explained to the website LabourList how the group’s Grassroots Now phone canvassing website will be used in the coming campaign.
The technology enabled people to “Call for Corbyn” from their own homes last summer, making over 100,000 calls for his second landslide victory as Labour leader.
Momentum has been riven by faction-fighting in recent months but founder Jon Lansman has moved this week to purge it of far-left members and those who were not members of the Labour party.
His decision to stand down as Director could allow him to take a seat on Momentum’s new ruling body. His replacement by Shawcroft was described by one member as “about as meaningful, though, as when Putin swapped the president’s role with that prime minister whose name nobody can remember”.
On Tuesday evening, Lansman pushed through a change to Momentum’s constitution which would purge non-Labour members. It has been seen as an attempted “coup” by Lansman to expel the Trotskyite hard-left and consolidate his control over Momentum following internal rifts.
The group, which grew out of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign and helped propel him to a second victory in 2016, is seen by many Labour MPs as itself a means for the left to embed itself in the party.
Momentum under its new director is seeking affiliation to the Labour Party which would give it voting rights at Labour’s conference and other access.
Backbencher Tom Blenkinsop said he would be “opposing this with every fibre of my body” and on Thursday wrote to Labour’s general secretary Ian McNicol to ask “serious questions” about the chances of it happening.