Labour beats Ukip to win by-election in Brexit bastion

[LONDON] Britain's Labour party on Friday beat Ukip to win a by-election in the Brexit bastion of Stoke-on-Trent, holding onto its seat while awaiting the results of a second battle against the ruling Conservatives.

Labour's Gareth Snell won the election by 7,853 votes to 5,233 for Paul Nuttall, leader of the UK Independence Party.

The result of another parliamentary by-election in Copeland, northern England, is due later on Friday with Labour trying to retain the seat in a fight against Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party.

The win in Stoke will be welcome relief for embattled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose party is deeply divided and languishing in the polls with the latest one showing they are 18 points behind the Conservatives.

While the seat has been held by Labour since the constituency's creation in 1950, the party's standing in Stoke had been shaken by Brexit.

Stoke in the West Midlands recorded the strongest vote to leave the European Union of any of Britain's 30 major cities in last June's referendum, at 69.4 per cent - even though its Labour MP, Tristram Hunt, opposed Brexit.

Mr Hunt stepped down last month to become the director of the V&A museum in London, citing in his resignation letter his "frustration" at Labour's direction under Mr Corbyn.

Nationwide most Labour voters supported Brexit while most of their MPs wanted to stay in the EU, a gap which Ukip unsuccessfully sought to capitalise on.

Ahead of the vote Mr Snell told AFP he would back his constituents and support kick-starting divorce talks with Brussels.

In his acceptance speech, the new Labour MP said Stoke should not be defined by its view of the European Union.

"A city dubbed by some as the capital of Brexit, has once again proved to the world that we are so much more than that." "This city will not allow itself to be defined by last year's referendum... nor will we be divided by race, by faith or creed," he added.

New Ukip leader Mr Nuttall had jumped at the chance to take the seat, in which the party came second in the 2015 election with 23 per cent of the vote to Labour's 39 per cent.

"I've put my head above the parapet and I've gone for it," he told AFP ahead of the vote.

The anti-establishment party had hoped to build on the widespread sense of public alienation from mainstream politics - and prove the party has a future after securing its founding aim of leaving the EU.

But Mr Nuttall's campaign was damaged by controversy over his experience of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster, after admitting that claims on his website that he had close friends among the 96 victims were wrong.

Mr Nuttall condemned the Hillsborough controversy as a "coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign", but there is no doubt it damaged his chances.

Apathy runs deep in Stoke where turnout was 38.16 per cent, compared to 51.35 per cent in Copeland.

The Conservative candidate Jack Brereton was left in third place in Stoke, with 5,154 votes, although the party may clinch the rural Cumbrian seat of Copeland.

A win for the Tories would be the first time a governing party takes a by-election from a rival party since 1982.

Labour has held the seat since it was formed in 1983, but its majority has been dropping and MP Jamie Reed won by a majority of just 2,564 at the 2015 general election.

Mr Reed announced his resignation in December to take a job in the nuclear industry.

Many jobs in Copeland depend on the Sellafield nuclear processing facility, and Labour fear that Mr Corbyn's strongly anti-nuclear stance will hurt them.

The party hit back with a campaign on threatened cuts to the local hospital, echoing Mr Corbyn's repeated attacks on May for not giving sufficient funds to the state-run National Health Service (NHS).


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