Corbyn's choice to fight Copeland byelection rejected by local party

Gillian Troughton’s selection revealed just before Labour announced Copeland and Stoke Central polls will take place on 23 February

Labour will fight its two testing byelections on the same day in February, the party has announced, giving activists a month to campaign in Stoke Central and Copeland, where the party faces tough challenges from the Tories and Ukip.

The poll will take place in a month’s time on 23 February. Labour sources said they were keen for a short campaign, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent, where the Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall is expected to be a candidate. The constituency voted strongly to leave the EU in last June’s referendum.

“As far as most regular voters are concerned, they don’t know who Paul Nuttall is,” one Labour source said. “It’s not much time to get himself established, he’s not local, he doesn’t live there. If they delayed the byelection until May, locals would have months to get to know him, so very sensibly the party has decided to do it quicker.”

The announcement came shortly after it was revealed that local Labour party members had rejected Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred choice as candidate for Copeland.

Local activists instead chose a former doctor, Gillian Troughton, who backed the failed leadership challenger Owen Smith last summer, which will be seen as a victory for Labour moderates. The leadership is understood to have preferred Rachel Holliday, a homelessness campaigner and vocal Corbyn supporter who had only recently joined the party.

Troughton faces a tough battle in the west Cumbrian seat, where Labour’s majority over the Conservatives was cut to 2,564 at the last general election. Jamie Reed, the constituency’s current MP, announced last month that he was standing down to take up a position at the Sellafield nuclear plant in the constituency.

Reed and the Stoke Central MP, Tristram Hunt, who will leave to become director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will formally resign as MPs on Friday. Labour intends to move the writ in the Commons on Monday to set the date for both Stoke Central and Copeland byelections for a polling day within a month.

The NEC picked an all-female shortlist ahead of the Copeland hustings on Thursday night, which meant the former Labour MP Thomas Docherty and Tim Knowles, a well-known Cumbria county councillor, were not on the list.

Troughton was one of 1,000 councillors who signed a declaration of support for Smith over the summer during his failed leadership campaign.

Holliday, a local Unite activist, was named Cumbria’s woman of the year in 2015. She founded Time to Change in west Cumbria, a social enterprise that tackles homelessness, and Calderwood House hostel for the homeless.

Local members, however, are understood to have been uneasy about her lack of political experience, having only joined the party in 2015. “A lot of local members felt that although she seems like a nice person, they resented her being pushed at the expense of an experienced local councillor,” one senior Labour source said.

“It was a local member rebellion. People felt like a certain person was being pushed by someone in London. They didn’t want to be told what to do. I think we have a far better chance of holding the seat now.”

Support for the nuclear industry is seen as key to holding the seat, with Troughton keen to stress her pro-nuclear and NHS campaigning credentials in her victory statement. “This is my home. I have been part of the campaign against the proposed cuts to A&E and the maternity wing because I know that our community needs this service,” she said.

“This is where my family make their living. My husband works in the nuclear supply chain, so I know how important the industry is to thousands of Cumbrians. I’m pro-nuclear. No ifs, no buts.”

Jeremy Corbyn has made an official statement welcoming her selection.
Jeremy Corbyn has made an official statement welcoming Gillian Troughton’s selection. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

In a statement welcoming her selection, Corbyn said: “Gillian is a local councillor with a strong track record of getting things done for her community. She has campaigned tirelessly to maintain local hospital services. As a St John blue light ambulance driver, Gillian has seen first-hand the extent of the crisis caused by this Conservative government, which has chosen to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest instead of our health service.”

A Conservative spokesman said the selection was a “victory for the hard left”, adding: “It is clear Gillian Troughton is nothing more than a Corbyn puppet in a Labour party that is too divided and incompetent to stand up and secure the future of Cumbria’s industry and jobs.”

The Tories have not yet chosen their candidate for the constituency, but local activists say they were planning “the biggest campaigning day the party has ever held in Cumbria” on Saturday. The Lib Dems have chosen the west Cumbrian councillor Rebecca Hanson to stand.

Labour has imposed a tight timetable for the selection for the Stoke byelection, with candidates shortlisted by Tuesday by an NEC panel including the chair, Glenis Willmott, the MP Keith Vaz, Unison’s Keith Birch and the constituency rep and Momentum activist Rhea Wolfson. The final candidate will be selected at a hustings on Wednesday.

Several local candidates have already publicly expressed their intention to run, including the Royal Stoke A&E doctor and army reservist Stephen Hitchin, the former Newcastle-under-Lyme council leader Mike Stubbs, the councillor and local shopkeeper Chris Spence, and the former Labour candidate for Staffordshire Moorlands, Trudie McGuinness.


Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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