1. ITV Report

Copeland: A by-election which has further damaged people’s faith in politics

Daniel Hewitt, ITV Border's Political Correspondent. Credit: ITV Border

In the first week of January, before campaigning proper was underway, I made my first trip to Copeland.

The impending by-election was by no means the talk of the town.

Most we spoke to knew of Jamie Reed, the outgoing MP, but few had given much thought to the contest his resignation had triggered, and who they believed should replace him.

What did come across, time and time again, was despair.

Since the referendum last year, much has been made of the disconnect between Westminster and large parts of the country - a sense that politics stopped working, indeed stopped caring, about places like Whitehaven a long time ago.

Now, there is no such thing as a national mood - if 600,000 people had woken up in a different mood on 23 June, Britain would still be in the European Union.

But the referendum has once again shown Britain to be two nations, and in the nation in which Copeland resides, alongside Great Yarmouth, and Stoke, and Boston, and Blaenau Gwent and Blackpool, the prevailing mood is the same.

As a journalist covering the north of England, I have visited many places utterly fed up with Westminster, but none quite so fed up as the people of Copeland.

That feeling of detachment is acute.

There have been many calls to upgrade the A595, connecting west Cumbria to Carlisle. Credit: Google Maps

Yes, Westminster is very far away (6 hours by train, at best 7 hours by road) but everywhere is far away.

I’ve driven around this constituency a lot in the past six weeks, and geographically it is one of Britain’s largest.

The roads are one-lane, rural and in bad condition.

Rail connections are appalling - the nearest city to Whitehaven is Carlisle and it takes one hour and 12 minutes.

Manchester is three and a half hours away by train.

The landlord of a pub in Ennerdale told us a bus came through his village once a week but admitted he’d never actually seen it.

Phone signal is, at best, patchy - internet connection is often non-existent.

Stop anyone in the street here, ask them what the big issues are, and they will tell you "poor roads, rail and infrastructure."

Spend a day here, and you will come to the same, infuriating conclusion - then imagine what it is like to live here, for years, with almost nothing being done about of it.

  • I spoke to people in Copeland about their concerns ahead of the by-election:

Then imagine lots of politicians suddenly turning up on your doorstep, or stopping you in the street, or calling you from their headquarters in London, saying how much they care about the poor roads, rail and infrastructure, blaming the other lot, and telling you they will change all that, if you’d only be so kind as to lend them your vote ‘in this crucial by-election’.

Crucial for whom? The residents of Copeland, or the residents of SW1?

Cynical, yes, but cynicism is what you will find in Copeland, in bucket-loads.

And in this campaign, have the main political parties done anything to challenge that cynicism? That sense politicians aren’t to be trusted?

Let’s take the two major interventions in this campaign, firstly by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, then by the Prime Minister Theresa May.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have both been on the campaign trail. Credit: Jack Hill/The Times PA Wire/PA Images Danny Lawson PA Wire/PA Images

I interviewed Jeremy Corbyn at the end of January for ITV Border, the most watched regional news programme in Cumbria.

I started with a straightforward, yes or no question. Did he support the building of a new nuclear power plant at Moorside in the Copeland constituency.

This was the exchange:

Me: Do you support the building of a new nuclear power plant at Moorside in Copeland?

Jeremy Corbyn: There's going to be a mix of energy production in this country for a long time to come because we haven't invested in renewables at the same rate that Germany has. We support Sellafield, the issue of Moorside is clearly important. Our local candidate strongly supports Moorside, the government has got to make a decision on that in probably 2018 because there are financial problems that Toshiba are facing at the present time so it's a bit unclear.

Me: You say your candidate supports it, my question was do you support it?

JC: I recognise that there has to be a mix of energy production in this country. So that means there has to be a mix of energy production in this country. I like everybody else want to make sure there is energy supplies for everybody in the future.

Me: For people watching at home that know that Moorside will create 21,000 new jobs in Copeland in a constituency so heavily dependent on...

JC: What I'm saying is there is a decision is going to be made...

Me: You're saying you don't support Moorside?

JC: No I didn't say that. I said...

Me: So you do support it?

JC: The government is going to have to make that decision on the basis of the issues facing the company and the area at the time. We are some way off that.

No answer, or as people in Copeland said, "a typical politician's answer."

A Labour press officer called me later that night to clarify Jeremy was for "new nuclear in Copeland".

I asked if that meant he was therefore in favour of Moorside. The press officer would not say, simply repeating that "Jeremy is for new nuclear in Copeland."

A few days later, Jeremy Corbyn told a newspaper he was in favour of Moorside.

That development is enormous for Copeland. The figures are disputed, but it will create thousands and thousands of new jobs. It is vital for a local economy so dependent on Sellafield and the civil nuclear industry.

Now, Jeremy Corbyn clearly has reservations about civil nuclear, as has been reported.

His inability or unwillingness to answer the question clearly shows his discomfort with the subject, but it also shows that he hadn’t prepared himself to give the people a straight, coherent answer.

What message does this send to those disillusioned, despairing, cynical voters watching at home?

The Tories had a field day with that interview, but then their leader did exactly the same two weeks later.

The future of nuclear power is one of the key issues in Copeland. Credit: PA

Theresa May decided to break with convention and join her candidate on the campaign trail in Copeland.

It is rare for a Prime Minister to directly involve themselves in a by-election, let alone a Conservative Premier in a Labour heartland like Copeland.

The press were briefed of her visit over the weekend, the clearest sign yet of the Tories growing confidence in winning a once-safe Labour seat, and she made the journey north the following Wednesday.

She arrived a day after big doubts had been raised about Toshiba’s commitment to that Moorside development - Toshiba has a 60% stake in NuGen, the company building the new nuclear power plant.

When asked if the government would directly intervene to underwrite that investment, the Prime Minister evaded the question. Neither yes nor no.

Then, I asked the Prime Minister about the future of maternity services at West Cumberland hospital, an issue of huge concern to residents who will have to drive 40 miles to Carlisle on those aforementioned rural roads.

This was the exchange:

Me: There is a big fear over the downgrading of maternity services at West Cumberland Hospital. Your candidate has said her four daughters were born there and she’s totally against these changes. Will you support her and say that you too are against these proposals?

Theresa May: There has been a lot of scaremongering about hospital services and the NHS here by the Labour Party. There is no truth in the suggestion that A&E at West Cumberland Hospital is about to be closed. Trudy Harrison our candidate does indeed know the importance of these services. She is opposed to the downgrading of these services.

Me: Are YOU opposed to them, Prime Minister?

TMay: What is important is that Trudy Harrison is a candidate who has made clear her views, not just to me but to health ministers. She would be the strongest voice for Copeland.

Me: Are you against those proposals though?

TMay: The Labour party has been completely misleading about what I’ve said about maternity services.

Me: So what DO you say about them?

TMay: Trudy Harrison has made very clear to me the importance of those services. There is an issue about recruitment and retention of doctors, Trudy has come up with a very sensible idea, that there should be a professionally-led review into that issue and that is something that the health minister is looking at.

A straightforward question, without an answer.

Labour, who had bemoaned our reporting of Jeremy Corbyn’s evasive interview, made much of the Prime Minister evasion, but there is no difference.

On two of the biggest concerns facing the people of Copeland, the country’s most senior politicians did not have an answer.

Theresa May came to Copeland unwilling to tell people here what she thinks about their maternity services.

It further feeds the cynical and the disillusioned, the sense that "they are all the same", a phrase politicians hate, but do you blame them?

All the main parties believe turnout will be very, very low on Thursday.

If this by-election was a chance to prove Westminster is not out of touch, that politicians do care about places like Copeland, that they do have the will and the skill to tackle the challenges it faces, then it has failed.