A night of mixed messages
"A mixed night for Labour" was the commentary as media pundits digested last week’s parliamentary by-election results. To be blunt however, it's something of an understatement.
Jeremy Corbyn saw his party’s vote drop in Stoke and pretty much evaporate in Copeland.
That doesn’t usually happen to oppositions – even to those lagging by 18 percentage points in the polls – which is why experts have been researching comparable instances.
Senior Labour figures argue local factors lay behind a party of government winning a by-election for the first time since 1982. But special circumstances will always apply at such times and that’s what makes them notoriously unreliable weathervanes.
What’s undeniably true though is they came about when two Labour MPs decided to quit politics and go off to do ‘proper’ jobs. The fact that they were both vocal critics of Corbyn’s leadership may (or may not) be coincidental.
The UKIP phenomenon quickly made Stoke Central a straightforward ideological contest with Nigel Farage proclaiming how victory would be "fundamental” to his party’s future.
Upon losing, his latest successor, Paul Nuttall, later modified that assertion by insisting that his party was "not going anywhere", thus prompting a few journalists to observe that he was at least telling the truth about something.
Labour jubilation at stalling UKIP’s progress could be premature however, if only because nothing remotely like the same resources will be available for the next defence.
Ever since assuming the party leadership, Corbyn has insisted that the Conservatives are the real enemy. The Copeland result has proved him right but probably not in the way he envisaged.
The usual litany after similar defeats is for someone to pronounce how the seat will be regained next time around.
It’s strange, and I may have missed it, but I haven’t heard anyone make the assertion about Copeland - and even if they did then I'm guessing it wasn't said with any great conviction.
The scenario seems even more unlikely if there is a grain of truth in talk of a snap general election.
But why would Theresa May even think about that option right now? The problems of a slender working majority in parliament are nothing compared to the uncertainties of a re-run of the referendum on party lines.
I’m sure her assessment is that no matter how much of a fluke the Copeland result might be, Labour need to win over 100 seats to get into power by 2020 and its patently going to take more than "reconnecting with the grassroots".
Labour’s promise to listen to the “message that voters are sending".
The tough part is acknowledging the basic message is that they want Labour to be more like Conservatives and even UKIP in their outlook. In other words, New Labour - but without the Blair, Brown and Mandelson baggage.
That admission seems very unlikely, with the consequence that Labour’s foreseeable future involves a long spell on the opposition benches. What’s remarkable is the number of people already seem resigned to that prospect.
What are Brexit’s true colours?
As predicted last year, the process of unravelling Britain’s links with the European Union is going to be a practical exercise in the law of unintended consequences
One example I’ve been looking at is the future regulation of ‘E’ numbers that appear on food labels and which advise on additives and colourings.
In case you ever wondered, ‘E’ stands for ‘Europe’. Safety assessments and approvals for what gets added to our food are the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Codes like E101, E150d and E1209 are assigned to ‘benign’ substances which change food colour, taste and shelf life. Others, like E122, may have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity, according to health experts.
Brexit raises a couple of questions, namely, will Britain continue to adhere to EFSA controls or will it have its own licensing system administered by the Food Standards Agency, as has been suggested?
Would that latter option be acceptable to other nations when buying UK manufactured foodstuffs?
And if the UK does manage an acceptable stand-alone arrangement of accreditation, the next question is whether the service will end up privatised with majority shareholding held by financial institutions who in turn have links with the food giants.
Concerns of this kind were dismissed as the part of Project Fear. Now that the blustering is over and the slogans removed from the side of the bus, we’re faced with real issues and few answers.
Conservative MP Bill Cash, who chairs the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, and a long-standing Brexit supporter, reckons the “academics are making it more complicated than they need to”.
He might be right. Non-EU Switzerland adopted E numbers years ago and belongs to many similar schemes such as the European Health Insurance Card.
Then again, who can guess Brexit’s true colours?