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Britain's Labour faces backlash in working-class heartlands

By Michael Holden and William James

STOKE-ON-TRENT/WHITEHAVEN, England (Reuters) - Two parliamentary by-elections in Britain next week are likely to cast a pitiless light on the Labour Party's loss of working-class votes and expose its leader to the anti-establishment backlash that is driving the country out of the European Union.

In the latest stage of the identity crisis besetting Europe's center-left, Labour could lose separate votes on Feb. 23 in two long-time strongholds: the gritty, formerly industrial town of Stoke-on-Trent in central England, and the northwestern coastal region of Copeland with its keystone nuclear plant.

Britain's main opposition party faces a stiff challenge by the anti-EU, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party in Stoke and Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives in Copeland.

Even if Labour retains both once "safe" seats, it will be a bad showing if the margins are slim.

Defeat in either place may induce fresh turmoil in Britain's second largest party, further draining leader Jeremy Corbyn's authority and weakening Labour's fight in parliament to temper May's plans for a "hard Brexit", or clean break with the EU.

The votes will test how well Corbyn, who oversees Labour from the socialist fringes of a party that enjoyed its best success from the center ground under former prime minister Tony Blair, can connect with the full spectrum of Labour voters.

Both campaigns, triggered by high-profile resignations of lawmakers despairing at Labour's chances of winning another national election under Corbyn, have different local issues.

But Labour's struggle in Stoke and Copeland boils down to two linked themes: antipathy towards Corbyn and his pro-immigration, anti-nuclear background, and a wish to punish the pro-EU, metropolitan "establishment" in distant London.

"I used to vote Labour for years. They're just a waste of space now," forklift driver Nigel Hopwood, 55, told Reuters in Stoke. "They never do anything they say they're going to do and then they still expect you to vote for them."

Labour supremacy in both constituencies was long a given.

It has represented Stoke - which was hard hit by 1980s closures of heavy industry and coal mines but remains renowned for its porcelains, bone china and ceramics - ever since the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat was created in 1950.

In Whitehaven, the main, seaside town in the Copeland region whose fortunes are hitched to the nearby Sellafield nuclear power facility, Labour's monopoly dates back to 1935.

"This town was always traditionally a Labour stronghold," Whitehaven resident Bill Ferguson, 72, said. "It was so strong you could have fetched a monkey in here with a red rosette on and he'd have got the job."

There are no official polls for the by-elections in Stoke or Copeland. Both votes are expected to be close, but sobering for Labour is that a recent national poll showed it now ranks third among blue-collar voters, behind the Conservatives and UKIP.

BREXIT EFFECT

The demand for political change unleashed by Britain's referendum vote by a 52-48 percent margin to exit the EU has cut deep holes in Labour's support base and split its upper ranks.

Europhile Labour lawmakers are at odds with the mildly eurosceptic Corbyn, pro-Brexit voters are disillusioned with a Labour Party that officially campaigned to remain in an EU that remains wedded to the free movement of peoples, and pro-EU voters are furious with their party for not trying to subsequently block May's legislation preparing for Brexit.

The many voters who do not fit neatly into those categories are simply exasperated at the infighting and want change.

Corbyn has so far survived a formal leadership challenge, several resignations from his shadow cabinet and, last week, an open revolt against his order to support May's bill authorizing a formal launch of divorce negotiations with the EU.

The strength of support he has among the leftist party activists who elected him leader means few Labour MPs have any stomach for a fresh challenge if Labour loses Stoke or Copeland.

Next Thursday's vote, though, is likely to reveal the extent of the damage.

In Stoke, UKIP is hoping to strike the same chord with voters as it did during the EU referendum campaign, when it pitched itself as the voice of the disenfranchised, standing up to aloof political elites in London. Instead of demanding Brexit, now they are demanding change in general.

"They want out, I want out, Labour don't," said Fred Whitby, 69, a lifelong Labour supporter from Stoke who has embraced UKIP. "What (Labour) promised, they didn't deliver. They don't represent the working class."

Last June almost 70 percent of people in Stoke voted for Brexit - the highest figure for an area held by Labour.

While that should make easy pickings for UKIP, the party has been bogged down in vicious in-fighting as it struggles to define its post-Brexit identity.

UKIP chairman Paul Nuttall, the party's candidate in Stoke and its second leader since the talismanic Nigel Farage stepped down after the Brexit vote, could be defined by his success or failure to win over Labour's strong residual support that gave Corbyn's party a victory by 16 percent over UKIP there in 2015.

"There are swathes of this country, like in Stoke, where we are hanging on by the fingernails to keep UKIP at bay," said Clive Lewis, who quit as Labour's business spokesman last week over the party's decision to back the Brexit bill. [nL5N1FT78A]

"If UKIP make a breakthrough in Stoke, if they make a breakthrough in parts of the county in the north, there will be a rout. Once they have one voice they will have a base and it will be a domino effect," Lewis told constituents recently.

STUDENT MESSIAH

Further north in Whitehaven, Labour's sway has steadily receded with an influx of well-paid jobs provided by the Sellafield nuclear site and the decline of traditional primary industries. The trend could reach tipping point next week.

Bookmakers put the Conservative candidate ahead in a vote that has been dominated by the future of the local nuclear industry and the town hospital, hit by austerity cutbacks. Both Labour and Conservative candidates have endorsed nuclear power and the planned development of new reactors just up the road.

But voters are skeptical of Corbyn's stance - he has openly opposed nuclear energy in the past, though now says he supports it as part of a sustainable energy mix.

Isolated by dated rail links and dangerous winding roads, Whitehaven has, thanks to nuclear energy, avoided the worst of Britain's industrial decline. But voters said they felt torn between backing Labour as their families did for generations and wanting to protest against Corbyn's leadership.

"This time around I think I'll have a proper good look before I decide," said lifelong Labour voter and nuclear industry veteran Robin King. "I'm not impressed with (Corbyn). He just doesn't come across as credible."

Corbyn's background as a career politician from inner-city London rankles in both Stoke and Whitehaven, and he does not appear on Labour's local campaign leaflets.

"Labour was always a working man's party. It used to be, but it's no longer like that now. I think it's an utter shambles ... I don't think Corbyn represents anybody here," said Ferguson, the former Labour voter.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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