A woman carries a campaign sign in favor of the U.K. Independence Party in northern England’s Stoke-on-Trent on Feb. 22, 2017. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

In the northern English heartland of Stoke-on-Trent, voters last June delivered a resounding verdict on the European Union: They wanted out.

But election results released Friday show there may be limits to Brexit’s powers to remake Britain’s political landscape

Given the chance to elect to Parliament a Brexit champion — U.K. Independence Party leader Paul Nuttall — voters in Stoke held back, sticking instead with the pro-E.U. Labour Party, which has represented the working-class area for nearly 70 years. 

The victory averted what would have been a catastrophic Labour defeat in Stoke, about 40 miles southeast of Liverpool and where about 70 percent of voters backed Brexit.

But the Labour relief was short-lived. Just minutes after the Stoke results were announced, Labour learned it had lost a seat that it has held even longer. Copeland, a district near the Scottish border that has been in Labour hands since 1935, fell to the Conservative Party.


The results are just a glance at Britain’s many political crosscurrents since opting to leave the E.U. But they inform some broader narratives.

Among them: the struggles of a Labour Party that is fast losing ground against the governing Conservatives, and the potential limits of UKIP’s anti-immigrant, nativist message at a time when populist movements across the West are energized by Donald Trump’s unexpected run to the White House.

The results sparked an instant round of infighting for Labour, a party that has been in constant turmoil for nearly two years. Far-left allies of leader Jeremy Corbyn blamed party moderates, and the moderates replied in kind.

One of Corbyn’s top deputies, John McDonnell, pinned the loss on former prime minister Tony Blair, a centrist who recently criticized the party’s lurch to the left since Corbyn became leader in late 2015.

“We can’t have a situation like we did last week, when Tony Blair comes out and attacks his own party,” McDonnell told Britain’s ITV.

But Richard Angell, director of the moderate Labour organization Progress, called the outcome “a disaster,” and said Corbyn and his allies were responsible.

“They risk bringing the whole party down with this failed hard-left project,” he said in a statement.

Polling shows that the Conservatives are as many as 18 points ahead of Labour, with only around a quarter of Britons saying they intend to vote for the party that has traditionally been the political home of the country’s working class.

Although the next general election is not due until 2020, the party’s dismal standing has prompted periodic attempts to unseat Corbyn. He has clung on but without the support of most Labour members of Parliament.

Labour’s position has fallen particularly sharply since the E.U. vote. While the leaders of both major parties were in favor of “remain,” both parties were also badly divided at the grass roots. 

Since the vote, the Conservatives largely have moved beyond that division, with formerly pro-“remain” Prime Minister Theresa May promising to deliver a clean break from the E.U. She could officially set the divorce in motion this year. 

Labour continues to be torn, however, between members of a working-class base who want out of the E.U. and a young, urban and progressive contingent that favors staying in. 

Corbyn has alienated both factions — reluctantly favoring “remain” last June and putting up only halfhearted resistance to May’s plans. 

UKIP — a driving force behind the Brexit vote and an advocate of steep cuts to immigration — had hoped to capitalize on Labour’s division by winning the insurgent party’s third seat in its nearly quarter-century history. 

But Nuttall was dogged by accusations of exaggerating his ties to the Hillsborough disaster, a touchstone event for northern England in which 96 people died in an overcrowded soccer stadium in 1989. 

Labour also charged that Nuttall backs privatizing Britain’s prized National Health Service, an accusation that UKIP aides dismissed as “black propaganda” but acknowledged had hurt the party among Stoke voters.

Nuttall, a low-key politician who succeeded the bombastic Nigel Farage, insisted that the loss would not affect his hold on a party he has led only since November. 

But the loss calls into question his focus on winning working-class Labour seats in northern England, rather than the more traditionally Conservative seats in southern England where Farage had trained his fire.

Gareth Snell, a pro-E.U. local councilor who retained the seat for Labour, hailed the Thursday election in Stoke as a defeat for right-wing populism.

“For those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent to sow hatred and division, and to try to turn us away from our friends and neighbors, I have one message: You have failed,” he said in his victory speech to cheers from bleary-eyed Labour volunteers.