Finally, here’s the third installment on the Stoke-on-Trent politics special. We’ve spoken about Tristram Hunt’s career in The Potteries, and we’ve turned our attention to the local scene. Now it’s time to go all Mystic Meg and break out the politics astrology charts. For which party do the stars align?
Labour have got to be the favourites. Stoke-on-Trent Central was born a Labour seat, and the party will be stretching every sinew to ensure it stays that way until the Boundary Commission kills it. Labour has some very strong cards to play. Firstly, the membership. All the Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire parties are active, campaigning organisations in-between elections. The bad old days of nothing happening unless we were asking for votes are long gone. Additionally, the combined membership of these parties are huge. Stoke Central itself is pushing 500, the other Stoke parties are more or less the same and nearby parties are, if anything, even larger. And we know people are going to travel from far and wide to help out. In short, a tsunami of Labour activists are poised to swamp the constituency, and none of the other parties will come close to matching it.
Second, that large membership means Labour is deeply rooted. It means there are thousands of people in the constituency who know a party member, a number high enough that the party’s organisational weight becomes a factor in the by-election. On top of that, the party has incomparable local knowledge of the city and its problems. The MP’s office, the seven seats held by Labour councillors in the constituency, and party members themselves – some of whom are at the sharp end of the difficulties our city faces – know what’s happening, they have a feeling for the mood of the constituency which will inform the campaign. But truly, the only way this can be properly harnessed is if the party selects a local candidate. In my previous post, I joked about how we drew up a list of 30 people who were likely to apply. That is increasingly looking like a conservative estimate. There is enough talent in the Labour parties of North Staffordshire to defend the seat and serve the constituency well in Parliament. I understand this is the preference of people higher up the chain too. For instance, at the PLP meeting on Monday night both Ruth Smeeth and Jack Dromey argued for a local candidate. We shall see once the NEC selection panel meets and sifts through the applications. To be sure, shortlisting candidates with weak to no ties to Stoke would be a serious mistake and selecting one would make the job of defending the seat that much harder.
Labour also needs to pitch its messaging just right. I think a Labour Plan for Stoke is a good core to arrange the rest of our platform around, but we cannot ignore the bigger issues. Brexit will be a theme, and it’s a drum UKIP are sure to beat early and often. The by-election represents an opportunity to boil Labour’s position down to things we can take on the doorstep and win sceptical voters around. A touch of populism might go a long way. And there are key local issues too. Theresa May might think the NHS suffered a few scattered incidents over recent weeks, but people who visit and work at Royal Stoke Hospital know a pack of lies when they hear them. With Stoke’s higher rates of morbidity, the health service is more of an issue than most other places. Addressing the NHS crisis must be part of the package. Likewise, using our campaign to highlight City Council cuts to Sure Start centres is essential. Labour ring-fenced and protected them during its time as the city’s administration, while the ruling coalition can’t wait to take an axe to them. And there is the matter of the council acquiring wallpaper at £70 a roll to prettify the Civic Centre. Not that big in the grand scheme of things, but overpriced decorating at a time of severe budgetary pressure demonstrates a certain arrogance and insensitivity. At least Labour’s spending was about spurring regeneration. With this kind of approach, I believe Labour can consolidate and build on its vote as we saw in pre-Brexit by-elections in “safe” Labour seats.
What of the challengers? Too many London-based commentators remain obsessed with UKIP and the unique danger it allegedly poses to Labour strongholds, despite their by-election fortunes sliding since before the referendum took place. They will bang on about the EU and immigration because they’re the only catchy (read irritating) tunes they know. Also, despite speculation about Paul Nuttall or someone “famous” standing, I would be surprised if their Friday night selection meeting picked a candidate other than local chair Mick Harold. They are not stupid. Just as Labour’s vulnerability increases with its candidate’s originating distance from the city, this too applies to UKIP. If Nuttall has any nous, he’d keep well away. Nevertheless, the pressure is on. He staked his leadership on hammering Labour in the north (Stoke isn’t the north, but bear with me). If UKIP doesn’t improve significantly on 2015 or, gasp, even falls into reverse him, his strategy and his party are in trouble.
There are perfectly good reasons to believe UKIP will fall back. As observed elsewhere, voters are moving in different directions again. UKIP, their Brexit purpose served, has lost some of their edge. The none-of-the-above’ers are starting to shrivel up and return their votes once more to the LibDems. Leave voters who have EU-related issues at the forefront of their mind appear to be moving back to the Tories – one can only assume that trend is strengthened by Theresa May’s hard Brexit speech. Another problem is what their City Independent partners decide to do. During the 2015 local elections some of the council votes you might describe as “naturally UKIP” went instead to the indies. Without a doubt, had the CIndies not bothered the city would probably groan under a Conservative/UKIP coalition, and Labour would have lost more seats. They may not stand in deference to their purple friends (and their Tory boss in the deputy leader’s office), but we shall see. And lastly, as part of the coalition UKIP are responsible for the cuts made on their watch. How can they profess to care for the city’s future when their SureStart cuts hobble our kids before they get out of the gate?
The Conservatives are feeling bullish about their chances, and they have every right to be so. It is a long shot, but they probably have a better chance of taking the seat than UKIP – and if they do the political fallout would be harsher than a purple people bleater victory. They know their vote is recomposing itself and will become, again, the preferred choice of right-wing, anti-Labour working class voters. Presently, Theresa May’s undeserved image as a serious grown-up one nation politician is an asset. And, according to the polls, Labour are floundering and the leader is trailing May by a hefty margin on nearly every metric going. If they can’t win in a place like Stoke now, when can they win? Going for them are the recent successes in the city – the big improvements to Hanley, the presence of thousands more students with cash to spend and the securing of a new shopping district are all welcome, and all harvested from the seeds Labour ploughed in when it controlled the council. Not that it will stop them from taking the credit. Their difficulties arise with the NHS and SureStart cuts and, if Labour can exploit May’s Wrexit nonsense, perhaps break them on what they regard as their strongest suit. There also remains a residual anti-Tory feeling in enough areas of the city thanks to what they did to the mines and manufacturing, and it’s difficult to see how this could be overcome.
What of the Liberal Democrats? What indeed. Just like Copeland, when it’s Labour who are defending and/or are in the best position to take a parliamentary seat, all talk of a progressive alliance falls out of the usual suspects’ heads. But we have seen some extremely impressive by-election gains from them over the last year, and particularly in Sunderland last week where they came from nowhere to take a safe Labour seat. Could a stream of yellow voters pass water all over Labour’s prospects? The LibDems do have historic support in Northwood & Birches Head (was was) and what is now Springfields & Trent Vale. The three seats from these wards are held by the CIndies. Of note here is Cllr Jean Bowers, who was once a leading LibDem light until opportunism knocked in 2015 and that membership was exchanged for the CIndies. Not the first time she’s changed her political clothing for the sake of electoral convenience. Perhaps what you might expect to be the most LibDemmy bit of the constituency is Penkhull, which is effectively a village on top of a hill in the city. This is as middle class as Stoke Central gets, and here you find living medical professionals and managers from the hospital, academics from Staffs and Keele Universities, and other relatively well paid clerical workers. However, they have consistently returned a leftish CIndie councillor, and went Brexit along with all of Central’s other wards. The only one resisting the Leave sweep was the student-heavy Hanley Park & Shelton, and they’re not likely to return to fluffy, friendly, tuition fee pledge-abandoning Tim Farron. From where the LibDems can draw their votes is the question their party strategists will be wrestling with, assuming they have any left who know anything about Stoke.
And there then closes the preview. Labour can win, we have most of the advantages. A local candidate with a locally focused programme and short, smart points on Brexit and local cuts will be very difficult for the other parties to beat. UKIP are hampered by their long-term tendency to decline and they, along with the Tories, will be on the hook over their local records. And it’s hard to see how the LibDems can field enough votes to put a serious dent on the outcome, though politics this last year has shown the most considered forecasts can look ridiculous after the event. The great imponderable is if the City Independents stand. Several of their councillors are relatively well known, and some have ambitions beyond providing a package tour. It will be interesting and stressful for all concerned should they enter the fray.