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What will happen in the Stoke Central by-election?

Tristram_Hunt_009Finally, 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 (as 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.


  1. John Penney says:

    More empty detail , but no real analysis. In none of Phil’s three articles has he tackled the core issue that actually explains why Stoke has comprehensively rejected Labour to run its Council. And why the parachuted in neoliberal toff, Hunt, was such a slap in the face to Stoke Central’s voters.

    That harsh reality is that the previous Labour Council willingly , without real resistance, administered the Tory imposed Austerity budget cuts with a ferocity that matched any Tory Council. The idea that the previous Labour Council actually protected the community in any way from Austerity is a sick joke, Phil – a straightforward lie.

    Unfortunately for your claims, there was a very informative 3 part TV documentary on the Stoke Council’s hugely damaging vicious Austerity programme, led by its “David Brentish” self-obsessed Council Leader just a few short years ago.

    That is why the working class have deserted Stoke Labour. And that is why the Stoke Working Class voters will view with extreme scepticism any promises made by any Labour candidate – unless that candidate is a very credible anti austerity socialist indeed, with solid local roots. And even then, Labour locally is profoundly damaged goods , despite your boasted of “Corbyn Surge” extra local membership, which we have all experienced since Corbyn’s victory.

    You really have no analysis at all of why Labour has collapsed in electoral terms in Stoke, Phil, and no credible suggestions as to how this can be turned around. In fact all three articles look much more about publicising YOURSELF, than providing a useful analysis.

  2. Rob Green says:

    The Tories will take this seat. Unless Labour puts up a Hard Socialist Brexit Candidate. If the local party selects someone who isn’t then an independent socialist should stand.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    An interesting and detailed analysis. The danger is of a combination of UKIP voters returning to the Tories and Labour remainers switching to the Lib-Dems, as at Sleaford, even though they didn’t stand a chance of winning.

  4. Karl Stewart says:

    I agree Peter, a very informative and tought-provoking piece.

    Thanks Phil.

    Shame to read John Penney’s grumpy comments – he’s got a real downer on every single article Phil ever writes.

    Come on JohnP give the guy a chance and give him some credit for making the effort to write these articles.

    It’s an important by-election and it’s great to have some detailed info from someone who comes from the area and knows it well.

    Thanks again Phil, don’t listen to ‘Mr Grumpy’ and keep up the good work.

    1. John Penney says:

      In his three articles Phil has no analysis of why Labour has now completely lost the support of its traditional working class voter base in Stoke. He maintains the utter fiction that the previous Labour Councils safeguarded local services. He has no proposals for policies that will rebuild the support of this working class base, Karl.

      Phil was happy to be on the staff of the parachuted in neoliberal opportunist, Tristram Hunt. Phil supported Yvette Cooper in the 2015 Leadership election.

      Phil is blatantly building up a faux “Leftish reputation” by his constant postings (which often seem to have no point, as others have noticed) ,on Left Futures. We all recall Ann Black similarly “stroking the Left” with articles here before getting re-elected to the NEC on the Left Slate, and then promptly playing a lead role in the anti Corbyn Coup and stitching up of the Let voting numbers.

      But you are impressed by these three detail rich, Labour Right council excusing, but analysis poor, articles, Karl ? Each to his own.

  5. Bazza says:

    I agree Stoke should pick a local candidate and in my view a Pro-Corbyn one.
    Whilst the arch opportunist fake community Lib Dems try to override the result of a democratic referendum May tells the capitalist Spivs at Davos that we need to be wary of those who sow division whilst of the Tories follow their own ‘Rwanda Strategy’ (although not as extreme) but perhaps adopting the same principle of setting citizens against citizens (neighbours against neighbours) in the Conservative government’s case over welfare for their own political benefit.
    Whilst of course they distract people from their tax cuts for: millionaires, corporations, hedge funds (who gave £50m to the Tories and the Tories gave £145m tax cuts to hedge funds), private landlords with multiple properties, grouse moor owners etc. etc.
    Labour should say we want the best for working people in the UK, our citizens in Spain etc, and working people in Europe (shouldn’t we care too that say a country like Bulgaria will have lost half of its poulation by 2020 as the poorer European countries serve the rich in the richer EC ones?) so we should support control of labour supply and capital supply as well other countries doing the same and we all take power and sovereignty back from Neo-Liberalism.
    I have only been to Stoke once in my life as a kid and Leeds United suporter in the Revie years to the old Potteries ground and it was a 0-0 bore draw – so Labour don’t make it a bore draw and pick a local JC supporter.

  6. Craig Stephen says:

    Are we also going to get a three-parter on Copeland?
    John Penney you really are a charmer, and I’m being kind there. I have enjoyed reading these pieces on an area I know little of.

    1. John Penney says:

      Useful political analysis is much more important than that ephemeral quality of “charm”, today, as Labour sails ever onward to political oblivion, due to its local councils’ collaboration with endless Austerity Cuts. And the disastrous neoliberal politics of most PLP politicians like the utter careerist, Tristram Hunt. But Tristram had bags of patrician “Charm”, Craig .

      I challenge you to extract from all the interesting , but peripheral, local detail any useful analysis (other than excuses) from Phil of what destroyed Labour in Stoke, or a suggestion of a coherent political offer to win back its voter base . Go on ,have a go, Craig.

  7. David Pavett says:

    There are some interesting points of local information in this piece but like John P I found in lacking in discussion of key issues. For example Phil B-C says that the local party members “they have a feeling for the mood of the constituency” but we are given no clues as to what this tells them. Similarly, Phil says “Brexit will be a theme, and it’s a drum UKIP are sure to beat early and often” but there is nothing on how the local campaign could best respond to that, especially given the lack of clarity at national level.

    The suggestion that more headline grabbing populism is required irrespective of the value of what is said (follow the link given on this) sounds decidedly dodgy to me.

    We are told that the local party is in good shape. I would have liked to know if that means that they have a package of well worked out policies on local issues and a lively interest in national issues so that whoever the select will have a good policy base to work on with the CLP.

  8. Stephen Bellamy says:

    Doubtless Phil will be cross posting this on his favourite racist cess pit Harrys Place.

  9. John P Reid says:

    Copland by election may be on same day 23rd Febuary

    1. Stephen Bellamy says:

      I don’t know why anyone bothers. The depth and width of the corruption in the LP has been laid bare over the last year. It is not redeemable. The likes of Corbyn and Lansman are utterly complicit.


      1. James Martin says:

        This is why I saw through Momentum a good while ago and as a lifelong socialist on the left of the Party I want absolutely nothing to do with them. I think the undemocratic Momentum leadership are cowards and witch hunters (in the way they joined in the political lynching of Jackie Walker, and after The Lobby’ exposure of LFI and JLM we know exactly what – and who (the Israeli state) – they were a part of with that (the fact that Lansman has publicly said when attacking Jackie in the Guardian that he was a good friend of pond life like Jeremy Newmark says it all). But they have also failed to oppose the purge and the witch hunts of thousands of socialists, the closure of branches like Wallasey on trumped up evidence and lies and they have failed to take on both the coup plotting members of the PLP and also the likes of Iain McNicol. In fact they never mention any of that do they, it is just bland puppetry of the supporters and directing them to cheer when needed at the mention of the name Corbyn. It would actually be funny if it were not so tragic.

  10. James Martin says:

    It would seem that Nasty Nuttalls is standing for the ukips. Time to bring out his comments on wanting to privatise the NHS (or what’s left of it after the Tories have finished their own kicking), his claim to have a PhD on linkedin that wasn’t true (he did manage to stand in front of a photoshopped picture of a bookcase a while back though, so perhaps that was source of his confusion), and his claim to have played professionally for Tranmere Rovers which was also a lie as the club confirmed. I mean, if you’re going lies at least tell some good ones, Tranmere Rovers of all teams, what an absolute muppet!

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Muppet or not he will be a M of P next month.

  11. Bazza says:

    Yes and after consulting one of the finest political minds in the Western World (Mrs Brown’s Boys) it seems: NUTALL STANDS FOR FECKALL!

  12. As a teenager Tristram Hunt had a very strange, acolyte-like relationship with Mandelson. Google it and you will probably find more than one report about it. It must have been quite flattering for Peter although a little bit suspicious with what we know now.

  13. David Pavett says:

    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.

    Questions to Phil B-C. How does all that match up with a support among the electorate which was over 50% after WWII and which sunk to 20% in the last two general elections?

    In 2015 less than one in 5 of the Stoke Central electorate voted Labour. Is that not a massive problem which makes Labour vulnerable to the shifting allegiances of a public with declining party loyalties?

    1. John Walsh says:

      According to Phil B-C, “that large membership” is “pushing 500” in Stoke Central – surely, that’s way below average? With a 62k electorate (in 2015) an average membership would be over 700. Could this be another indicator of the strength of the disaffection with the Party in the area?

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