Amidst the shock and misery that befell Labour’s true believers in the wake of our loss of Copeland yesterday morning, some people – including Labour’s ‘leader’ – tried to shift people’s focus onto the fact that we had held Stoke Central. This was due, they said, to the politics of hope triumphing over the politics of fear.
I visited Stoke Central twice during the by-election campaign and I saw very little hope in the eyes of the scores of beaten-down voters I spoke with. So, why did Labour win and why did UKIP fail? The answer is that Labour won by default, and this may well be the last time it is granted that luxury in seats like Stoke all across the Midlands and the North. True, in electoral politics, winning is all that matters – but Labour’s victory here was Phyricc in so many ways.
First – let’s look at the data. This was the lowest turnout in the constituency’s history, suggesting that if people were voting for hope, they were doing so in very small numbers – not something that normally happens when an election is carried on a wave of optimism. The margin of victory (2,620) was the lowest ever recorded in this seat which Labour has always held. Meanwhile, three thousand more people voted for the UKIP and Tory candidates, who scored a combined total of well over 10,000 votes. Now, I’m fairly sure UKIP don’t represent the politics of hope, and something in my Labour bones tells me that this particularly right-wing, hard-Brexit Tory government doesn’t either.
Now consider UKIP’s campaign of self-immolation. UKIP were confident enough to send their loathsome leader into bat, although he had failed in three previous attempts to win a parliamentary seat. During the campaign, it emerged that Mr Nuttall had lied about his address on his electoral registration form, and that he had made false claims on his website about losing close friends in the Hillsbrough disaster. Under any normal circumstances, his campaign would have fallen through the floor. As it happened, Mr Nuttall came a respectable second, a little over 2,000 votes behind Labour. If UKIP get their act together and stop scoring ridiculous own goals, elections in places like Stoke will be a different ball game.
Then consider Labour’s much-vaunted ‘ground game’. Labour flooded the seat with activists from across the country for weeks prior to the poll and knocked on every door in the constituency several times (not something we will be able to do on general election day when our resources are more spread out). UKIP, meanwhile, were so desperate to look as though they had similar numbers of activists out that they shared a picture of activists out in Leeds and pretended that they were in Stoke. In reality, they had hardly anyone out on the doors, nor did they have reliable canvassing data from previous elections. When polling day came, Labour laid on a fleet of cars to get reluctant voters to the polls in the eye of Storm Doris, while the only UKIP voters who made it as far as the polling station were particularly belligerent.
Finally, the most decisive actors in the final result were not the Labour Party or UKIP, but the Tories. Despite focussing most of their efforts on the Copeland by-election (which they won against all the odds), the Tories knew that they could take votes away from UKIP and maybe even finish second in the seat. Frankly, Theresa May would rather keep Mr Corbyn’s Labour in some sort of contention than see UKIP start to build up electoral momentum in seats such as Stoke. That the Tories view Labour as less of a threat to their prospects across the country than UKIP shows how toothless we as a party have become. Hence the Prime Minister’s visit to the seat shortly before polling day. Had the Tories not bothered with Stoke, UKIP’s chances of success would have been greatly increased.
Until we start talking with communities like those in Stoke about their actual concerns and offering them a policy platform that will bring them out of their malaise, rather than patronising them with platitudes about how they voted for “hope”, our vote share will continue to go down. Stoke is Britain’s Brexit Capital not because it is hopeful about the future, but because it is terrified of it.
Labour’s support in Stoke is clinging on by a thread. The parallels with the end of Labour in Scotland are palpable. Apathy, resentment and betrayal are all common feelings associated with Labour in the potteries. There is no doubt that Gareth Snell will make a fine MP and his good track record in local government should mean he will be a constituency-focussed MP who will represent the concerns of his constituents when he goes to Parliament with honesty and candour.
But let’s not kid ourselves. As Storm Doris descended on Stoke’s once-mighty industrial towns on February 23rd, it was not hope that its people carried in their hearts as they were marched to the polling station by wide-eyed London Labour activists. It was out of a mixture of residual loyalty to a once-great party and the fact that they weren’t quite ready to leap into the unknown with UKIP.
To borrow an ugly Americanism, the voters of Stoke chose the “least worst option.” How much longer they continue to regard Labour as that option is far from clear. We are at the halfway point of this parliament, at which time the opposition is usually as its most popular. I hope that Gareth Snell MP will be able to arrest the decline in the next three years, but if he does, it won’t be because people in Stoke are innate optimists, but because Labour gives them hope again.