A report from GMB Young London, Stoke-on-Trent by-election: crunch time for Labour

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Stoke-on-Trent by-election: crunch time for Labour, 2017 - By Tony Scattergood

Tensions have been running high in the run-up to the Stoke by-election and with good reason, there is a strong feeling this is boom or bust for Labour in a, perhaps formerly, safe constituency.

Loss would be rightly deemed catastrophic and another nail in Jeremy Corbyn’s coffin. Tristan Hunt’s resignation has created a power vacuum and UKIP, with the resurgent Lib Dems hot on their heels, smell blood.

Full disclosure – I’m chronicling the events and mood in Stoke as both an editor for Actual News and as a representative of GMB Young London, which supports Labour.

Walking into Stoke from the train station, the locals going about their business showed no indication such a pivotal vote was about to take place.

I’m not sure quite what I expected, but nowadays rallies seem commonplace around election time. Perhaps these things would be impossible to notice without party posters draped about the place, of which there were none - in the centre anyway. Stepping into a taxi to head over to the GMB Stoke office where Gareth Snell was due to speak with support from party leader Jeremy Corbyn I spoke with the driver to gather a few views and opinions and start to build a snapshot of what the people think.

The driver, an Asian man in his late 50s, had been a Labour supporter all his life and had a brother who had been a Labour Councillor in Stoke for 25 years.

He expressed concern about UKIP’s growing influence in the historically Labour town. He told me he had felt Labour’s hold on the area weakening for years and said that a large portion of the Asian vote was now going to the Lib Dems, a further blow to Labour. I asked him to describe his feelings regarding Labour’s effectiveness: “disappointed, there’s been barely if any change here for decades.” He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in a weary manner. I suspected this was going to be a common theme throughout the day.

Approaching the GMB Office, it became clearer with each passing street that election fever had indeed gripped the area - more so than I originally thought.

A splattering of red posters in support of Labour, broken up by the purple of UKIP and yellow of the Lib Dems painted a picture of a split electorate and close vote, chiming broadly with knife-edge polling.

The spectrum of political colours lining the streets hinted at a town transitioning away from a strong Labour identity.

The number of volunteers overwhelmed the office where Snell and Corbyn were due to speak.

Talking with the organisers I suggested they must surely feel optimistic, gifted such a high turnout of people willing to help.

A sage few mentioned they couldn’t help but feel that this was very likely due to Corbyn being there. Whether these crowds will consistently bolster frontline campaigning sufficiently to get Labour over the line, or past the post, remains to be seen.

As Jeremy Corbyn spoke he was in his element, highly animated and far more comfortable than he ever seems when appearing in Westminster. Though if he wasn’t at the height of his powers in a town largely ignored by London’s press and politics, surrounded by a primarily working class audience oozing anti-establishment sentiment something would be badly wrong.

Walking out of the room to fervent applause, fighting past bodies wishing to shake his hand one couldn’t help but notice the lonely figure of the largely ignored Gareth Snell walking behind him. Who was the candidate in the running to become Stoke MP, again?

A part of the problem of the hysteria surrounding Corbyn, amongst his more feverish supporters, is that it has escalated to such heights of adulation that whenever someone mentions the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn dominates the concept of it almost entirely.

One can’t help but think that for a group, in this case the Labour party, to be characterized largely by one man cannot be anything but harmful to the idea of the leader being first among equals  - removing what weight the rotisserie Shadow Cabinet  has.

As I set about canvassing the area speaking with the people of Stoke it was painfully obvious that this was a place so unlike London it felt almost foreign.

It wasn’t just the aesthetic difference, the quiet streets or the large open fields randomly dotted around the vicinity but the feeling of the locals was almost tangible somehow just by looking at them. It reminded me starkly of my own experiences growing up in Sheffield; these were the forgotten regions, stretched thin by the exigent gravitational pull of London, the neutron star.

The recurring theme in my conversations with the locals was the lack of council funding in the area, many expressed frustration at the local authority’s inability to maintain certain areas to a decent standard – it was quite a fitting confirmation that an abandoned sofa lay across the street as one of these discssions took place.

As the day went on the divisions in party affiliations became sharper. There were those who were Labour voters because they’d always voted Labour, the default choice. Many felt stuck, they didn’t identify with UKIP or the Lib Dems and their ingrained support of Labour would not allow them to switch allegiances even though they weren’t entirely satisfied with what Labour was doing for them.

The UKIP voters who made up the second largest majority of the electorate in the area, many of whom were ex-Labour and amongst the most animated and invested in the election. They expressed a consistent refrain that Labour had betrayed them and didn’t represent who they were; this largely came down to the Brexit result.

Stoke overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU with a 75% share of the vote.

Labour and Corbyn’s remain-lite stance on the referendum can be attributed to the mass exodus of their supporters to UKIP. This was always going to be a losing battle for Labour: a liberal, broadly left-wing party which is historically about inclusivity and a working class who, whilst sharing many of its political values, remain in large part rather socially conservative.

To quote Corbyn on the day, Labour is “the party that brings people together.” It goes against their core ideology to accept a referendum that promoted the division of a union initially created to build partnerships. Was it that Labour no longer represented swathes of their traditional voters, or had said traditional voters long stopped identifying with what Labour stands for now? Being a self-identified ‘broad church’ everyone marching under the Labour banner was never going to agree on everything – but it seems to come as constant surprise to HQ just how hostile to some liberal social values, particularly around immigration, large parts of its traditional base can be. Hostile enough to vote UKIP, at any rate – though a plethora of other reasons and influencing factors go into this consideration of Labour’s fractured support nationwide.

The resurgence of the Lib Dems is another hat thrown in the ring, they’ve made it abundantly clear they are the pro-remain party - while Labour maintains a sort of agnosticism on their official stance regarding the result of the referendum.

As a result, Tim Farron’s party swept in and took a portion of former Labour voters. Corbyn and Snell face war on two fronts.

The polls suggest a straight forward win for Labour. This is their territory, but I don’t think it’s going to be as cut and dry as the party may dare to hope. A disgruntled set of supporters voting for a party caught in regular inner turmoil, led by a man who many want gone and don’t think could be Prime Minister are now further weakened as UKIP and Liberal Democrats pour resources into making this election edge-of-your-seat close.

Labour’s higher-ups must be sweating; they cannot afford to lose Stoke while the party’s effectiveness at opposing the government is questionable at best. If they do, it will be a considerable blow; one which ought to send Labour back to the drawing board to identify who exactly they are and who they’re supposed to represent.

Labour’s inability to oppose is eclipsing the government’s own follies and ineptitudes, a zero-sum game for the party. A win in Stoke might conceivably get Labour back on some sort of track, but I fear it might take the setback of a loss – and more besides – to get the party unified, coherent and on track to government – and who knows how long that might take? The only real winners in this fiasco are the Conservatives.