On the 23rd February voters in the Staffordshire city of Stoke-on-Trent head to the polls – why is this by-election so important for the Labour Party and how could it bring the fall of Jeremy Corbyn?
Staffordshire blood runs through the veins of TotallyNotACommunist to use a rather poetic metaphor. My family on my paternal grandmother’s side hails from the county: a family of coal miners, whose labour fed the beating heart of British industry for decades. It is a county which for almost a hundred years had an abundance of smokestacks and blazing furnaces but now the furnaces lie cold, the smokey haze lifted from the towns. It is an area which underwent vicious deindustrialisation in the 1970’s and can now be described as a deprived, formerly industrial, working class area – in other words, prime territory for the Labour Party. This has been the case since 1950: the seat has never not been won by Labour, but in that case, why the problems now?
To understand the fear which is gripping myself and thousands of other Labour members, the demographics of Stoke-on-Trent Central, one of two Labour seats going up for election on 23rd (the second, Copeland, holds its own flurry of concerns, such as the presence of the infamous Sellafield nuclear plant, a major employer in the area which is not amused with recent Labour anti-nuclear sentiments) must be looked at. At first glance the demographics appear to hold no significant challenges to Labour policies – as has been established Labour’s traditional heartlands are in deindustrialised communities such as these. According to the joint Durham University and House of Commons Library project, Constituency Explorer, Stoke Central offers few surprises – a turnout in 2015 of 53.2% about 12% lower than the national average is likely the only potential worry in terms of the Labour vote; low levels of home ownership, high levels of social renting and high unemployment all point to strong Labour supporter bases. But, one other statistic is able to completely trump these classical loyalties: a 38.7% margin of victory for Leave during the EU referendum of 2016. Although the EU referendum results were given through local authorities, in this case Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the looming monolith of the sizeable Leave vote hangs over this inner-city constituency in particular.
As has been established in previous articles such as focusing on how Labour can make the best of a possible Hard Brexit and the conflict between the principles of the Labour Party and the desires of the electorate, Labour’s position on Brexit and the associated issues is less than strong – one poll in January this year put the level of trust in Labour at a measly 13%, against the Tories 30%. Since New Labour’s rise, the Party has seen to be on the wrong-side of its voters, becoming a Party of middle-class, elitist, luvvies who spout champagne socialism but ignore the concerns of the everyday man. Whether that is a fair evaluation or not, Labour has seen a steady decline in its majorities in working class areas such as Stoke, with the constituency’s majority falling from 49.5% in 1997 to 16.7% at the last election. Votes have steadily fallen due to political apathy but also due to the eating away at working class support by UKIP, which has managed to create an image for itself of the patriotic party for those left behind by Labour. In 2010 for instance, UKIP’s candidate, Carol Lovatt, won 1,402 votes, a 1% increase from 2005; in 2015, candidate Mick Harold won 7,041 votes, an increase of 18.3% on 2010. The European aspect for Labour isn’t helped too, with the Labour candidate, Gareth Snell, referring in September 2016, to Brexit as a ‘pile of sh*t’.
Aside from the Brexit factor, the general form of the Party can barely be described as anything but dismal. Despite statistics showing the NHS at breaking point and the Government being given a 56% disapproval rating according to Ipsos Mori, the poll aggregation site, Britain Elects, gives, as of 19th February, Labour an approval rating of 27.3% to a Conservative Party on 40.1% – an unprecedented lead by the Government over the Opposition, which has not once broken higher than the Tory approval ratings since 2015. Even worse for the Opposition, which is polling barely over double UKIP, the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is the most unpopular leader of the major political parties, polling 62-26 dissatisfied-satisfied with the public, a -36 net approval to the Prime Minister’s +17. Even within the Party which has elected him as leader twice over two years, Corbyn is facing a Party with 50% being dissatisfied with his leadership.
The self-proclaimed Party of the working classes looks set to lose a by-election in the industrial heartland of my forefathers. For not just the Opposition party, but Labour, to lose Stoke-on-Trent in a time when the country seems to be buckling and with crises looming at every corner is simply unacceptable. I am however, in two minds about the by-elections. One part of my wishes that the Party will be able to buck the trend and smash the rising tide of UKIP which appears to be growing stronger by the day. This is not entirely impossible, considering Paul Nuttall’s recent press controversies, surrounding his lies that he lost close friends at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. I would certainly not be adverse to waking up on the 24th to hear that this sorry excuse for a candidate has been thoroughly beaten. However, another part of my doesn’t hope, but rather recognises that it is perhaps necessary for the Party to lose. For too long Labour has believed that it will have unconditional support from places such as Stoke and that it can get away, time and time again, with ignoring the demands, desires and wishes of a vast number of voters. This may be exemplified by the current leadership, which has even been told to stay away from Stoke due to the possible detrimental effect on chances of victory but it cannot go on like this. The Party needs to find itself again, reinvigorate and reconnect with the voters which it needs and which themselves need a Labour Government, but this cannot and will not occur, in my opinion, in present conditions.
Losing Stoke would undoubtedly be a dark day, but as they say, the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Thank you for reading this week’s article! What do you think about Labour’s chances in Stoke? Would it be better for the Party to win or lose? Updates on the results will be posted on 24th, so come back then!
UPDATE (24/2/2017): Labour won Stoke-on-Trent Central, achieving a majority of roughly 2,400 votes, with UKIP in second place. However, Labour lost the Copeland seat to the Conservative Party by a majority of 2,100 votes in a 12% swing to the Tories. This Sunday’s article will focus on the Copeland election and the catastrophic connotations for the Party. Links to the Britain Elects by-election results page can be found here.