This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for about six weeks, but as usual, life gets in the way. On February 24th, I woke up at 6:30 am to get the 7:00 am train down to London. The first thing I did was open my laptop and check the news. I needed to know what the results of the Stoke by-election were. This was more important than checking the trains or booking a taxi. The BBC news live feed came up, and after scrolling through a few posts about the aftermath I saw what I was looking for. Gareth Snell had own the by-election for Labour. I breathed a sigh of relief. The details would have to wait for later, but for now I could relax.
I grew up in Crewe, and when I was a teenager I would sometimes go to Stoke for the weekend, to go bowling, or to the cinema. It’s a bit of a nebulous city with no real centre to it. As a teenager, the best place to go would be Hanley. It turns out that twenty years later it’s still the best place to go, although now I spend my time going to coffee and cake shops. When I heard that there was going to be a by-election in Stoke, and that Paul Nuttall was standing for election, I decided I had to get involved.
The three main players in this by-election were Tristram Hunt, Gareth Snell, and Paul Nuttall. Hunt (sometimes referred to as “the Good Hunt”, to distinguish him from his more infamous namesake) was firmly pro remain, and Stoke was firmly pro leave. As the vote to trigger Article 50 started looming, Hunt decided to resign as MP, triggering instead a by-election. His letter of resignation doesn’t mention the EU referendum explicitly, but there are hints that this is really what was going on, with phrases such as “we have eliminated the ugly politics of the BNP from the city”, “giving a voice to the marginalised, battling bureaucracy, marshalling influence for the overlooked”, and in particular “The frustration, of course, came with the inability to address those factors and implement our policy programme following our defeat in 2015 – and, more broadly, about how the Labour Party should respond to the social, cultural and economic forces which have rocked mainstream social democratic and socialist parties from India to Greece to America.” To me it seems clear that Hunt recognises a lot of the tensions and frustrations in Stoke, and sees that the blame is being placed in the wrong places.
Who should step into this power vacuum in the heart of “Brexit central”? No other than Leader of UKIP, Mr Paul Nuttall himself, of course. Unlike Farage, Nuttall is openly regressive and hateful. He’s deeply homophobic, wants to see the NHS privatised, wants to scale back reproductive rights, and wants to bring back the death penalty. While quite a few people in UKIP feel the same way, I’d give enough credit to most leave voters to believe that they don’t. If that was the end of the story, then there would be no need to worry, but knowing how UKIP mobilised the vote in the referendum, I wanted to see what was really happening in Stoke before deciding that they didn’t need my help. As expected, they had Farage visit and shower his charisma and populism all over the place. They also had a large, central, and very visible headquarters (which I called Nuttalls R US) and people handing out leaflets in the street. They had their best graphic designers out in force for this by-election and their literature and brand looked very slick. This had to be opposed, and so oppose it I did.
I didn’t know a great deal about Gareth Snell at first, and when I first showed up at Labour HQ the signs were just starting to go up. I was given a bag of leaflets and addresses to deliver to, and started dropping them through letterboxes. Stoke Central has been a Labour heartland since it was first created as a constituency, so it seemed that a Labour candidate would do well here. I gleaned what information I could from the names and addresses. It seemed that roughly a third of houses were receiving leaflets in this small region, which isn’t bad, and that many of the names were of Indian or Bangladeshi origin (later I’d see a lot of Italian names.) So with Stoke being both multiethnic and pro leave, was it still a safe Labour seat? I started to find out more about Snell to try to answer that question. There was no doubt that he was local and a dedicated Councillor. He also wrote that infamous poem about “Soft Brexit, Hard Brexit, Massive pile of shit.” which didn’t bode well (although sounds strangely familiar. A quick look at the most recent election results didn’t help clarify the picture. Labour had been steadily losing ground to UKIP in Stoke since 2005, and the recent referendum result would either energise the UKIP voters, or make them more apathetic. by-elections are notoriously hard to predict, as they become the focus of national attention, while at the same time having depressed turnout. Would the people who cared enough about the by-election to turn up vote Labour or UKIP? Only time would tell.
I would visit Stoke twice more to volunteer my time, and each time I’d find out more about the local attitudes, as well as about the Labour party’s current state. The second time involved knocking on doors and asking about voter intention. It was quite a disturbing experience at times, and I found roughly half the people either didn’t intend to vote, or no longer wanted to vote for Labour. Running over some calculations in my head, this didn’t sound like good news. A few of the people were openly dismissive, but nobody was openly hostile. Some people were very supportive, and they were very enthusiastic about voting. I’d been lured into wishful thinking during the referendum and US Presidential election, so now I was on my guard whenever I tried to gauge responses. As an example, during the day of the EU referendum, I was out on the streets reminding people to vote. On of my fellow campaigners pointed out that about 90% of the people who answered said they would be voting remain. This seemed extremely unlikely, even in Manchester, and it rang all kinds of alarm bells that would be reinforced by Iain Duncan Smith’s comments later that day (although that’s for another blog post.) As a side note, I was impressed that one of the UKIP canvassers managed to find a bright purple velvet jacket to help get the message across. I’d forgotten canvassing etiquette and didn’t say a friendly “Hello” as I passed. Has politics destroyed good manners? Maybe.
It was hard to tell which way things would work out, and I started to realise that this by-election was running hand-in-hand with the by-election in Copeland. I wanted to know where the Conservative canvassers were, as I hadn’t seen a single leaflet. More conservative votes would mean fewer UKIP votes, and a stronger win for Labour. The conspicuous absence of Conservative canvassers wasn’t just a tactical choice made in Stoke, it was also a strategic choice to send more canvassers to Copeland. Both the Labour and the Conservative parties were fighting two by-elections, but Labour had to split their efforts, where the Conservatives didn’t. They could safely ignore Stoke and focus on Copeland, making Labour’s job harder in both fights. In the end the Conservative Party took Copeland, and at first I didn’t really understand why (and hadn’t spent much time trying to understand the Copeland by-election at all.) Looking at the recent Copeland elections we can see a worrying story. Over the years, the support for UKIP grows and they take votes away from the Conservative party. After the referendum most of these votes would go back to the Conservative party, which would be enough to ensure them a victory. Labour didn’t lose the Copeland by-election, the Conservative party won it. Labour did lose some ground, but the Conservative party picked up much more.
Back in Stoke, I joined a group in a car to knock on doors in a more distant region. It was there that I met a family of long term Labour supporters. They were all in their 50s or older, and one of them invited me in for a chat. I came in and he talked to me about how Jeremy Corbyn was making Labout unelectable. This is a conversation I’d have quite a few times later on (and also beforehand) with various friends. I can see their point of view, and I tend to agree with their position, but at the same time Labour is the strongest opposition we have to the Conservatives. There are tensions in the Labour party that make take a decade or more to resolve. On the drive back I discovered my allies in the car included a Labour MP, and I felt quite honoured to be on the same campaign as them. MPs’ time is precious, and their weekends even more so. I was expecting to be in the presence of like-minded campaigners, giving some free time, not political heavyweights who work 12 hour days to get the job done. All in all, I left Stoke feeling a little pessimistic about Labour’s chances in the by-election, as well as nationwide, but also saw an opportunity to get involved with the party. If I could stand alongside MPs in a political fight, I could probably make a difference even when there are no fights to be had.
My third visit to Stoke nearly didn’t happen. It was election day, February 23rd, I’d booked the day off work, and Storm Doris was ravaging the UK. There were train cancellations all the way up and down the West Coast mainline and I was about to give up hope, when finally a train would get me to Stoke. This wasn’t just about the by-election though, as I had a train ticket from Stoke to London the next day for work. I had to get to Stoke that day, no matter what. I arrived for the afternoon and evening, and this time it was all about getting out the vote. Each time I’d visited Stoke I’d seen slightly different parts, from the edges of Hanley, close to the centre, to the hills near Silverdale where the streets are full of potholes, to new developments with big gardens, to dense Victorian terraces. This time people were sick of hearing about the by-election, and this is quite justified. We wanted to know if people had voted, and if not, when they intended to vote, so it’s quite an intrusive line of questioning, especially after six weeks of campaigning. This was the only day where mobilising people mattered. Every day before this was setting the scene, getting message out, counting voters, and gathering data. However election day is where Labour’s decades of experience really comes into play. As we went from door to door with our clipboards, we saw a white minibus with volunteers in high visibility jackets going from street to street. These were the UKIP canvassers, and they seemed to be fewer in number and less organised. If they had the groundswell of support I expected, they would be on foot like we were with a high vote density. Their efforts in the van showed that they had either too few willing campaigners, or too few voters. After a huge effort, campaigning right up 20 minutes before the close of polls, we called it a night, and I went home to my friend’s house.
After chatting to my friend for about an hour, I went to bed and focused on getting sleep. If I didn’t have to be in London the next day I would spend the night watching the vote count. Instead I’d have to wait, and sleeping while nervous is usually not a good idea. I woke up to the news that Snell had won and that Nuttall had lost. It was finally some good news. I’m no fan of UKIP, but my participation in this election was more about defeating Nuttall than defeating UKIP. I was very happy that Stoke, in spite of it’s fierce pro leave support, voted with sanity and compassion and decided not to elect Nuttall as an MP. At the same time, someone had painted a red cross across the Nuttalls R Us shop, which seemed quite disturbing to me. If that had happened to someone from a minority, it could well be seen as a hate crime. Nuttall is an odious man, but that doesn’t excuse that kind of abuse. As usual, there was the normal fudging of statistics by the UKIP side with claims that the Labour majority had been cut in half. This was true when looking at the raw numbers, but when taking the turnout into account things had hardly budged for Labour. There was also some hilarity as Nuttall claimed he wasn’t “going anywhere”, only to find his taxi hadn’t arrived and he was indeed not “going anywhere”.
In all this, there were two other other stories playing out alongside the Stoke by-election. One was the national picture, with Labour losing the seat in Copeland. Some were calling for Corbyn to resign at this news, and this might have saved the Labour party’s chances in the 2020 General Election. He didn’t resign, and the tension between the normal Labour members and the Parliamentary Labour party continues. The other story was my slow conversion to becoming a member of the Labour party. I joined not because I think that Labour is in a strong position, or because I think Corbyn should be Primeminister. I joined because, ever the contrarian, I think that now is the time that Labour needs support, and now is the time when I can have the most influence on the party. I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with my membership, but I know that at the very least I can use it next time I lobby my MP. Now is not the easiest time for the Labour party or its members but whatever happens in the next few years I’d rather be on the inside looking out than the outside looking in. As usual, that’s a story for another blog post.