London's loss, Caracas' gain

Ditched by Londoners, it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from Ken's years of experienc

With his successor doing his bit for Anglo-Chinese relations with his flag-waving "ping pong's coming home" performance in Beijing last weekend, it's nice to see Ken Livingstone back in work this week as a consultant to his old friend Hugo Chavez. London, it seems, is just not big enough for these larger than life political characters.

Apparently Livingstone's brief is to get Caracas moving. Having visited the Venezuelan capital a couple of times myself, I can say that as a regular Tube traveller Ken should at least find the underground system to his satisfaction. Speedy and reliable, cheap and clean, the Caracas metro is among the best in the world; its air conditioned platforms just about the only place in the city you can find any peace and quiet. It was built by the French, of course.

Above ground though, it's a different story. Traffic gridlock, brash unsightly skyscrapers and a headache-inducing haze are the inevitable consequences of a society in which oil is cheaper than water and the automobile has ruled unchecked for decades. Much of the centre of the city was hollowed out to make way for US-style freeways and flyovers – now crumbling – during the last oil boom of the 1970s. Trying to ban Chelsea tractors was one thing; attempting to introduce a congestion zone in Caracas would be like trying to persuade lions of the merits of vegetarianism.

Despite its numerous other achievements, Chavista socialism meanwhile has so far made little progress towards getting the majority of residences out of the barrios that suffocate the city on all sides and into proper housing (though Ken, in one of his redder moments, will surely have privately enjoyed the decision a couple of years ago by the mayor of Caracas to appropriate a couple of private golf clubs to create additional living space). Caracas residents continue to endure levels of violent crime that make South London's knife crisis look like an episode of Trumpton.

All of which means that Ken has his work cut out - but it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from all those years of experience at the GLC and in City Hall. It's a wonder he still has time for his own radio show. Let's hope he hasn't been taking broadcasting tips from Chavez, whose own radio and TV broadcasts have been known to run into hours and days...

An unusually tanned and relaxed Ben returns from his summer holidays - if those are the right words to describe Scotland in August - next week.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.