Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's newspapers

1. If politicians want to be trusted again, they must learn to listen (Daily Telegraph)

Jeremy Hunt MP, the Tory shadow culture secretary, argues that the internet decentralises power, giving people more control over their lives and allowing them to hold their leaders to account.

2. Justice in pay packets starts at the top. Across the board (Guardian)

Finally, moves are afoot to restrain out-of-control salaries -- in the public sector. But the problem orginates with private firms. Polly Toynbee argues for restrictions across the board, and greater respect for public-sector workers.

3. Voters will always go for Santa, not Scrooge (Times)

Optimism and pessimism will be the dividing line for the next election, argues Rachel Sylvester, looking at Cameron's and Brown's approaches so far.

4. The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan (Financial Times)

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the former ambassador to Moscow, says Britain must learn the lessons of history in Afghanistan: no one has explained convincingly why we should succeed where the Russians and, previously, the British themselves failed, or why the war will prevent terrorism at home.

5. David Cameron needs to reclaim the centre ground (Independent)

The latest ComRes poll in today's Independent shows that voters still view the Tories as out of touch. The leading article argues that this is because the Conservative message has become increasingly contradictory.

6. Copenhagen: well that made us think, didn't it? (Times)

Agreement was always going to be almost impossible, says David Aaronovitch. But it wasn't a waste of time: it gave us a crash course in eco-education, presenting us with a "map of where we really are" and what needs to be done.

7. If you want to know who's to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate (Guardian)

George Monbiot is less positive, arguing that Barack Obama's attempt to put China in the frame for failure had its origins in the absence of US campaign finance reform. China made problems, but equally the US "demanded concessions while offering nothing".

8. Time to take off the blinkers in business class (Financial Times)

There cannot be one rule for the banks and another for the rest of society, says Michael Skapinker. The banks -- which have behaved petulantly -- must show why they are necessary.

9. Where have all the big beasts gone? (Independent)

Even when Labour was slaughtered in 1983, it had a galaxy of stars and potential leaders. Steve Richards discusses the dearth of stars, which he blames on a lack of party conviction.

10. Factory schools don't give real education (Times)

A ten-hour day could close the attainment gap between state and private, but only if used well, says Anthony Seldon, discussing a scheme by the Sutton Trust to improve the education of those from deprived backgrounds.

 

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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.