Comment Plus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Tea Party: lofty ideals, grubby facts (Guardian)

Far from being a grass-roots movement, the orginal "tea party" was brewed up by wealthy merchants, writes Tristram Hunt. Today, once more, corporate elites are winding up an angry populace.

2. Gordon Brown needs to focus fast on what women really want (Daily Telegraph)

The defection of female voters to the Tories could lose the government this election, says Mary Riddell. In order to win women back, Brown should avoid gimmicks and giveaways and focus on protecting public services.

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3. Cameron should be offering hope, not pain (Financial Times)

Philip Stephens argues that David Cameron's biggest mistake was to join George Osborne in promising a new "age of austerity". Until then, the Tory leader had defined himself as a centrist post-Thatcherite, more keen on healing society than on slashing public services.

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4. Polls do much more for the pollsters than for the public (Independent)

It would be marvellous to have an election campaign free of opinion polls, writes Dominic Lawson. The uncertainty about the outcome would likely produce a sharp rise in turnout and more discussion of the real issues.

5. It takes more than Play-Doh to plug a deficit (Times)

The Budge deficit cannot be reduced by cutting back on middle-class perks alone, writes Rachel Sylvester. The scope and remit of public services may have to change so they can stay universal.

6. Is this Labour's death rattle or a rare new optimism? (Guardian)

Michael White explores whether Labour's plans for high-speed rail and a national care service prove that the government has not run out of steam.

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7. Spare us from politicians and their "difficult decisions" (Daily Telegraph)

Politicians should simply say, in concrete terms, what their policies are and what the consequences will be, rather than using the disingenuous phrase "difficult decisions", says Michael Deacon.

8. Our attitude to kids shows we need to grow up (Times)

Our society's failure to treat child offenders as children feeds our vengeful instincts towards young killers and rapists, argues David Aaronovitch.

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9. The only question asked of Nick Clegg (Independent)

The national media are only interested in asking Clegg one question: what would you do in the event of a hung parliament? But, says Steve Richards, he does not know the answer and will not know it until the election is over.

10. Bubble or not, China's rise is real (Financial Times)

China's political system may be inherently unstable, writes Gideon Rachman, but the country has emerged as a far more serious challenge to US hegemony than Japan ever was.

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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.