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Here's why I'm backing Andy Burnham to lead Labour back to power

It’s hard to find a more genuine, decent person in politics than Andy, and I think people will connect with him at a time when we’re battling scepticism and apathy as much as we’re fighting the other side. 

On May 7, the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire voted decisively for a Labour government. And it is the people in my constituency and my city who will suffer from the Tory agenda which followed our defeat. In the face of such a defeat, it’s only natural that we spend a short time looking at why we lost so badly. It’s clear we have a lot to learn.

I knocked on a lot of doors, both in my own constituency and in marginal seats across the country and two things struck me wherever I went: people didn’t trust Labour on the economy and in general they weren’t big fans of Westminster politicians at all.   

We need to reconnect with the people we lost - to Ukip, to the SNP and those that lost faith in the entire system, and we must win votes back from those who put their trust in the Tories.

But, amongst all of this, we cannot and must not abandon our core purpose – to speak up for the voiceless and address the fundamental inequalities that means a girl born today in my constituency can expect to live up to ten years less than another girl born in a wealthier part of my city.

It’s a big job, make no mistake. But I decided quite early on that I’d be backing Andy because he is up to that task.

In my initial conversations with him, his absolute determination to take on the big issues that in the past we have tended to leave untouched was clear: on immigration and Europe and on how Labour is perceived as being part of a metropolitan elite. But it is his track record of standing up for our values and the principles we hold dear which clearly marks him out.

When it would have been easier not to, he spoke out against private sector involvement doing so much damage to our NHS; he staunchly defended our comprehensive system from Tory attacks; and while in Government he helped kick-start a process which may finally, after 26 years, bring some closure to the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster who have suffered repeated injustices over more than two decades.

More often than not, these calls went against the prevailing political winds inside the ‘Westminster village’ and that matters because we desperately need a leader who can reach out and speak to the entire country not just talk amongst themselves in London.  Andy has repeatedly shown that he can do just that.

Within that I know that Andy understands there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to why we’re not in government today.  Anybody that claims otherwise is merely attempting to force their own ideological agenda onto the defeat because while some in the South may have wanted to hear more about small business or wealth creators, there were plenty in the North and West Midlands who wanted to talk about immigration and wages; and tens of thousands of voters in Scotland who wanted change so badly, they rejected all of the main Westminster parties.

For me our main issue in this election was one of incoherence.  We didn’t spend too much in Government, but we supported the Tories’ spending cuts.  We wanted some kind of reform of Europe but didn’t advocate a referendum.  We abhorred the Tories’ welfare cuts but we voted for the welfare cap. We had some great policies in our manifesto but people just didn’t know what we stood for in a more fundamental way – we needed an overarching vision for our country. I was a vocal and firm supporter of Ed and was enthused by the way he started his leadership, but as the campaign progressed our offer seemed to be whittled away by overly cautious pledges on rail fare increase caps and childcare that even the Tories could match.

Yet people from across the political spectrum have recognised that so much of what Ed was saying was right.  We did not lose because we championed people on low pay and zero hours contracts and because we stood up to this Government’s vindictive assault on the poor.  What attracts me most to Andy is that he will not sweep all this away but will build on it, broadening it out so that it appeals to all sections of society.

And finally, If the last few years have taught us anything, the power of ‘being a normal bloke’ (or woman come to that) shouldn’t be underestimated. Farage is anything but ‘one of the people’ but he plays his role well and Ukip benefit from that. I so desperately wanted Ed Miliband to succeed but his perceived character flaws did get raised on the doorstep, constantly perpetuated by the right wing press looking to accentuate anything they thought didn’t ‘fit’.

It’s hard to find a more genuine, decent person in politics than Andy, and I think people will connect with him at a time when we’re battling scepticism and apathy as much as we’re fighting the other side. 

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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.