Stoke-on-Trent has been dubbed the Brexit capital of Britain – and with good reason. Almost 70 per cent of voters in the Staffordshire city voted to leave the EU last June, and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall hopes to harness the anti-EU – and anti-Westminster – sentiment that drove that crushing majority into a by-election victory. Meanwhile, Labour’s candidate Gareth Snell has attracted unwanted media attention for his unsavoury past tweets about women.
Labour, however, have reason to be optimistic. Tristram Hunt, who has vacated the seat for a cushy job at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was the only latest in a string of Labour MPs to hold the seat since 1935. Despite Snell’s online embarrassments, the row over the veracity of Ukip leader Paul Nuttall’s Hillsborough recollections has given Labour hope that they can mount a successful defence of the 5,179 majority they won in 2015. But what are the key issues at stake in the Potteries?
Stoke’s 69.4 per cent vote for Leave – the highest of any city in the UK – was chief among the factors that encouraged Nuttall to ditch his original plan to stand for Andy Burnham’s seat if, as expected, he wins the Manchester mayoral election. The Ukip leader’s party have pledged to fight for a “speedy Brexit” if elected, and this week splashed out on a new billboard campaign, which warns voters that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will – somehow – keep them in the EU. Anxiety over migration is front and centre of their campaign – the posters promise border control and priority for local people on housing waiting lists.
Labour’s choice of a vocal Remainer as their candidate – Snell called Brexit “a massive pile of shit” in a sweary tweet last year – has left them at pains to convince the electorate that the Ukip caricature of their stance is wrong. The party is making much of the fact that its other two Stoke MPs, Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello, both voted in favour of Article 50 last week.
Snell is pushing for a “plan that works for the Potteries”. His focus on jobs and the economy could yet pay off: the British Ceramics Federation, which has its headquarters in the city and represents an industry that remains a big employer, has called, like Labour, for tariff-free access to the single market. The party is essentially pitching itself as a safe bet to avowed Brexiteers. In a city once known as a BNP hotspot (the far-right party had nine councillors here as recently as 2009), it is perhaps not surprising that Labour has featured the cross of St George on its campaign material, but the move has nevertheless caused some unease.
The electoral picture is complicated by the fact that that turnout on 23 June was 65.7 per cent, compared with just 49.9 per cent – the lowest of any seat in the country – in 2015. Recent polls have shown that Remain voters are more likely to turn out, which has given the Lib Dems hope they can pull off something of an upset (past results also suggest that the lower the turnout, the less likely a Ukip win).
Unlike in previous years, the local Lib Dem branch is running a fully-staffed campaign. It hopes to cash in on disenchantment with Labour’s Brexit stance in areas of the city populated by students and public sector workers (such as Penkhull & Stoke, Hartshill, and Shelton). Their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, is, like 15 per cent of the constituency’s population, of Kashmiri origin. This could also prove a boon for their campaign.
Lib Dem campaigners are quietly confident they can finish second, above Ukip, if Labour holds the seat. The party finished second in 2010, and its canvassing returns show significant numbers of voters returning from the party – not just from Labour, but also from the Tories and Ukip.
Pick up a copy of the Sentinel, Stoke’s daily paper, and more often than not it’s the state of the health service, rather than Brexit, that’s getting its correspondents and interviewees riled up. Beds at community hospitals in the city are under threat (which only the Greens are saying very much about), and A&E waiting times at the larger Royal Stoke lag well behind national targets. Both Labour and Ukip have been campaigning hard on the issue. Big Labour guns including Tom Watson have been dispatched to the campaign trail to pledge extra cash for local services. Nuttall promised to cut foreign aid to the same end.
Labour have accused Nuttall of wanting to privatise the NHS – in 2011 he described it as a “monolithic hangover from days gone by”. From day one, then, Ukip have sought to dispel fears that electing their man would somehow put its publicly-owned future in jeopardy. Much will depend on whether Labour’s attacks stick.
Labour may well seek to turn the embarrasing fact that it no longer controls Stoke’s city council – since 2015 run by a coalition of the Tories, Ukip and the local City Independents – to its candidate’s advantage. Cuts to children’s centres in the constituency are a big source of anger for local residents, as are housing waiting lists. However, this year’s budget will be laid out at a council meeting the evening polls close – too late for new and doubtless unpopular cuts to have any impact on the by-election race.