Rumours suggest the Stoke byelection will see new Ukip leader Paul Nuttall stand. Ben Gartside looks at the challenge he poses to Labour
Areas like Stoke are synonymous with Labour, and for a good reason: since the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat was established in 1950, Labour’s vote share has only dropped below 50 per cent three times. However, with the threat of United Kingdom Independence party, Labour is in real danger of losing the seat.
Ukip’s candidate will be announced this weekend, and it is expected that it will be the first electoral appearance of Paul Nuttall since his election as leader – a contest he won with a pitch to his party that he will target the ‘open goal’ of disenfranchised Labour voters.
In an op-ed for the Telegraph only weeks before his election as leader, Nuttall said Labour ‘is more at home with its hobby horses of human rights, Palestine and climate change than the things that really matter to working people’. Nuttall’s attack on Labour for being out of touch will resonate with many: that the members of parliament who shadow the four great offices of state all represent areas in north or west London is indicative of a wider problem.
Many commentators have been quick to dismiss Ukip’s threat in Stoke, arguing Ukip will not win as Theresa May has stolen their clothes. Yet there is a cultural identity amongst many voters in parts of northern England and the midlands that means they would never vote Conservative, but increasingly find themselves at odds with the Labour party. That is very much Ukip’s new demographic, as warned by Tristram Hunt in his last speech in the Commons before standing down.
In a byelection that could easily become a four-way contest, it becomes imperative that Labour can keep unsettled Labour voters, who are most likely to be considering switching to Ukip. It’s also imperative that Labour win voters off the merit of our arguments, rather than a dirty campaign designed to tarnish Ukip. Ukip’s leader will be standing, the country has voted to leave the European Union, and Labour hasn’t polled so low outside of Government since 1982, we are thoroughly on the back foot, and without the NHS to stand on.
If Labour cannot make a positive case to the voters of Stoke on Trent after 67 years of Labour representation in parliament, the odds are long for doing the same in Kensington, Basingstoke or Chingford and Wood Green – all seats with majorities of 8,000 or more needed by Labour to form a majority government.
While Ukip may fall short in Stoke-on-Trent Central – and may not even seriously threaten – it should be acknowledged that due to voter churn, many former Labour voters are still being lost to the anti-immigration party. The reluctance to arrest this problem under Ed Miliband arguably handed the Conservatives a majority in 2015.
Jeremy Corbyn must also acknowledge that a tokenistic vote in parliament to leave the single market is not combatting an increasingly alienated base. He must challenge himself, his circle of influence and the views of the party membership in order to speak to large sections of the country, whose support will be required in order to govern.
Ben Gartside is a freelance writer and member of Progress. He tweets at @BenGartside98
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.