Last week, I wrote a preview of the upcoming (23 February 2017) Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, one of two taking place on that day
Now that the main candidates are declared, I am ready to expand on that and to predict the result as best one can a month before polling.
The Stoke Central constituency has existed since 1950 and the Labour Party has won every election since then. Until Tristram Hunt appeared in 2010, the Labour vote varied between 48% and 68%. Hunt’s votes have been 38.8% (2010) and 39.3% (2015). Stoke Central has moved from being a Labour safe seat to one which can be regarded as marginal:
The Labour vote in 2015 was about 12,000, that of both UKIP and Conservatives about 7,000. The Liberal Democrats, until 2015 the second party, crashed to fifth place (behind an Independent) with 1,296 votes. In fact, the LibDem vote in 2010 was 7,000, the same as the UKIP vote in 2015, perhaps a sign that the “protest vote” bloc at Stoke Central is around 7,000 or so. Arguende. The LibDem candidate for the by-election is Zulfiqar Ali, a consultant cardiologist, who lost his deposit (vote share 4.2%) in the 2015 General Election.
Tristram Hunt, the outgoing-going-gone Labour Party MP, was never very popular in his own constituency, though London TV studios loved him. He made no bones about despising the leader of his own party, tried and failed to formulate policy of his own and was surprisingly bad (for someone of his background and education) at arguing his points when (as so often) being interviewed.
Hunt stepped down as MP in order to take a job as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. MP pay is about £74,000 (plus generous expenses); the V&A Director presently gets a package worth £230,000. Hunt may be getting more. No wonder that he said that “the V&A offer was too good to refuse.” So much for political conviction, vocation and, indeed, loyalty (whether to party or constituents). Stoke Central is well rid of him.
The Labour candidate in the by-election is Gareth Snell, a still fairly young former leader of the Borough Council of Newcastle-under-Lyme (3-4 miles from Stoke-on-Trent). His selection indicates that Labour are going to play on local roots and try to pretend that God is in His Heaven and Jeremy Corbyn far away, Corbyn being (arguably?) an electoral liability (seen as a credible future Prime Minister by only 16% in a recent poll).
The Conservatives have not been even the second party at Stoke Central since 2001. This by-election is one which will be decided between Labour and UKIP. The recent Theresa May Brexit speech may well have shot UKIP’s fox overall, but at Stoke Central no-one is expecting a Conservative win or even a Conservative second. The Conservative candidate is Jack Brereton, 25, who was elected at age 19 to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
Since the 2001 General Election, the second and third-placed candidates at Stoke-on-Trent Central have received very similar numbers of votes (behind victorious Labour).
UKIP, joker in the pack. Paul Nuttall, a Northerner who was recently elected leader of UKIP, is the candidate. He must have a chance despite his partly-“libertarian” views (of which Labour is making the most, of course, claiming that Nuttall believes in NHS privatization). UKIP has a steep climb in the by-election, but it is possible. This is a by-election. The result will not affect who governs the UK. People can protest with their votes. Labour is now seen as the pro-mass immigration party and the pro-EU party. Stoke Central voted nearly 70% for Leave in the EU Referendum.
If turnout is low, if the 2015 Labour vote halves to about 6,000, if the 2015 UKIP vote mostly holds up at 7,000 or not much less, then UKIP can win. If.
It is not credible to imagine a win for the Conservatives or LibDems and they will vie for most votes not going to Labour or UKIP, but this is very much a Labour/UKIP contest. If enough people (eg 2015 Conservative voters) vote tactically for UKIP, UKIP has a good chance. On the other hand, many 2015 LibDem or Green voters may also vote tactically for Labour.
In 2015, an Independent got over 2,000 votes. Will those votes go to UKIP, now that that candidate has not renewed his candidature? Open question.
Unemployment is high, immigration is high and having had Labour MPs for 66 years has not prevented either in recent times. There is strong cultural resistance in the seat to the Conservative Party. UKIP is the insurgent here.
The bookmakers still have Labour as odds-on to win the by-election and it would be tempting to call it as a Labour-UKIP-Conservative 1-2-3, but I am going to be bold and say that Paul Nuttall and UKIP can crack this. The seat must be one of the best chances UKIP has had or will have: anti-EU, pro-Leave, anti-mass immigration, disenchanted with the System parties and very much a “left-behind” area. Also, Tristram Hunt abandoning the seat for a quarter-of-a-million-pound job must sit badly in an area which is one of the poorest in England. In addition, Nuttall has the cachet, such as it is, of being his party’s leader.
In sum, I see the 1234 as: 1.UKIP; 2.Labour; 3.Conservative; 4.LibDem.
If the result is as I have predicted, it will push even more anti-Corbyn Labour MPs to jump ship and it will weaken Labour even further in the North (it being of little importance now in Scotland or most of the South of England). If Labour hangs on to win, then everything depends on the majority obtained but it might well be just a slower car crash.