In Stoke Labour faces a Brexit byelection battle royal

Tristram Hunt’s resignation triggers poll in Britain’s leave capital at time that does not suit Jeremy Corbyn

Outside the Poundland in Hanley, in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent, there is a statue of Sir Stanley Matthews, the Staffordshire city’s most famous son. Arguably the greatest English footballer ever, Matthews was a local boy and played for Stoke City until 1947. His likeness stands in the shadow of the Potteries shopping centre, a name which evokes another aspect of an illustrious past.

The city’s glory days have long gone and as its fortunes have declined, a deep suspicion of politics and politicians has taken root. According to Mark Breeze, who stood as an independent candidate here in the 2015 general election: “One of the perennial frustrations in Stoke is that the place feels left behind. People feel nobody national cares about their problems.”

For the next few months though, the political spotlight will be on Stoke as never before. Local MP Tristram Hunt’s announcement on Friday that he is standing down has triggered a political high noon which the Labour party in particular cannot afford to lose.

A high-profile byelection in the city dubbed the “Brexit capital of Britain” is the last thing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s strategists need. Labour has held all three seats in Stoke since 1950. But the party is struggling in the polls, currently eight points behind the Tories, and terrified of losing a grip on strongholds in the Midlands and the north, where Ukip is targeting its working-class base. Now it faces a battle royal in which the vexed subjects of its stance on Brexit and immigration will loom frighteningly large.

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The turnout here in 2015 was a shockingly low 49.9%. “People in Stoke-on-Trent aren’t voting Labour because they love Labour,” said Breeze. “They’re voting Labour because they’re voting against the Tories.” At the last election, Hunt won his seat by more than 5,000 votes, but Ukip came second.

In a city which recorded a 69.4% vote for Leave in last June’s referendum, a Ukip pledge to hold Theresa May’s feet to the fire on leaving the EU could go a long way. Local Conservatives, whose candidate finished third by a mere 33 votes, also fancy their chances.

Alastair Watson, a Labour councillor and the former chair of Stoke Central constituency Labour party, spent most of yesterday on the doorsteps of Hanley. Over tea at the Mango Tree restaurant, he said Labour’s strong local presence, and its opposition to the council (a coalition between the Tories, Ukip and independents which has announced a series of cuts to children’s centres) would probably see it through.

“People need a campaign that’s going to resonate with them,” he said. “And any fight’s going to be a hard fight, and we have to fight for every vote. We can’t be complacent.”

According to Watson, loyalty to Labour will trump concerns over leaving the EU in what has always been a rock-solid area for the party. “Though Brexit’s been the issue that everyone’s talking about,” he said, “people recognise that there’s more to life than Brexit.

“This is a working-class area, a Labour area. People aren’t going to forget that easily when it comes to a significant vote like this byelection. People identify with the Labour party and will remember that there’s lots of issues beyond Europe where a local MP has done great work for them.”

One of the favourites to become the Ukip candidate is Tariq Mahmood, the barrister son of Pakistani immigrants. He insists the party can run Labour very close indeed in what is the most deprived of Stoke’s constituencies.

“I certainly think we can do it,” said Mahmood. “The fundamental question playing on people’s minds in the aftermath of the referendum is whether we’re going to get a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit. The people of Stoke are still very concerned.”

Mahmood is a former Labour member. “I was a member in 2010, when Tristram was parachuted in. There was a general concern and resentment both within the city and the local Labour party – people felt that it was wrong for the party to parachute somebody in from London who could then dictate to us how to run the city.

The Labour supporters backing Brexit in Stoke-on-Trent heartland

“Labour has always considered the seats in Stoke as safe seats – they think they can bring anyone in and they’ll get elected. There is a lot of discontent among Labour voters and Labour members. This time around, it’s going to be different.”

In recent years, Labour has just about managed to ward off the threat from the populist and nativist right in the city; the British National party reached a high-water mark of nine city councillors in 2009 (six of whom represented wards in Hunt’s constituency), but their general election challenges faltered and by 2011 they had been wiped out.

Not many local people remember those days fondly, and the memory of the city’s national ignominy as a BNP hotspot makes many hostile to the idea of a Ukip MP.

Liberal Democrats are also confident of a strong showing here as they continue to hoover up Remain supporters disappointed by Labour’s lacklustre stance on Europe. The night before Hunt’s resignation, the party won a council byelection in a Sunderland ward that had voted for Brexit by a margin of 61.3%, on an astonishing 42% swing from Labour. They finished second in 2010 and believe they can at least put up a respectable fight with an unequivocally pro-Remain campaign.

Breeze believes that if Ukip are to pull off a famous victory they will need to go for broke. “If Nigel Farage, not Paul Nuttall, stood, people would vote for them in their droves, but otherwise the Ukip brand isn’t strong enough. It would give people a reason to go out and vote. We saw the same with Brexit. There would be a buzz in the air. People thought a high turnout would be good for Remain, but it was clear that it was making people come out and vote who’d never had much to vote for before.

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“People feel angry and bitter, and justifiably so. A lot of people who know who Tristram Hunt is don’t like how he was parachuted in and that he’s not from a working class background. And people increasingly see Labour as a middle class party, not a working class party.”

First impressions this weekend suggested that the departing Hunt will not be greatly mourned. The MP’s resignation did not set the airwaves in Stoke alight as it did in Westminster. A brief story was buried on page seven of the Sentinel, Stoke’s daily paper – lower billing than the opening of a CBeebies-themed attraction at Alton Towers. But one contribution to the paper’s Facebook page underlined the stakes now in play. “I can only see one clear winner in this by election and it will be Ukip,” Rachel Jennings told the Sentinel. “What type of grants, investment and business will we get into Stoke with Ukip in charge?”

  • This article was amended on 15 January 2017. An earlier version quoted Mark Breeze as saying: “If Nigel Farage, or maybe Paul Nuttall, stood, people would vote for them in their droves, but otherwise the Ukip brand isn’t strong enough.” This has been corrected.


Patrick Maguire

The GuardianTramp

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