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Could the Conservatives win the Stoke Central by-election? This was the question posed after Theresa May’s visit yesterday to the constituency.
Until recently, it would have seemed absurd to ask whether Labour could lose Thursday’s poll to the Tories. If anyone presented a threat, it was surely UKIP.
But in the course of several dozen conversations with voters in Stoke yesterday, it became clear that the dissolution of tribal loyalties, and indeed of tribal hatreds, no longer favours UKIP.
It has instead created a confused and volatile situation, in which many people who once gave unquestioning support to Labour are not sure who if anyone they will support on Thursday.
At the 2015 general election, Tristram Hunt held the seat with just under 40 per cent of the vote, but a majority of 5,000 over UKIP and the Conservatives, each of whom polled 7,000 votes.
The turnout was 50 per cent, and on Thursday will be much lower. Young voters yesterday expressed a total lack of interest in the by-election, saying things like “I don’t know anything about it” and “I don’t do anything to do with politics”. Perhaps the decline of tribalism – which modern-minded people regard as an unmitigated good – will lead to sharply declining participation in politics.
Several things are, however, clear from talking to the middle-aged and the elderly. No one expressed regret that Britain is leaving the European Union: in Stoke, that is a source of general satisfaction.
Many people also expressed strong opposition to immigration. Some volunteered their particular opposition to the admission of child refugees from Syria.
Given these opinions, it is perhaps not surprising that the only party leader for whom widespread admiration was expressed was May, for she is implementing Brexit and is determined to reduce immigration.
Jeremy Corbyn is regarded with disfavour, Tony Blair with grave irritation, but the UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, who is also the party’s candidate in Stoke, was often referred to in even more unflattering terms. He has had an unhappy campaign, with each day bringing some fresh embarrassment.
His false claims about the Hillsborough disaster have the additional drawback for UKIP of advertising to the people of Stoke the fact that he is from Merseyside.
At Stoke station, the traveller is greeted by a statue of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), holding one of his pots. And fresh off the London train were two Labour MPs, Ed Miliband and Jack Dromey, while a Conservative MP, David Rutley, appeared outside the station, waiting for a lift.
Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, Chris Grayling, Nick Gibb and David Gauke are among the Conservatives who have recently visited Stoke.
Walking in to the city centre, I met a Labour voter who said: “Bring back Harold Wilson!” Voters in Stoke seem to be more than usually keen to baffle inquiry by saying things like that.
At UKIP’s headquarters, a spokesman said Nuttall’s Hillsborough remarks were “not as big a problem in Stoke as for the people of Liverpool”, and pointed out, with justice, that “Labour’s candidate has suffered his indignities as well“. But another UKIP person suggested the Conservatives have, in Jack Brereton, a better and more reliable candidate than either of the other parties.
An unemployed 61-year-old man said of the by-election: “I’ll be glad when it’s over. I’ve had that many leaflets from each candidate, it’s ridiculous.” He thought UKIP “very poor”, deeply disapproves of the Conservatives because of the bedroom tax, and is displeased with Hunt, the sitting Labour MP, for “doing a runner”. But he still thinks he may vote UKIP.
The next people I met were a married couple, Ann and Alan Tranter, who live at Longton, which is one of the six pottery towns but outside Stoke Central. They nevertheless expressed, in vivid form, what many other disillusioned Labour supporters said in a more fragmentary way.
Alan: “We definitely vote UKIP. I voted Labour all my life. Never again. Corbyn’s the main reason. I think Theresa May’s doing a good job. She’s certainly the best leader in the Commons at the moment. I’ve never voted Tory.”
Ann: “I would. I believe she’ll do what she said.”
Alan: “I’d find it very difficult to vote for the Tories.”
Ann: “Labour isn’t the party it was. And Tony Blair, how he dares to show his face, I don’t know. This city has always been Labour, but I don’t think we are now.”
Alan: “We’ve got three Labour MPs who voted Remain.”
Ann: “Which is ridiculous. Blair makes out we don’t know our own minds. We know our own minds. No matter what he says, we want out of Europe.”
Alan: “We didn’t want to go in the Common Market in the first place.”
Ann: “They always said there’d be more work in the pots. And what happened? All the pot banks have shut. We had Chinese coming round the pots, copying what we did. I said I’m not sitting here showing them what I do. I went to the loo.”
Alan: “There was 35,000 people working in the pottery industry. Now it’s down to well under 5,000. We had to go along with all that Common Market rubbish. If Tony Blair came along and offered me a million pounds, I wouldn’t change my mind.”
A retired foundry worker said of May: “She’s better than the last woman Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher didn’t have much empathy for the working class. I think the election’s just between two parties here, the Conservatives and UKIP. Labour has no chance, they’re against Brexit. I used to be a Labour voter, but things have changed.”
A bricklayer said: “I’m not interested. It’ll be UKIP if I vote for anyone. But it doesn’t matter who you vote for, I think Labour’ll get in. I wonder why we’ve got a Scouser [Nuttall] trying to represent us. He knocked at my door – I didn’t realise who it was – I said, ‘What are you doing round here?’ Blair was the best Prime Minister we ever had. He banned all smoking in public places.”
An Iraqi who has acquired British citizenship said: “Labour’s going to win, but I voted Conservative. But now really I don’t want to go to vote. Now I don’t trust the politicians. Cameron said he would stop ISIS, he would stop criminals in Iraq and Syria, but he did nothing. ISIS is like cancer. It’s coming to Europe. It’s coming to everywhere. Honestly, it’s very, very dangerous.”
I returned to the station feeling confused, but here, thank heavens, I met Henry Bellingham, the Conservative MP for North West Norfolk, who had just been out canvassing.
Bellingham said: “A lot of the Labour vote that was edging towards UKIP is returning to them and some of the UKIP vote is coming to us. Nuttall is very accident-prone, and hasn’t been professional.”
In Bellingham’s view, the Conservatives have “an outside chance” in Stoke. But he added that the Labour MPs he met while campaigning in Stoke “looked quite cock-a-hoop” because “the UKIP challenge is fading rapidly”.
I agree with Bellingham. It seems to me that although the traditional loyalty of many voters to Labour is dissolving, it is not melting away fast enough to hand victory to the Conservatives. If Nuttall flops on Thursday, he rather than Corbyn could well be the first victim of Stoke. Copeland, of course, could be a different matter.