Labour might have won in Stoke but long term problems remain

by Trevor Fisher

The by-election of February 23rd 2017 brings to the end the history of a seat which has been Labour since its creation in 1950. The seat will disappear under boundary changes, and its history really falls into two stages – a safe Labour seat until Tristram Hunt was parachuted in before the 2010 election, and the collapse of turnout and reduction of the Labour vote to a minority in the era after New Labour took control.

A safe seat I define as a seat where the candidate for one party gets a vote share of 50% plus, in contests with more than one opponent, and Labour did this in all elections before 2010 save 1983 where there was a Social Democrat third candidate. Labour got 48.1% of the poll in 1983. It was still a safe seat under this definition until New Labour took a hand in 2010. It then clung on, but with a minority of the votes cast in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections.

However Stoke Central not only declined as a Labour seat but also as a seat where working class people vote, making it a challenge for democrats. In 2015 it had the lowest turnout in the UK at 49.9%. This was however better than 2001 (47.4%) and 2005 (48.4%). Stoke thus had for a decade and a half in its centre, the apathy centre of the UK. In the EU referendum Stoke was the Leave capital city of the UK. The rejection of the EU in the referendum was a striking out at a metropolitan class which had let the city rot.

The two things are linked. Politicians in Stoke have to face the challenge that for most of its citizens, parliamentary politics and especially Labour politics, is largely irrelevant, even if the largest minority of those who still vote have voted Labour in Stoke Central. But at below 40% of the vote in three of the last four elections, winning with a declining mobilisation of actual voters should sound the alarm bells for both Labour and democracy itself.

While Labour won the 2017 by-election, the actual Labour vote declined for the 4th election in a row, while staying ahead of the opposition. After 2005, when Mark Fisher gained 52.9% of the vote and 14,760 voters put their cross against his name, numbers of Labour voters have plummeted. In 2010 when Tristram Hunt gained 38.8% of the vote and the seat was no longer safe, 12,605 voters polled Labour and in 2015 with 39.3% of the votes, 12,660 voters were cast for labour – up in percentage terms, lower in real votes.

The by-election with a turnout of 37.5%,  saw only 7,852 votes cast for Labour. This is a seat in which politics is dying. However there is no doubt that Tristram Hunt while not a big issue on the doorsteps (Jeremy  Corbyn was openly mentioned as a negative factor) nevertheless epitomised the gap between the metropolitan elite and the poor working class. This is bad news for Labour, but worse for UKIP. If in a seat with massive alienation from Labour its brand of populism cannot make a breakthrough, where can it do so?

As the contest was seen as crucial, four parties (Greens were largely invisible) put a massive effort into the campaign. It is a remarkable comment on the by election that a massive political effort had no effect on the actual result compared to 2015. There were fewer votes, but the top three remained with virtually the same percentage points of the votes cast – Labour 37.1% (2015 39.3%), UKIP 24.72% (2015  22.7), Tories 24.35% (2015 22.5%). Given the turnout dropped from 49.5% to 37.5% that all three parties stayed with virtually the same market share is odd.

For the minor parties, there was no joy at all. Lib Dems recovered some ground lost from their coalition disaster in 2015, going up from 1,296 to 2,083, but this is a modest return for a massive effort, in leaflets at least, and shows no revival in an inner city area where they got 7,039 votes in 2010. The Greens are totally irrelevant, on their second outing in the seat dropping from a respectable 1,123 in 2015 to an utterly pathetic 294 at the by election. The British National Party did even worse, dropping from 2,178 in 2005 when they had over twice the vote of UKIP, to a derisory 124 votes this time round. Fascism has lost the appeal it had in Stoke a dozen years ago, and that is all to the good.

Thus while Labour is losing its appeal, other parties cannot capitalise – UKIP’s failure is obvious, the Tories are close behind UKIP but have not yet got anywhere near 2nd spot, and the Lib Dems after their collapse in 2015 to 1,296 nearly doubled their vote from 2015 but only got 4th place in the by election.

It was very welcome that Labour, fighting a well organised if uninspired campaign, saw off the UKIP challenge and put a big question mark over the future of the populist right. But there were no comforting signs for the Party’s various factions, not least the Corbyn Faction. His leadership was a negative factor mentioned on the doorstep. Tristram Hunt’s absence from the conversation was a testimony to his total failure to make any impact at all. He was forgotten almost as soon as he put in his resignation letter, if indeed he was ever noticed. Hunt was New Labour’s biggest flop.

And there were very clear signs that voters were turned off by the very fact of the intensity of the campaign. While UKIP and Labour mobilised in numbers, both parties claiming to have 500 plus workers on the streets on the final Saturday of the campaign (Labour claimed 8,000 contacts) voter density was worryingly low – canvass sheets for a typical terrace street of 50 houses would have 10 voters identified as Labour, not always correctly – and telephone canvassers reported voters responding that they were sick of being rung up.

I worked in two of the three committee rooms running on election day, all in union premises, and numbers, atmosphere and commitment were all good. However in the final committee room I was in late afternoon, it did not go down well that the regional office closed down the kitchen at 5pm to get workers on the streets. Some of the volunteers had had no lunch and had to go to the local fish and chip shop. Not providing food did NOT drive them back onto the streets knocking up.

The panic and fear inspired by UKIP were justified, and there was a real sense on the day that it was a crucial battleground. Copeland may take the headlines. But no one should imagine that this was a safe Labour seat and the victory was guaranteed. Stoke Central more than any seat in the UK was a rotten borough for Labour and a seat in which politics appears irrelevant to most of the citizens. Neither for Labour nor the future of democracy can this be regarded as anything but a crisis.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009

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10 Responses to “Labour might have won in Stoke but long term problems remain”

  1. LordBlagger says:

    What’s telling about your article is that in it there is nothing about the electorate. Nothing about how you’ve screwed them, spent all their pension contributions, leaving a massive debt.

    Nothing on how 30% of taxes go on servicing the debt, and still it gets bigger year on year, faster than GDP. [Sure sign its going to go bust]

    Nothing on wealth inequality. A difficult subject for socialists in general because you spent all the wealth people entrusted you for their old age. Hence the debts off the books. Ditto for the Tories and Lib Dems

    Nothing on how migration hits at the poorest. Great for the well off, cheap plumbers, cheap and attractive nannies. …

    Just what you can do as a party to survive.

    You’ve lost track of what political parties are their for, which is to make people better off. It’s all about the party.

    That’s why Labour is unelectable.

  2. John P Reid says:

    while I accept that Labour took the working class vote for granted, but then labour assumed that because someone would be classified by statistics as working class they may not think they’re that themselves

    theres’ a few things wrong
    New labour didn’t take control of the seat in 2010, that was 1997
    Tristan hunt wasn’t parachuted in, he’d previously applied for Leyton and we voted to Have Jon Cryer instead

    so you accept one reason he vote share changed was due to low turnout

    I’m not gonna defend Hunt but one of his speeches was more blue labour than new labour on education, as for Fascisms appeal 12 years ago, well yes We’d just had 4 years of A fascist home secretary in David Blunkett, and Blair had backed him and labour won, well, so yes the public there were voting for fascism

    the usual chestnut of comparing all election since 1997, is meaningless if you don’t look at the elections before hand, UKIP admittedly base their new campaign u North on Red kip of trying to nock ex Labour votes, here’s the unfortunate thing for you those Ex labour aren’t Going ukip, they’re going tot he Tories something labour thought would never happen

    Compass of course had this idea of inviting the Libdems into your think tank,Has anyone told Tom Watson this after his view about not doing deals, and how did your collaboration with the Libdems work out with the coalition

  3. John P Reid says:

    1million Scots voted for brexit, we were all told that they’ll be more poverty after Brexit,but they still voted for it, so.. If scots are told they’ll be more poverty if they leave the UK, they won’t care about that either, so Scotland can go independent sooner than later

    There was the Assumption that northerners won’t vote Tory because they remember “Thatcher….” When the Tories discussed letting Liverpool, fall to managed Ecenomic decline, the miners strike and the Sun newspaper, so those ex Labour voters up North would have to vote Ukip,

    Scotland goes independent, and Red Kip replaces Labour so social democrats in the Labour Party have to say to themselves, the choice is one nation Tories or ‘Flat tax,’ Ukip ,and liberals in the Labour Party, say to themselves to stop Ukip, we’ll have to vote Tory.
    But they’ll be ex labour voters who will vote Tory up north, and if you dont think, labour voters would vote Tory to stop Ukip, ask Fabians in Clacton in Essex who were voting Tory, to stop Douglas carswell

  4. Alf says:

    It is going to take a long time to undo the damage done to the Labour brand during the Tory-lite New Labour years.

  5. Anon says:

    The two above comments sum up exactly how I feel.

    I grew up in a union/Labour family – where the emphasis was on educating and training the people of this country; I benefitted from an apprenticeship.

    What did Blair and Brown offer to our young people who didn’t go to university.

    Labour now are more intent on replacing our people than training them and giving them dignity and a place in life.

  6. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Lord Blagger has hit the nail on the head. Labour are unelectable. Massive bloody debt run up by ‘the one with the moral compass’, (his gift to future generations), working poor taxed at 20% and another 20 when they go to buy food for the bairns. The world (western) has gone mad.
    The lord gives good advice, Labour should take note. Political parties that want to win support have to give the common man a leg up, not tax them until they are poorer than the benefit wallahs.
    Always constructive me, never let it be said I am here only to mock, here is my advice. Instead of promising the impossible as in, ‘Labour will redistribute wealth’ (that is the funniest thing you can tell a Chinese or Indian worker. Kills them every time), approach the problem from the other end.
    Get the bean counters to do the sums with following remit. How much is left after, First, clear the debt in 10 years (not good living on credit). Second, no one pays tax if they don’t earn the average wage (that is an absolute cranium non principium). Flat rate of 10% thereafter for all. Third scrap VAT ( the most offensive state grab of all) .
    This is not a difficult calculation, once these sensible and agreeable deductions have been made, Labour should then come up with their spending proposals for the remainder.
    Hope for Labour yet, but can the course be set with the prevailing wind?

  7. Richard MacKinnon says:

    May I take this opportunity to thank the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain for doing the decent thing in the Stoke by election, when they did all in their power to hand Labour the seat. Whatever one thinks of the Tories one cannot deny they play by the rules and enjoy a good tussle. Full marks, they know when the opposition team has a leader that must stay in post for the good of the game.

  8. nothing much to reply to here, the post was about Stoke Central which is a unique and specific seat in a unique city. However the comment about Compass by John P Reid is interesting, the idea that “Compass invited Lib Dems into your thinktank, how did your collaboration with the Lib Dems work out with your coalition”.

    Compass can speak for itself, though I think they have never had Lib Dems on their platform, much though they may want to do so. But in Stoke Central at the by election there was no presence by Compass, so why are you dragging in something which is irrelevant?

    Trevor FIsher,

  9. Peter kenny says:

    The Tories were only 80 votes off second place – they could easily have pipped UKIP.

    UKIP clearly aren’t going to b replacing Labour. If not Stoke, where?

    When I was in Stoke I met Tories who were willing to vote Labour to keep UKIP out – people who vote for parties aren’t their property to be bartered about.

    Labour would have won against UKIP even if no other party was standing, maybe especially so because they are actually toxic for 75% of the electorate. Let’s be clear any of the major parties would have beaten them, probably even the Greens.

    We have our problems for sure but being replaced by UKIP is not one of them.

  10. john P Redi says:

    trevor, you sayin that no one form compass had anything to do with the By election, the may have even done a Momentum and blogged online about labour which is all the appeal momentum ,have going

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