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