Friday 13 January 2017

The Hunt is on...

So Tristram Hunt M.P. (Labour) is leaving politics, triggering a by-election here in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Nigel Farage has reportedly just announced he won't be standing. He would have won the seat, but now it looks like the small-c conservative vote will again be equally split between Ukip and the Conservatives, thus letting in another Labour M.P. by default. If the small-c conservative vote were to be combined, a conservative candidate would easily beat Labour.

The Conservatives could have laid the groundwork for this by-election by deploying a heavy-hitter candidate here in the last General Election, but they sent only a young low-key student politician from somewhere down south. Nor have they yet done much locally to engage with the city's huge Brexit vote, in order to bring former-Labour Brexit voters over to the Conservatives. There are a couple of excellent local councillors in the city who are Conservatives, and they have a prominent ongoing role in leading the Council — but that's nothing like a targeted and funded and locally-savvy campaign to actively bring Old Labour voters over to the Conservatives. But perhaps the by-election battle will now be that much-needed campaign, albeit very awkwardly entangled in national and Brexit issues.

Given the split in the vote it would be nice to see one or other of the conservative parties putting the people of Stoke-on-Trent first by stepping aside, or together backing a combined 'independent right / pro-Brexit' local candidate. But now that Farage is out of the running, it seems we're more likely to end up saddled with a Corbyn-approved extreme-left Labour candidate as the final winner — albeit probably winning because presented as a 'wolf-in-sheep's clothing' and as someone who doesn't say much about all the national Labour policies that would badly damage our city. Even an extreme socialist would probably be elected by a narrow margin, due to the ingrained habitual Labour vote, if Ukip and the Conservatives are engaged in a pointless vote-splitting battle with each other on the sidelines. But the bravery needed to jointly back an independent, and thus put the long-suffering people of Stoke-on-Trent first, seems lacking.

Of course, the turnout level will matter. Until now it's always been low here (sub 60%) because the result has been a foregone conclusion — Labour wins both at the M.P. level and the local council level. The same was true of the situation before the Brexit vote, when for months the entire establishment media had been saying that Leave would lose heavily. In such circumstances, "why bother going out to vote?" has been many people's default position. But given a cheery early-spring day in mid March, and a roster of strong close-run local candidates, the turnout level could be rather different. But every episode of a silly punch-up between the Conservatives and Ukip will lessen the turnout by 5%, because people will look at it and say: "the conservative vote is going to split down the middle, and that'll let Labour in again".

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