Are we witnessing the strange, lingering death of Labour England?
"Even before I left home, Chris Lee, the Labour party’s press officer in the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency, made it clear that the Financial Times would not be allowed to interview their candidate in this month’s by-election. Nor could I accompany their canvassers on the streets. On arrival, the restrictions were tightened. I could not talk to any other Labour members either. Asked if it was OK to speak to anyone at all in Stoke-on-Trent, Lee seemed to think it over before concluding that might be a problem: Labour no longer even controls the council in what was once its most secure city in England.
The contrast between the atmosphere in Labour’s tucked-away headquarters and that of its main rival, the UK Independence party, was overwhelming. Ukip has taken over an old bakery with pole position in the main shopping precinct: in the windows were 46 pictures of the party’s leader and candidate, Paul Nuttall.
On a mild afternoon the doors were flung open and there was a near-party mood, as though the entire population of Britain’s most pro-Brexit city (69 per cent Leave) were about to pop in for cheap wine and nibbles. “We’ve encountered no hostility, no nasty stuff,” said Peter Whittle, the deputy leader. “Some people are saying they’re Labour but they’re being very courteous about it.”
I must say that I walked all the way down Piccadilly on Thursday, having been to pay in at the bank at Hanley, and I couldn't even spot the Ukip HQ. Nor were there any cheery folk with clipboards and invites for tea and biscuits. Just the usual Hanley dossers being glared at by police sitting in a police van. I guess the HQ must be further up, right up at the top.
One of the fatal mistakes that journalists are making, local and national alike, is to assume that cold and windswept Hanley shoppers in February represent the constituency. When was the last time that someone from the smart bits of Etruria or Cliffe Vale, or Hartshill or Penkhull, last set foot in Hanley in winter?