It's no time for victory dances, with just ten days to go until a General Election. Diane Abbott sitting down to negotiate our Brexit with Jean-Claude Juncker, while Corbyn stitches up a power-sharing deal with the Scottish Nationalists? It doesn't bear thinking about. But locally the best predictions from the political head-scratchers all point to a certain Conservative win in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a likely narrow Conservative win in Stoke-on-Trent South, and a possible win in Stoke-on-Trent North. Stoke would be freshly painted blue, and sitting proud on wide blue map. Because, at the MP level, Conservatives already hold all the seats surrounding Stoke, except for Newcastle-under-Lyme. At the County level, Staffordshire and Stafford are also already Conservative. So is Cheshire East, Shropshire, Derbyshire, the Moorlands, the High Peak, the Derbyshire Dales. Stoke is effectively surrounded by a sea of blue, until you get to the town council level and then only in a few places. So the Stoke Central constituency could soon be a tiny red pimple in the centre of a big blue map. A pimple which is set to be firmly squeezed out by the coming electoral-boundary changes. As I understand it, these boundary changes will basically re-correct for all the unfair gerrymandering under Blair and Brown, while also usefully cutting the bloat on the benches in the House of Commons. It would be better if socialism were to be removed from North Staffordshire by the electorate. But it would also be fitting, in a way, if it were to be done with the shuffling of some papers in a distant office and a stroke of a pen on a map. Because that's the very same bureaucratic method of destruction which socialists used to such ruination throughout the 20th century.
But we're not there yet. I suspect that Ruth Smeeth may just hold on in Stoke North. She's not unpopular among the public. Unlike Flello in Stoke South, she puts herself about a lot in the local media and does so even when an election isn't brewing. Smeeth has carried on the tradition of Joan Walley, who you had to respect for her pavement-pounding and crafty committee work, even if you didn't like her politics. Walley levered a lot of stuff into Burslem, in her time, and the goodwill from that has flowed to Smeeth. There's probably also a certain sympathy for Smeeth, even admiration, among many ordinary voters — due to the way she chose to stay on in a party whose noxious and proven anti-Semitism has been allowed to rise to the surface. On the other hand, she's been recently photographed out-and-about with odious characters like Tom Watson and Corbyn, and she supports a party whose policies — even in a diluted form — would once again bring this country to the brink of ruin.
But Stoke North voters are probably thinking more about Brexit, jobs, and uncontrolled mass immigration with all of its many impacts. Having unexpectedly taken Kidsgrove in the County elections, it seems the adjacent Goldenhill is now being seen by the Conservatives as the next stepping-stone in Stoke North, where a proper clean Brexit is reportedly seen as the prime concern on the doorsteps. But it remains to be seen if places like Kidsgrove and Goldenhill can outweigh the strong habitual Labour vote down in places like Tunstall, Burslem, Smallthorne and Cobridge.
The Conservatives have a strong can-do candidate in Stoke North, Ben Adams, and this time there's no UKIP candidate there to split the vote. He's a cabinet member on Staffordshire County Council and he's battled for Stoke North in a previous election. He'd be a good pro-Brexit local MP and be able to work well with the rest of 'the sea of blue' around him and nationally. So he's got to be in with a strong chance, but my hunch that it is a chance and not a certainty. As with all the local constituencies, a lot will depend on turnout and the mood of the pensioners.
The media circus seems to have lost interest in my own Stoke Central, following our recent farce of a by-election. The national BBC sent someone to Hanley for a few hours, but it felt like they were just doing a quick re-hash of their earlier by-election visit. No national statistics-shuffler sees anything other than a Labour victory here, something that'll be propped up by the usual wads of block votes. In that regard I doubt it'll make any difference that the large student block vote will have mostly gone home for the summer holidays, because it seems that many students opt for postal voting these days.
A more important factor is that UKIP is once again standing, and this time with a popular local man rather than their hapless leader. There seems to be enough residual UKIP support to once again split the anti-Labour vote, which will get Labour's lacklustre candidate back in. Many former UKIP voters are still emotionally unable to switch to voting Conservative, and from what I hear that's being bolstered by seeing photos of what they (wrongly) perceive as being a "posh Tory boy" Conservative candidate. They're aware that others think the same, and that means there's no chance of the tactical voting which would get Labour out. Under such circumstances their thinking might be summed up as:
"Labour's certain to get in yet again, so I may as well cast another protest-vote for UKIP. Especially as they've got a good local bloke. And by doing so we'll at least remind the Tories and Labour that we're still here".
In this they'll intend to 'send a message' about mass immigration and British values, and they see the UKIP as the only vehicle by which they can do that. The UKIP candidate has been remarkably quiet in the media, though. But I can still see their man getting that 'last gasp' protest vote before the party implodes, and in quantities roughly equal to the UKIP vote in the by-election.
But much will depend on Labour's ability to get its vote out in the constituency one last time, before abolition.
Stoke-on-Trent South is more certain for the Conservatives, with no UKIP to stand in their way this time. The 2015 election saw a strong and exemplary campaign by Joe Rich which took another 4% off Labour's steadily-weakening Robert Flello. That 2015 campaigning is now being built on by the excellent local man Jack Brereton. Jack fought hard in the recent Stoke Central by-election and chipped another 2% off the Labour vote, even in difficult circumstances. The city will probably regret loosing such a fresh and dynamic man to Westminster, as he's done sterling work as part of Stoke Council. It would have been good to see him continuing to build up and champion the city's industry and infrastructure for another five years. I'd say he has maybe a 70% chance of being Jack Brereton M.P. very soon.
Though it's not certain, because you have to wonder how many votes he'll get from people in places like south Longton, Fenton, the back end of Normacot, or out on the Meir. On the other hand, after decade on decade of Labour, and with a real Brexit looming, those same people may be looking around them and finally thinking: "What did Labour really ever do for us?" Anyone who's ever walked from Longton train station up into south Longton will be familiar with that question. Yes, they finally have a nice new-painted railway bridge now. And there's a sort-of a new bus-station, though a small and rather depressing one that only came with the supermarket. But how many decades did it take Labour to get around to even those gestures?
But as with all the local campaigns, it's difficult to get a sense of how hard each party is really pounding the pavements, still less about their analysis of doorstep opinions, as they all seem to be shying away from the media. As well they might, given the shoddy media treatment of the city during the by-election. But perhaps that'll change as we head into the final days.
Despite some hopeful sniffing around by the far-left media, Newcastle-under-Lyme now seems almost certain to go Conservative. The candidate is a strong one and I must stay he looks great in photos. It's important to factor in that a chunk of the voters only look at headlines and candidate photos, up until a few days before voting, and let their sympathies and prejudices do the rest.
Surprisingly the local left haven't yet mounted their usual screeching "Two weeks to save the NHS!" media campaign, in a town where the NHS looms so large — both in terms of the nearby mega-hospital and also all the niche private healthcare provision which clusters around the town. But perhaps they've shifted that aspect of campaigning over to social media? If they have then I haven't seen evidence for it.
I admit I haven't been to Leek for a while, but in the Moorlands our Culture Minister Karen Bradley seems fairly safe by all accounts. Even amid a somewhat trumped-up argy-bargy about the local NHS provision 'closing'. This seems to be the same tactic the extreme left tried down in Walsall, colluding there with the local Labour council in order to yell about 'closure' of the town's big new Art Gallery — when no such 'closure' was ever likely. Bradley has stated firmly that talk of 'closure' in the Moorlands is plain wrong. Yet Labour are still standing a pro-NHS candidate, and there's also a strong Independent pro-NHS candidate who'll split that vote. I don't know the details of that split, but I'd suspect those two candidates may reflect two rival elements of the political left inside the Labour Party?
Nearby Congleton is also reported to be quite safe for the Conservatives.
Stone and Cheadle:
The Conservative veteran Bill Cash is certain to get back in again. 'Nuff said.