STOKE-ON-TRENT, England — There was a clear sense of urgency among Stoke Labour Party members as they came together on Wednesday night to select their candidate for the upcoming by-election.
The turnout was very high. Labour members here are under no illusion about the threat being posed to the party’s control of Stoke-on-Trent Central, a seat that it has held since the beginning of the 20th century.
Shortly before midnight, Labour members opted for experienced local politician Gareth Snell to stand on February 23.
Snell is a former council leader in the nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme and spent time working in the office of former Labour MP Tristram Hunt, whose resignation last week sparked the by-election.
He has experience of campaigning against UKIP candidates, something that he’ll need when he goes toe-to-toe with Paul Nuttall. The new UKIP leader is currently odds-on to win the seat amid the decline of Labour’s appeal in its working-class heartlands. He told Business Insider in an interview that UKIP will replace “lobby-fodder” Labour in the town.
Over 70% of Stoke voters are estimated to have backed Leave in the June referendum. Immigration is a big concern here. Labour won the seat in 2015 but with a slim margin of around 5,000 people. UKIP finished second and will fancy its chances this time around. The Tories smell blood, too.
But a potential right-wing swing isn’t the only problem facing Labour, as I learned when I visited Stoke this week.
Snell is fiercely pro-EU. He tweeted in September: “Soft Brexit, Hard Brexit, Massive pile of S—, Sloppy Brexit, Messy Brexit, Quit, Quit, Quit” and played a prominent role in Remain campaigning in Stoke and the wider area. On this huge issue facing the country he is at odds with the majority of voters and Nuttall’s campaign is planning to put this under the microscope.
As one UKIP source explained to me in Stoke this week: “The Labour candidate hates his own leader and is violently Remain.” He went on to add: “The Tory is a f*****g idiot.” Local councillor Jack Brereton is standing for the Conservatives.
The relationship between Snell and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is decidedly awkward.
In the run-up to the most recent national leadership contest, Snell tweeted that: “if we have to prefix [Owen] Smith with ‘Pfizer lobbyist’, can we also say ‘IRA supporting friend of Hamas career politician’ Jeremy Corbyn?”
Snell’s criticism of Corbyn may well aid his chances in a constituency where the Labour leader’s brand of left-wing politics doesn’t resonate with most people. But, ultimately, it only gives credence to the idea that the national Labour Party is a million miles away from the concerns of working-class communities outside of London. Snell is likely to maintain his distance from the Labour leader and base his campaign on the local conversation.
Not to be deterred, though, Corbyn was in Stoke on Thursday, where he met up with Smell and local activists.
Being a local candidate could give Snell an advantage over Nuttall. The Liverpool-born UKIP man told Business Insider that not being from Staffordshire won’t affect his chances, but it’s evident that like in Copeland where a by-election will take place on the same day, there is a desire in Stoke for a truly local candidate to represent the area.
This is why Hunt failed to really connect with the people of Stoke, Mohammed Pervez, leader of the Stoke-on-Trent Labour Group, told Business Insider: “When Tristram Hunt first came to Stoke-on-Trent he was considered as a parachute and people couldn’t connect with him.
“The fact that Tristram has now left in the middle of his term hasn’t left a very good feeling among residents. If we were to get another parachute [MP] it wouldn’t have been welcomed at all by the people of Stoke.”
As expected, Snell will put the NHS, jobs and housing at the forefront of his campaign.
The struggles faced by the local Royal Stoke University Hospital are of particular concern to local people and will leave Tory candidate Brereton with some tough questions to answer as he gets his campaign underway. But it’s the war with UKIP where Labour’s efforts to keep hold of Stoke-on-Trent Central could be determined.
“Labour has to do a considerable amount of myth-busting both in terms of what they [UKIP] did prior to Brexit and what they continue to do. That’s going to be a real challenge,” Councillor Pervez added.
“UKIP will go to doorsteps and on social media and say all kinds of things.We are bringing people in from Labour locally but people are flocking in nationally, too, to give this seat the best chance to remain a Labour seat.”
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