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The Stoke-on-Trent Central By-Election Is A Battle For The 52% That Jeremy Corbyn Cannot Afford To Lose

17/01/2017 11:32
Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick

For the second time in under a month, Jeremy Corbyn has been presented with a resignation from a moderate Labour politician, piling further pressure on his bitterly divided party. Following Jamie Reed, who at the end of January will stand down as the MP for Copeland, Tristram Hunt on Thursday announced that he will be leaving politics to become the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, resulting in yet another by-election that could cause significant problems for Labour.

Hunt's resignation means the fight for Stoke-on-Trent Central is firmly on, and it's one that should play out in a fierce and frantic battle between three parties that, for different reasons, are desperate for a win. Once a comfortably safe seat for Labour (no other party have won in this part of the city since the constituency's creation in 1950), the party are now looking nervously over their shoulders, with insiders privately voicing concerns over their chances of holding the seat.

In the landslide general election victory of 1997, Labour won two-thirds of the vote to extend their grip on Stoke-on-Trent Central. Since then, their share has dropped by almost 30%. The party's struggles under Corbyn, which have manifested themselves in poor council election results and a lost deposit in December's Richmond Park by-election, could intensify in Stoke-on-Trent, where they will face a significant challenge in a once safe seat that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. If Richmond Park represented a battle for the 48%, then the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election could expose the true nature of Labour's struggles with the 52% and will point towards the difficulties they could be set to face in post-Brexit Britain.

Despite enjoying a 16.7% majority at the last general election - a slight decrease from the 17.1% they gained in Hunt's first electoral outing in 2010 - Labour's lead of 5,000 votes looks far more precarious than the figures first suggest. Stoke-on-Trent Central, like several other constituencies in the Midlands and north-west England, is one of 120 seats in which UKIP finished in second place in 2015. In terms of individual votes cast, it represented their fifth-best performance, with their 18.3% increase knocking the Conservatives down to third place. Only 33 votes separated the two parties, but UKIP, who also enjoyed considerable gains in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent North and Stoke-on-Trent South, have clearly tapped into a feeling of anger and frustration that, prior to the EU referendum, was reaching fever point. It's no surprise that, as a whole, 69.4% of the city's residents voted for Brexit, the highest of any British city.

Local dissatisfaction with Labour has also been evident in council results, with the party first shedding votes to the far-right British National Party before losing overall control of the Stoke-on-Trent city council in 2015. The loss of 15 councillors left Labour with just 21, paving the way for a coalition involving the Conservatives, UKIP and City Independents to take charge.

This lack of enthusiasm for Labour, coupled with their impressive showing in 2015, has the UKIP leadership licking their lips. In a constituency that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU, they clearly fancy their chances against a divided Labour Party that are still yet to decide where it is they stand on the issue of Brexit. Whereas the Liberal Democrats' victory in Richmond Park was largely thanks to frustrated Remainers, who abandoned the Eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith and drove him out of office, the opposite could prove to be the case in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where Labour (who officially campaigned for Remain but, through Corbyn's muddled message, have offered mixed rhetoric since the referendum) are in serious danger of losing a large number of votes to UKIP.

The opportunity offered to UKIP has resulted in there being murmurs about the possibility of Paul Nuttall, the party's new leader, standing as their candidate, and the by-election will certainly present an early test for his leadership. Nuttall campaigned on and subsequently won the last UKIP leadership contest by putting forward a strategy to target Labour-held seats, and, with Stoke-on-Trent Central being one of the most likely to produce a swing towards them, the Eurosceptic party now have a great opportunity to double their representation in the House of Commons.

It won't be entirely straight-forward for UKIP, however. Despite the constituency, on paper, representing one of their best chances of dealing a hammer blow to Corbyn, the party have failed to build a strong local presence in the area, something that could prove to be a significant barrier to electoral success. Years of hard work and intense campaigning in what is now seen as their Kent heartland resulted in victories in Clacton and Rochester and Strood - not to mention a second-place finish for Nigel Farage in South Thanet - in 2014 and 2015, but, despite making impressive gains, their presence in Stoke-on-Trent has been poor. The party only have two councillors on the city council, although they did wrest one ward away from Labour in the most recent election to earn a place on the governing coalition.

If UKIP are to have any hope of beating Labour into second place in the upcoming by-election, they will have to deploy their biggest beasts with a meticulously organised and carefully executed campaign. Putting forward Nuttall as their candidate could prove to be key to building on the gains enjoyed at the last general election, but with both the Labour Party and Conservatives also desperately fighting for much-needed wins, the battle for Stoke-on-Trent Central could end up going down to the wire.

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