Battle for key UK parliamentary seat heats up as all sides seek to woo Brexit voters
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May made a surprise visit to the city of Stoke-on-Trent Monday, ahead of a key by-election in the area which will take place Thursday. Her visit is a sign of just how important this election result will be – the outcome will likely be taken as an initial judgement on how Brexit is being handled.
Stoke-on-Trent is seen as the most pro-Brexit city in the UK – with nearly 70 percent of voters opting to leave the European Union in the June referendum. Mick Temple, a politics professor at Stoke’s Staffordshire University tells VICE News that this by-election is “one of the most important elections in British political history – no exaggeration.”
There is a flash of anger on voter Paula Hulme’s face as she sips a tea in a high street cafe. “There’s nothing any politician can say that’s going to make a dying bit of difference to me… I voted out [of the EU] because they’re wasting our money. And they could do with spending a bit more of it around here.”
Paula, 50, the daughter of a pottery worker and herself an unemployed mother-of-three, voices the sentiment of many in her city.
As Stoke-on-Trent’s traditional industries have collapsed, successive governments and local MPs have pledged to fill the void. But few in the city are entirely satisfied with the outcome. This growing sense of dissatisfaction with sluggish living standards helped fuel the Brexit vote.
Since the Labour MP Tristram Hunt stepped down, the frontrunners in Thursday’s vote are the pro-Remain Labour party, which has comfortably held the seat for a lifetime, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which helped to corral the majority of the city’s population to support Brexit in June’s referendum.
If Labour, the traditional party of the working class, cannot win in Stoke-on-Trent, it can no longer be sure of winning anywhere. If UKIP, the party of Brexit, cannot win in a city it calls “the capital of Brexit,” it may struggle to have any real future in politics.
New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is hoping to become the new MP for Stoke on Thursday. His bald head adorns a large placard outside Dawn Osborne’s home in Bentilee, a sprawling housing estate where the Brexit vote reached 87 percent in places (the national vote was 52 percent).
“There’s too much immigration,” the 44-year-old care worker says at her doorstep, without hesitation.
“There’s not enough housing as it is. You can’t get appointments at the hospital. I want less money spent on people coming in – we should help our own country first.”
Osborne is a former Labour voter. Her political journey sums up Labour’s existential paradox.
Its leader Jeremy Corbyn is polling at historic lows, while the party is accused of alienating its left-wing members on one side, and its traditional post-industrial voters heartlands on the other.
A UKIP volunteer distributing election posters in the city center sneers that Labour “represents nobody, other than rich metropolitan liberals.”
Labour has lost 14,000 voters in Stoke Central since the 1997 general election, and UKIP have been snapping at their heels. By 2015, they had beaten the Conservatives into second place with an 18 point surge.
All this happened in a city where, as Professor Temple notes, people “would traditionally rather cut off their arm” than back Labour’s rivals.
Dave Conway, a maverick and mustachioed 74-year-old, is now running Stoke’s city council. He ran as an independent, beating Labour out of power, which some see as a bellwether for change to come.
“I think everybody had the shock of their lives when I won it, other than me,” he says with a grin. “People are fed up with all the mainstream parties. They’ve had enough of the broken promises.”
The upcoming election in Stoke is emblematic of the problem Labour faces in many of its traditional bases, as UKIP hopes to steal working class votes and build a power base in post-Brexit Britain.
But despite apparently perfect circumstances for victory, UKIP still faces an uphill struggle. Leader Paul Nuttall has been enveloped by scandal this week after allegedly lying about losing close friends at the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. He pulled out of an interview with VICE News as the negative headlines mounted.
Insiders in both campaigns described the race as “very, very close.” Paula Hulme says she doesn’t like either of the main candidates but may decide to back Labour anyway.
“We’re good people here,” she adds. “And we do deserve better than this lot.”
Obituaries will be written for whichever party fails in this battle for the people of working class Britain. Whoever wins will likely find they’re still in a war.
Cover: EMPPL PA Wire