Never in recent years has a party deserved to lose an election, to be demolished by people’s ballots and fury, as much as Labour does in Stoke. The way Labour has treated this northern constituency is a microcosm of the metropolitan contempt it now feels for all the rough-handed, gruff-voiced non-Londoners who once made up its support base but who now irritate the hell out of it by doing stupid things like voting for Brexit and believing in democracy. Were Labour to receive a bloody nose from the people of Stoke it would be a wonderful day for British politics, and, who knows, possibly a wake-up call for a left made lazy by its misplaced virtue and self-satisfaction.
The by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, caused by Tristram Hunt’s abandonment of this seat in the pesky Potteries for the plush surrounds of the V&A Museum, takes place today. It has turned into an existential showdown between Labour and Ukip, both claiming to represent the working classes, both eliciting eye-rolls from the working classes every time they make that claim. Labour’s candidate is Gareth Snell, who hates Brexit. How much does he hate it? A few months ago he said it was a ‘massive pile of shit’. Stoke had one of the highest Brexit votes in the country: 69.4 per cent of people cast their ballots against the EU. Snell thinks they voted for a ‘massive pile of s***’. Which is another way of saying they are cretinous and dim.
To put forward a foul-mouthed Remainer as the candidate for a constituency that is a hotbed of Brexit passion is like putting a fox in charge of the hen-house. Or, far more accurately, a hen in charge of a skulk of foxes. Here we have a part of Britain where people made a profound cry against the Brussels bureaucracy — such was their strength of feeling that Stoke’s voter turnout levels rose from their norm of around 50 per cent to 65 per cent for the referendum — and Labour responds by foisting on it a Brexit-is-rubbish candidate. A square candidate for a revolting constituency. An EU bore for an anti-EU city. A cavalier for a brilliantly seething hub of modern-day roundheads. It’s beyond stupid — it’s suicidal. At least I hope it’s suicidal. I hope the people of Stoke return the insult by telling Labour they think its attitude is a massive pile of excrement.
Of course pre-Snell there was the Tristram era, which was hardly covered in glory. The helicoptering of Hunt, son of a goddamn baron, into the eighth poorest part of Britain summed up how much Labour had lost the plot, or at least lost its connection with its core constituencies. It showed that Labour now views its old strongholds, not as places with real needs and real problems and real people, but almost as fiefdoms to be handed to smart Labourite southerners who need a fast track into Parliament and maybe even into the Cabinet. It’s borderline feudalistic: the virtual handing of plots of land as prizes to plummy-voiced people who’ve done a stint in Labour HQ, as Hunt had.
Local Labour people were enraged by the parachuting of Hunt into their seat. They called him the ‘Google candidate’, on the basis that he probably had to Google Stoke-on-Trent to find out where it was. The vast moral chasm between Hunt and the people of Stoke, which is really only the chasm between Labour and the working classes, was beautifully exposed last year. In the run-up to the EU referendum, Hunt busily penned scare pieces about Brexit, branding it ‘the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline’. His constituents took the polar opposite view, voting in their thousands for what they clearly consider to be the upbeat, principled road of Brexit. Hunt’s position was untenable, so he left these supposedly declinist poor northern people for the top job at a posh museum. Labour in a nutshell.
And now, youthful canvassers from London, Momentum types and others, are up in Stoke to join the canvassing efforts for Snell. My goodness they never learn. They really have no idea that a crisp North London accent telling the people of Stoke to vote Labour to ‘Save the NHS’ blah blah will likely only confirm the northern belief that Labour is now a southern PR machine, heavy on buzzwords and light on principle; highly visible at election time but invisible the rest of the time; brimming with pity for the poor but utterly lacking solutions for the predicament of the poor. The declining enthusiasm for Labour in places like Stoke is revealed in the numbers: 12,220 voted for Hunt in 2015, but 23,842 voted for Mark Fisher in 1987, and 34,260 for Barnett Stross in 1951. The voters are leaving, and not before time.
The pained London Labour chatter post-Brexit has been all about how the party is now split between Remainers and Brexiteers, between its metropolitan set and its old industrial support base. It’s a divide between open and closed, they say. Between more comfortable and thus more positive southern Labourites and the troubled and thus more fearful northern Labourites. Nonsense. The progressives are the people in places like Stoke. It is they who are open-minded and politically brave and trusting in democracy, so much so that they defied all expert diktats and in their thousands put an X against Brussels and for popular sovereignty in the EU referendum last year. It’s Labour’s metropolitan Remainers, currently panicking about economic collapse and the return of fascism, who have been consumed by a low politics of fear and whose timid instinct is to take refuge from political unpredictability and the forces of history in the grey citadel of Brussels — Little Europeanism, we might call it. Labour’s working-class Brexiteers, by contrast, took a massive political risk, expressed their faith in the democratic process, and demonstrated a willingness to upend the status quo to the end of fashioning something different and better. They’re the open-minded ones; they’re the progressives.
And Labour no longer deserves them. It isn’t worthy of them. But then, neither is Ukip. Labour deserves to lose in Stoke, but Ukip doesn’t deserve to win, what with Paul Nuttall’s numerous gaffes and less-than-imaginative policies. This is the predicament facing working-class constituencies in Britain: Labour no longer likes them, and Ukip only wants to use them. This is why Brexit happened: it was a cry for a new kind of politics, which hasn’t emerged yet.