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ANALYSIS: Can Ukip go from a 'glorious pub crawl' to victory in Labour's heartlands?

ANALYSIS: Can Ukip go from a 'glorious pub crawl' to victory in Labour's heartlands?

John Ashmore

4 min read

With Ukip pledging to run their “most professional” campaign yet in Stoke, and the race in Copeland too close to call, Labour insiders fear both seats are under serious threat.


Ordinarily a pair of by-elections would focus on the travails of the governing party, but it’s Labour who will be fretting over the upcoming contests in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central.

The opposition face a challenge from the Tories in Cumbria and a Tory/Ukip double-prong in Stoke, where the latter party’s new leader Paul Nuttall has thrown his hat into the ring.

The Eurosceptics could hardly have designed a race better suited to them than Stoke, the ‘Brexit capital’ of the UK, where 69% voted Leave. What’s more, Labour and the Tories have both played into their hands by picking Remainers. Added to that, Ukip have tended to do best in elections with low turnout, and they don’t get much lower than Stoke-on-Trent Central.

The Tories have selected a 25-year-old as their candidate, which suggests they are not particularly confident of winning. But a senior MP insists it is “very much in play”, given that they were only 33 votes behind Ukip at the general election. If they are to have any chance it will be because Labour voters don’t turn up, while the Tories’ smallish base is mobilised.

Ukip’s upbeat head of media Gawain Towler tells me there’s been a change of approach under Nuttall’s leadership compared to the jollity of the Farage era. “We’re not running a by-election like an entertaining glorious pub crawl, which is a great deal of fun and has its benefits. But it’s a different leader it’s a different attitude,” he says. He adds that this is “the most professional campaign” the party has ever run and the race is “damn close”, which is what you might expect a Kipper to say.

Still, his view is shared by some Labour MPs, who privately fear the party’s dismal polling presages a defeat in the Potteries. Some may also be looking nervously at how pro-European candidate Gareth Snell fares in a strongly Leave constituency.

Jack Dromey, who is running the Labour campaign, makes no bones about the difficulty of the task – and although he talks about a three-party race, his focus seems to be primarily on Nuttall.

“Nuttall wants to turn Stoke into the Ukip capital of Britain,” he tells us. “Our task is to turn the tide on the hateful politics of a party that would divide and damage the reputation of Stoke. It is a tough three-way battle, which we are determined to win.”

Labour’s line of attack is clear enough from Dromey’s description of the Ukip leaders as “a man who would privatise Stoke’s health service and close down the city’s children’s centres”,

Where Snell may also have an edge over Nuttall is in his local connections. The Ukip leader has no obvious ties to the Potteries. Snell is a councillor in the area and has lived locally for 13 years.

In Copeland, Labour prospects have not been helped by Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent refusal to back a new nuclear power station in a part of the world that is heavily reliant on the industry for jobs.

The likes of Ruth Davidson, Rory Stewart and Matt Hancock have all been canvassing, suggesting the party are giving it a decent go. At the same time CCHQ might be forgiven for soft-playing this campaign, anxious not to destabilise Corbyn, who remains a one-man electoral silver bullet.

Ordinarily this should be an easy win for Labour, with a good local organisation and a lot of anger over proposals to downgrade the maternity and A&E units at the Moorside hospital. They have also chosen an ideal candidate for an NHS-based campaign in the shape of Dr Gill Troughton.

But these are not ordinary times and the party’s terrible national performance, coupled with Corbyn’s on-the-record opposition to nuclear power, means they are on the defensive.

“It’s tight. Much tighter than it ought to be given the huge salience of the hospital issue,” a Labour source familiar with the race says.

With three weeks to go there may yet be twists and turns in both races – whatever happens, there will be some well-chewed Labour fingernails come the early hours of February 24th.   

This article first appeared in The House magazine 

 

 

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