On the by-election campaign trail in Stoke - but where is Paul Nuttall?
Stoke-on-Trent on a cold February weekday does not feel like a city in the throes of a dramatic by-election, reports John Ashmore.
There are a few activists milling about the Ukip campaign shop in Hanley, one of the city's famous Six Towns, but it's hardly a hub of activity.
Outside a couple of die-hard Ukippers wander about with Brexit-themed sandwich boards, but the good people of the Potteries seem to be largely ignoring them.
The feeling one gets here is apathy towards mainstream politics. That much was evident in a turnout below 50% in Stoke-on-Trent Central at the last general election, with the outgoing MP Tristram Hunt recording the lowest number of votes of any winning candidate.
The EU referendum was different, with a 65% turnout in the city and a massive 70% vote for Leave.
Stoke's is a familiar story of a once-great industrial city largely left behind by globalisation. Steady economic decline has seen solid manufacturing jobs give way to casual, insecure work and an unemployment rate well above the national average.
Opposite Stoke's historic Minster stands a row of half a dozen shops, none of which are in business. It’s a similar story in Hanley, where some high street chains quickly give way to boarded up shopfronts.
It was the scale of the Leave verdict that gave Ukip’s new leader Paul Nuttall the scent of electoral success here. When Labour picked arch-Remainer Gareth Snell as their candidate, the Kippers thought they had a real chance of doubling their representation at Westminster.
But a week out from polling day, Nuttall is nowhere to be seen. False claims on his website that he lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough disaster is threatening to derail his fifth attempt to win a seat in Westminster.
His physical absence is matched by the sudden disappearance of the offending website, which is seemingly offline for ‘maintenance’ of some sort.
To make matters worse, he then failed to turn up to a hustings the morning after my visit, citing a “busy” schedule.
With Nuttall semingly out of town, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell was up for a day’s campaigning.
The Clacton MP plays a straight bat when asked about the Hillsborough issue.
“I've just spent the past couple of hours knocking on doors and lots of things came up but I can honestly say that didn't come up. I think there's a disconnect between what I see on my Twitter timeline and what I see on the doorstep,” he says.
For Carswell, unsurprisingly, it’s all about Brexit.
“The key message is it’s a choice, it's a binary choice. Do you want to vote for a Labour party which is even now against the idea of Brexit, hostile to the verdict of the people - and I speak as someone who's seen it first hand in the House of Commons - doing everything they can to undermine Brexit or do you think the way we actually make good on Brexit is to vote for Paul Nuttall?
"If we can break that cartel stranglehold Labour has it won't just be good for Brexit, it'll be good for Stoke."
But if Nuttall does not triumph next Thursday, Ukip will have to ask itself a more fundamental question – if it can’t win in Stoke, where can it? Not only is this solid Leave territory, but the party has made great play of their newly professionalised campaigning methods. One activist proudly points out that they had 237 people out knocking doors last Saturday, a record number for the party.
There’s certainly plenty of enthusiasm in Harley’s Café, next door to campaign HQ, where the staff are all wearing shiny purple rosettes.
Enthusiastic Kipper Julie Brammer says "about 75%" of her customers are talking about the by-election, and they are overwhelmingly in favour of Ukip. Why is that? "It's just a lot of our customers are elderly".
But she says the big issue for voters round here is not Brexit, but health. “It’s mainly the NHS, they want the NHS to be sorted and all that and it’s somebody different, we’ve had Labour for such a long time.”
A DIFFERENT TORY?
The Tories were almost neck-and-neck with Ukip at the general election, but it's clear that they are concentrating on the Copeland by-election on the same day, where they hope to take the seat from Labour.
They have put up 25-year-old councillor Jack Brereton, the only major party candidate born and bred in Stoke.
But it doesn’t feel like the party are throwing everything they have at the seat. While Brereton was out canvassing alongside Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke, the Prime Minister herself was up in Cumbria, grimacing at schoolchildren and failing to answer questions about the local hospital.
TWEETING HIS WORDS
While Ukip talks a good game, Stoke-on-Trent Central remains Labour’s seat to lose – Hunt registered a 5,000 majority in 2015 and the party has held the constituency since 1950.
Their candidate Gareth Snell is a trade unionist and councillor in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme, touting himself as a proper, local man, in contrast to Scouse interloper Nuttall.
Snell hasn’t been shy of controversy himself, first calling Brexit a “massive pile of shit”, then getting into trouble over a series of sexist tweets. This may explain his reticence when asked about the Hillsborough furore, simply saying that “Paul has questions to answer” and he does not want to “politicise” the disaster.
But Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, up to support Snell for the day, thinks the issue will damage Nuttall’s campaign.
“I find it a little bit incomprehensible what’s gone with this thing about Hillsborough over the last few days. It’s not for me to give him advice but obviously I think people would be concerned about that when they make their choice next week.”
In contrast to the Tories, Labour are certainly giving it their all to hold on here. Along with today’s visit from Watson, Jeremy Corbyn and a host of shadow ministers have been up to Staffordshire. Stoke’s other MPs, Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello, have both also hit the campaign trail hard.
Smeeth, who used to work for anti-fascist group Hope not Hate, says this by-election is a change “prove once and for all that the politics of hate and division represented by Ukip aren’t welcome here”.
There is no sense of complacency though. For all the bookmakers making Labour favourites, Watson is not exactly in bombastic mood about Snell’s chances, saying “he’s run a very strong campaign and I’m hoping that will get him over the line next Thursday”.
Nor does he think the bashing Nuttall has had in the press means Labour have got this one in the bag.
“I think we must take Ukip seriously as a political party even if people aren’t taking their leader seriously, but they’ve got a big choice to make next Thursday.”
A contrite Snell insists the Twitter controversy is not causing him problems on the stump.
“I can honestly say no one has raised them with me on the doorstep, but at the same time whether people care about them or not I said something I shouldn’t and I should apologise for that," he says.
“I’ve said some things that I shouldn’t have said and I’ve apologised for that and I’ll continue apologising. If I saw the sorts of tweets being sent now that I sent years ago, I would call them out."
ROYAL STOKE HOSPITAL
Snell, Watson and a few party aides have pitched up at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, an impressive New Labour-era building.
The message is simple – Labour is the party to protect the NHS from Tory underfunding, while the Ukip candidate wants to privatise the health service.
However, the Royal Stoke is not exactly a symbol of unalloyed New Labour triumph. For a start, the hospital authorities changed its name from North Staffordshire University Hospitals because they did not want to be tainted by association with the Mid-Staffs trust just 15 miles down the road.
What’s more, the hospital was built under a private finance initiative and is now saddled with hefty running costs.
Snell’s message that Tory governments have given the area a raw deal also rather ignores the long, steady declines of the Potteries.
“The Tories have some serious questions to answer about the way they’ve treated Stoke-on-Trent. We’re now seven years into a Tory government and yet Jack, the Tory candidate, constantly blames previous Labour governments without noticing it was the Labour government who gave us the new hospitals, the new schools and started to rebuild housing.”
LIB DEMS BATTLE LABOUR
The Lib Dem candidate, local doctor Zulfiqar Ali, says it’s Labour themselves who voters should blame for the difficulties Stoke faces, particularly with the hospital.
“This is because of them, they’ve given PFI to Stoke, they have to pay back £58m a year, hospital administration has to cut down the budget it is spending on patient care to pay back the PFI.
“This is one of their creations and they should realise it.”
For all his strong words, the self-styled party of Remain are up against it in such a strongly pro-Leave constituency.
Nevertheless, Dr Ali says canvassing suggests he will “significantly” improve on his 2015 vote share, and he’s unbothered if that comes at the expense of Labour.
“To be honest, I wish there was no Labour MP from this city at all because they have caused continuous neglect of this city for decades.
“If you go around and see all the big industry they are boarded up, all the big buildings, and that’s because of Labour’s neglect. They shouldn’t be representing the city any more, they will not do any more for the city.”
Back in Hanley, market trader Kevin Jones tells me he thinks Labour will hold on.
“Labour have been here so long and people are talking about Ukip being so close but I think at the end of the day Labour are so safe round here they’ll be alright.”
His wife Julie also thinks Labour will triumph, but it’s hardly a resounding vote of confidence: “People round here are lazy and they don’t like change.”
Paul Nuttall will have to hope they’re badly wrong, and that Stoke wants change enough to give him the benefit of the doubt.