Stoke Central and the Labour Party

I do not come from Stoke and I don’t live there. I have holidayed there and snap up oatcakes whenever I find a good supplier in London. But, just to be clear, I have no specialised knowledge of the politics of the area and wouldn’t deign to advise locals on how, on any matters of detail, their political affairs should be conducted.

I had heard Stoke Central spoken of as “quintessentially Labour”, “solidly Labour” and being suspicious of the value of such generalisations I looked as some raw data about election results in Stoke Central. The first election after the boundary changes that created the constituency was in 1950. So I looked at the general election results from 1950 to 2015. What I found is shown in the table on the below. (The second column shows Labour’s percentage of the vote.)

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The figures seemed to me to tell a rather stark story. This was a constituency which in 1950 had more than 5 in 10 of the electorate turning out to vote for the Labour Party. Majorities like that can be the basis for measures to bring about deep social change. 

But, as you run your eyes down the columns some rather obvious and rather alarming trends are clearly visible.

By 1970 support among the electorate had fallen from 5 in 10 to just over 3 in 10. There was a minor surge in the Thatcher years leading to the 1997 election which brought the Labour Party led by Tony Blair to power. Labour then peaked at 41.6% of the electorate. The decline from that point was dramatic. During the Blair/Brown years that support fell from just over 41.6% to 20.6% – a fall of more than 50%. That is the true story of Labour’s hollowing out in cities like Stoke and whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s faults this was clearly not of his making.

 

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By 2015 Labour support among the electorate as a whole had fallen to below 20% i.e. less than 2 in 10 of the electorate were sufficiently motivated to turn out to put their cross by the name of the Labour candidate.

When this is set in the broader context of the problems and decline of social democratic parties across Europe and even the crisis in support for liberal values there are clearly good reasons to worry about the position in which Labour finds itself.

I cannot advise to members of the Stoke Central party on anything involving local matters of detail. All I would say is that a situation of such a historically low support base among the electorate demands reflection and that any sort of self-congratulatory optimism is almost certainly highly inappropriate. Deep social change is never going to take place on the basis of 20% support among the electorate, even if candidates supporting such change are elected. The obstacles to bring about such change are so great that nothing less than a solid base of support of more than 50% of the electorate is going to be sufficient. Winning elections is obviously important but if it is regarded as the most important duty of a political party (as opposed to sorting out what it actually stands for) then it is difficult to see how enduring changes are likely to result. Labour activists in Stoke Central, like Labour activists everywhere, need to take a long hard look at their support base in the general population. 

David Pavett, !st February 2017

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