The by-election of February 23rd 2017 — The Curtain Call

The failure of UKIP in the by election on February 23rd means Stoke Central’s curtain call will see it as a Labour seat as it has been since its creation in 1950. However none of the problems have been solved and as the Brexit referendum showed, the gap between the working class areas of the UK and conventional politics is massive and unsustainable.

Stoke Central is typical of old industrial areas only more so. The gap with the metropolitan elite is wider here than in any other area, and the former academic Tristram Hunt the MP from 2010 became the least popular MP in the Commons in 2015, with only 19% of voters voting for him. This was not just a personal problem. Stoke became the Brexit capital of the UK, despite all three MPs being Labour which officially backed Remain in the EU Referendum. It proved a golden opportunity for working class people to kick back at Westminster politics.

Rob Flello MP for Stoke South told the Financial Times (February 10th) that during the Referendum, voters told him “We know we may lose out if we leave the EU, but it feels as though there’s nothing to lose”. While this is contradictory, as a kick against the system it makes emotional sense, for the system has failed to deliver for the working classes. It is a game seemingly played only to benefit the metropolitan elite. Parachuting Tristram Hunt, politically inexperienced but with elite connections, into Stoke Central made the point. He was not unpopular, simply divorced from the electors. His closest link to the working classes was writing his book on Engels.

Hunt failed to address the alienation of working class people from politics. The turn out at the 2015 election was 49.5%, the lowest in the UK. At the 2017 by election it was 37.5%. For most people in Stoke Central, it makes more sense to buy a ticket in the National Lottery than vote.

It is not a new problem. When New Labour got its big parliamentary majority in 1997 it proved a massive turnoff for working class people. Previously more than 60% of the electors had voted in Stoke Central but turnout figures dropped like a stone. Turnout was 47.4% in 2001, after four years of New Labour, 48.4% in 2005 and only crept over 50% in 2010 to 53.3% before dropping again below 50% in 2015. The decline in turnout, masked by the fact that Labour always won the seat and there was little opposition to create interest, has been steady since the first election in 1950 – when 83.19% voted. Only in 1970, when it dropped to 50.02%, did it see half the electors sit on their hands until the New Labour era. Significantly, this was after a period of majority Labour government, as in 2001. What do working class people expect from a majority Labour government?

The drop in turnout was not a problem for the Labour establishment as the seat always returned an MP, as did the other two Stoke seats and so it was ignored. But at Stoke council level the rot set in. Two decades ago Labour won 60 out of 60 seats – but the lost control of the council under New Labour and despite regaining it lost control again at the last local election. The history of Stoke Politics, which needs to be recorded and analysed, is of ignoring what working class want from their politicians. But underneath the decline in Labour, as UKIP’s perhaps temporary failure showed at the by election, is a deeper problem. Even when the workers agree with a political line, in this case Brexit, they do not bother to vote for it. 

Politics is irrelevant to most working class people in Stoke Central, and fortunately the BNP and now UKIP have failed over the last two decades to exploit the disillusion of most working class voters. But as the EU referendum showed, neglect of and cynicism toward working class people by the elite works against elite politics. 

As the media circus moves away from Stoke to leave the city in the shadows once again, the question is now sharply posed. Can the metropolitan elite engage with the people of Stoke long term? Is a real alternative to austerity and enduring economic decline possible? Or will a flirtation with extremism, rejected so far by the sensible voters of Stoke, turn into something more sinister? If Labour and the political elite continue to patronise the Stoke people and see in their constituencies nothing more than a source of votes to be used, by elite politicians to gain access to the priveleges  of the capital city, how long can the working classes be relied upon to remain largely silent and politically invisible?

Trevor Fisher  
27th February 2017

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