I know my previous blog post was largely about how we put far too much thought into predicting politics as opposed to seeking to influence them, but here’s a prediction for you – 24th February 2017 will be the day we know whether the UK Independence Party can survive as a genuinely influential force in British politics, that being the day when we learn who wins the Stoke Central by-election.
After Paul Nuttall was elected as UKIP leader a few months ago, the direction he set out for his party was clear: UKIP, he claimed, would soon replace Labour as “the patriotic voice of working people”. In no uncertain terms, his hope is to replicate in the North of England what the SNP has managed in Scotland – for a torrent of nationalism to sweep away a distant metropolitan elite that no longer cares for them. Some have chosen to take this threat to Labour’s traditional heartlands rather seriously, and Nuttall certain intends to deliver.
Stoke-on-Trent is not really a Northern city, but if UKIPs political revolution can happen anywhere then it’s here. In 2010, Tristram Hunt was elected as the MP for Stoke Central, although his name should be enough to tell you that he wasn’t born there. A historian and an academic by trade, Hunt studied at Cambridge and was only selected as its parliamentary candidate for the then safe seat as a favour from Gordon Brown to Labour’s infamous spin doctor Peter Mandelson. Safe to say, he represents everything that UKIP claims to hate – a wealthy Southern academic parachuted into a safe seat he had zero previous links to. Hunt resigned as an MP earlier this month to become the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, however, the city of Stoke itself seems to be a far greater opportunity for UKIP than the history of its previous Labour incumbent.
In last year’s referendum, Stoke voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. In the general election the year before, UKIP came second in the Stoke Central constituency, about 5000 votes behind Labour (hardly an insurmountable lead in the current political climate). Nuttall seems to be confident, which is why he’s standing as the UKIP candidate himself. Just so this couldn’t be clearer, next month’s by-election will take place:
- In a city that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU
- Between the leader of Britan’s chief Eurosceptic party and a remain-supporting Labour candidate
- In a working class constituency at a time when Labour’s current leadership seems to be an utter anathema to anyone outside middle-class London socialists.
I’ll say the same thing I did about the Lib Dems before the Richmond Park by-election. If UKIP cannot win here under these circumstances, then they might as well disband.
Their alleged existential threat to Labour’s heartlands has been hyped up for years now. Nuttall himself has unsuccessfully stood for Parliament a number of times in Liverpool. 2015s by-election in Oldham West and Royton, where UKIP was seen as the favourite to win, instead saw his party decrease its share of the vote from the general election, while Labour increased its majority. For months, Brexit has been pitched as an issue that can supersede all else in Britain’s domestic politics. The Lib Dems have more or less proved that to be true with affluent remain voters, now UKIP must finally prove it can do the same with working class leavers, or be forever cast out into irrelevance.