High stakes in the Stoke by-election
Adam Peggs outlines a winning strategy
It was a genuine shock to see Tristram Hunt resign last week. Barely more than 18 months ago Hunt was running to be Labour leader - now he has signalled a total departure from British politics.
Hunt was a bright but ultimately misguided MP, imposed on his Constituency Labour Party undemocratically - emblematic of the worst excesses of New Labour technocracy. But dwelling on Hunt’s faults, virtues or achievements is not the discussion that is immediately needed in Labour circles. Instead the focus ought to be on establishing a strategy which ensures Labour wins the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election. While Labour’s performance in Oldham and the three by-elections from spring-summer 2016 were excellent, we have now entered far murkier waters.
A by-election victory in Stoke will give Labour a chance to re-energise itself and begin to reverse the decline. A defeat will signal that Labour is unable to get its message through effectively. Given nearly 70% of Stoke-on-Trent’s residents voted for Brexit, Labour will quickly have to master the issue which caused the party embarrassment in the Richmond Park and Sleaford and North Hykeham by-elections. We ought to start by selecting a Eurosceptic to fight for the seat. Furthermore, there should be no repetition of imposing a privately-educated peer’s son from outside the region on the seat.
But choosing a strong local candidate will not necessarily be enough, as was proved by Jim Clarke’s disappointing result in Sleaford, in which the Labour vote slumped by 7%. A focus on the NHS crisis is absolutely pivotal, but the crisis isn’t new and fighting elections primarily on healthcare issues has clearly not been enough in the past to beat the Tories. Instead my inclination is that the party will need to shine a light on public investment, our nascent industrial strategy and dramatic reform of the British state. Rather than just campaigning on the basis that Labour is the party of good public services, the party can champion the idea that serious public investment - rather than austerity - can be the solution to economic stagnation, flat-lining wages and insecure work.
The industrial strategy which Chi Onwurah and Clive Lewis are currently working on is the most serious component of this investment agenda. Labour’s industrial strategy is still being formulated, with a consultation ongoing until 16th February, but what we do know is that it will focus on research and development, investment in high-skilled work, green jobs and infrastructural investment, as well as a public investment bank. Crucially the industrial strategy is also about extending growth beyond the usual regions, London and the southeast. In Stoke-on-Trent this will be essential and it makes sense to talk about an ‘industrial strategy for the Midlands’ specifically.
Make it a campaign about local jobs and investment in Stoke and Labour can, and should, succeed. Of course politics isn’t just about the economy. Many voters feel disenfranchised because the British state is dysfunctional and the democratic deficit is huge. Labour can be the champion of reform and democratisation, offering a democratic alternative to the House of Lords, restraints on the dominance of big money and a strong agenda on devolution. Together these reforms help make up a platform which can restore trust and prevent the seat falling either to the Tories or UKIP. Together a focus on these issues is no guarantee of victory, even with a strong local candidate, but they should help to generate an advantage for the party.
The lesson from both Sleaford and North Hykeham and Richmond Park should be that Brexit is for many voters the defining issue, Labour must realise this and seek to speak for a constituency which overwhelmingly voted Leave in the referendum. Labour’s 2015 result in the constituency was 9.3% lower than in 1983, and 13.6% less than in 2005. Part of this may be down to demographic and political changes, as Labour’s core voted has shifted towards larger urban areas. But it also displays the chronic under-performance of the party in seats like Stoke-on-Trent Central over the last several years. This under-performance needs to be, and I believe can be, overcome but this will require a canny strategy and the fashioning of our anti-austerity politics into something which truly permeates.