By-election battle

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Labour had a 5,179 majority in Stoke Central in 2015

Could voters who chose to leave the EU at the referendum propel UKIP to victory in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

A whopping 69% of the electorate across Stoke chose Leave at the EU referendum. A paltry 50% bothered to vote in the constituency at the general election.

If UKIP can get out the leavers they can win, or so goes the theory.

As it happens both the Labour and Conservative candidates voted Remain at the referendum.

Labour’s man Gareth Snell even published a rude poem on Twitter about Brexit’s flaws. To add to the fun, he has been just as rude about Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on Twitter.

When I ask him if Labour’s leader would make a good prime minister he gives an unusually nuanced answer for a candidate: “Jeremy is the leader of our party. I will campaign for whoever the leader of our party is to be prime minister.

“If that’s Jeremy I’ll do all I can to make sure he steps through the door of 10 Downing Street.”

A UKIP victory here would make good the long-held theory of party leader and candidate Paul Nuttall that his party can defeat Labour in parliamentary elections.

Winning a seat at Westminster for himself would also see him triumph where his predecessor Nigel Farage failed. No wonder there’s a glint in his eye.

The idea of a UKIP win fits the key themes of the moment: Labour struggling, opposition to mainstream parties thriving.

But that’s why we should be cautious.

Let’s start with a confession: by-election speculation is grounded on even fewer facts than chatter about national politics. Rather than having those national polls about which we’re so sceptical, we have no worthwhile polling at all.

Candidates reporting the universally warm reception they have received on the doorstep are taking part in a grand tradition, but offering no evidence.

UKIP’s performance in by-elections since 2015 has been underwhelming; their best result in a parliamentary contest was a 3% improvement in their vote in Oldham West.

In council by elections since September they’ve held one seat and made one gain from Labour, lost two to the Conservatives and one to the Lib Dems. It’s not much of a surge.

While the Conservatives are thought to have a much better chance in the by-election in Copeland, they ran UKIP close in Stoke in 2015.

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Both UKIP and the Lib Dems are looking to capitalise on the passions shown during the EU referendum campaign

Their candidate Jack Brereton sticks with unerring consistency to a handful of talking points, brooking little deviation and plenty of repetition.

Why did he vote to remain at the referendum? “I voted Remain and I’ve been open and honest about that because – um – but we need to get beyond that, it’s about now delivering Brexit,” he answers.

If it’s a maddening (for an interviewer) habit to acquire aged 25 it’s also the habit of someone who has already become a Tory council cabinet member in a Labour area.

Compelling fight

Labour’s Snell meanwhile is a borough councillor, and argues that while local voters are concerned about Brexit they want to know what plan the prime minister has for jobs and investment in Stoke. On this topic he sounds more sure-footed.

UKIP’s Nuttall is frank about his tactics. He says: “If we turn this into a referendum on Brexit we win this seat. It really is as simple as that. The Liberal Democrats did it in Richmond which is a big Remain seat. If we do the same we’re in with a really good chance.”

Those Liberal Democrats are making their play for the 30% of the vote that rejected Brexit and could woo Labour voters unconvinced by Corbyn, although their candidate Dr Zulfiqar Ali saw his vote plunge 17.5% at the last general election.

Bizarrely, in the right places UKIP and the Lib Dems share a strategy – trying to fight out the referendum again on opposing sides and playing to the passions of the politics it left in its wake.

UKIP have money – privately they expect to hit the spending limit – and seem to be better organised in Stoke than in other recent contests. The idea that they can use this moment to prise Labour’s traditional support away certainly rattles many in Corbyn’s party.

Shadow cabinet members talk grimly about the idea many voters now identify more with people who vote as they did at the referendum than with those who voted like them at the general election.

A compelling fight in Stoke-on-Trent then, but one in its earliest stages. Anyone forecasting the outcome with certainty is placing great store by precedent, doorstep sentiment or hunch.

The nomination deadline is 16:00 BST on 31 January.

Here is a list of the candidates declared so far:

  • Christian Peoples Alliance: Godfrey Davies
  • Conservatives: Jack Brereton
  • Labour: Gareth Snell
  • Liberal Democrats: Zulfiqar Ali
  • UKIP: Paul Nuttall

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