Eventually the 71 voting members plus the dozen or so ineligible members and assorted hangers on took their seats to hear what the hopefuls had to say.
First up was Tristram Hunt, who was always going to win thanks to the shortlist fix. Nevertheless he gave an excellent performance. He began by evoking the history of the Potteries and moved on to his role in securing funding for the Wedgwood Museum and helping keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the West Midlands. His priority is education, which he believes can challenge long-term unemployment and the associated evils of poverty, ill-health and anti-social behaviour. He also pledged to use all of his connections to attract investment, including getting Stoke connected to the much-vaunted Glasgow-London high speed rail link.
But his politics proper came out in the questions from the floor. He criticised the recent court decisions against industrial action ballots as politically motivated, and he likened them to turning the clock back to the Taff Vale judgements. He said he was for the democratisation of regional regeneration quangos, which have only really been interested in inputs from business elites. Tristram was also critical of Academies, being especially worried about their large size. Finally on local internal politics, he said regional and national levels of the organisation only feel confident enough to intervene if a CLP is weak. While he was for the reconfiguring of the relationship between different parts of the party, the best way to resist such attempts in the future is to recruit and rebuild.
Saj Malik's pitch struck a rather different tone, which can be best summed as 'I'm working class, me'. He argued this background made him ideally suited to a proletarian constituency like Stoke, and made welcome noises about fighting the BNP and opening a proper constituency office. He said Labour had let working class people down, but the government still managed to do plenty of things to be proud of regards schools, hospitals and so on. Unlike Tristram's pitch however, Saj's accent was more on the need to "protect" working class people and doing things for them. His opponent was more of the school of helping people to help themselves.
In the questions, he thought court interference in industrial disputes was shameful, especially under Labour. He described Academies as a "mixed bag". Refreshingly, but perhaps unwisely, when confronted with a question he couldn't answer Saj often replied "I don't know". He appeared unfamiliar with local issues, but was clear that he'd need to learn a lot on the job. Saj did however receive the biggest laugh of the night. Asked how he would feel if the selection process foisted on Stoke had been imposed on his home constituency, he said "I'd be pissed off"!
Joe Ukemenam was by far the weakest candidate. To put it bluntly, his opening remarks were more suited to a panel at an academic conference than a selection meeting. He rattled off his record as a self-financed student from undergrad to PhD level, helped deliver "capacity-building" initiatives and policy development in Stratford and several African countries. He led the UN mission to Liberia in the early 90s and, rather immodestly, said he'd been described as "one of the unsung heroes of his generation".
But it was the questions that showed him up as a poor choice for a traditionally labourist constituency party. When the same question about the courts and the unions was put to him, he said he had no problem with their interventions (in fact, he said "why not?") On his specialist subject he didn't come across well either. Asked what he did about the use of Liberia as a flag of convenience during his time there, he said his brief was about demobilising armed factions and organising an election. Of the issue itself he said there was need to look at the interaction between international organisations and the third world. On Academies, he said "there is a debate in the labour movement ... and I will continue to be involved in the debate" without once saying where he stood. But most damning of all, asked what he would like to see done about tax loopholes exploited by nondoms Joe replied "there's no point a soldier answering a general's question" - it was up to those who make the relevant decisions to make the decisions.
If proof was needed of the contrived nature of the shortlist, Joe provided it.
Due to some lacunae in the Labour party rule book, a motion had to be moved so the selection meeting could go to a vote (I may have heard wrong, but by doing so in this instance some sort of precedent has been set). The chair, Barry Stockley, was very clear that if the motion fell the CLP ran the risk of having a candidate imposed. It was fairly close - the move to the vote was passed only by 41 to 30, and as everyone knows Tristram went on to easily win it.
However, there are now two interrelated problems. While Tristram will no doubt be a very capable MP and one that will find favour among the city's elite, there is a big question mark hanging over the legitimacy of his selection. Everyone in the CLP knows this, not least Tristram himself. Second is the news that this legitimacy is already being publicly challenged by the party's secretary, Gary Elsby. Yesterday he announced he will stand as an Independent Labour candidate. In other words, the election in Stoke Central has gone from being a dead cert for Labour to an open contest.