It's nearly all done now. After a couple of thousand door knocks, tens of thousands of leaflets and a frantic day getting the vote out, the identity of Stoke Central's new MP will be known in about eight hours time. And more than just locals will be interested in the outcome. With ten candidates standing, a high profile split in the Constituency Labour Party, something of a meltdown in Stoke BNP, a vigorous Tory campaign and the local effects - if any - of the LibDem surge, Stoke Central is definitely one of the more interesting contests taking place today.
A word on the campaigns. Under the auspices of Tristram Hunt's election agent Carrie Martin, the Labour campaign (Twitter here) has moved mountains in a very short pace of time with a comparatively small number of people. Nominally Stoke Central is a safe Labour seat but the campaign has been waged as if it was a marginal. For the first time in many, many years Labour canvassers were out and about in all four corners of the constituency. And the door knocking worked - while there were many don't knows among people who had previously voted Labour, a great many life-long Labour voters were genuinely pleased to see us. After 13 years of a government I could at best describe as "disappointing", I was surprised to encounter real enthusiasm for the party on the doorstep. Just goes to show the death of Labour in Stoke is very much exaggerated.
Other parties ran creditable campaigns. Lord Ashcroft's tax-free millions had their chunk apportioned to The Potteries. It seemed you couldn't move for bespoke Tory posters featuring Conservative candidates gurning at passing motorists around Newcastle and Stoke. In the constituency itself, Norsheen Bhatti never really stood a chance but her and her small team have ran a mercurial campaign, turning up to everything from radio debates, hustings (even that sponsored by the PCS!), and crisp packet openings. I've heard persistent rumours the Tories have been door knocking too, which really must be a first for any part of Stoke-on-Trent. Don't be too surprised if Norsheen is selected for a more winnable seat sometime down the line.
I haven't seen my former comrades of Stoke Socialist Party about much but there's no way they've sat on their arses in this campaign. Candidate Matt Wright has been at the two hustings I'm aware of, and on a few occasions I've caught the odd hand-delivered TUSC leaflet flapping in the breeze. Of course if any comrades are reading this feel free to fill in the gaps.
These are the three campaigns I've encountered (and obviously, in Labour's case, worked on). As for the others, well. Considering Stoke Central is the BNP's second highest priority seat after Barking and Dagenham there's little evidence they've bothered to do anything. Both their leaflets have been delivered with the post (shame on my postie for desecrating my doormat), and Simon Darby has been practically invisible save one hustings and one radio appearance. In fact, the only campaigning that's been seen were two old women in Bentilee shunting around a push chair stuffed with Nazi literature. If you fancied a challenging game of spot the fascist, Stoke Central was the place to be.
The big surprise has been the total absence of a LibDem campaign. I say surprising because there are large numbers of students in the constituency and received political wisdom has it that this sector of the population is most likely to vote yellow. But Stoke Central LibDems can teach the BNP and the ragtag group of independents lessons in political invisibility. Their only leaflet arrived by post on Tuesday, well after the bulk of postal ballots had been cast. Add to that the absence of the candidate - earlier in the week at the BBC Radio Stoke debate the LibDems were represented by a stand-in. There were no signs of the LibDems at hustings either. If it walks like a paper candidate and quacks like a paper candidate ...
There seems little movement on the ground from the various independent campaigns. Gary Elsby, occasionally of this parish, appears to be something an exception. He had a public meeting to launch his and several leftish non-aligned council seat campaigns just over a week ago. And followers of the whole Stoke Central selection saga will know Gary received the sort of national publicity independent candidatures rarely get. According to this he's been out and about (door knocking? leafleting?) But as for the rest, they've been nigh on invisible, and this includes ex-BNP council group leader and "reformed character" Alby Walker. But Gary and Alby at least have something of a profile outside those interested in city politics. I know who Paul Breeze and Brian Ward are, but I'm of the self-selected few. They've made so little impact in this campaign that you wonder why they bother. Oh, and UKIP have put up a paper candidate too.
Dare I hazard a prediction of how the election in Stoke Central will pan out? Thankfully I'm aided in this endeavour by having an overview of our doorstep and phone canvas returns. According to them Labour are well out in front. Next come the 'don't knows'. Many of these are ex-Labour voters who feel let down and disappointed - the bulk of these are split between disappointment that the economy went down the toilet, and an anti-politics cynicism that's grown off the back of expenses scandals. Immigration has often been flagged up as an issue too - though true to form this peaks in areas that are for all intents and purposes 99-100% white. Back to the returns. After the don't knows come the Tories(!). Then the BNP, LibDems, Gary Elsby, and TUSC (the rest didn't register). It's worth noting the BNP and Gary support was very localised in certain areas.
Canvassing returns are not an exact science by any means. I remember those from the Socialist Party's campaign in Abbey Green in 2006 had us way out in front, with Labour second and the BNP third. In the actual result we ended up trading places with the fascists. But these Labour returns are on a much, much wider scale. That said I find it difficult to believe the Tories could come second in Stoke, though it would be hugely damaging to the BNP if they and/or the LibDems finish above them. So, in order and despite the canvas returns, my gut tells me Labour win, followed by LibDems (surge), BNP, Tories, Elsby, UKIP, Walker, Breeze, TUSC, Ward. I think our majority will be reduced to about 6,000.
The actual result is expected at 3:30 tomorrow morning and it is scheduled to be featured on the BBC's election programme. If you can't stay up that late I'll have it on here ASAP.
Of course, for those who want the low down on the far left vote I'll be posting that up for as long as I can stay awake.