CLP chair Terry Crowe and Regional Director George Sinnott outlined the process for the meeting. Each of the three shortlisted candidates would give a strictly-timed 10 minute statement followed by 20 minutes of questions. To ensure parity and avoid planted questions that may favour one candidate over the others, the members who were called by the chair in the first round would be required to ask them in the second and third. Meanwhile, lots were drawn in the anteroom to determine the running order. It came up Allison Gardner, Trudie McGuinness, and Gareth Snell.
Beginning her pitch, Allison put paid to misunderstandings and rumours that had done the rounds (including one I genuinely got wrong). She voted and supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, and stood by him last summer by voting for him again. She also said that while she wasn't from North Staffs, it has given her the time of her life. As a councillor for Chesterton, she knew about the concerns that drive people to support UKIP, and also has a record of uniting people from different backgrounds as she has campaigned to save Bradwell Hospital from closure. In fact, the reason why she wanted to be a MP was to eyeball Jeremy Hunt. As a scientist who teaches on Keele University's foundation programme, Allison is committed to high tech development and a mixed economy that can deliver it. This also meant fighting to protect ceramics to preserve the local economy and identity and working for the best Brexit for the city.
And then came the questions. She was asked about her attitude to academies (generally unhappy and disliked the big academy chains), what she would have done had she been in the PLP last summer (was furious with their behaviour as it missed the moment the Tories were on their knees, and she thought Corbyn is doing okay), about whether she would not go to the Daily Mail to criticise the party and keep misgivings private (yes, she believes in discipline), how she would work with disengaged young people like the thousands of students in the constituency (draw on her experience as a teacher and go where they are via stalls, pint and politics events, and so on), what key economic policy would make Brexit work for Stoke (continued and uninterrupted single market access), how to accomplish the funding of integrating health and social care (more tax on the rich), how she would take on Nuttall (expose his fakery, NHS lies, opposition to workers' rights), how she would work to stop the transfer of HMRC jobs from Stoke (oppose and and offer local services and local offices - technology means there is no need to centralise), views on bus nationalisation (bring into national or cooperative ownership), how she would contribute to party unity (being good and decent, honest and not manipulative), and on the increase in homelessness (this is a concern of mine, the homeless are our people).
Next came Trudie. She began by noting that Stoke is the centre of the universe, which is a claim I live my life by. She was born in the city, is proud of it and will fight for the education, housing and health of our city. She was also outraged that Paul Nuttall thought he could come here and exploit the concerns of locals. He is trying to make Stoke all about Brexit, when it is much more than that. She then switched to her time in Staffordshire Moorlands Labour's parliamentary candidate. Often asked why she was bothering as Labour didn't have a chance of winning, she said it mattered - she's a fighter and campaigner who will always fight for the underdog and our people. Taking this experience, Trudie's campaign would be full throttle against UKIP and she was determined to make Stoke not the capital of Brexit, but the capital of Labour uniting and crushing Nuttall's party. As someone who works in and is passionate about education, she would relish the chance to take him on at a hustings - he isn't someone who inspires intimidation and fear, but a determination to beat him.
Onto the questions, while she was initially open-minded about academies experience suggests they have reduced the quality of education, and no benefit whatsoever has accrued from removing local authority control. On last summer's attempted coup, she believed it came at absolutely the wrong time, but could understand why Labour MPs backed it. Trudie voted Owen Smith because she was concerned there was no progress under Jeremy. But now, the issue is closed and there's an opportunity for Labour to write a new story. On disagreements, she believed there is nothing more depressing and dispiriting than the idea of going to Westminster to pick fights with colleagues - the enemy are the Tories and UKIP. On the young, her experience in education means interacting and engaging with the young is something she's used to doing. She had already spoken to local colleges about sorting out voter registration. On Brexit and economic policy, she believed in protecting the customs union as she was especially concerned about the impact tariffs could have on the city. The integration of health and social care depends on tax, and this is especially true in Stoke where health issues are (historically) work-related and now compounded by poverty. On facing Nuttall it would be taking him to task on his opportunism, on contrasting his desire to break up and privatise the NHS with someone who truly cares. On keeping HMRC jobs, Trudie noted about a third of all Stoke's employment is in the public sector, so she would fight to keep them and draw on her own experience of fighting with union colleagues against cuts. On the buses, she favours nationalisation and reintegration. Disappearing services are causing blockages in our national economies. When she lived in Leek, there were regular routes to Sheffield and Derby but they have gone, and this is a recipe for isolating communities. On party unity, Trudie had built and led teams for years and believes that honesty, dialogue and listening builds trust and unity. And lastly, on rough sleepers she argued that we should never forget the most vulnerable. Without that compassion, Labour is nothing.
Lastly was Gareth. After two excellent pitches, he had a tough act to follow. But he did. He started off by noting that the by-election wasn't something we wanted, but it is one we have to win. He said he'd lived in the Potteries for 13 years where he met his wife, and his daughter was born in UHNS - now Royal Stoke. And like any true North Staffs person, she loves oatcakes. Therefore their past, present and future were rooted here. He also can't bear the idea of Nuttall representing Stoke in parliament. This is a battle of ideals and we can reassert ourselves as the party of working people. Stopping UKIP here will go a long way to stopping them nationally by demonstrating Labour is the vehicle for progressive social change. He noted how he'd fought UKIP on many occasions, the last time being his winning a local council by-election and taking a seat from them in an 80/20 Brexit-voting ward a few weeks after the referendum. That goes to show that Brexit doesn't mean UKIP, therefore we can beat and crush Nuttall.
On the questions, Gareth said academies should come back under local education authority control. Their existence offers no accountability and does not allow for sensible planning of school places in a given locality - it's in the gift of for-profit academy chains. On the coup, it is now incumbent for Labour to get behind Corbyn and unify. Labour is a family and should be united in facing outward with no public commentary of internal matters. Elaborating on the question about fostering party unity, he suggested disagreements are for rooms like the one the local party was meeting in but face outwards to the public. On engaging young people, he recounted his experience with Keele Labour Club which worked at remedying the disenfranchisement of students by talking about what students wanted to talk about. There is an opportunity to work with Staffs University students down the road, and use similar approaches to reach out to other young people. On Brexit and economic policy, safeguarding and protecting local heritage through the back stamping campaign and ensuring free access to the single market is the best way of protecting Stoke. On health and social care, these cuts were offloaded by government onto councils which set them up for government criticism for not coping as they forced cuts on local authority budgets. Funding has to be sustainable, and this can only come from general taxation - this means taxing the rich and cracking down on tax dodging. On facing Nuttall, we should not lump UKIP and the Tories together and make it easier for the latter to vote for the former if they're perceived as a Tory home from home. It also means not talking up Nuttall as a leading politician but as a serial election loser and a carpetbagger. But this was going to be a door-to-door dogfight and we're going to have to work at turning out traditional non-voters too. Lastly, due to time, on the HMRC jobs move we have to shout about the benefits of access to the same services wherever we live. But on dealing with the issue to hand, he would ask the PCS what service he could lend - battles are won by organised workers and not politicians.
And with that, the pitches came to an end. After an unavoidably long voting process, after which about half drifted home (it was late) and the nail biting finish of the final vote tally, Gareth Snell was announced as Stoke Central CLP's choice to contend the by-election.
So just to squash a few claims doing the rounds. First off, Gareth is not a Blairite. Anyone can see from the summary above that opposition to academies, taxing the rich and arguing change is contingent to organised workers acting is hardly congruent with the vapidities of third way "thinking". Nor was it a stitch up. Keith Vaz didn't get on the blower to order constituency members to support a favoured candidate, nor did the union machinery churn out recommendations that especially favoured him. He was endorsed by a prominent local Unison activist, but the regional Unite recommendation was awarded to Trudie, for instance. It's almost as if some people want to believe it was a fix, and are prepared to spin any old bullshit to support their claims. If you want stich-ups, I'll give you stitch-ups.
I've known Gareth for a long time and he will be an excellent candidate and make a great MP. He understands the labour movement, has solid values and politics, and preternatural eye for detail that any obfuscating Tory minister will come to dread. If I was Nuttall, I'd be packing my bags already.