Coming away from The Sentinel-sponsored by-election hustings at Staffordshire University, I spotted a blood moon hanging low over Stoke. For whom did this augur an ill omen? For Gareth Snell and the Labour Party, or Paul Nuttall and the United Kingdom Independence Party? If what happens at hustings matters, I'd have to say it doesn't bode well for our Tranmere playin', PhD totin', compulsive fibbin' UKIP leader. It's not that Nuttall was totally dreadful from a presentation point of view, apart from a catastrophic gaffe at the end, but that he commanded hardly a presence. For the hustings was effectively the Gareth show, with Jack Brereton of the Tories as the supporting act. Nuttall played little more than a walk-on part and had to compete with the also-rans for attention. If he is a national figure, which he kept reminding us, then it's a position achieved in the absence of discernible talent and charisma.
Mick Temple, on hand to offer the expert perspective opened proceedings with the observation that the Stoke Central by-election is perhaps the most important in modern political history. What happens here will have repercussions for two major political parties. For Labour, not only would losing put a question over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, it raises the issue of if it can't no longer win in its heartlands, where can it win? For UKIP, losing means there is effectively no point to the party any more. Win and there is a possibility it can become the new party of the working class.
With the scene set, Martin Tideswell of The Sentinel invited candidates to make a 60 second stump. Nuttall began by arguing that the message he's getting from the doorstep is one of change, and he can deliver it. As a national figure he has the clout to get things done, and this would be because if Stoke changes from the capital of Brexit to the capital of change, it would scare the establishment. Godfrey Davies of the Christian People's Alliance stated the he was standing against the liberal agenda that had brought calamity to our country - concentrating on Christian values is the only way forward. The LibDems' Zulfiqar Ali said he was the only candidate opposed to hard Brexit, and wanted the people to have a say on the outcome of negotiations. More money for the NHS would be nice, too. Gareth for Labour stated his local credentials and said his priority would be to campaign for homes, and fight for the Brexit the Potteries deserves and not what London would condescend to dish out. Jack Brereton for the Tories said he was responsible for delivering £500m in investment in the city, including 1,000 new jobs on the Ceramic Valley development. He also stated - as if saying it made it true - that Theresa May had a plan that would make a success for Brexit. The Incredible Flying Brick of the Official Monster Raving Loonies began by saying this was his fourth by-election and, to much hilarity, read the BNP speech on the table next to him. Adam Colclough said things about being local and working together, and the BNP's David Furniss said he was the only true Brexit candidate as his dobbins of a party had been against the EU since 1982.
It was evident from the first question that this was going to be a tetchy, bad-tempered meeting, and so it proved: readers interested in the full thing can watch the recording here. And there were flash points and moments of interest aplenty. The first full-on scrap came over the NHS and the integration of adult social care, which everyone agreed would be a very fine thing (though the BNP still managed to get a line in about immigrants). Very quickly it became an argument between Gareth and Jack, while egged on by Tories in the audience shouting PFI (do they know it was a Major policy, and has carried on under the present government?). What really got the Tory blood boiling was the obvious evidence - as noted by Gareth - that private contractors and quiet privatisation have and continue to undermine the NHS. An audience member used the opportunity to challenge Nuttall on his comments regarding nurse training and his belief they don't need degrees. He hadn't changed his mind, he replied, as there shouldn't be any nurses who are "too posh to wash". Scrapping degrees would save £3bn, which along with abandoning HS2 and stripping back foreign aid would supply ample cash for the NHS. Needless to say, this didn't go down particularly well with health workers present.
A question aimed at economic development and directed at Gareth asked how we can get good quality jobs in Stoke, and how would having yet another Labour MP help? He replied that we need to work at moving government departments out of London to spread the benefits of public spending on these organisations. It also means thinking smart and partnering with Birmingham and Manchester to ensure the belated regionalisation the government favours partly accrues to the city as well. In short, we need someone who will get stuck in who isn't going to Westminster to cheer lead the Prime Minister or further their own career. For his part, Jack replied that there are 1,500 more people employed in Stoke than was the case in 2010, and he repeated himself about the Ceramic Valley development. One thing he neglected to mention that these "new jobs" are merely a relocation of Bet365's HQ from Festival Park nearby, which was a development prepped under the previous Labour council. Though I'm sure in good time the Tory-run council will have some achievements of their own they can talk up. It's also worth noting that at an earlier hustings at Stoke Sixth Form College that Jack made his opposition to moving departments to Stoke known on the grounds that local people "didn't have the skills", and this from the champion of inward investment! On local economic development, all Nuttall could do was moan about HS2 and argue for the abolition of fees for "STEM cell subjects [sic]". By far the most intriguing response was delivered courtesy of Godfrey Davies. To regenerate the city he intends to "bring the Kingdom of God to Stoke", and that will provide its own blessings. Indeed.
Naturally, the issue of Gareth's sexist tweets came up. Rather than trying to wriggle and lie as a, I don't know, a Paul Nuttall might, he took it head on. He condemned his previous comments and said he did a lot of growing up in his 20s, and since then as Newcastle Borough Council leader he made the decision to increase funding for sexual violence and domestic violence support services, which benefited some of the borough's most vulnerable women. As a trade unionist he'd helped organise low paid women and had marched shoulder-to-shoulder with his sisters.
There were more ding dongs over EU migrants in Britain after Brexit, whether a Remain-voting MP can represent a Leave constituency, on tuition fees and deindustrialisation. And then came Nuttall's clanger. He was asked if a 10 year old child soldier of Islamic State was suspected of harbouring knowledge about a terror attack, would he order a member of the armed forces to waterboard them. Nuttall replied that if there was a suspect with information about a dirty bomb set to go off in London, Liverpool and, just remembering where he was, Stoke, then yes he would. Gareth quickly interjected with a "you've basically said you would waterboard a 10 year old", to which all chaos broke loose. Above the din, Nuttall was stupid enough to shout he knew the evidence was that waterboarding doesn't work, but would do it anyway.
I am increasingly of the mind that hustings don't really serve any discernible purpose. At the beginning of the evening, Martin Tideswell asked who of the 60 or so present were actually Stoke Central residents voting on 23rd February. About half the hands went up, and looking at those who did about half of them were Labour, another five or six UKIP, and a handful of Tories and others apiece. It was what you call a public meeting without the public, a dialogue of people with no interest in having a dialogue. Yet it served a purpose. There is a recording available for all to view in which the ineptitude of Paul Nuttall is laid bare. This so-called national figure was not only bested by his Labour opponent who has had nowhere near as much media exposure than he, but by the also-ran Tory too. If there is any justice, he'll get a drubbing so bad that the name 'Paul Nuttall' will be one remembered only by geeks and politics historians five years hence. Come to Stoke and help make sure this happens.