It didn't happen. After an awful year of grievous retreats, the line was held. And about bloody time. It's the kippers who are now in disarray, and Labour lives to fight another day. The majority fell by a wee amount, and the Tories and UKIP put on small numbers of votes. But on the reduced turn out as per all by-elections, the proportions were roughly the same as the 2015 outing. Apart from the stakes and the media hype, including some truly stupid commentary bigging up UKIP's prospects, was this a pretty dull by-election with very little to say about the state of national politics? Not in the slightest.
As we saw in Copeland, the Corbyn factor combined with the insecurity factor to the detriment of our chances. Did the same happen in Stoke Central? Yes, but with mixed results. During my moments on the doors, the Labour leader only came up the once. It was an old bloke just getting into his motor, and he was voting UKIP. This wasn't because he hated immigrants or thought Labour was a pile of crap, it was a protest: he didn't think Jeremy was any good. And nothing, not the NHS, not Nuttall's lies were going to dissuade him. Having asked around quite a few comrades who worked intensively on the campaign, they found similar sentiments among too many older, white working class voters. These Jez sceptics were either voting for the kippers or abstaining. And yet this was balanced out by the very enthusiastic response he got in other quarters. In Penkhull and bits of Hartshill where there are more middle class and professional residents, and down in Shelton with its large student and Asian populations, Jeremy was a real motivator. When out with Gareth Snell around Shelton, one comrade tells me of how cars would suddenly stop to speak with him and have obligatory selfies taken. 2,500 new electors registered for the by-election, mostly in the student areas, and I would wager that an increased turn out here made up for the decline in the traditional support.
The additional Jeremy factor was evident in the campaign itself. UKIP have talked up its own support on the ground and the people working for it. The party even turned out regular paid-for coach loads from London to bus people in (I wonder if they will appear on their electoral returns?) But truly, the Labour effort was colossal and they were utterly swamped. Yes, plenty of old hands were about doing their bit. However, new members turned out in large numbers as well. For dozens, probably hundreds, The Potteries was their first taste of campaigning. Any analysis skipping the positive consequences of the 2015-16 Corbyn surge is one indifferent to the truth.
The actual campaign was impressive. Huge numbers ensured the entire constituency was covered multiple times. The party could have perhaps dispensed with a direct mail as there were folks enough to deliver them by hand. The strategy was spot on, too. The NHS, Brexit, and more, better jobs for Stoke were heavily featured. Gareth's Plan for the Potteries with his first few months mapped out was exactly the sort of thing our campaign needed to see. Labour did put out one tabloid, The Potter's Wheel, which craftily billed itself as the no spin guide to the by-election, and it spent its time doing over UKIP and Nuttall. It's not often a party leaflet makes me laugh, but as negative campaigning goes its pun-tastic tones were the best way of doing it. The only criticism I would have, and this was evident in Copeland too, was the initial stand-offish approach taken toward the national media. Prioritising local radio, papers and telly is fine, but making it look as though candidates are hiding from reporters is not a good look. Remember, folks everywhere are more likely to follow national news and papers than the local equivalents.
What did annoy me was the constant barrage of claims on the right and the left that Stoke Central CLP had selected a "poor candidate". Never mind the fact Gareth has a campaigning record that would be the envy of hyperactive Trots, never mind Labour Party people. Forget that his tenure as leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council saw a no cuts budget (unless you want to get precious about perks for senior management), and increased funding for domestic and sexual violence services and preparing the council to uprate its lowest pay scales to the proper national living wage. Not one member of our national media did their job and properly investigated his record. Instead they lazily alighted upon tweets written a life time ago, including some apparently abusive criticisms of Jeremy that, in context, were crafted as warnings of being taken out of context. Irony. This occasioned a media carpet bombing of Gareth and should act as a warning for aspirant candidates to take the time and carefully clean up their social media now. And so Fleet Street dubbed our comrade rubbish on the basis of a string of 140 character missives. What a pathetic state of affairs. Ask anyone who knows anything about the Labour Party in North Staffordshire and they will tell you about his energy, his formidable organisational ability, his capacious memory for the minutiae of rules and procedure - a plus should he find himself facing an opponent across the dispatch box - and the fact he is Labour to the marrow. Gareth is among the best of us, as the rest of the Labour Party will see in due course.
The take homes from this then are the differential impacts Jeremy can have, and future by-election and local elections' strategy need to bear this in mind. A campaign should have a small number of, easy-to-remember messages with the promise to do something about insecurity at their heart, and should avoid going into siege mode with the media. Yes, they will trash the party, it's what they do. But resisting engagement is not a good look. There are other observations to be made about the UKIP, Tory and LibDem campaigns that have wider significance beyond Stoke, but they will have to wait.