Sunday 8 December 2019

On the Doors in Stoke-on-Trent South

The last time Labour had knocked on this address, the occupants were recorded as Tory and Against. Sucking up our courage we gently rapped on the door and a middle aged bloke came bounding from around the corner. We said we were from the Labour Party and started asking about the election coming this week. "I'll tell you who I definitely won't be voting for", he bellowed. We had but a moment to prep for an anti-Corbyn rant. "Boris Johnson!" came the reply. He hated how Johnson is a buffoon, how he lies, and how unfit he is to hold Prime Ministerial office. We got talking a bit more and he was frustrated with how shabby the country had become, the dereliction of its public services, the amount of debt heaped on students, and plenty more. This gent was a life long Tory voter and was, along with his wife and daughter, voting Labour in 2019. This set us up nicely for the most encouraging session I've been on in this campaign. People down as Againsts from the last time this estate was canvassed were turning Labour, and almost as good one Tory we found said he wasn't voting.

As Stoke-on-Trent watchers know, while Labour held on to Stoke-on-Trent North and Central seats by 2,359 and 3,897 votes respectively in 2017, the South seat went Tory with a 663 vote majority for them. This was the culmination of a hollowing out of Labour's support across the Potteries during the Blair years (much of what I wrote about the background to the Stoke Central by-election also applies). Though in this case, Stoke South was blighted by Rob Flello. To describe him as a lazy, no mark MP in the Change UK mould but with a sideline in homophobic bigotry would be flattering this useless oaf. That he was selected to run for the Liberal Democrats in this election only to have his candidacy quashed by national should tell you all you need to know. Also Labour took a battering in May's council elections in the south, losing six seats in the constituency. Throw into the mix the obliteration of the established parties by the Brexit Party in the EU elections, you're left with a paper impression of a constituency that has passed beyond the veil of Labour possibility.

Yet, it certainly doesn't feel like that on the doorstep. And the canvassing data is indicating a close run thing. There are good reasons to believe Stoke South might feature in the roster of Labour gains come Thursday. First off we have our candidate, Mark McDonald. Brought up by his mum on a council estate from Birmingham, he spent the early part of his career working as a porter and an orderly in a number of hospitals while putting himself through night school. Now a lawyer, he is exactly the sort of candidate the Tories would give their right leg for in a seat like this. Compare this to Jack Brereton, the sitting Tory MP who has never had a proper job and was chosen from a shortlist of one to contest Stoke South at the last election. Also, since getting selected about 18 months ago, Mark has thrown himself into two key local campaigns. The Tory-Independent City Council wanted to proceed with a housing scheme on Berry Hill fields, which is a large green space wedged between Hanley and Fenton. Labour successfully opposed the development and allowed Mark to become known among community activist circles across the city.

The second and more significant was the fall out of the City Council-sponsored Solarplicity scheme. This saw solar panels fitted to thousands of council houses and was aimed at cutting bills, and was entered into by tenants on a voluntary basis. However, it turned into a right dog's dinner. Complaints involved discount delays, crap work and damage to properties, and fraudulent sign-ups. As you'd expect, Jack Brereton has been entirely absent from the scene seeing as his pals are running the council. And, reportedly, constituents getting in touch with him have been told to take their concerns to the Citizen's Advice Bureau. Mark for his part has supported residents affected, organising campaign meetings and protests, and advising on councillors' questions. He's not the MP but already he's managed to do more for Stoke South than hapless Jack. And it has been noted by local residents, with canvassers reporting switches on the door because he has got stuck into campaigning. If only Rob Flello was as pro-active we might have avoided dwindling majorities and the loss of the seat.

The other big advantage is organisation. Whereas the Tories can only muster an occasional team of four, Stoke South Labour has benefited from an influx of activists. A number of comrades have commented how Corbynism has risen to the challenge of this election by turning out campaigners on a scale not seen for decades, and this is true. Not only have more than the usual local suspects come out, comrades from around the country have pitched up too. On Saturday, my team had members from Lewisham, Oxford, and Hereford. The weekend before it was local CLPs plus Liverpool and Calder Valley. Weekday daytimes regularly have two dozen coming in to help. According to one comrade active in Stoke South Labour since the 1960s, this is the biggest campaign she's ever seen mounted in the constituency. That means thousands of voters spoken over the five weeks, thousands of conversations about politics, about Brexit, about what Britain should be like, and thousands of people having their preconceptions about Labour challenged.

Every campaign has its highs and lows, and moments of weird. Canvassers heard one woman who was voting Tory because the numbers of immigrants was literally causing the UK to sink into the earth. The "striking ex-miner" who had decided to give the Tories a punt, but later turned out to be a work shop technician who bounced back and forth across the picket line as if it weren't there. The propensity of astro turf owners to vote Tory, and the happy strange of one old guy who basically talked himself into voting Labour when I canvassed him. If only they were all that easy! As for the Labour-Tory switchers on account of Brexit, yes, we've all found them. Most, it has to be said, were lost long before 2017 (like the "life-long Labour voter" who hadn't voted for us since 2005), and those who were new switches were overwhelmingly older voters who swallowed Johnson's Get Brexit Done nonsense. From my chats, the one thing these older voters had in common was a certain divorce from politics. This is different to the you're-all-the-same stock response of a place of naive cynicism, but rather betrays an expectation that politics is a service like any other. For this layer of voters, they voted Labour previously because they did alright by them and now, for whatever reasons, they identify with Brexit it was relatively easy for them to switch to the Tories. This, of course, is implicit within liberal democracy itself. We are encouraged to have a consumer relationship to politics and so it's unsurprising that millions do, but matters aren't helped by the Labourist tradition's legacy. You know, the idea you should come out and vote like good worker drones every four or five years and get on with your lives in the mean time while your MPs make everything better for you. At least Corbynism and its manifesto represents a partial break with this top down and, ultimately, alienating politics.

I digress. Having had my fingers burned too many times, there are no predictions to be offered here. The question is whether the strength of our candidate and the power of our campaign can overpower the pull of Brexit, and the Tory advantage in money and media coverage. And it's obvious we can. The dynamism is with Labour, and with four days to go before close of poll we have a real opportunity not just to take back the seat, but also reverse our party's decline in so-called traditional seats. If you haven't had the chance to help yet, it's still not too late to join in!

Image Credit


qwertboi said...

Not too late at all. Remember, in 2017 about 1 in 3 of Labour's supporters only decided to vote for us in the last five days (and the DM's 13 pages of hateful anti-JC bile made some voters join us on polling day itself).

Dialogue is a great phone-bank tool that is easy and cost-free to use and which can be used by supporters and members to talk to prospective voters about how they will use their vote and, if they invite you, why they should stay with Labour.

Give it a go, log onto Dialogue and let it help you have have meaningful conversations with people who need to hear Labour's hope instead of Boris's brexit lies. Help Labour transform politics and the country by. giving others the time for a short, polite conversation.

Unknown said...

Used to live in Stoke South, right wing Labour Council ignoring local people insisting on crackpot expensive building projects didn't help.

Anonymous said...

Last three days. Let's get our battle cry across on the doors: "Vote Labour, even if that means voting for a Blairite."

Anonymous said...

"The question is whether the strength of our candidate and the power of our campaign can overpower the pull of Brexit, and the Tory advantage in money and media coverage. And it's obvious we can. The dynamism is with Labour, and with four days to go before close of poll we have a real opportunity not just to take back the seat, but also reverse our party's decline in so-called traditional seats."

I wonder whether you will enter a period of reflection as to how you got this so wrong. The authenticity of your bog rests on being 'on the ground', in touch with the local Labour Party. If you had a real degree of self-reflexivity you really should be deeply embarrassed.

Phil said...

So what the hell happened?

Genuine question. I have friends who had some really tough canvasses - including Newcastle-u-L - but my own experiences were like yours, occasionally challenging but mostly genuinely hopeful. I thought we had a real chance in some of our targets, and I never thought for a moment we'd lose all the defences.

Our seat was a tale of three Labour Parties - people on Momentum's list went where they sent us (mostly Blackpool, Bury and Bolton), while the branch leadership and their mates were down your way, canvassing for Ruth Smeeth and our old friend Gareth Snell. Neither we nor they seem to have made any difference at all. Meanwhile at home, somebody must have been getting out the vote for our own MP, as he was re-elected with a majority of 50% of the vote (read that carefully). What's going on?