You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
The present author, Mark Conlon, is one of approximately 63,000 registered voters in the parliamentary constituency of Stoke Central, as are several other members of the Pathways group. Media coverage of our region is seldom flattering, displaying a narrow and tendentious focus on post-industrial anomie and its associated ills of unemployment, deprivation and crime. Due to Stoke-on-Trent holding the national record for abstention from voting, frequently we are characterized too as embodiments of political apathy. In my anecdotal experience, however, this has more to do with disdain for actual political parties than politics tout court: specifically, with the way in which the Potteries has been marginalized on the one hand by a Labour Party that has taken its allegiance for granted, and on the other by a Conservative Party that regards an area defiantly wedded to manufacturing as a vestigial throwback in the era of finance capital. Nor can it be said, when push comes to shove, and notwithstanding the ugly encroachment of far-right activism at various points since the Mosleyite 1930s, that the people of Stoke lack awareness of themselves as what Karl Marx called a class for itself instead of merely a class in itself. We shall see as much in the political episode discussed herein.
Stoke Central has had an uninterrupted procession of Labour MPs since its creation in 1950. For the past seven years, the incumbent has been Tristram Hunt, debonair Blairite academic and, inter alia, a condescending biographer of Friedrich Engels who sees no contradiction in crossing a picket line to deliver himself of a lecture on the history of Marxism. Hunt, whose first name does not mislead as to his patrician demeanour, was “parachuted” into the constituency in 2010 in blatant contravention of the wishes of Labour rank and file, who went so far as to set their branch secretary against him in the general election of that year. Aside from stray remarks on the inadvisability of nuns escaping their cloisters to take up teaching posts, he had an uneventful tenure as shadow education secretary, rallying no substantive opposition to Tory ravagement of state schooling. Finding the Potteries a little rough around the edges for his refined sensibilities, and the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party an unavailing vehicle for his ambitions, Hunt announced in January his intention to flee back to his natural habitat in the metropolis, there to take up a cushy job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. A by-election was thus triggered, set to take place concurrently on 23 February with a similar poll in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, where Labour MP Jamie Reid – regrettably, no relation to the artist of Sex Pistols repute – had outdone Hunt’s perfidy to constituents by abandoning them for a corporate vocation at the Sellafield nuclear plant.
Enter the frame one Paul Andrew Nuttall. Now here we have a slippery character. That rarest of species, a Liverpudlian Tory – so rare, indeed, that in his aborted career as history lecturer Nuttall was unable to gather the necessary data to complete a PhD thesis on the subject – he moved further rightwards into the orbit of UKIP, becoming an MEP under that party’s imprimatur in 2009. His attendance at the European Parliament has been haphazard; seemingly only the burning issue of incandescent light bulbs has had gravitas sufficient to command his attention. In November of last year, after a farcical squabble among the UKIP demimonde over who should succeed Nigel Farage, Nuttall was elected leader of the party. He spews the reactionary boilerplate one would expect of such a figure, denouncing the futility of human rights, extolling the efficacy of capital punishment, and exhibiting contempt for the LGBT community and those afflicted by HIV. He peddles conspiratorial fantasies on climate change and a viral Kulturbolschewismus supposedly undermining the patriotic verities of bygone generations. Nativism and xenophobia form the basis of his agitation for a “hard” Brexit as preferred aftermath to the UK’s referendum vote favouring withdrawal from the European Union. He seems also to be an inveterate liar, spinning tall tales about his youthful footballing prowess and undocumented spectatorship at the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium tragedy. It was this opprobrious individual who, in late January, threw his hat into the ring as a contender in the Stoke Central contest.
For several weeks, Tontine Square in central Hanley was disfigured by a UKIP headquarters set up in an ex-pastry shop – a retail switch from pies to lies, as wags had it – from which issued propaganda proclaiming the party a staunch defender of the NHS. When its leader is on record as decrying socialized medicine in terms that would have defrosted the cold heart of Ayn Rand, cognitive dissonance is glaring. Few votes could have been garnered for the Europhobic cause when that leader saw fit to parade himself around an urban conurbation in garb more appropriate to an Edwardian country squire. On an edition of the BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Stoke on the evening of the by-election, solitary UKIP MP Douglas Carswell made a pitch for his party as champion of the sectional interest of the organized working class, and was surprisingly capable of maintaining a straight face in doing so, but only a minority of the electorate is naïve enough to believe this of Nuttall’s motley band of deregulators and flat tax advocates. So it proved in the early hours of 24 February, when Labour’s Gareth Snell saw off the UKIP challenge by securing 37.1% of the votes cast, Paul Nuttall’s share of 24.7% barely enabling him to edge out third-placed Conservative candidate Jack Brereton. Dr Zulfiqar Ali, despite the ostensibly imposing presence of Nuttall, or perhaps because of it given that Ali is a Muslim, more than doubled Liberal Democrat support by comparison with the 2015 general election. In Copeland, though Labour conceded the seat to the Conservatives for the first time since 1935, UKIP’s Fiona Mills was trounced.
Gareth Snell, formerly a councillor in Stoke Central’s neighbouring constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, is scarcely an inspiring addition to the House of Commons. His vulgar and scatological tweets in denigration of Brexit reveal a man cut from the shallow template of Labourite anti-intellectualism. No intellect appears to have intervened in the selection of such a man to represent constituents who are thoroughly disenchanted with the European project. It is a further instance of what has been the Achilles heel of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship, namely a shying away from engagement with the progressive sentiments underpinning the Brexit watershed. Without the aid of a newly acquired Corbynite mass membership drumming up partiality for Labour on the doorstep, ironically the anti-Corbyn Snell may have struggled to pass the winning post. Nevertheless, overall one can be thankful that matters turned out as well as they did in the wake of Tristram Hunt’s reckless betrayal of office. After his defeat, Paul Nuttall made the minatory prediction that “There’s a lot more to come from us.” Mercifully, Stoke-on-Trent will not be the arena for testing the accuracy of his claim.