Sunday, 22 January 2017

Labour Should Take Nuttall Seriously

Labour should win in Stoke Central. At the last General Election, Labour won 12,220 votes (39.3%), nearly double the 7,041 votes (22.7%) taken by UKIP, and the 7,008 votes (22.5%) for the Tories. In fact, Labour's vote share was 0.5% higher than it had been in 2010. To win then UKIP would need prima facie to double its vote, at a time when both nationally and locally it has been moving backwards. Whatever the pundits say about Labour's popularity nationally, according to the latest national polls they are still standing at more than double the UKIP rating. 

But, it would be a big mistake for Labour to fail to take the challenge from Paul Nuttall, in the Stoke Central by-election, seriously. Nuttall, a seasoned campaigner, and accomplished media performer, already has a significant first mover advantage over Labour. Indeed, it has to be said that in terms of acting as a disciplined and professional organisation, it is UKIP that has demonstrated its edge, not Labour. It has dismissed all sentimentality about needing to select an amateur, anonymous local candidate, and gone straight for the jugular by appointing its most accomplished politician to take the immediate fight to Labour.

Nuttall, not a newcomer to media presentation, has already had an article printed in the Sunday papers (though not many Stokies are likely to be readers of the Sunday Telegraph), followed up by lengthy interviews on Peston on Sunday, and other Sunday politics programmes, including the Midlands version of the Sunday Politics. All that before Labour is even out of the blocks to draw up a shortlist, let alone select a candidate!

Moreover, UKIP has a relatively easy task. Like Trump, and like its Brexit campaign it only has to keep repeating, its all the fault of foreigners and immigration. As previous by-elections have shown, its in such low polls that this simple tactic pays off, because the fanatics who swallow that line are far more likely to turn out to vote than are more informed voters, who do turn out in General Elections. By contrast, Labour has to not only counter that simple set of sound-bites with something that offers local voters a reason to turn out, but it has to have a candidate capable of delivering that message in a clear and confident manner, in the full glare of international media attention. At present, I have to say, I do not even myself know exactly what Labour's message on Brexit, immigration, free movement and so on is let alone be confident that any local candidate is going to be able to formulate that message in a way that drowns out the attention the media will, and already are giving to Nuttall.

Moreover, although Nuttall nominally has to double the UKIP vote that is not entirely the whole matter. Turnout in the 2015 election was a pitiful 49.9%, or about 30,000 votes. If turnout drops to just 40%, or around 24,000 votes, UKIP could win theoretically without picking up any additional votes. It would just need the 6,000 fewer votes cast to come more or less from Labour voters not turning out to vote. Given that Stoke voted around 65% in favour of Leave, Nuttall's simple “blame the foreigners” mantra is likely to be a fairly solid core vote.

In the meantime, Labour seems to be repeating the mistakes of the past. Corbyn has rightly criticised Miliband for putting forward a Tory-lite policy on austerity, that enthused no Labour voters in 2015, but today, Corbyn's Labour is putting forward a UKIP-lite policy on immigration, free movement, and Brexit that can enthuse no progressive Labour voters, and which will not win over any Tory or UKIP voters either, who will simply vote for the real thing. By trying to rise two horses to reconcile an irreconcilable electoral dilemma, Labour is simply setting itself up to be torn apart at the groin, as the horses race away in opposite directions.

That used to be the problem for the Tories, and when the Brexit negotiations get properly udnerway, it will be again. But, the immediate issue is the Stoke Central by-election, and not what happens several months from now. In the here and now, and with Nuttall already having a head start, the Tories who have no chance of winning in Stoke, are likely to pick their own nonentity to stand, thereby giving Nuttall a clear run, without officially having done so. That means that on top of the advantage that UKIP will obtain from any low poll, they have the potential to pick up the 7,000 Tory votes, as Tory voters in the area, will be quick enough to understand that they have a perfect opportunity to kick Labour, and in the process to further undermine the position of Jeremy Corbyn.

A 40% poll, in which the UKIP core vote holds up, in the aftermath of the referendum, together with a large chunk of tactical voting from the Tories would take them comfortably over the winning line. Labour might pick up the 1,000 or so votes that former Labour supporter, Jan Zablocki, polled for the Greens in 2015, but that would hardly compensate.

As I wrote recently, the eyes of the international media will be on Stoke Central in coming weeks. Nuttall's high profile in this weekend's media is just the tip of the iceberg to what will come in the next few weeks. A hostile Tory media, out to get Labour, and particularly out to get Corbyn, will grill and challenge everything that every Labour spokesperson, and particularly the Labour candidate says. Every contradiction, every mistake, every mumbled response will be picked up and amplified, whilst a grinning Nuttall looks on like the Cheshire Cat. Anyone who thinks that does not matter has learned nothing from Brexit or from Trump's victory.

Labour's main advantages are its half million members, and the fact that, in the end, Stoke is a working-class area, with a traditional affinity to the values of Labour. Nuttall by contrast for all of his scouse accent, is a right-wing, Thatcherite Tory, who stood several times in the past in elections under Tory colours, and put forward the most vicious right-wing, anti-working class agenda, including his policies for privatising the NHS, and undermining workers rights. Labour needs to get out all of his past statements and record, and use those half million members, not on phone banks, but to walk the streets of every estate in Stoke Central, holding meetings in every community centre, and any other platform to expose him for what he really is.

Anyone who watched the tens of millions of people, who marched on Saturday across the globe against Trump, and what he stands for, should take heart from the fact that from adversity can spring the drive for our own action, and increased solidarity. Nothing succeeds like success, and it has been a mantra of the Labour Movement that our strength lies in our numbers. Its time for those half million members to be mobilised on the streets, and in every community. It is that which will give others the motivation to come out of their isolation, and join us.

In the end, UKIP, Trump, Brexit and indeed the Tories and the Republicans are on the wrong side of history, and the same is true for the nationalist right in Europe. The tide is moving against them, but even as the tide goes out, individual waves may lap closer to the shore. In the short term, we have to deal with each wave as it comes. We have to push back the challenge from Nuttall, just as we have to push back the challenge from LePen, Fillon, Wilders, and the AfD. This should represent the high-point of those reactionary forces, and the beginning of the rise of an internationalist, forward looking, European working-class.

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