Why Brexit damages Labour’s future
FT leader writer Sebastian Payne visits Stoke-on-Trent, which faces a by-election in late February, to test his view that Brexit has badly damaged Labour’s electoral chances as Ukip claims it is the authentic voice of the working class.
Produced by Josh de la Mare. Filmed by Nicola Stansfield. Stills from Getty.
British politics is in flux as all the parties try to adjust to the new Brexit landscape-- none more so than Labour, which is trying to remain relevant in heartland seats, such as this one, Stoke on Trent central. In an upcoming by-election, its popularity is going to be tested, with the main challenge coming from the Brexity UK Independence Party.
I've come to test my view that Brexit is bulldozing Labour's electoral foundations. It might lose here to UKIP, which would be a huge shock for the party. The incumbent MP Tristram Hunt is stepping down for a job outside of politics. His seat has been held by Labour since 1950, in a part of the country famed for its potteries, and now hit badly by austerity and post-industrial decline. His potential successor Gareth Snell was too busy to talk to the FT, but thankfully, another local MP, Rob Flello, had a few minutes to spare.
He opposed leaving the EU in last year's referendum, but is now supporting it. I put it to him with around 70% of Stoke voting for Brexit, this doesn't make Labour look very credible. All these leave voters are going to think, I want Brexit to happen, Rob's voted for it, but do they really believe you? Why didn't you stick with your conscience and back remain?
Well, because on balance, I felt remain was the right thing to do. But what we've now got to do is make the best of the Brexit. So in this by-election, Labour's candidate Gareth Snell has come under have a bit of fire, because he couldn't find five minutes [INAUDIBLE] to speak to us today. Could also be because he described Brexit as a massive pile of shit, and that doesn't really go down well with voters here.
Look, Gareth is straight talking. Gareth says as he sees it, and when he was making those comments, eight, nine, ten months ago, that was because he had understandable concerns. A lot of people had concerns, on both sides of the argument. Gareth, as well, he's also a Democrat. He also abides by the will of the people.
Despite the talk of democracy, Labour is worried about UKIP, and its leader Paul Nuttall in particular. He is standing in the Stoke by-election, hoping to capitalise on the populist upheaval to snatch the seat from Labour. His party may have won four million votes at the last general election, but it has just one mp. It is still essentially a party of protest. Nuttall is banking on being the authentic voice of Brexit, but is his party's campaigning machine up to it?
You said yourself, the party has almost imploded since the Brexit referendum. You know, you've have almost lost your purpose. The UK Independence Party has got independence for the UK. So why vote UKIP-- what's the point?
Well, firstly, we don't have independence yet. Obviously, Brexit isn't complete. We don't know where Theresa May is going to go with this regarding the negotiations. And UKIP has to be around to hold the government's feet to the fire. Of course, there are great opportunities in the Labour constituencies now, because it's led by a group of people I don't believe who represent working people, outside the M25.
This is one of the heartland areas. The Brexit vote has reset everything. What do you feel about the future of the Labour party?
Well, it's interesting, isn't it, the pattern of those polls which show now that people look to the Brexit vote to define themselves politically now. They're either leavers or remainers. If that's the case, with the vast majority of people in this seat voting leave, then we should be in with a good shout.
This seat's been Labour since 1950, and you came 17 points behind at the last general election. That's a big mountain to climb.
We're 5,000 votes behind. That was pre-Brexit, pre-Corbyn. It's a very different Labour Party now, and I think that the Conservative vote in this seat was inflated because of the [INAUDIBLE] effect. I think--
This is about England, you mean.
Yes, Stoke feels very, very English. There's no doubt about that. You go around any of the estates, you'll see the crosses of St. George flying on a good number of houses.
Labour is not only being squeezed by UKIP on the right, but by the Liberal Democrats on the left, who after suffering a near-death experience in 2015 are now picking up remain voters who want to stay in the single market, especially younger voters and students. Despite the fact they have no chance of winning in Stoke, its leader Tim Farron came to the local university to talk up the party's prospects.
So you're proudly now the party of the 48%, the remainers. You want to campaign for a second referendum on Brexit, on the final deal, which may see it come back on again. Where do you feel that's going to go?
So we are continuing to have the courage of our convictions, that's all. But in the end, we're saying to the whole of the country-- I mean, the only poll I've seen on it-- if we take it with a pinch of salt-- shows that 90% of the electorate want Britain to be in the single market. So we're the party for the 90%, not the 48%, not the 52%-- in fact, for the 100, because we want to encourage everybody to believe that it's in Britain's best interest to be an internationalist, outward looking country, not insular like UKIP, and the Tories, and Labour seem to want us to be.
And in one sentence, describe to me how you see the future of the Labour Party.
They're neither fish nor fowl, and parties that are neither fish nor fowl tend to disappear without trace.
Nigel Farage, UKIP's most well-known face, believes that Labour is going to be squeezed out of existence. He has also been campaigning in Stoke, but the old hostility towards him is still there, which shows how UKIP still divides voters. Farage, who has tried eight times to become an MP, believes that without new leadership, Labour is in terminal decline.
There are two Labour Parties. There is one, which is the north London, intellectual, internationalist open borders UKIP Party, and there's another, which is patriotic old Labour. And we are in patriotic old Labour territory. They are completely confused by Jeremy Corbyn.
You know, parties need to have a clear message. And what I think is happening is the Liberal Democrats are picking up some from the very, very pro-EU wing of the Labour Party, and I think we're picking up rather more than that on the other side of people who can't believe that Diane Abbott basically insults them by saying that if they're concerned about immigration, there's something wrong with them. So I think Labour is in real trouble. Whether it's terminal decline remains to be seen, but I do think what happens in this by-election could be very significant for politics over the next two years.
So do you think they're in enough trouble that you're going to win here, that Paul is going to become UKIP's second MP?
I think Paul is going to win here, I do actually. I've even had a bet on it, so there you go.
How much? Come on, how much?
Well, I've had a nice round figure, and I'm feeling--
The last one's right.
Yet I do have to admit I was struck by a local Labour party that has not given up, and seems quite separate to the London machine under Jeremy Corbyn. Ruth Smeath is another local MP who voted against Brexit in this pro-Brexit area. But she still feels Stoke has glimmers of prosperity, and that Labour is the area's true voice.
The idea that I would identical views to my constituents is not actually true on many different issues. But I seek to represent what is their best interests, which is why my focus and that of the Labour Party in Stoke on Trent is delivering Brexit. We're leaving Europe-- my job is to make that work for them.
This is Labour heartland territory-- all of the MPs around here are Labour. And you've got UKIP now banging on your door, saying, we're the real party of Brexit. We're going to deliver that clean, quick break that people around here-- some of them-- do seem to want.
Well, I-- Paul Nuttall last week couldn't even name the six towns of Stoke on Trent.
He's not from around here.
He's not from around here, and he doesn't know what the people of Stoke need, whereas the Labour Party-- you're right, this is our home. I view this as an opportunity. I door knock every week in my own constituency.
And what do you hear on those door knocks? Are they talking about Brexit, or the NHS, or Jeremy Corbyn-- what's the main message?
The main message is that they're fed up. They're fed up with the establishment, they're fed up with people outside of Stoke on Trent telling them what to do, they're fed up of being told who they are and what they should be doing from London or Europe. So it's up to people like me to make sure that what they're getting is their fair share.
Labour's held this seat since about 1950, and you had a fairly strong majority at the last election. If you do lose it, that will be a big blow to your party. It will confirm those polls-- you know, you're 16 points behind nationally-- that you really are nowhere and you're disconnected from the voters.
Oh, I don't think we are disconnected from the voters. I think we campaign every day, day in, day out for their best interests-- for them, with them. We don't talk at them, we talk to them, and then we fight for them.
The battle to be the authentic voice of working class voters is being played out at Stoke, and bitterly. At a rally for Farage and Nuttall, anti-racist protesters chanted angrily outside.
I came to Stoke thinking that Labour was on the verge of an electoral precipice, and UKIP might just pit them in this by-election. And it's true that the so-called people's army does have a lot of support here. All the people at this Nigel Farage rally were once natural Labour supporters. But it doesn't quite feel as if Paul Nuttall's found that magic formula to convert Brexit angst into votes at the ballot box. So the result in this by-election will show just how much has changed in British politics over the last few years, and whether Labour still matters to its core voters.