“Despite Brexit” is a term all too often heard on mainstream media. “Despite Brexit” economic growth is up, “despite Brexit” unemployment is falling. But despite Brexit, we didn’t win Stoke on Trent Central, the Brexit capital of the UK. It’s a tough defeat to take, and let’s be fair, a 25% vote share and a small but measurable swing is great, isn’t it? It’s still a defeat though and it hurts.
We had a great candidate in our leader, Paul Nuttall, a man for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration. When I was out on the doorstep in Stoke on polling day, it was clear that people could relate to Paul. Stokies could see Paul as ‘one of them’, a genuine bloke who was actually listening to what they were saying and who wants to make a difference. “Where have you come from?” a chap asked me as he opened the door of his terraced property when he saw us on the street. “Cardiff,” I replied. “Blimey,” he said, “it’s nice to see you here lad, they must be scraping the barrel, but I like your main man.” It’s true that some of the stories the mainstream media reported during the campaign were not exactly helpful, but I don’t believe they resonated too much with the people I was talking to on Thursday. Paul Nuttall did not lose UKIP this election. Far from it, Paul was one of our greatest assets.
By the time I arrived in a very blustery Stoke on Thursday morning there were already just under 300 activists signed up at the office, which was incidentally ideally located and perfectly branded to have a big impact on passers-by. The unflappable Lisa Duffy was welcoming and well organised and activists were quickly given tasks from telling at polling stations, to door knocking, to going around the pubs of Stoke to get out the vote. The latter was a brilliant idea, and would have been perfectly executed had it not been for the fact that the list of pubs was outdated (some were boarded up, others closed) and in alphabetical order. Precious minutes were wasted driving between multiple locations when a convenient route (or Kipper pub crawl) could have been identified well before polling day.
On knocking up voters, I believe UKIP won the ground war. We didn’t see many of our competitors. There were a few Labour people about, but train cancellations owing to the atrocious weather conditions meant that the Shadow Cabinet and their friends in Momentum were stuck at Starbucks in Euston Station, sipping on their skinny lattes until much later in the day. I met both the Conservative activists, frantically knocking on the door of the lady at number 17, who was in fact one of our declared pledges. “I voted UKIP,” she said with a knowing wink. Our people on the ground worked hard and were dedicated. You could tell in the hall when the declaration was made how crestfallen they were. The boots on the ground didn’t lose UKIP this election.
Much will be said of the turnout. With 62% of the population of Stoke Central not voting, were they just disengaged, or had they had enough of the saturation of a by-election campaign? I will long remember knocking at the door of a UKIP pledged voter, for the curtain to twitch and a “V” sign to be given from the window. I don’t think it was “V for Victory”.
We made much of how Stoke has been neglected by Labour for decades, and of course that is right. It’s sad that Labour will continue to fail Stoke with a candidate whose performance in the campaign can at best be described as lacklustre, so I don’t fancy his chances as their elected representative. It doesn’t necessarily engage the people of Stoke in politics though, and the task to convince them in a short by-election campaign was too hard. “If UKIP really want to change things,” one lady told me, “where have they been?” Where I live in a leafy Cardiff suburb, residents are all too familiar with the Liberal Democrat ‘Focus’ newsletter, faithfully delivered on a monthly basis either by a gentleman using his wife’s shopping trolley or a few students drafted in from the university. I even look forward to their fake bar chart showing us how the Tories ‘can’t win here’. The point is this, to win a seat you need to be committed to the area on a long term basis and this is where UKIP, I’m sorry to say, didn’t win the votes we needed in Stoke. Maybe that woman with the V sign had a point.
I’ve campaigned in many elections and I know readers will have been involved in far more. We all know the value of local campaigning, and that talking to voters about the issues which matter to them is crucial. So if we’re to win seats like Stoke, that’s what we need to do, local campaigning on local issues, and showing that we’re committed to the area. Sadly though, we’re now told that the seat didn’t really matter because it was only 72nd on our target list and there will be more important seats to fight in the future. Thinking ahead to our chances in Stoke in 2020, to paraphrase the Conservative campaign strategist Lynton Crosby: “That’s not very f***ing helpful, is it?”