Stoke-on-Trent Central’s Labour MP Tristram Hunt, once briefly but not seriously a candidate for the party leadership, has decided to resign his seat to spend more time with his artistic side: he will become the next director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The spin has already begun, most of which has talked up the chances of UKIP under comedy leader Paul Nuttall having a chance of winning the by-election.
It may not be down to him
There is even talk of the “Bad Bootle Meff” standing in that by-election, although the Kippers would be better advised to field someone who is not already a Member of Another Parliament. They could do worse than ask Richard Lee, who contested Crewe and Nantwich for UKIP in 2015, to stand. Or perhaps they will ask John Bickley, who has managed to fight several by-elections, and become a “local candidate” in every one.
But much of the talk of Kipper victory ignores the constituency’s make-up, and speculation over low voter turnout similarly omits recent trends. Stoke on Trent Central has not managed a turnout over 60% since 1997. Although Hunt won on a turnout of less than 50% in 2015, his predecessor Mark Fisher did the same in both 2001 and 2005 - indeed, those turnouts were lower than the 49.9% in 2015 (47.4% and 48.4% respectively).
Oh yeah ... my time's up
Although UKIP did well in the constituency last time, part of this may have been at the expense of the Lib Dems, who went from a good second place in 2010 to losing their deposit in 2015. This would not be a unique outcome: the party went from a respectable third place to losing its deposit in Crewe and Nantwich as well - and with the same candidate, Roy Wood, who was a competent and able politician.
On top of that, the BNP, who stood in Stoke on Trent Central in 2005 and 2010 and managed to retain their deposits - they polled 7.8% and 7.7% - did not stand in 2015, and their votes will have mainly gone to the Kippers. What those factors tell us is that, combined with recent resurgence of Lib Dem fortunes, the UKIP vote may not have so much potential to challenge Labour - providing the party gets its candidate selection right.
Ullo Potters, gorra new motor?!?
And then we come to the EU Referendum factor - or maybe not. Much is being made of the fact that Stoke on Trent voted heavily to Leave, by 69% to 31%. This is held to mean that the Kippers must have a good chance and the Lib Dems won’t do so well. I wouldn’t be too sure: Tim Farron’s merry men have just won council by-elections in both Three Rivers and Sunderland. Both areas voted Leave in the referendum.
The trick for Labour is in their candidate selection. Just as in Oldham West and Royton, where UKIP were believed to be going to run Labour close, selecting a respected local candidate - and savvy campaigner - in Jim Mc Mahon meant the Kippers hardly got a look-in. Labour need another Jim McMahon - someone who knows the constituency and its politics. And they need a competent by-election campaign to back them.
Stoke on Trent Central is not another Copeland. This does not have to be a potentially horrendous by-election defeat in the making. Labour has to get it right: then they will win, whoever is the party leader. Forget the Kippers. That is all.