At the Stoke by-election last week, Labour MP Gareth Snell gained a close victory over his main opponent, UKIP’s leader, Paul Nuttall. 69.4 per cent of Stoke voters voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. However, this was not enough for UKIP to consolidate their power, despite being the party with Brexit at their very heart. In his victory speech, Snell claimed that the result was a triumph for the ‘politics of hope’.
But in an age of Trump, Brexit, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, is there much cause for left-wing optimism in the face of the rise of right wing populism? In the by-election, Labour’s share of the vote fell from 39 per cent to 37 per cent, while UKIP’s vote share rose. Labour has indeed seen off its attackers, but not safely.
One issue is around clear messaging, a political tool that was clearly utilised in last year’s referendum. Populism does not know left or right; it is simply an expression of the will of the people who have become too distanced from a separated ‘elite’. UKIP and Leave.EU capitalised on this last year. The head campaigner of Leave.EU admitted being ‘deliberately outrageous’ and making the angry person’s case, winning them both airtime and votes.
In last week’ by-election, the topic of conversation amongst voters was not Brexit, as many had thought it would be. Although Brexit was seen as an opportunity to give the establishment a good kicking, the by-election provided no such opportunity, and the disenfranchisement that lead to low participation returned. It is this disenfranchisement that enables populism to creep in, as soon as another emotive campaign promises change at the wave of a wand.
Stoke is emblematic of the increasing apathy with the political system in its current form, and even with Labour’s win – aided by Paul Nuttall’s abysmal campaign and repeated scandals – it is not a joyous day for most of the city’s inhabitants. Stoke Central was the only constituency in the 2015 general election in which the majority of people did not vote.
At the by-election, turnout was just 38 per cent. As Guardian writer John Harris travelled round the city to gauge opinion before the election, he noticed that the problem was not a much-inflated swing from Labour to UKIP, but rather a deep sense of disconnection among the many who failed to vote. If Labour is to retain power in its heartlands, it can no longer rely on voters’ historical allegiances. This is obvious in the attitudes of those who abstained from voting. Labour need to communicate their policies clearly, and they need to do so now.
When asked what would improve Stoke, one non-voter called for more youth centres and housing. When a Labour activist replied to these concerns, the non-voter retorted that Labour are all upper class. According to him, Labour have held the seat for 70 years, and Stoke has gone from bad to worse.
It is true that Labour and the Conservatives have seemingly merged into one party since Tony Blair’s leadership. Jeremy Corbyn’s election promised a break from this lack of distinction. Labour’s policies to abolish tuition fees, bring in universal childcare and fund the NHS sufficiently are policies that should reignite the loyalty of voters in the Midlands and the North.
However, the party needs to articulate these policies more effectively if it is to offer a believable alternative to the politics of populism, or, as Stoke non-voters have eluded to as a far greater issue, the politics of ‘nope’.