It’s a little under a week since Gareth Snell won a hard fought battle to retain the constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central for The Labour Party and the calm after the storm gives a perfect opportunity for reflection.
There is absolutely no doubt that Gareth’s victory can only be described as monumental.
Why monumental? Well about 10 days before poling day most political commentators (those of a free mind, not those who are mere party mouthpieces) would have bet their last dollar on a UKIP victory.
The ground operation was incredibly effective – they came from far and wide and from all wings of the party to prevent the kippers from getting their second member of parliament.
Out in all weathers, young and old, united on the doorsteps pushing forward a vision of positivity for our city. You can not fault the hard work and dedication of the grass roots members.
But there is a massive question mark over some of the strategic decisions made in the campaign – not by the volunteers, but by the paid staff of the party.
Firstly some of the volunteers were not happy with the way they were dealt with and talked to by certain paid officers – simply put, the attitudes of some were far from comradely. This put some campaigners in a ‘why do I bother mood?’
Secondly the media strategy was an absolute joke. Whoever came up with the idea to keep Gareth out of the media, away from the camera’s and microphones, needs hauling over the coals.
I am led to believe the media strategy was under the remit of the Regional Director and his team. It is my honest opinion that this debacle could have cost Labour the by-election. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Labour turned this campaign around when Gareth put himself in the spotlight and used the media to communicate directly with the voters. When he was head to head with Paul Nuttall he spanked his arse on all occasions – not literally, this is not a Snell tweet!
Gareth working the media coupled with the fact that Nuttall had an horrendous last ten days of the campaign did as much to secure a Labour victory as that well organised doorstep campaign.
Nuttall fell foul of his Hillsborough claims and Gareth prospered.
Gareth was not the Regional Office West Midlands choice – no that dubious endorsement went to Trudie Mcguinness, but out of the three candidates that went before the CLP I was convinced that Gareth was the one who could take the fight to Nuttall and the kippers.
Whether the fact that region did not get their man/woman over the finishing line resulted in their lacklustre approach to the campaign remains a mystery.
Two very significant faux pas stand out above all others and both can be laid firmly at the door of the regional office’s press team.
The first was Channel 4’s Michael Crick being told that he wasn’t allowed out on the campaign trail with Gareth for fear of ‘another Gillian Duffy moment’
The second was quite late on in the campaign but was much more serious in nature. The Financial Times no less – were given a right royal runaround as they pushed for access to Gareth Snell and the campaign – have a read of the FT reporter’s description of his exchange with the Labour campaign’s press officer – it’s full or irony with more than a hint of sarcasm:
Even before I left home, Chris Lee, the Labour party’s press officer in the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency, made it clear that the Financial Times would not be allowed to interview their candidate in this month’s by-election. Nor could I accompany their canvassers on the streets.
On arrival, the restrictions were tightened. I could not talk to any other Labour members either. Asked if it was OK to speak to anyone at all in Stoke-on-Trent, Lee seemed to think it over before concluding that might be a problem:
Labour no longer even controls the council in what was once its most secure city in England. Nor can it control its own affairs:
Lee’s commands fell apart in minutes. He had been most helpful, though. Reporting an election, one can be lulled into misreading a situation by spin and charm. Lee had revealed that Labour’s operation in Stoke was in tune with its mood nationally: fearful, tetchy, inept. Read the full article here
The press strategy adopted by regional officers even prompted some activists to question whether Labour really wanted to win the by-election, as defeat in Stoke Central and/or Copeland would inevitably lead to further scrutiny of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.
The defeat in Copeland and the much reduced majority in Stoke Central gifted Labour’s right wing the opportunity to launch yet further attacks on the effectiveness of the party under Jezza.
Since last Friday it has been muted that Clive Lewis amongst others are considering a leadership challenge. There have been numerous calls for Jeremy to step down.
I’m on record as saying that I do not think Labour will win a General Election with Corbyn at the helm. I said as much on BBC Radio Stoke last Friday morning when asked to go on air with my analysis of the two by-election results.
Since then a whole raft of high profile Corbynista’s have come out in favour of the current Labour Leadership team.
Acclaimed film director Ken Loach, who was in Stoke just days ahead of polling day, has written a Guardian piece where he said:
The failure of Labour governments – and, importantly, Labour councillors – was a common theme. It is not hard to see the neglect around Stoke. Solid Labour, for sure, but what good has it done them? A 2015 report into the area found 60,000 people in poverty, 3,000 households dependent on charity food, and £25m in council tax arrears. The presence of the BNP, now replaced by Ukip, shows how Labour’s failure left space for the far right.
This article prompted a number responses from the moderate wing of the party.
Stoke North MP Ruth Smeeth, who campaigned ferociously for a Gareth Snell victory and was hailed by many as being the driving force behind the ground operation, tweeted this in response:
Ken Loach has joined the long list of pundits who know nothing about Stoke-on-Trent. Might have learned something if he’d come campaigning
— Ruth Smeeth MP (@RuthSmeeth) March 1, 2017
What I will say is that the majority of current Labour councillors played a full part in this by-election. Most were out door knocking and leafleting, a few targeted their efforts to the Hope Not Hate campaign against UKIP, and the odd one sadly did not turn up to a single campaign session.
So was Gareth’s victory a Labour success?
Well obviously in terms of the result it was a monumental success – a two and a half thousand majority when some (including yours truly) thought the majority would be slashed to just a few hundred.
But if you look closely there were some deep cracks in the campaign which need addressing, not least the performance of some of the party officers and whoever was responsible for that awful media strategy.
There is still a definite rift between the left and the right of the party and whilst locally those differences were put to one side during the campaign, now it’s over, the gloves are sure to be off. It’s well known that the Corbynista’s locally are furious that not one of their number made the long list let alone the shortlist.
There is a noticeable attempt by the left to gain the majority of positions of power within all three local CLP’s – which by default gives the Corbyn wing of the party the control of the Local Campaign Forum (the body reponsible for candidate selections and campaign strategy).
It seems the battle between the left and the right of the party rages on both nationally and locally – meanwhile the Tories rejoice both here in Stoke-on-Trent with the help of the City Independents and UKIP and nationally all by themselves.
Be afraid…… be very afraid!