“Stoke has always been Labour,” I’m sitting in the back row of Fenton’s Temple Street Methodist church as it starts to fill up ahead of the Stoke South election hustings. The man speaking to me is middle aged and makes his assertion with an innocence that is at once genuine and incongruous.
There are four candidates contesting the seat, Jack Brereton (Conservative), Rob Flello (Labour), Ian Wilkes (Liberal Democrat) and Jan Zablocki (Green Party). Rob Flello is the sitting MP and judging by the crowd he’s going to have home advantage tonight.
Almost everyone seems to know everyone else, most are middle aged or older, there are a few younger people, possibly Labour students from nearby Keele University and one man with a fussily trimmed beard wearing a t-shirt with Corbyn written on it in the style of an old fashioned Coca-Cola advert. I’m not sure he gets the irony implicit in the least spun politician in recent British political history having his name turned into a nifty piece of branding.
A broadly ‘old Labour’ crowd then, salt of the earth for sure, but inclined maybe to accepting the familiar because it does what they expect it to, a reasonable approach if experience has taught you that change is seldom kind, but it can and dose stifle originality.
In their opening statements the four candidates lay out their ‘vision’ for the next four years.
Jack Brereton trades on his record as a local councilor, particularly in bringing jobs to a city that has lost many of its traditional industries. He also takes a dig at Labour over the costly Smithfield development in the city centre, old news by now and rather a cheap shot. His vocal style is dull and he favours piling up the facts to turning on the passion tap, anyone playing b******t bingo would have been disappointed because the used the phrase ‘strong and stable’ in almost his first sentence.
Rob Flello, also plays on his track record, in parliament this time highlighting his work to defend Trentham High School from closure and in improving the city’s roads. He says that he is a campaigner who ‘never gives in’ and praises Jeremy Corbyn’s little red book as being ‘brilliant’. This gets him a round of applause from a home crowd who have, it seems, forgotten that his loyalty to the leadership hasn’t always been so clear, some might say there’s a touch of expediency about it now.
“How do you follow that”, says Lib Dem Ian Wilkes when the applause dies down. Not all that well it seems. Wilkes is the only candidate to admit he hasn’t got a chance of winning, but however slender his chances he makes a sensible point about the need to regenerate all six towns.
Jan Zablocki also recognizes the uphill task his party faces in shifting votes away from Labour, but says he represents ‘change’ and that that is something badly needed in local and national politics. He speaks of the Green’s opposition to the privatization by stealth of the NHS, cuts to school budgets and the need to talk openly about the direction our society is taking. This wins him some applause that is genuine rather than merely polite.
Given the events of the weekend just gone security issues are the main feature of questions from the floor. All four candidates give variations on the theme that terrorism can never be allowed to win, all well and good. It is when we get down to specifics that things get interesting.
Brereton promises more spooks for MI5 and MI6 to tackle terrorism, useful no doubt but what about the extra police on the streets needed to make the public feel safe. Labour and the Lib Dems back spending more on community policing, as do the Greens. Asked about how we tackle homegrown terrorism Jan Zablocki calls for the government’s flawed Prevent program to be replaced with something that builds community cohesion and that addresses the social divisions driving radicalization.
Asked about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes Brereton talks about the need to preserve jobs in the arms industry, seemingly at any cost, losing the crows at a stroke. He then finds a way to jam the other foot into his mouth too by attacking Jeremy’s Corbyn’s, allegedly friendly approach to terrorists in general, letting Flello get the biggest round of applause of the night by countering with the claim that he’s ‘a man of peace.’ Quite so, but not always one who picks his friends wisely.
Asked about the benefits system both Flello and Zablocki spoke with real passion about the work they had done to help people unfairly hit by sanctions as, respectively, an MP and a lifelong trade’s unionist. Brereton mumbled something rehearsed about more people being in work and the need to improve skills, before being taken to task by a heckler for not answering the question.
Judging the evening as a whole Rob Flello played well to a friendly crowd, speaking at times with real passion about helping local people. Jan Zablocki also spoke with real passion and making a connection with the audience that may not win him the seat but certainly raised the profile of his party. Ian Wilkes came across as a nice enough chap, I wouldn’t necessarily want him as my MP, but if I sat next to him on the bus I wouldn’t move or get off at the next stop however far away from home I was, and there aren’t many politicians about whom you can say that. Jack Brereton had a shocker of an evening, his contributions producing either awkward silences of howls of derision. In the space of a couple of hours he went from party golden boy to disappointing also ran; politics can be cruel like that.
My friend from the start of the meeting was right, Stoke South has always been Labour, they might have to count rather than weigh the votes these days, but on tonight’s showing that is still true. With the Greens making a strong showing and Labour, for all the sham loyalty of the parliamentary party to a surprisingly popular Jeremy Corbyn, still riven by divisions that might not always the case.