Stoke-on-Trent, like many of our large towns and cities was once a hive of industry, jobs and prosperity, now reduced to a state of post-industrial marginality in which it is hard for people to find employment. It has long been a Labour Party stronghold, but at the local level Stoke Council which was once dominated by Labour has experienced a radical change in recent years with the BNP making a strong showing. At its peak, the BNP possessed 9 local councillors, but earlier this year Alby Walker and his wife left the party to become independents. Mr Walker himself is standing as an independent, and his reasons for leaving the BNP have been widely publicised by the media and anti-BNP communist campaign outfits such as Searchlight and its sister campaign Hope Not Hate.
In 2001 the census data for this seat indicated that it possessed a population of 80,996, with 4.7% of this total having been born outside of the UK. In all, it was recorded as being 93.7% white and 3.4% Muslim. Many people lived in rented accommodation, with only 59.75 of the population recorded as living in owner-occupied housing. As elsewhere, Stoke has witnessed a growth both in the Muslim population and in its vociferousness. This prompted the town to be chosen as the location of a 1500-strong EDL demonstration on 23 January 2010 which on this occasion was confronted by a little under 300 UAF-organised counter-demonstrators. The problem of Islamisation is one of those great unmentionables that the mainstream political parties will not even countenance to acknowledge exists. The BNP however is certainly not shy of highlighting this issue, and Simon Darby has drawn attention to the pittance paid to the local council by Stoke Muslims for a site on which they have been constructing a new mosque.
Simon Darby detects a degree of “panic” in the Labour camp owing to their recent appeal to Muslim voters to all vote Labour in Stoke irrespective of their party affiliation so as to “stop the BNP”. He comments that judging by the number of Liberal Democrat posters displayed in Muslim homes in the constituency, Labour are worried about much of their support deserting them and joining Nick Clegg's bandwagon. The usual anti-BNP message has been driven home by extensive leafleting in the town carried out by Searchlight, which the Guardian reports has having produced “80,000 Hope Not Hate newspapers to be distributed across the city.” Similar operations are being conducted by Searchlight elsewhere and were also characteristic of campaigning against Nick Griffin’s bid to take Keighley in 2005.
Stoke-on-Trent has its own political dynamics which stand outside of the national mainstream, not only in terms of the BNP’s relative local strength and issues connected to the recent departure of its most prominent local councillor, but also in terms of Labour Party politics. Lord Mandelson recently managed to parachute into the borough his favoured candidate – television historian Tristram Hunt, upsetting the local party and precipitating the decision of Gary Elsby, former Chairman of the Constituency Labour Party, to stand as an independent candidate. Thus, although the BNP might have its own issues with a degree of recent disunity in Stoke, Labour has been confronted with something far more serious. The question is: will Labour’s woes allow the BNP to mount a significant challenge? Could Simon Darby take the seat?
Although the BNP has a strong base in Stoke, its percentage vote share at the 2005 General Election was a modest 7.8% (2,178 votes) for its then candidate Michael Coleman. This placed it in fourth place, but ahead of UKIP which secured 3.3% of the vote (914 votes). Labour on the other hand, won with a whopping 52.9% of the vote, although this in itself was a decline of 7.7% on 2001. This time around, four independent candidates have been added to the mix as well as a ‘Trade Union and Socialist’ candidate. The other confirmed parties contesting the seat are: Conservative (Norsheen Bhatti); UKIP (Carol Lovatt) and Liberal Democrat (John Redfearn).
This General Election is shaping up to be the most unpredictable in decades following Nick Clegg’s well-received performance in last week’s televised party-leader debate. It is unlikely that this will provide the Liberal Democrats with the opportunity of winning Stoke, but it should give a fillip to their candidate’s prospects and secure additional votes. Where will these votes come from?
The Conservatives are fielding a young Pakistani woman named Norsheen Bhatti who presumably is intended to appeal to Stoke’s Muslim voters, but many ‘orthodox’ Muslims do not find this young woman a very appealing prospect, as she is also renowned for working part-time as a belly dancer and is not averse to a flirtatious flick of the hair and showing a good measure of leg. She is no ‘modest’ burqa-bound or niqab-muffled Muslim, and has been supported in her canvassing by Sayeeda Warsi. She will in all likelihood pick up a few additional votes from ‘moderate’ Muslims (i.e. those individuals who have had the misfortune to have been born into Muslim families but who do not really believe in their religion and its obnoxious teachings), but will not give the Tories an overall boost owing to the national resurgence in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Bhatti may prove to be the most telegenically appealing of the Stoke candidates, but her chance of taking the seat is next to zero. The Conservative vote is likely to shrink slightly.
Norsheen demonstrates her non-political Talents
UKIP’s candidate will be overshadowed by Simon Darby, so its share is likely to fall from 3.3% to circa 2%. Similarly, although well-known locally, Alby Walker cannot be expected to pick up anything more than a percentage point or two, although unfortunately this will be at the direct expense of the BNP. Likewise with the Labour Party, it is unlikely that splinter independent candidate Gary Elsby will attract more than a couple of percentage points from disgruntled local Labour diehards.
Simon Darby will have done well if he is able to pick up 15% of the vote or above. A second place would be an outstanding achievement, but in reality, securing third place seems a more realistic although significant challenge. My finger-in-the-air predictions for the Stoke result are thus: Labour 38-40%; Liberal Democrat 25%; Conservative 16%; BNP 14-15%. Many former Labour voters are likely to shift support to the BNP and the Liberal Democrats, but as the Liberal Democrats are the primary challengers for the seat, some Tories may vote tactically in an attempt to get Labour out. If this were to occur on a significant scale, Simon Darby could take third place. Still, keep up the good work Simon, as the higher the vote you receive, the stronger the message that will be sent to Westminster.