Jeremy Corbyn has not enjoyed a strong start to 2017. First he very publically failed to maintain a consistent policy position on high wages during a calamitous leadership reboot, and now Blairite MP Tristram Hunt has thrown in the towel – the second moderate MP to do so after Jamie Reed at the end of 2016. Corbyn now faces the very real possibility of unprecedented by-election losses to the governing party in both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent.
However, as well as the battle between Conservatives and Labour in Hunt’s constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, the by-election will also be an important proving-ground for Paul Nuttall’s UKIP.
Despite being historically a Labour safe seat, the 2015 General Election saw Hunt achieve a relatively slim majority of 5,179. This result was on the back of a collapsing Liberal Democrat vote, a huge swing towards UKIP, and the lowest turnout in the country. In fact, with only 19 per cent of constituents voting for him, Tristram Hunt enjoyed the least popular support of any MP in the UK.
Since the Brexit vote and the protracted resignation of their leader, Nigel Farage, UKIP have been struggling to remain relevant. But with Corbyn doing his level best to alienate even his core support and his party polling at an unprecedented low, UKIP must see this by-election as a major opportunity to gain a foothold in the north.
UKIP’s stated aim is to target Britain’s working class voters to galvanise support for a hard Brexit. Labour constituencies in the north and midlands where there are a high proportion of working class voters, such as Stoke-on-Trent, are exactly the constituencies that UKIP will be targeting.
Therefore, one would expect the party’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, to stand for election. Conditions for UKIP are perfect: according to official statistics, Stoke-on-Trent is in one of the most working class areas in the country and almost 70% of those who voted in the constituency voted to leave. In addition, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to field a strong candidate as the constituency is one of those due to be abolished by the latest boundary review.
However, as UKIP try to affirm their electoral credibility post-referendum, it would do the party no favours for their leader to be defeated in a seat which would appear ideally suited to their appeal. Paul Nuttall may be discouraged from standing after an apparently resurgent Liberal Democrat party posted a string of strong local council by-election victories while his own party failed to make inroads.
By-elections are notoriously poor predictors of future General Election trends, so it is difficult to say necessarily what can be learned from whatever the Stoke-on-Trent result turns out to be. However, whether or not Paul Nuttall chooses to run will be a useful barometer of UKIP’s confidence in its own electoral capability.