In the first of a series of interviews with candidates across the country, LabourList meets Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell, as they seek to defend their Stoke seats in a city which backed Brexit.
Snell has only been in the Commons for a couple of months and Smeeth was elected at the 2015 general election. The new Stoke on Trent Central MP saw off Paul Nuttall in February but Smeeth faces a significant challenge in Stoke North and Kidsgrove, where UKIP have pulled out in order to to back the Tories.
Both seats are in what we would call Labour’s heartlands – and yet could be at risk if the worst case polling scenarios played out.
Why are you standing in this election?
Ruth Smeeth: “I’m two years into being an MP, and this is about all the reasons I wanted to be elected in the first place. This is about who’s going to fight for my community, who’s going to make sure that the Labour party is real and exists inside our communities, and who’s going to do tangible things.”
“It shows the level of support that my constituents need, since I’ve been elected we’ve done 7,500 pieces of casework – that’s a phenomenal amount in two years.”
“There’s other issues which are my main campaign issues – holiday hunger, what happens to children who qualify for free school meals during the school holidays, that was the first question I asked in parliament, my first adjournment debate. And because of the work that we’ve been doing since I got elected… there’s going to be thousands of kids that are fed this year.”
“If I’ve achieved nothing else as a member of parliament, there’s going to be 10,000 meals going to hungry kids this summer.”
Gareth Snell: “Given that I’ve only had five weeks in the first parliament, [I’d like a bit more time!]”
“During my by-election I made a series of promises to the people of Stoke-on-Trent, about what I would do around jobs, around education, around the health service and about how we can make Brexit work for the Potteries, I’d like to finish some of that – I only just had my letterheads arrive when the prime minister called the election.”
“As Ruth said, there are also things that we need to do – not just in Stoke, but across the whole of Staffordshire and across the country: that require a Labour Party that’s going to stand up for those people that don’t have a voice; that require a Labour Party that is happy to tackle vested interests; who require a Labour Party that isn’t afraid to put its head about the parapet and say ‘that’s wrong’.”
“For me, this election is not just about me and Stoke-on-Trent, its about what the Labour Party is going to do for the next five years, and if anyone’s reading this, if we are content to allow a landslide Tory majority then we are, as a party, abdicating our responsibility to the communities we represent and we are doing a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who need a Labour government.”
How would you describe your politics?
RS: “Real Labour. Full stop. I represent the labour movement.”
GS: “I can’t disagree with that. In one sentence, I was brought up in a trade union household, where the things that mattered were what’s happening at the bottom of your garden. If people could afford a pint of milk, could afford a loaf of bread. My politics are about making sure that the people who need our help get that help.”
RS: That’s not one sentence!
GS: It is, there’s a series of semi-colons! But it is that, isn’t it?
RS: It’s why the party was set up in the first place. If the party wasn’t there, I’d be one of the people who would help form the party.
GS: In one sentence, it’s about doing what’s right, for the people who need it most.
How has Brexit affected the seat?
GS: With my by-election, it was pitched by UKIP as being Brexit central. Truth is that a lot of people just want us to get on with it. They are fed up of trying to rehash what it is, they’re even fed up of trying to hash out what it could be. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve had their vote, they’ve given their opinion and why are we now – almost a year later – still arguing about the nuts and bolts.
“What we’re getting on the doorstep is people who are concerned that Brexit isn’t being delivered quick enough, but ultimately, more people still talk to me about the school systems, about education, about the roads, about litter, about the things that they see on a day to day basis; because that’s their politics. Their politics is local, and Brexit is this big thing that they’ve already had their say on.
RS: UKIP have pulled out in my seat to support the Tories, which I think says it all really. But in terms of what Brexit is now its about delivery and what that’s going to mean for us. So one of my big concerns about how the government is going ahead with Brexit is where the funding is coming from, and what their focus and priority areas are going to be.
“They listed 20 key industries – they didn’t include ceramics. So, ceramics are now included, and that’s because I as chair of the all party group for ceramics, which Gareth is one of the vice-chairs, went and got angry about. Not sure a Tory is going to go do that.
So for my constituents, its about having someone who is going to fight to make this work, and make sure that all the resources aren’t going to Manchester or Birmingham, which is what usually happens round here.
GS: Or even worse, the South East. I’ve yet to see a coherent plan from the government or anybody which is offering an alternative to Brexit, that demonstrates that this isn’t going to become another London-centric process.
Why does Britain need a Labour government?
RS: “All you’ve got to do is look at my community. We can do the very emotive aspects of this – that we’ve got thousands of people using foodbanks, the fact we even have foodbanks, £3bn that being taken out of our education system over the next four years, what’s happening to our hospitals.
“It’s all of those things, that’s why we need a Labour government, but it’s much much more than that. I had no idea of the level of frustration of being a back bench MP when you have to beg to make a difference. When people go to my surgeries, and I go through a box of tissues on everyone of my surgery days, as I hold people’s hands as they cry. And all I can do for them is shout at people for them. I can’t change the system.”
“I can’t change the law, I can just get angry for them. And there is value in getting angry for them, I’m quite clear on that, that my constituents have got a gobby member of parliament, but it must have been so much easier – I am told by colleagues who were in government – it was so much easier when you could just have a two minute conversation with a minister and get something fixed.”
“And that’s why we need a Labour government, because my constituents need it, and more importantly they deserve one.”
GS: “I think its slightly even more basic than that – we need a Labour government purely because if it’s not us, it’s the Tories, and frankly they don’t give a toss. They genuinely don’t give a toss, and it’s very rich of the Tory party to try and claim they care about workers’ rights, and show that they have some sort of interest in protecting employment and gift out more money to social care.
“Seven years into Tory government, if they wanted to do it they could have done, and they haven’t. Why? Because they just don’t care.”
What has been the biggest local issue?
RS: The biggest one that’s really starting to bite is school cuts – that’s been compounded by the children centre closures. They’ve kept the buildings open but taken out all the services from within them, so that’s really helpful.
“One of the things that really worries me, is we’ve been talking about austerity for seven years, actually, austerity is going to start happening now. I don’t think my constituents, I don’t think the general public actually, have any idea quite how tough things are about to get.
“Food prices are going up. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have said that average incomes will be £2,500 less than what would have been the end of this parliament, all of those things. The impact on my constituents, those things really really worry me.”
“It’s tough for them now, it’s really really tough for them now – it’s about to get much much tougher.”
GS: “Definitely schools and education but, one thing that is in the minds of the constituents I represent, is the hospital. We have a major trauma unit pretty much everybody, everywhere has had some contact with that.
“I’ve spoken to mums of nurses who are having to loan their [children] money so they can afford to pay bills, people who’ve gone into a proper caring profession who can’t afford to live in Stoke-on-Trent – we’re not a particularly expensive place to live and yet our nurses can’t afford to live here.
“Our community beds are being shut down, Bradwell has closed, no we’ve got threats to Leek Moorlands hospital, we’ve got issues with our walk in centres. There’s a genuine fear among people that five more years of a Tory government will be it for the NHS, in the format that we recognise it.”
Labour faces poor poll ratings nationally so how do you deal with that locally?
GS: I’m fighting for every vote – it sounds cliched but that’s what it is. Going back to every person who said they would vote Labour, or consider voting Labour, and giving them the reason of why they need to use their vote for the Labour party.
“Candidly, a lot of people on the doorstep are raising Jeremy as something that is making them think about whether they should vote Labour or not, but I’m also getting people who are very enthusiastically supporting Jeremy and want to come out and vote for that. But the numbers who are concerned about the leadership, as opposed to supportive, are greater. The way we have to deal with that is simply point out that this is about the Labour party.
“We’ve never been a presidential system, we’ve never been a democracy that makes this about a person and so when people go and vote on June 8 they are voting for me, and for Ruth, and for Rob [Flello, Stoke-on-Trent South MP] … and we’re focussing on that, because ultimately it’s my name on the ballot paper.”
RS: “Exactly the same. I find it heartbreaking at the moment – my seat’s been Labour for most of its existence, and definitely since the current incarnation in 1950. We are fighting for every single vote. We’re having to have conversations with people that I didn’t believe we were going to have to have with people about the Labour party. But I’m quite clear that you don’t stop supporting the team if you don’t like the manager, and that’s the line that we’re using.”
“The polls are the polls, and it’s what that means for my constituents – they know what a Tory government did to them in the 1980s, so it’s reminding them of why they can’t afford a Tory government with an unfettered majority, why they actually need a strong opposition. It’s not only my name on the ballot paper locally, its their loyalty to the Labour party and why they were loyal to us. We’re going to have to have lots of debate after this, whatever the result is, to talk about what the Labour party is, what it stands for, and who we are – because my constituents deserve that. Right now, it’s really tough and we’re fighting for every single vote.”
Do you think Labour receives a fair hearing from the media?
GS: Absolutely from LabourList, it’s wonderful! Honestly, I think the problem is with where we are with the mainstream media stuff is we clearly are not running the strongest campaign we could be, that’s clear. There have been a number of things that have happened. But to try and abdicate responsibility for our own shortcomings by blaming the media for not giving a fair reflection of the Labour party, doesn’t help us solve that problem. Doesn’t stop us losing votes to the Tories, and doesn’t prevent the potential of Theresa May having the ability to do whatever she likes.
“Yeah there are some media outlets that are hostile to the Labour party, but they’ve been hostile for years. They’ve been hostile to [Ed] Miliband, they’ve been hostile to Blair and to Brown, and they will always dislike us. And there are some media outlets that are always going to be friendly to us, the fact is if we want to blame other people because our message isn’t resonating, maybe we should be thinking about the message and not the medium.”
RS: I think that’s fair, and just as Gareth said, it’s not like some of these media outlets have ever liked us – you’ve got to remember, they even called Tony Blair ‘Bambi’. The idea that we had, that the media have ever given us a fair hearing is nonsense, but we always had a way through that, and we managed to convince the electorate.
“There are other means of engaging, if anything else what we should be very much aware of is still the power and influence of the mainstream media, because it still does have an impact.
“Media is changing, and changing all around us, but the mainstream media is still very influential.”
GS: One of the things that has frustrated me about the way we run our operation is, and using the Sun as an example, 25 per cent of Sun readers vote Labour. Another 10 per cent would consider voting Labour, and yet we dismiss talking to the Sun as a national newspaper because of their previous problems, and things they’ve done in the past. Alright, we don’t necessarily have to agree with what they’ve done in the past, but there’s a medium there for people who want to vote Labour, who want to hear from us, and by not speaking through them, we’re simply allowing our opposition a free run.
“My dad is a working class Labour man. He reads the Daily Mail. We should be using any avenue open to us to make our case.”
When was the last moment you had to relax and how did you spend it?
GS: Yesterday I took my daughter and her friend to the cinema, we watched Boss Baby and we ate a lot of popcorn.
RS: I’m trying to think when I had a life! Went for dinner on Saturday night, an Italian, it was great – that was a couple of hours off! The fact that we walked in and they asked which one of us was the MP was great.
“What day did May call the election? The day before that, whenever that was!”
To campaign for Ruth Smeeth there are sessions every day of the week. Sessions start 10:00, 2:00 and 6:00 Monday – Friday; 10:00, 2:00 and 5:00 Saturdays; and on Sunday at 11:00am and 2:00pm.
Her office is 45-47 Piccadilly Street, Tunstall, ST6 5AE; and you can contact team Smeeth here: [email protected]
To campaign for Gareth Snell visit his website: www.garethsnell.org.uk
Or you can contact his office 07464 871334, email [email protected] and the office address is Hillcrest House, Garth Street, Stoke-on-Trent, ST1 2AB