A week ago, Stoke-on-Trent Central was another brick in the so-called ‘Red Wall’. But it has turned blue in a wave of Tory gains that give Boris Johnson a mandate and the ability to do pretty much whatever he wants for the foreseeable future.
The Labour Party now seems hell-bent on finger pointing and commissioning various reports on what went wrong. Before even a single word has been written, the cries of ‘Brexit’, ‘Corbyn’ and ‘Brexit and Corbyn’ rise in a cacophony of blame. Both of those are true – and nowhere more so than in Stoke-on-Trent Central, which I lost by 670 votes, on a night where our heartlands ceased being just that.
It is undeniable that the Labour Party’s increasingly ‘Remain at all costs’ policy was not popular in Leave-voting Stoke-on-Trent, and the opinions of Stoke-on-Trent voters about our leader on the doorsteps were divided. Some people loved him and others… well, let’s just say they chose other words. Whether our policy was or was not ‘Remain at all costs’ is immaterial because as far as the voters I spoke to were concerned, it was exactly that. Nuance was lost and the strategic ambiguity was blown out of the water.
But as early as spring next year, both of those ‘issues’ will be irrelevant. The UK’s exit from the EU will have happened, and Jeremy Corbyn will have been replaced as leader. It is easy to blame Corbyn for seats like mine giving up a lifetime of tradition and voting Conservative, but the Labour Party has always been more than one man.
Others in the shadow cabinet are undoubtedly responsible for where we find ourselves and they include the chief architect of our Brexit position, Sir Keir Starmer, who has a big dollop of culpability for why our former heartland seats chose the Tories.
I’ve been outspoken on Brexit. I could see from my two elections in 2017 that the Labour voters who voted to leave the EU were hanging on by their fingertips to their ancestral Labour vote. My first election in February 2017 was launched by Sir Keir in a pottery factory. We told the press we would deliver on the referendum; we told the cameras that the people of Stoke-on-Trent could vote for me and be assured that I would work to make Brexit work for the Potteries. Former miners and steel workers and current and ex-potters alike – all of whom voted Labour, and most of whom voted Leave, were promised that Labour would “respect the result”.
But between the 2017 general election and this month’s catastrophic defeat, the party became more and more pro-second referendum compounded by the response to, and fear of, a Lib Dem resurgence in London at the European elections. This and their slight improvement in other regions provided the catalyst for Labour, led by Sir Keir and Emily Thornberry, to go full Remain – but at what cost?
The party ignored the surge of Brexit Party votes in every region, including in Stoke-on-Trent, and instead celebrated the huge decline in the Tory vote. Leave seat MPs who saw the gulf between our traditional base and our Brexit policy begged Sir Keir Starmer and others in the shadow cabinet to recognise that, for many of our former voters, more money for the NHS and schools was not enough to overturn their desire to “get Brexit done”. Turns out being popular with the membership was more important than holding parliamentary seats and trying to hold together our electoral coalition.
Those who spoke up on Brexit were heard by Jeremy, and he did take time to listen to what we were being told on the doorstep. But ultimately nothing changed, and I can only assume he was bounced into the Brexit position by its proponents in his shadow cabinet. We had allies in people like Angela Rayner, Jon Trickett and Andrew Gwynne, but the Starmer/Thornberry axis won.
Perhaps the worst meeting in my time in parliament was with a group of MPs from Leave-voting seats – around 14 in total – with the Chief Whip earlier this year. Colleagues wept as they told him how the party’s continual move towards cancelling Brexit was making it clear that we no longer cared about those communities we had always represented, that it would cost them their seats and break the Labour Party in some communities. Almost everyone in the room subsequently lost last week.
Brexit will have happened by the time my staff receive their redundancy. We will have a new leader by Easter. But these changes alone won’t fix the relationship between the Labour Party and our traditional communities – too many places that founded the Labour Party are no longer represented by the Labour Party. There is a huge amount of work for us now to do to rebuild trust and our relevance to the people we seek to serve.