On Tuesday, Ian Horner and I as Agent and Campaign Co-ordinator respectively cleared the by-election HQ for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Unlike many such events from former by-elections, this was no sad or weary wake.
As we loaded up the bags and boxes, sorted out what could caravan into the next election portal we laughed, smiled and exchanged anecdotes of a campaign well fought.
1. Over 60% of the constituency that voted had voted against the Stoke Labour Party nominee, Gareth Snell. This result ws no ringing endorsement.
2. UKIP – the party that was going to win this unfairly designated “capital of Brexit” – were beaten and their Leader sent packing to fight his own internal civil war with no mandate, no victory and a clear rejection.
3. The ramifications of Labour’s strategy of total compromise and to become the party of Brexit Plus has lead to them voting with the Government. Yes, on Brexit Labour supported the government – now arguably the suicide note of history just got shorter.
4. The Tories, with a young shiny candidate did well to consolidate their support, build in their local councillor base and to almost supplant UKIP for second.
So with these elements at play, what worked for the Liberal Democrats?
We ran a campaign that was bold, confident, almost audacious. I recall clearly the moment in Sleaford and North Hykeham when it emerged that Ross Pepper was the only remain anti-Brexit candidate. With Labour fleeing the field, it is now clear that that will be the norm now going forwards.
Dr Zulfiqar Ali was a strong, confident, mature and experienced candidate for us in the City of Stoke. He is a former councillor and a respected member of the community. And everyone who met Zulfi liked him, was impressed by him and crucially his calm friendliness gained us respect and support.
In a bitter dog-fight between Labour and UKIP we should have been squeezed within an inch of losing our deposit and we were not. In fact we were the only party that gained in terms of position (5th to 4th), in share of the vote (up 6%) and up in terms of number of votes cast from 2015 General Election and now.
So what happens now? Well I’m a disciple of old school community politics – not as a tactic – but as a philosophy. Over the years we have often fought a by-election in a ward and sometimes a constituency and used that enhanced result to win subsequently. I would perhaps cruelly observe that in more recent years we have, as a party, seen by-elections as the pinnacle of what was possible. I think this by-election was a foundation stone.
At home on my wall, almost forgotten, I have a nomination form when I stood as a candidate in the Shelton by-election in the City in 1995. It was a big ward and we moved into a good second place. At the next Shelton by-election in 1998 that dry-run laid the ground for the victory of Ian Openshaw winning our first ever City Council seat. I want to repeat that groundwork and principle with this parliamentary by-election.
If my maths, my insight and my instincts are correct there are now up to 8 wards that with the right candidates and with a sustained community politics campaign could lay the ground for a much needed renaissance of liberal democracy in the City of Stoke-on-Trent.
And so as we loaded up the van to clear the rubbish, put aside the useful documents for the handover with the Local Party, we agreed to be back on Wednesday 8th March for the next meeting of the Local Party Executive. At that meeting I hope to embed the lessons we have learnt, confirm the strategy ahead and continue the community politics that Dr Zulfiqar Ali, with your help, has kickstarted with his strong result last week. It won’t happen immediately but the elections in Stoke-on-Trent in a couple of years give us time to get it right, and time to show you what you really have achieved over the last six weeks. We have lots to do but thank you. Genuinely. Thank you.
* Ed Fordham is a councillor on Chesterfield Borough Council and runs Brockwell Books of Chesterfield, selling many thanks, not least ephemera he bought from Liber Books over the last 25 years.