Mark Seddon is a man I respect and admire but his piece in yesterday's Guardian about the selection of Labour's candidate for Stoke Central is unhelpful, distracting and, in my view, just plain wrong. Like Mark, I too put my name forward to be Labour’s candidate for Stoke and like him I was unsuccessful. I was born only a few miles away from the city, have written various pieces about the politics of the city in the past few years and have been a PPC for the marginal seat (Shrewsbury) in 2005. I was hopeful of making the shortlist and disappointed when informed that I would be taken through to the final stages. Do I believe that the shortlist was probably ‘engineered’ to ensure that Tristram Hunt won the nomination? Yes, I do. Does this annoy, frustrate and disappoint me? A little bit. Do I think this the fault of Tristram Hunt? No, I do not. Do I think Tristram will make an excellent constituency MP? Absolutely.
The thrust of Mark’s article is that Labour’s selection of Tristram Hunt has made a BNP victory in Stoke more, not less likely. The truth is that Hunt’s selection will make little, if any difference to the result in May. We have known for months that the BNP has been busy exploiting the present economic crisis. Last year in an article for Tribune (once edited by Mark Seddon) I suggested that one reason for the BNP's growing support in areas like Stoke has been its ability to respond to and exploit genuine local grievances. Since then we have had the debacle of MP expense claims, which will only end up exacerbating people's distrust of the political establishment and could help turn even more people toward the far right. What I found most disappointing about Mark’s piece was that it offered no route map as to how the many decent, hard working Labour members and supporters in Stoke might fight back and counter the depressing, hateful and bigoted message that the BNP is set on spreading. The people of the Stoke have a fine and distinguished record in promoting and defending equality (it is the birthplace of Hugh Bourne the 19th century campaigner for education for children and for treating women as equals). Labour’s tactic of simply talking about how it recognises the various symptoms of dissatisfaction is not enough. As a political movement the left needs to address some of the underlying causes that have resulted in traditional Labour supporters taking refuge in the policies of the far right. Mark is right when he argues that the BNP is often successful in so-called “forgotten” white areas where many traditional Labour supporters say they feel alienated from modern political discourse and that no one in the Labour party is listening to them.
A well used BNP tactic is to focus on people who traditionally have voted Labour but now feel neglected by this government. Many of these people feel that they have only two places they can go. One is not to vote, the other is to vote for the far right. All too often there is a lack of what might be described as a “safe space” for ordinary working people to air their feelings - they often struggle to find the language to say what they want without being thought of or even accused of being a racist. In the likes of Stoke the BNP is developing a network of supporters who are now openly willing to admit to not only voting for a racist and bigoted political party, but are doing so with pride and patriotic fervour. Too many Labour MPs have been too quiet on the issue of the BNP, Gordon Brown included. Brown would send out a powerful message to his party’s core supporters if he were to personally throw his weight behind a call for a new “coalition of the willing” that will help to blunt the advance of the far-right in this country by addressing some of the genuine concerns of white working-class voters while at the same time openly challenging those concerns that have no factual or legitimate basis.
Stoke is just the sort of place where local people want to be treated - and want their neighbours to be treated - fairly. They don't want favours and they don't want special treatment. Mark Seddon is a decent, thoughtful and able individual. I would personally like to see him in parliament one day and am confident that he will continue to make a significant contribution to the debate that surrounds the future direction of left of centre progressive politics. He, like me, knows that the majority of people of Stoke hate what the BNP stands for and would just love to get back to voting for Labour out of conviction and not simply out of convention.
Our efforts in the coming weeks should be directed towards securing the fourth term for Labour, at this stage all else will appear more than a little self indulgent.