"They’ve taken a stand against the establishment by voting for Brexit, and clearly I’m the anti-establishment candidate, because if I win here it will shake politics to its foundations." So says UKIP leader and candidate for the Stoke Central by-election, Paul Nuttall, as he canvasses for votes in the city’s Bentilee suburb.
It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, and most people have just finished their weekly roast – ‘the perfect time for canvassing’, Nuttall’s press officer says. Nuttall has been ambling up a residential street, maintaining a firm distance from the enthusiastic UKIP staffer and two bodyguards pacing behind. Given I passed hardly anyone while walking from Stoke-on-Trent railway station to Hanley in the city centre, it’s hard to know who would bother Nuttall, or even recognise him.
The only evidence that Stoke is on the cusp of a pivotal by-election appears on the front pages of some discarded newspapers lying desolately next to a boarded-up shop. It seems only a handful of homes have party placards in their windows. The energised chatter across the country caused by Labour MP Tristram Hunt’s resignation doesn’t appear to have penetrated into the Potteries.
Given Nuttall will have to upend Stoke Central’s history of low voter turnout in order to win, it remains to be seen if he can really deliver. When former Labour MP Mark Fisher held Stoke Central in 2001, the proportion of people who came out to vote dropped from 62.8 per cent to 47.4 per cent. In the 2015 General Election, which saw Hunt re-elected, only 49.5 per cent cast their ballots – the lowest turnout in the country.