Even before the selection of the telegenic Cambridge-educated historian Tristram Hunt as Lord Mandelson's candidate of choice to fight this once rock-solid Labour seat, the battle for Stoke-on-Trent was shaping up as one of the most colourful and controversial of the forthcoming election.
The British National Party, after spending the best part of the last decade steadily making inroads at city hall, was claiming the Potteries as the "jewel in its crown" and openly boasting it was about to gain its first seat in the House of Commons here – deploying deputy leader Simon Darby with that historic goal in mind.
And the Conservative candidate was announced as Norsheen Bhatti, who is a former belly dancer willing to flaunt her midriff for up to £260 an hour. News that the thoroughly modern Mr Hunt had been chosen to defend outgoing Old Labour MP Mark Fisher's 9,774 majority in Stoke Central sparked another bout of furious internal fighting yesterday. The secretary of the local party, Gary Elsby, lambasted the selection process as a "filthy and squalid affair" and threatened to run against the academic from north London, who had swayed supporters at an emotionally-charged hustings in the city on Thursday night. Activists had attempted to halt proceedings in anger at the National Executive Committee's exclusion of local applicants from the final shortlist.
Speaking after the vote, Mr Hunt sought to play down claims he had been parachuted in as a Blairite coup, insisting he would take the fight to the Tories and the BNP. "I'm no one's man – I do my own thinking – but I don't think it's a bad thing to have connections at the top. If I can bring in some ministers and some influence then I will do it for Stoke-on-Trent," he said.
Labour's star in the six towns of Stoke has slumped spectacularly since 1997 when Mr Hunt, then working for the Labour party, was sat alongside Lord Mandelson in Millbank masterminding victory in the polls. Then the party held all 60 seats in the city council and returned all three MPs with five-figure majorities. Since then Labour has been reduced to a rump of 14 councillors and is said to be haemorrhaging support in former strongholds to the BNP.
The far-right party has exploited white working-class angst over the virtual disappearance of heavy industry – steelworks, mines and potteries – in the area, plus immigration.
With nine local councillors the BNP, led by Alby Walker, had become the third-biggest force on the council. Until January – when Mr Walker and his wife, also a councillor, dramatically quit the BNP and he announced his intention to stand against Simon Darby as an independent for the Parliamentary seat. Since then Mr Walker has claimed to be the victim of a BNP smear campaign. He has denounced the party for holocaust denial and accused its leader Nick Griffin of surrounding himself with "sycophants". The party, he said, was beset with "drunks, misfits and oddballs hanging around the fringes". He added: "I came in from the wrong direction for people to accept me. I hope they can forgive me. I have quite a lot of support." Mr Walker called Mr Hunt a "champagne socialist" and said: "I cannot see the people of Stoke-on-Trent voting for anyone called Tristram."
Also competing in this increasingly fragmented political landscape where eight candidates and counting have already declared is Norsheen Bhatti. The Birmingham-born solicitor plays down her belly dancing past. "People have lives. It is very cultural and the story was taken out of context," she said yesterday. She admitted the campaign would "certainly be interesting" but insisted she was unfazed by having to face a candidate such as Mr Hunt.
"My experience is that the people of Stoke Central feel very let down and abandoned by Labour. They don't care whether the candidate is high profile. The fact is they have seen Labour's record in Stoke-on-Trent where youth unemployment is so high," she said. Nor did she believe her Asian background would work against her in a seat with such a strong BNP presence.
"People in Stoke are not racist. When I knock on their doors and chat I have never had a problem. They are more interested in what I have to say rather than the colour of my skin," she said.Reuse content