Stoke Central is set to rank alongside Darlington in 1983 as one of the great by-elections of modern times

Stoke Central is set to rank alongside Darlington in 1983 as one of the great by-elections of modern times

An unlikely LAB hold in Darlington kept an unelectable leader in office

So much has happened in the Stoke central by-election that it it looks set to take its place in by election history alongside what many regard as the most sensational of all, Darlington, in 1983.

That took place exactly a month after the Bermondsey when Simon Hughes had an unlikely and still controversial win against LAB. The political atmosphere at the time, like today, was highly charged as the newly formed SDP was fighting to establish a parliamentary presence. The assumption in Darlington was that this would be an SDP gain but it turned out not to be because of the extraordinary public collapse of the party’s candidate.

He was a local television celebrity who was probed incessantly by the great Newsnight journalist, Vincent Hannah, and it became clear that he knew very little about public issues. Hannah was remorseless.

As it turned out the seat was held by LAB with a 4.6% majority over Michael Fallon for Tories. The winner, Oswald O’Brien, only had 3 months as an MP before Mrs.Thatcher called a General Election in which the Tories took the seat.

Many argue that the by-election had two big political consequences. It impeded the SDP’s momentum at a critical time and also helped reinforce Michael Foot position as Labour leader. There are those who say that if Darlington had been lost then Foot’s position would have been untenable and maybe the red team would have been led by Denis Healey at the 1983 General Election.

So the parallels with the current fight in Stoke central are very strong. We’ve seen the UKIP leader and contender struggle hard against a storm of media stories as well, of course, as the questions about the address he used on his nomination form.

I don’t know who is going to win on Thursday but given the poor publicity I think that Nuttall has a massive challenge. We could get a very tight result with four parties being very close to each other.

Mike Smithson

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