BENTILEE, STOKE-ON-TRENT – The false claim on Paul Nuttall’s website that he lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough disaster isn’t just embarrassing. It could be the factor that ends his chances of winning the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election.
“I was going to vote for that Nuttall,” said Fred Easterfield, a Stoke resident. He voted for UKIP at the 2015 general election but now intends to stay at home for next Thursday’s vote.
“He was lying about the Hillsborough disaster – he said he’d got friends there but he hadn’t. I was absolutely disgusted. For anyone to say anything like that turns me right off them. You can’t trust any of them, to be honest. “
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a political news story has actually cut through to the general public or whether it’s merely of interest to a small group of political obsessives. One official in UKIP’s city centre campaign office optimistically described the Hillsborough story and Nuttall’s subsequent apology as “something that only people on Twitter” got excited about.
But judging by the reaction from many voters on Stoke’s enormous Bentilee housing estate, a hillside UKIP heartland three miles from the constituency’s main shopping centre, it seems it could instead become an event that defines Nuttall’s public persona.
Even worse for the new UKIP leader, it was clear that something much more damaging was happening: People who voted for the party at the 2015 general election said they were now withdrawing their support over what they perceived to be a question of trust.
“He’s been caught out lying, so we changed our mind,” said Pamela Morris, standing outside the local frozen food shop. “He’s supposed to be someone who we’re supposed to trust. He’s been caught out lying and you can’t trust someone who’s caught out lying.”
Her husband, Terence Morris, agreed and said he’d pulled his vote from the party, which he’d backed for several years: “It was UKIP until he’s been lying on the television.”
The couple, who voted Leave in the referendum, complained that not enough had been done “about the asylum-seekers” in the area, said they now felt let down by UKIP, and explained they would now be voting Conservative.
Labour, which is fighting to retain the seat in a by-election prompted by the resignation of Tristram Hunt, has been attempting to portray Nuttall as a charlatan. One campaign newspaper issued by Labour consists of four pages of attacks on Nuttall, with no mention of the party’s own candidate, criticising him for being an out-of-town fraud.
None of these attacks seem to have stuck. There were no complaints from the voters of Bentilee about Nuttall being from Liverpool rather than Stoke and no one raised the matter of him not living in the house he’d put down as his address on his nomination papers. But the idea that Nuttall might have in some way lied about his connection to one of the worst tragedies in British football history was too much for some.
UKIP has put everything into this by-election and hundreds of volunteers have flooded the constituency, with 236 taking part on one Saturday. Unlike previous by-election campaigns the party now gives its volunteers lists of people to visit and is collecting their concerns and trying to do casework, with a basic script for doorstep conversations drilled into them by party MEPs sitting in the campaign headquarters in Hanley town centre. It’s far more professional than many UKIP campaigns.
But there’s still a long way to go before it’s anything like comparable to the larger political parties. Dean Bible, walking through Bentilee’s central shops, described himself as a die-hard UKIP supporter who had become more interested in politics over recent years and would vote for the party at any opportunity.
The problem was, he had no idea there was a by-election coming up until he was informed by BuzzFeed News and no one from the party had contacted him to canvass his vote.
There isn’t much good news for Labour – their vote in a former heartland appears to be hollowed out and largely absent as the party takes the blame for years of stagnation on the estate. Many people said they had no interest in politics and wouldn’t be voting at all. The Conservatives remain beyond the pale for the majority of voters in the area, while many residents remained strongly supportive of UKIP despite Nuttall’s issues.
But for some UKIP voters the problem with Nuttall’s Hillsborough comments was less about the details of the accusation and more to do with the idea of trust: UKIP positioned itself as the party that told the truth to the old political order – but what if it’s just like the other parties?
“The party itself is alright but people like that you really can’t trust – if they’re liars, they’re liars,” said Jack Mayer, who said he’ll still reluctantly vote UKIP despite its leader’s words. “You lose faith in them, the same as the people who went before. If you’re dishonest, you’re dishonest. So you can’t trust them. You can’t believe what you’re hearing. I’ll be voting UKIP but I’m not very happy with Nuttall.”
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