Stoke byelection: this is Britain on the edge, torn between hope and despair | Polly Toynbee

The Stoke Central byelection hangs in the balance between Labour and Ukip: for either, losing on 23 February will be a calamity, causing an existential crisis – and I use that word carefully. Watch the avalanche of political obituaries for the loser.

For Ukip the stakes could not be higher. Lose here and the party is well and truly dead: its new leader, and its candidate here, Paul Nuttall buried on his first outing. Byelections are the great hope of insurgent parties, when voters can indulge in risk-free protest. No seat could be riper than this Brexit hotspot, where almost 70% voted leave: Stoke perfectly matches this week’s BBC research showing the closest correlation between high Brexit areas and low education qualifications.

Though ethnic minorities make up only 15% of Stoke’s population, on the doorstep I found immigration the hot button issue. “Too many here, filling up our schools and hospitals.” What about EU doctors and nurses working in the NHS? “They can stay, but let us choose.” “Yes, immigrants work hard – but they send all their money back home and I’m against that.” “They’re not our culture, are they?” One or two said “Trump’s got the right idea”, matching YouGov’s finding that 29% in Britain support Trump’s migrant ban.

Some are less upfront, but you suspect what’s on their mind: “I’m usually Labour but let’s say I’m thinking about it.” The BNP seized nine council seats in 2009, though was seen off…

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