Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Letter from Stoke: How to transform a city in decline

Tim Wigmore visits the resilient Midlands city fighting apathy and extremism.

Richard Forbes, who sells jewellery on a table outside Stoke Library, hardly oozes local pride. Nor does his partner, Joanne. “Our plan is to move miles away from here as soon as the kids grow up,” Joanne says.

The pair did not participate in the general election. “Why vote for one bunch of a***holes over another?” Joanna asks. The sentiment is not unusual. Stoke-on-Trent Central had the lowest turnout of any constituency in the country. Fewer than one in two people voted. Richard and Joanne have no idea who their MP is.

“The turnout was terrible,” admits Tristram Hunt, the couple’s MP and briefly a Labour leadership contender this year. A lower proportion of constituents supported him than any other MP in Great Britain. “It is not a source of pride,” he says.

Apathy here reflects white, working-class discontent. Over the past 40 years, local industry suffered three blows: to steel, to coal and to the potteries for which the area is known. Margaret Thatcher’s government might have provided greater support, but no policy could fight against the twin forces of globalisation and mechanisation.

The collapse had what Hunt terms a “Detroit-style impact” on Stoke. “What the city went through was at the absolute pinch-point of big, structural socio-economic forces,” he says. The unemployment rate in his seat is one of the worst in the UK. Much of the remaining work is unskilled: 20 per cent of those employed are in jobs the ONS refers to as “routine” – drivers, labourers, cleaners – the fifth-highest of any constituency in the UK.

At his weekly surgery, Hunt hears grievances on “a traditional collection of benefits, immigration and housing”: late welfare payments, an application for a British passport from someone who has lived in England for ten years, bad neighbours.

“Is it Tristram or Mr Hunt?” a constituent asks the MP. “Tristram,” he says. The name alone shows how little Hunt, the privately educated son of a Labour peer, shares with the city he represents. Still, with his sleeves rolled up, Hunt is engaging and well received.

Yet he has been unable to prevent rising disillusionment in the local Labour Party. While Hunt increased his majority fractionally at the election, winning 39.3 per cent of the vote, the collapse of the party’s overall support in Stoke-on-Trent Central has continued: 12,220 voted Labour in 2015, down from 25,897 in 1992. For a period in the late 1990s Labour controlled every council seat in Stoke; today it controls only 21 out of 44.

“Labour communities felt neglected,” Hunt says. “Voting habits are fraying. The structures – whether it’s trade unions, political parties or chapels – that would historically bring out a Labour vote are no longer there.”

Deindustralisation and local Labour Party scandals produced a toxic cocktail that allowed the BNP to thrive in the early 2000s. To Nick Griffin, Stoke-on-Trent was the BNP’s “jewel in the crown”. The party’s success reinforced Stoke’s reputation as fertile ground for fascism. I meet Andy Platt, a Labour councillor, in the Glebe pub. Across the road lies the headquarters Oswald Mosley used in the 1930s. Mosley’s wife was a former Stoke MP.

“If you can blame somebody else, blame somebody else,” Platt says. “It goes back to dissatisfaction with the very basics – jobs, wages, housing. Those are the issues they use to get people to support their agenda. We’ve got to take on the arguments.”

Platt accepts that the BNP’s success was partly an indictment of Labour. Look beyond the boarded-up shops, less common than a few years ago, and there are glimpses of vibrancy returning to the city centre. The council has been proactive in offering favourable loans to new businesses, and some pottery companies are returning from south-east Asia. There are good transport links to London, Birmingham and Manchester. Stoke-on-Trent was named the UK’s European City of Sport for 2016 and Hunt supports bidding for City of Culture, believing it could transform national perceptions.

Most importantly, attempts are being made to lift the quality of education. When Stoke’s three main industries were robust, school performance didn’t matter much: students knew they had jobs-for-life waiting for them. So the city is “without a culture of formal education”, Hunt says. Changing this is a task that goes beyond schools and teachers. It requires “parents, who themselves often have poor experiences of education, stressing the importance of education and supporting teachers and head teachers”.

The biggest challenge of all might be getting those who live and work here to believe in Stoke. Two years ago the chief executive of the council, John van de Laarschot, bemoaned the attitude of residents. “Everyone complains about it, saying it’s a bit of a dump,” he said. The lack of self-confidence is reflected in the name of the city’s university: Staffordshire, rather than Stoke.

Where despair once translated into support for the BNP, many old supporters have embraced Ukip. The party won over 20 per cent of the vote in all three Stoke constituencies, and came second in two, including Stoke-on-Trent Central. Ukip’s performance was particularly notable because the party had not targeted any of the seats. “It’s very worrying that they got that degree of vote without much organisation at all,” Hunt says.

“The A50 out’s the best thing about Stoke,” Joanne tells me, outside the library. I ask if she would consider voting Ukip next time round. She pauses, and then smiles. “Maybe.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496