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

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage