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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage