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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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