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.”