In Stoke-on-Trent North, apathy and mistrust put Labour's slim majority at risk

Once a safe seat, Labour's majority in this pro-Leave marginal has dropped by more than 75 per cent since 2005. Will Ruth Smeeth hold on?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

 

Sandra has always voted Labour, but on 12 December she isn’t planning to vote for anyone. First of all, says the 51-year-old resident of Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent, it’s because she wants to leave the EU. But it’s also her lack of faith in the system. “I just don’t believe in any of them. They just do what they want and the city has gone to the dogs.”

Dawn Arrowsmith won’t be voting this time, either. “I’m not bothered,” she says. "They will just do whatever.” In any case, with politics, “when it’s on TV I just turn it off."

Both women – pro-Brexit, veteran Labour voters – are emblematic of the major challenge facing Ruth Smeeth, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and the wider party in Leave-voting Labour seats across the UK. With a majority of only 2,359 and an overwhelming majority for Leave – 72 per cent of constituents voted to exit the EU in 2016 – Labour has the difficult task of convincing locals that it will deliver Brexit. Its pledge of a second referendum within six months of being elected may prove more attractive to Remainers. Smeeth faces competition from the unequivocal Brexit messages of the Conservative candidate Jonathan Gullis and the Brexit Party’s Richard Watkin, while the Remain vote will be contested by Lib Dem Peter Andras and Alan Borgars of the Greens. Matt Dilworth, a pro-Brexit YouTuber, is also standing as an independent.

High unemployment and a lack of local investment have contributed to support for Brexit in the area, which was once a thriving centre of the pottery industry. One of the earliest manufacturers in Burslem, the “Mother Town of the Potteries,” was Wedgwood. “We’ve been left to rot, basically,” says Amanda Bromley, whose corner gallery on Market Place is a spot of colour and light on a grey and blustery afternoon. Held by Labour for decades, the party’s majority in this seat has shrunk from more than 10,036 in 2005.

Around town are old industrial buildings, the legacy of the potteries, many empty and in disrepair. “The identity and family history of local people is wrapped up in these buildings,” says Bromley. This month, she organised a protest when a Grade II-listed former teapot factory was partially demolished because it was at risk of collapse.

One 26-year-old Remainer who will vote Labour on 12 December says the effects of neglect have been exacerbated by Brexit. The restaurant he was working for until last week was “pretty much destroyed” by the uncertainty around leaving the EU. In April, Dudson, a nearby pottery manufacturer, which had been operating since 1800, axed 300 local jobs. This week, another Stoke-on-Trent pottery firm, Portmeirion, issued a profit warning. “That’s another thing to do with Brexit”, he says.

Bromley appreciates that going into this election, Smeeth is in a “difficult position, but I think she is a good person with good values.” Still, she is undecided. “Normally, I’d know,” she says. This time, a combination of Brexit – usually a Labour supporter, she voted Remain but wants to respect the referendum result – and the party’s anti-Semitism crisis have left her stuck. “As a gay woman it affects my vote. It appals me. That’s another reason why I’m struggling.”

Smeeth, who has spoken out about the anti-Semitic and misogynistic abuse she has suffered online and offline, is one of a handful of "exceptional candidates in exceptional circumstances" the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) is actively campaigning for in this election. Mike Katz, JLM’s chair, will be travelling to Stoke himself in the coming weeks. JLM is asking members to volunteer in Stoke because Smeeth, its parliamentary chair, “is marginal and vulnerable,” he says. On the doorstep he has heard it's been “tough going but positive.” Smeeth’s office told the New Statesman that the MP would be declining media requests in order to focus on the campaign.

Katz believes Labour’s anti-Semitism saga will be an issue for Stoke-on-Trent North voters, even though there are few Jews in the area. “There is a halo effect,” says Katz, who himself stood for Labour in Hendon in 2017. “Being seen as a racist party is not a good look anywhere... People take a lead from that, whether or not they have skin in the game.”

For Julie Evans, out walking her dog Archie in the bitter cold, the choice is clear. She voted Leave and will vote Conservative in this election, as she usually does. “I think there’s more chance that they will leave than Labour,” she says. Evans doesn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn and thinks the Tories “could have done better” than Boris Johnson. Still, she says, “I trust the Conservatives more.”

Apathy and lack of trust in politicians are yet more challenges faced by candidates here. Turnout in 2017 was 58.4 per cent, among the lowest in the UK. Martin Travers, 33, won’t be voting for anyone on 12 December because he almost never votes, including in the 2016 referendum. And with Brexit, politicians are, as usual, not delivering what they said they would. "It’s a big group of highly paid professional people who can’t make a decision.”

This lack of faith is another factor in local support for Brexit. “They feel let down by the government so they voted Leave,” says 73-year-old Laura Lee, a Labour Remainer who lives in Stoke-on-Trent South, where Conservative Jack Brereton is the MP. “They are looking for someone to blame.”

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.