How Stoke lost the faith
Healthy Labour majorities have long been guaranteed in Stoke-on-Trent, thanks to a self-reinforcing triumvirate of work, trade unionism and party loyalty. However, Labour safe seats in northern, working-class towns risk being taken for granted. In 2015, all 20 seats with the lowest turnout were won by Labour – an expression of apathy, distrust and disillusionment. This vote haemorrhage is having a catastrophic effect on support nationally, which Labour must not ignore.
Geologically, Stoke-on-Trent is an outcrop of quick-burning coals, clays and marls in North Staffordshire. The character of the subsoil and an abundance of coal and clay favoured the growth of the local pottery industry and by 1800 the area became the epicentre of the world’s ceramic production, with over 2,000 pottery kilns. Stoke’s six towns, home to Royal Doulton, Spode and Wedgewood, were dubbed ‘The Potteries’. As a child, I learnt to absent-mindedly inspect the bottom of cups and saucers to proudly find a Potteries mark. Also a centre for coal mining and the iron and steel industries, it was here the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown and John Wesley’s Methodism first energised the English working class. As such, Stoke lays claim to being the first city of the Labour movement.
Yet, a sharp drop in British manufacturing in the twentieth century brought these industries, so integral to Stoke’s identity, to breaking point. Thatcher and Heseltine assisted in the systematic destruction of the coal industry, whilst globalisation saw steel works undercut. In the decade between 1998 and 2008, Staffordshire’s potteries experienced over 20,000 job losses.
In many industrial cities, such as Stoke, the fabric of working-class communities is fraying, seen in the decline of the high street and the closure of symbols of community strength, including working men’s clubs, municipal buildings and churches. These symptoms of civil collapse, combined with ineffectual municipal leadership, and the decimation of industry, have contributed to widespread anger throughout many safe Labour seats.
Indeed, following the 2010 General Election, Stoke was dubbed the ‘jewel in the BNP crown’, with the party winning 7.7 per cent of the vote in Stoke Central. Fortunately, the local Labour Party worked hard to wipe out the BNP. However, where despair and anger once translated into BNP support, voters turned to Ukip, who won over 20 per cent of the vote in all three Stoke constituencies in 2015.
Labour received a membership boost in many northern seats this year, but a key pattern emerges when speaking to Stoke residents: we need local MPs we can relate to. Ruth Smeeth, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, is oft praised for her support of the remaining pottery industry, and her background resonates well with many residents. And constituents appreciate Tristram Hunt’s dedication to Stoke and his regular presence at local meetings. However, politicians in deindustrialised, impoverished constituencies face a potentially impossible battle to avoid the tag of ‘cultural theorist’, unable to connect with constituents. Indeed, Hunt is still criticised for being out of touch, an MP ‘parachuted’ into his seat. Time and again, the question is raised: Where are our constituency born-and-bred MPs?
Preventing a wipe-out of Labour in the heartlands must begin by attracting MPs born and raised in their constituencies and nurturing more accents, both in Parliament and on the door step. Only then can we begin to rediscover a truly inclusive politics which offers to unify struggling communities. Oliver Coppard said: ‘Campaigning can’t just be a speech; it has to be a conversation.’ But in northern working-class towns, this conversation must be between local people, in local dialects and accents.
This battle for communities like Stoke – and a battle I believe MPs such as Tristram Hunt and Ruth Smeeth are well equipped to lead – must include a fight against a lack of political education in schools, which, combined with local history lessons, could begin to re-engage a generation of lost voters.
Finally, Labour must avoid grouping working-class towns together and embrace individual communities – the history, the people and the skills. Our old industrial towns must become, once again, a source of pride. No longer referred to in passing as ‘jewel[s] of the BNP crown’ or ‘Brexit capitals of Britain’, but to once again become the home of the Labour movement. As a party we must remember our roots and the value of the individuals and communities that remain even after industries are forced to close. This country needs Labour party representatives who are authentic voices for our communities. This change cannot be done to working-class towns and cities; the change must be done with them.
Image: Andrew Bartram