22 February 2017

The Stoke by-election isn’t just a referendum on Brexit


“Reckon you’re going to win?”

“Well, we’re the only party opposed to Brexit. That must count for something.”

“That’s funny. We’re telling voters we’re the only party that supports it.”

Civil, bordering on cheery, this was the conversation between two canvassers out knocking on doors the other day on a murky morning in Stoke-on-Trent – one sporting a purple-and-gold UKIP rosette, the other in Lib Dem yellow.

On one level, the exchange was at odds with the tone of what, even by the low standards of parliamentary by-elections, has been a bitter campaign.

The two favourites, the Labour candidate Gareth Snell and UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, are limping towards polling day. The former is avoiding questions about rude tweets (not least about the man he hopes will be his boss). The latter is trying to spin his – or his advisers’ – proclivity for falsehoods as a “coordinated, cruel, almost evil smear campaign”. Their collective efforts have been so lacklustre that some even give the Conservatives an outside chance of victory.

But on another level, that chance encounter was typical of what the two parties’ activists want to talk to voters about – namely, Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit.

In the eyes of some parts of the media, tomorrow’s by-election (held on the same day as another in Copeland) is tantamount to a second referendum on the EU. That’s why, when Tristram Hunt decided to stand down as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, opting instead to run the Victoria & Albert Museum (or what one of his former constituents described vaguely as “some poncy job in London”), it provoked dread within the Labour leadership.

At 69.4 per cent, the Leave vote in Stoke was among the largest in the country. If you wanted to ratchet up the tension between the Remain-supporting Parliamentary Labour Party and its Brexit-voting heartlands, you couldn’t find a better place.

So it is hardly a surprise that much of the coverage so far has been all too true to the old journalistic axiom: “Simplify, then exaggerate”. Nuttall has hyped up Stoke as the “Brexit capital” of the country. We are told that neither Labour nor UKIP can afford to lose here. That careers of Nuttall and Jeremy Corbyn depend on the verdict of the people of Stoke. The country waits with bated breath.

The problem is that the people of Stoke don’t exactly seem itching to deliver that verdict. “I’ve already heard from you lot,” says one Stoke resident to a UKIP activist asking how he intends to vote.

“Sorry. I don’t vote,” says another. “They’re all as bad as each other” is a typical response.

In empty houses, election leaflets pile up on doormats. And if someone is at home, they’re as likely to pretend to be out as they are to answer the door. “Most of you have become used to seeing yourselves on the television answering the thousands of reporters who have descended on Hanley,” joked a columnist in the Sentinel, Stoke’s local newspaper.

This level of apathy is not exactly surprising. If a high-profile by-election, complete with a visit from the Prime Minister, is one extreme of the first past the post system, the constituency found itself at the other end of the spectrum two years ago.

In the 2015 General Election, turnout in the seat was just 49.9 per cent, the lowest in the country. Since the seat’s creation in 1950, Stoke Central has only ever returned a Labour MP – but it is emblematic of a heartland long taken for granted by the party. Labour received less than half as many votes in 2015 as it did in 1997, with UKIP surge surging from 4 per cent in 2010 (when they received fewer votes than the BNP) to 23 per cent.

Those who did answer the door had plenty to say about their city. and the party that has represented it for as long as anyone can remember. “There’s nothing left,” is the verdict of one voter, a retired ex-miner who had been on the picket line in the Eighties. “Michelin, Wedgewood, all gone.” (In fact, both firms still operate in Stoke, albeit on a much smaller scale.)

“Who will you be voting for?” asks a UKIP canvasser, a retired soldier with a St George’s cross badge that reads “Enoch was right” pinned to his collar. “I shan’t be voting,” he replies. “My father voted Labour, my grandfather voted Labour, but I haven’t voted for them in years. Not after Blair.”

His complaints are wide-ranging – his pension, the NHS, the treatment of retired servicemen. And he finds much common ground with the UKIP activist, who cannot quite squeeze a pledge out of him.

A few streets away, a couple who work for Stoke-on-Trent council say they have voted UKIP in recent years. The husband says he was “a union man at the council for 20 years” but they are worried about immigration. “It’s got out of hand,” adds his wife. “Look at the NHS for starters.”

On the surface, this seems like a familiar story. Slow-cooked discontent, with Labour support evaporating steadily over the last two decades, then things finally bubbling over in the form of Brexit. This caricature of Stoke is one of faded glory: the potteries that made it the ceramics capital of the world eviscerated by deindustrialisation; the coal mines and steel plants closed; the city and community left behind by London.

Certainly, the contrast between Stoke and the larger English cities that have forged a post-industrial identity is clear. Yet what is most obvious is that Stoke is not the failed place that some, including numerous UKIP activists keen to bemoan a city “left to crumble” by Labour and the Conservatives, make it out to be.

At 72.3 per cent, Stoke’s employment rate is only marginally lower than the national average, 74.5 per cent. And though manufacturing is not what it was, 13 per cent of Stoke’s workforce still have jobs in that sector. Barely 2 per cent of those of working age claim out-of-work benefits.

With jobs in healthcare and retail replacing heavy industry, Stoke is not an aberration; instead it is typical of large swathes of most Western economies. And its problem is not mass joblessness but low pay, as workers swap the dangerous but secure for the safe but unstable: average weekly earnings are among the lowest in the country.

Stoke has natural advantages. It is centrally located, with excellent transport links, and is an inexpensive place to start a business.

But the city is ill equipped to capitalise on them. Nearly 15 per cent of the working-age population have no formal qualifications at all. In 2015, just over 50 per cent of pupils failed to achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.

Stoke matters, in other words, not because it is the country’s “Brexit capital” but because its problems are so typical of the wider challenges facing Britain and every other Western nation – a place where the composition of the economy and the nature of work are changing in a way that presents as many opportunities as challenges.

Dissatisfied, anxious and with rather more to lose than you’d think, what Stoke’s voters crave above all is greater prosperity. And on this showing, neither UKIP nor Labour has anything resembling a convincing plan to deliver it.

Oliver Wiseman is political editor of Standpoint