Stoke-on-Trent is a city in between: between the North and the Midlands, between the bigger cities of Manchester and Birmingham, between the old that’s dying and the new that can’t be born. Made up of six once-prosperous working-class towns on a rich seam of coal and clay, Stoke lived on mining, steel, and its world famous potteries (think Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode, and many more) until the last decades of the 20th century. “Everyone here’s an artist,” local historian and ex-council member Fred Hughes tells me. “Half the people dug coal and half made beautiful things with their hands.”
But the collieries closed, some of them after the 1980s miners’ strike was crushed by Margaret Thatcher; the last steelworks went 17 years ago. Though the potteries are seeing a small revival and employ about 10,000 people, that’s only a fraction of the 70,000 who threw and fired and decorated pots and plates here in the ’60s. Some families on Stoke’s public-housing estates have been living on benefits for two or three generations; most new jobs are in services, call centers, and distribution warehouses. The biggest private employer, with 3,000 workers, is the online-gambling company Bet365, founded by a local woman whose father owns Stoke City football club. The old working-class communities have been atomized and deskilled.
In last June’s referendum on EU membership, Stoke voted for Brexit by almost 70 percent, one of the highest proportions in the country, even though half the pottery made here is exported to Europe. Now, along with Copeland in Cumbria to the north, Stoke is facing a by-election for a new member of Parliament. Tristram Hunt, one of Stoke’s three representatives, has resigned his Stoke Central seat—ironically, to run London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, set up in the 19th century to educate and inspire manufacturers and craftsmen. Stoke has been solidly Labour since 1945, but the party’s share of the vote has been falling, with the most dramatic drop after Tony Blair’s first term in 2001. (“Blair?” says Tony Shilkoff, a retired mechanical-project engineer. “Just a Tory in another suit.”)
The seat’s now a prime target for the UK Independence Party, whose persistent needling provoked the referendum, and who narrowly beat the Conservatives into third place here a year and half ago. If they win, it will give them their second elected representative in Westminster and a plausible claim to post-Brexit relevance as a populist party for Britain’s working class. And the February 23 vote is being seen nationally as a test for Labour and for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership: If UKIP can steal Stoke from Labour’s inside pocket, which of its heartlands is safe?
But elections are clumsy instruments for gauging human wishes. If I learned one thing from my brief sojourn in Stoke, it’s that the national repercussions of this surreal battle are not what’s on most people’s minds. The city’s become a cockpit for a shadow contest between outside forces, complete with visits from the party leaders (including the prime minister) and shock troops of hacks. Not for the first time, Stoke is being played.
It would be hard to miss the UKIP campaign office, in the curved shopfront of a former bakery on the main plaza of the city center’s pedestrianized shopping precinct—a rundown, nondescript, impersonal place paved with cheap-looking pale bricks. You can imagine the developers’ drawings before the old streets were dug up in the ’70s: a sunny day, young couples and modern families strolling with their shopping bags. Now Wednesday lunchtime looks like a cold Sunday afternoon; 5 o’clock feels like midnight.
The bakery’s done up in bright UKIP purple, with candidate Paul Nuttall’s name in letters two feet high wrapped round the front. Nuttall, who replaced Nigel Farage as party leader in November, has been parachuted in to offer Stoke “a national voice in Parliament,” but his penchant for alternative facts has seriously dented his campaign. He gave a false address when he registered his candidacy—a house in Stoke he’d bought but never been to—which is a criminal offense in Britain. His website is now down for “scheduled maintenance” after publishing false claims that he played professional football, is a board member of a vocational training charity, and lost “a close personal friend” in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday’s football stadium because of police negligence.
In spite of all this, Nuttall’s agent, Mick Harold (who stood for the seat last time), tells me UKIP’s running its most professional campaign ever, canvassing every neighborhood, with busloads of volunteers coming in to help. He’s bullish about Nuttall’s prospects: Labour, he says, have been here for 60 years and “done very little”; people won’t vote Tory because of memories of the miners’ strike. But what kind of jobs would UKIP bring to Stoke? “Anything we can get. There are brownfield sites that could be developed; we’d like to move a government department here.”
UKIP isn’t about attention to detail or local needs; it’s an anti-politics party feeding on resentment. At the hustings held the week before the vote, Nuttall talked up Stoke’s “appetite to kick back against the establishment”; Stoke, he said, “can become the capital of change.” The almost caricatural tweedy manner he affects in his flat cap and brogues, like Farage’s bluff beer-drinking persona, is both part of UKIP’s appeal to a mythical Englishness and a performance meant to set him apart from politics as usual: The unacknowledged comedy carries its own dark kick. But though UKIP’s youth wing has been selling purple “Make Britain Great Again” baseball caps, Harold’s lips purse at the suggestion that UKIP’s message has affinities with the US president’s: “We don’t make any comparisons with Trump.” The grinning volunteer outside, who’s come all the way from Scotland with a hand-painted purple placard, has a different view. “Trump’s going to turn it around,” she says. “Farage went to see him. So did Marine Le Pen. You’ll see.”
UKIP’s garish HQ says a lot about its Stoke campaign: This is a pop-up launching a broader takeover where its product has sold well. But Labour’s campaign office tells a story too. “I don’t know where it is,” several people I ask for directions tell me. “I’ve only seen that other one.” Labour’s based in a building that belongs to the GMB, Britain’s second-largest trade union, which took over the ceramics workers’ union here two years ago: a modern red-brick structure across a four-lane highway from the shopping precinct, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It’s rooted in the community’s history, but it’s also cut off from people’s daily lives. And though the receptionist is friendly and polite (and I’m a Labour Party member), I’m not allowed in to talk to the activists there without a previous appointment.
Labour’s operation (reinforced by a stream of MPs and volunteers coming to Stoke to help) is geared to canvassing and pavement-pounding, not advertising and media access. But it’s hard to avoid a suspicion of defensiveness, too. Gareth Snell, the Labour candidate and a local councilor, has had his share of Twitter trouble: some sexist tweets about women on TV shows from a few years ago and, especially worrying for Stoke, a more recent one calling Brexit “a massive pile of shit.” He also supported Corbyn’s opponent in the leadership challenge last summer, though he’s now lined up behind both Corbyn and Brexit. But that’s just a small fragment of Labour’s difficulties.
The EU referendum exposed a massive split between the party and its voters in deindustrialized cities like Stoke-on-Trent; the Leave vote was partly a consequence of that long-widening rift. Labour was and is profoundly divided on Brexit; its campaign for Remain under Corbyn was half-hearted at best. But the rift with the grassroots isn’t really about Europe, which became a symbol for all the ways in which the party and the “metropolitan elites” are out of touch. As Sam Deacon, a Leave campaigner and former Labour (now UKIP) voter told Guardian journalist John Harris before the referendum, “I’ll never vote for them again because they aren’t for the working class. Fifteen years of Labour and everything’s gone down…. It seems to me all Europe’s about is a borderless mass of cheap labor for the transatlantic corporations.” Or, as a second-generation Bengali cabdriver, a long-time Labour member who voted Leave, put it to me, “We worked for Tristram Hunt, he did bugger all, and now he’s going. They’re all the same.”
Stoke’s sorrows are deep and complex, and they can’t all be laid at Labour’s door. Standing beside a hideous building clad in eye-popping colored panels put up a few years ago to house the city administration (which then didn’t move in), local historian Fred Hughes traces the trouble back as far as 1910, when the six towns of the Potteries were merged into one city by a vote in Westminster. Low-grade battles between the different centers over resources and prestige continue to this day. And while Labour has held Stoke nationally for a solid half-century, local politics has been turbulent for at least 15 years. In the mid 2000s, the extreme-right British National Party moved on the poorest housing estates to win nine seats on the city council; the BNP have been seen off, but Stoke’s now run by a coalition of City Independents, Conservatives, and UKIP.
Walking around Hanley, Stoke’s commercial center, Fred points out monuments to the town’s old civic pride that have survived successive waves of botched “regeneration”: the grand Bethesda Chapel adorned with Corinthian columns, the neoclassical former meat market, the red-brick Victorian town hall. That now faces two ugly office buildings, home to BBC Radio Stoke and a Bingo hall; until the ’70s, its high windows looked down on rows of terraced houses built for Stoke’s working families. “Investment” in Stoke has too often taken the form of knocking down old housing stock for new developments—most recently in a Labour scheme launched in 2002 that bought and demolished hundreds of homes, dismembering whole communities and replacing them with almost nothing.
Labour, as trusted custodian of Stoke’s fortunes for decades, does have a lot to answer for. “I think the UKIP bloke will win,” says Tony Shilkoff, the retired engineer. “This area’s voted Labour for 50 years, but they’ve never done anything for us locally. They took us for granted, saw us as a safe seat. The southeast is getting everything—we need money spent on us here. But now it’s the people who’ve profited from globalization who’ll be voted in.”
I meet Tony at St. Mark’s Church in Hanley, where he volunteers with Sanctus, a project supporting asylum seekers and refugees. The minister, Rev. Sally Smith, grew up in the area; back in 1979 she worked as a ware counter in a pottery. She remembers the terraced streets, teenagers sitting on the front steps with guitars—“Northern soul,” she says, checking to see that I know what she’s talking about. Her parish is mostly Pakistani and Bengali families who came here decades ago. She doesn’t remember any tensions until the jobs started to go and the BNP arrived: “They hooked in to the decline.”
In 1999 the Blair government launched a chaotic plan to disperse asylum seekers across Britain to “ease the pressure” on London; in its wisdom it sent several hundred to Stoke to live in some of the city’s poorest housing with almost no support. Sally, a former registered nurse, was ordained as a minister in 2009. When she took over this Victorian church, built for 2,000 worshippers, she had a congregation of “about 12 white people.” Gradually, asylum seekers and Stoke’s indigenous homeless began to ask for help, so she opened the door and put the toaster and the kettle on. Her Sunday services now attract 50 or 60 people, mostly Iraqis and Iranians, many of whom are choosing to be baptized as Christians.
At St. Mark’s during the weekly drop-in, the pews are crowded with chattering people of all faiths and colors, getting and giving advice; the side of the nave hosts a long trestle where a refugee from Somalia is handing out bags of vegetables; in a separate room, mothers and toddlers are singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” The Sanctus project is supported entirely by donations and volunteers and is in direct contact with 600 people; without it, many of them would be destitute. “But look at this,” says Tony, calling up a report about the project in the local paper on his phone. Some of the comments below it are eye-wateringly hostile; interestingly, they’re no longer accessible on the paper’s website.
The campaign for Brexit both exploited and amplified racist and xenophobic sentiments, in Stoke as everywhere else. The white working class has borne the brunt of deindustrialization here; most of the pinched and hollow-eyed faces you pass are pale as milk. But I don’t get the sense that those feelings have deep historical roots—not nearly as deep as the city’s historic loyalty to Labour, and its correspondingly deep and painful sense of betrayal. Part of that is systemic: the left’s broad failure to protect communities like this one from the impact of globalization. Part of it is specific to Britain: the old neglect of the north by decision makers in the south, Margaret Thatcher’s violent reset of the economy and New Labour’s mirroring sidestep to the right. And part of it is local: failure to listen combined with municipal mismanagement and botched interventions.
Stoke, in fact, has a lot going for it. It has a rich manufacturing and artisanal heritage with worldwide cachet and surviving skills; two universities; some stunning industrial architecture; an influx of craftspeople and artists; famously friendly people. Tom Reynolds at the British Ceramic Confederation across from the Victorian railway station sings the praises of the pottery manufacturers, from large firms like Steelite that export hotelware and porcelain for the catering trade to growing high-end companies like Emma Bridgwater: “The negative image that it’s a dying industry couldn’t be further from the truth.” Though more than three-quarters of the BCC’s members wanted to remain in Europe, the confederation is working to get the best possible Brexit deal for the industry—as is Ruth Smeeth, the energetic young Labour MP for Stoke North.
When we meet, Tom has just come from a meeting with Ruth Smeeth about how to attract new investment. Part of what’s needed, he says, is better housing stock and a more educated workforce. Some of the terraced houses bought up by that failed Labour project have been renovated by the council and then sold for £1 and a low monthly payment, many to people with old links to the neighborhood. A group of employers is setting up an apprenticeship program with the GMB union and a local college. This is practical, on-the-ground politics—a far cry from UKIP’s airy, grandiose promises to make Stoke “the capital of change.”
Three days before the vote, Nuttall’s campaign is facing yet another setback: Two UKIP party chairmen in Liverpool have resigned in protest of his false Hillsborough claim. But even if UKIP bombs, it’s not at all clear that Labour will benefit most. “Stoke,” says Fred Hughes, “is looking for a new identity.” Walking through Hanley town center we bump into Daniel Jellyman, the young chairman of the local Tory Party and deputy leader of the council. He’s been out leafleting for the Tory candidate, a Stoke man born and bred, and he’s very cheerful. Stoke’s an up-and-coming place, he says, one of the youngest cities in the UK. The Tory government has given the city an “enterprise zone,” six new buildings on the main road into town, with 1,000 jobs in place and 8,000 more promised in ceramics, engineering, and “some of your bread and butter jobs”—another distribution warehouse. They’re also building new housing in that cleared Labour zone, all private, some to rent and some to buy. And added together, the UKIP and Conservative votes here at the last election exceeded 45 percent.
With her right-leaning commitment to a hard Brexit, prioritizing ending the free movement of people ahead of staying in the single market, Prime Minister Theresa May is positioning her party to claim UKIP’s territory should it fade away—including territory that once belonged to Labour. If Labour succeeds in holding Stoke and Copeland, it will be a defensive victory. For at least the next two years, British politics will be dominated by the Brexit negotiations. Split over Europe and weakened by Jeremy Corbyn’s limp and divisive leadership, Labour has so far been unable to influence that debate in Westminster, losing every one of its amendments to the bill triggering the Brexit process. The people of Stoke are, as they say here, understandably mardy. They need jobs, housing, education, a working health service, respect and, as Brexit bites, representation in Parliament that truly understands and stands up for their interests. If Labour can’t offer them that before the next election, it may not get another chance.