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.