One of the more entertaining sights from the Stoke Central by-election contest was a mock-up of an English Heritage blue plaque on the wall of a house that UKIP’s candidate had allegedly not moved into. It read: “Paul Nuttall. 2016-? Has never lived here”. And that’s rather the point when it comes to this election. All the politicians and journalists claim to care about Stoke, but none of them live there.
Well, I do. I’ve lived in the Stoke Central constituency for nearly 30 years. When I arrived, there were five pits, and the glow of the steelworks lit the city by night. The ceramics industry employed tens of thousands and Michelin had a big production plant that covered the southern end of the city with the treacly smell of cooking rubber.
This was an industrial city, and people round here remember that. They remember when things were different. This has bred a deep sense of loss, as if nothing much good has happened around here since Stoke City Football Club won the League Cup in 1972. Coal, steel and the tyres have gone, and the ceramics industry is a shadow of what it was. A large affordable housing project of the 2000s hit the buffers with austerity and left huge areas of the city half demolished and sprouting weeds. We didn’t even get a Nando’s until last year.
This sense of being left behind is a big reason why the city voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and why UKIP see it as a top target seat. And it’s also why nobody believes the politicians that are arriving at the station, from whatever political party, trying to convince people that they care about the city. They come across like snake oil salesmen, all plastic charm and forced enthusiasm for the hearty potters of the potteries. But you know that they can’t wait to get back on the train again, and are really laughing at the place from behind their hands.
That’s why Tristram Hunt went down so badly as the latest MP. Partly because there aren’t many Tristrams in Stoke, but also because he was an outsider as soon as he opened his mouth. Tall, big hair, loud voice. And he lives in London. The shortlist for his candidacy in 2010 contained no one from the city, resulting in the secretary of the local party standing against him in protest.
Now it would be easy enough to suggest that this sort of parochialism is a problem, and that what Stoke needs is new thinking from outsiders. Calling a place “inward looking” is usually assumed to be an insult, because there is big wide world out there. That’s why cosmopolitan people who arrive in Stoke assume that places like Stoke need saving from themselves, and that they are the white knights to do it.
But most ordinary people live somewhere and stay there. And their views are shaped by what happens in those places. So while the skyscrapers were going up in London Village, Stokies saw boarded shops and empty factories. And the Labour Party have been in power here for most of the last century, so it’s not surprising that they get blamed. And migrants get blamed, too, because many believe their arrival coincided with things getting crap, and they aren’t from round here either.
It’s called representative democracy for a reason, and in order for it to have any legitimacy, people need to feel that the politician concerned does understand the place that they are representing. So, if the candidate can’t name the six towns of the potteries, then they simply aren’t credible.
This sort of disconnect is partly produced by the centralisation of politics in London, where shortlists are engineered. But it is also due to the powerlessness of local and national politicians in cities like Stoke. Councillors here don’t have the levers to do anything about long term decline. Yet they are the ones that get blamed when a factory closes or the city centre can’t attract developers.
The people of Stoke won’t respond well to outsiders telling them to stop being racist, and that they are better off in Europe. Instead, try to imagine what it would be like to see your home become a dump, and a regular contender for “worst place to live in England”. And then imagine decades of politicians – local, national, European – telling you that they will do something when they never do, because they can’t.
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If Paul Nuttall wins Stoke Central it will be because my neighbours here stubbornly persist in believing in representative democracy, and they want to believe that he will make a change. But without serious power and money moving to the city, he can’t do anything either. If politics remains based in London then the people of Stoke will find out that they have been lied to again. But I suppose they should be used to that.