Stoke is back on the map. After decades of being overlooked, suddenly everyone’s got an opinion. Every national journalist has “spent time” there. They’ve all spoken to the local people. ‘And ‘the people’ feel anxious, angry, and “left behind“.
It’s barely more than 48 hours since Tristram Hunt announced that he will resign as MP of Stoke-on-Trent Central to become Director of the V&A.
In that time the City of Stoke-on-Trent has been transmogrified into a kind of allegory for the collapse of Labour; a portent of UKIP’s “Northern Spring“; a metaphor for the failure of globalisation (Hunt’s own telling).
Stoke is rich pickings for national pundits looking for what should now be recognised as “PIT Porn” – the fetishisation of England’s Post-Industrial Towns’ as theatres of human misery, chaos and division.
That’s not to say the way these stories are reported aren’t rooted in some hard historical truths and present day realities. Stoke, like other towns across the region, has been on the sharp end of changes that have hollowed out not just jobs but a shared sense of cultural identity. Over the past 40 years, local industry in Stoke suffered three blows: to steel, coal, then the potteries, for which the city was once world famous. The city and its communities lost its source of pride at the same time as its sources of income. You only have to walk around the outskirts of Hanley, bits of Burslem, or what’s left of Longton to see a city that’s suffered after being largely forgotten by successive governments and let down by an incoherent, inconsistent local economic strategy. It is a resilient city. There are pockets of real promise. But to flourish these areas need real investment.
What makes me angry is the nature of this new flash of national interest in my home town – knowing that it’s faddish and self-serving. It’s a neat, handy vignette to anchor and bring alive bigger plotlines. A fresh embarrassment for Labour. A narrative device to discuss Brexit. Rich source material to stuff the weekly column.
It’s cartoonish. A soap opera. And it matters for the reason that the issues behind the political show are acute. Reducing the story down to pantomime fills a space that should be occupied by real, robust debate about the solutions to some of Stoke’s defining challenges and appalling injustices.
In some areas of the city, up to 42% of children live in poverty. Over half of Stoke’s population are in the most deprived fifth of the country – obesity and poor health are high. Over a third of working adults have no qualifications – putting the city at the bottom of the national league table. Business growth is the third worst in the UK with just 115 more businesses since 2004, a 1.3% increase compared to the UK average of 15%. Business start-ups are the worst of 64 of the UK’s largest cities. It is ranked 11th out the 12 in the league of most economically struggling cities. The number of new homes – the fifth worst in UK. High level qualifications – the ninth worst in UK. Looking to the future, it’s predicted there will be 11600 fewer jobs in 2020 than 2006.
UKIP may be able to tap into their inner-Trump and give voice to the city’s frustrations. But their pernicious, divisive brand of protest politics would only inflame its problems. A UKIP win in Stoke Central would be disastrous for its future prosperity.
Stoke badly needs a longterm, concerted effort that unites the city and gives it a confident, future-facing position in the country and the world. We should use this spotlight. BUT: we should make sure the city’s challenges – its causes and the solutions – become the main event, not just a contextual side show: it’s light we need, not merely heat.