Having grown up in Stoke-on-Trent, I know it’s a city home to some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered. People will stop to chat to you in town, they’ll help those around them in need, and they’ll get along with anyone – as long as they’re willing to try an oatcake and moan about traffic on the d-road.
For most of my life, hearing people talk about politics in the city has been an anomaly – only really noticeable during the recent EU referendum – but tomorrow’s by-election has proven once again that people here care deeply about their collective future.
As it stands, Labour’s Gareth Snell (who backed remain in the referendum) is in a close fight with UKIP’s Paul Nuttall, and although I expect Snell to ultimately win, UKIP has been quietly gaining a large following in the six towns.
One reason for this surge in popularity for the party has been Stoke’s widespread political apathy in recent years, and the feeling that mainstream politics has left the city behind. In some ways, this is a fair assessment. The Government’s austerity policies have left cities in the Midlands and the North of England, like Stoke-on-Trent, with huge gaps in public services funding, and this has had a real impact on the ground.
Rising tuition fees have limited access to higher education to the ablest students in the city – many of whom are put off studying by the enormous debts they would incur if they took on a student loan – and the poor performance of many schools in the area has put young people at a disadvantage when it comes to applying to the top universities and entering the job market.
Last June, Stoke-on-Trent voted to leave the EU with 69.4% of the vote – making it one of the highest pro-leave areas in the country. In part, this was intrinsically linked to the disengagement with politics I mentioned above, but it was also down to genuine concerns about immigration.
As a city, Stoke-on-Trent is home to a large number of Eastern Europeans who have travelled to Britain in order to find new opportunities and support their families. The local economy in the city has in fact been supported by EU expats, who have contributed to a range of sectors, including the growing logistics sector in Stoke. It’s fair though to say that immigration in the city has led to some visible changes in local areas – and often, people are wary of change, especially when they feel their culture and way of life might be threatened.
But tomorrow’s vote is about more than Brexit. It’s about more than immigration, more than closing our borders, and more than divisive tones of rhetoric. Whether you supported leave or remain last year, Stoke’s new MP must be someone who can fight to solve real issues like housing, homelessness, healthcare and education – not just the single issue of Brexit.
Although Stoke-on-Trent might have backed Brexit, it’s also clear that people in the city also care about many issues that are much closer to home. There’s a real potential that voters will use this opportunity to voice their support for leaving the EU, by choosing a pro-leave candidate – but the people have already spoken last June when they voted leave, and the continued focus on such a narrow political issue could have a serious impacts on how we solve other vital challenges in the city.
Stoke-on-Trent is at an important crossroads in its development, and after years of stagnation, has a real chance to rebrand itself as a cultural and creative hub. The city is in the midst of bidding for City of Culture 2021 and local projects like Gallery 116 launched by Darren Washington and the Majestic Studios run by Chris Reader serve as a reminder that creativity is very much alive in the area. In the by-election, voters will have to consider whether they want a candidate who will squander the chance to put the city back on the map – or one who will open their mind to opportunities and build on the great work already being done.