Did 'politics of hope' win in Stoke by-election?

By Rebecca Woods & Jennifer Meierhans
BBC News Online

  • Published
Gareth SnellImage source, PA
Image caption,
After his by-election win, Gareth Snell has replaced Tristram Hunt as Labour MP for Stoke Central

In the wake of his victory, Stoke Central's new Labour MP Gareth Snell claimed it had been a triumph for the "politics of hope".

But with the lowest turnout in the constituency's history and a margin of 2,620 the narrowest ever recorded in this once proud Labour heartland, can this declaration really be believed?

It's a bright and windy day in Stoke-on-Trent.

The town has been at the centre of the political spotlight for weeks now, but people seem more interested in discussing the aftermath of Storm Doris than the small matter of Stoke Central's by-election result.

This staunch working class community was once passionately behind Labour.

In 1951, more than 60,000 went to the polls - 34,260 backing Labour.

Image caption,
The red cross has been daubed on the doors of UKIP's office in Stoke

Rather than feel victorious about Gareth Snell's win, Labour voters willing to talk simply seem relieved Paul Nuttall didn't clinch it.

In all, 7,853 voted for Mr Snell, compared to 5,233 who wanted UKIP to win.

Wendy Wright, 51, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, thought the vote for UKIP may have been higher had it not been for its disastrous campaign.

"I'm not surprised Labour won because of the way UKIP handled the campaign," she said.

"The people of Stoke seemed to think he [Paul Nuttall] didn't come from the area and they didn't believe his pack of lies.

"It's a relief UKIP didn't get in but [Labour retaining the seat] just means things are going to stay the same."

Image caption,
Veronica and Anthony Millington said they were pleased Gareth Snell had been elected

Ms Wright said there had not been a high turnout because "people aren't interested in politics".

She said: "They've kind of lost faith and lost hope. They think, what's the point, nothing's going to change.

"It's a deprived area and it's a shame because the people are so welcoming and friendly."

Veronica Millington, 71, from Blythe Bridge, said she and husband Anthony, 75, were "Labour through and through".

'Make things better'

They backed Mr Snell in the by-election and also voted to stay in the European Union.

"I think the people of Stoke do care about politics and they want to make things better," she said.

"I think they were misled by UKIP in the beginning. They seemed to promise them so much and people saw it as a new chance really.

"It was only when all the lies came out they saw how many wrong things had been said."

Mr Millington, 75, expressed concern about why so few people bothered to go to the polls.

Image caption,
Stoke-on-Trent is often badly represented in the media, but its community speaks with passion and pride

"The turnout seemed to be very low and I think a lot of people think it was a foregone conclusion.

"They thought the Labour Party would win. Now whether or not they've had a jolt from the outsider now, I don't know."

For a city that has had such a strong relationship with the Labour party, the changing political landscape over the past seven decades reveals a lot about the strength of feeling in the community.

Labour has won all 18 elections since since the inception of the Stoke Central constituency, with the Conservatives coming second until 2001.

'Growing alienation'

But although Labour enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and 70s, their share of the vote has consistently fallen over the years down to a record low of 37% in this by-election.

So why did this city of proud, working class voters fall out of love with Labour?

"Things started to change because of a growing alienation of the people of Stoke-on-Trent from Westminster," says Prof Mick Temple from Staffordshire University.

"Industry was decimated in the 1980s - coal, steel and the Potteries.

"When I first came here [in the early 90s] infrastructure was poor, schools were poor and still today, unemployment is higher than the national average."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In the heyday of the pottery industry, there were thousands of bottle kilns in Stoke-on-Trent

From the closure of Shelton Steel Works - where 10,000 once worked - to the shrinking of its famous pottery industry, the people of Stoke-on-Trent have lived through some turbulent times.

But the bleak images of derelict factories and houses often shown by the media are not a true reflection of the passion and pride of a community that is fiercely proud of its heritage.

Data shows 6.2% of adults in Stoke Central claim unemployment benefit, far higher than the national average of 3.8%.

In recent years employers such as Bet365, Michelin Tyres and Goodwin have invested millions of pounds into their businesses, providing jobs for thousands of people.

Hanley's famous pottery industry is also enjoying something of a resurgence, with Emma Bridgewater investing more than £1m in its thriving ceramics factory.

Middleport Pottery, home of world-famous Burleigh, is in the national spotlight thanks to the success of BBC Two's The Great Pottery Throw Down.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley is getting a £1m investment, creating 70 jobs

Millions of pounds are being spent regenerating the city.

For many people though, the investment has been too little, too late.

"The feeling is that the city has been passed by Westminster and the EU, and that is why people voted Leave so overwhelmingly," says Prof Temple.

"There are many towns in the north of England where people feel the same - areas that are ripe for UKIP."

From 2005, the BNP and UKIP began to resonate with voters, coming fourth and fifth in that year's election and again in 2010.

By 2015, UKIP had won so much support its candidate Mick Harold came second to Tristram Hunt for a seat that had the lowest voter turnout in the whole of the UK.

Image caption,
Pub owner Tony Flackett backed Paul Nuttall's bid to become an MP

Pub owner Tony Flackett, 69, backed Paul Nuttall in Thursday's poll.

"It feels sad, it's such a shame, they've worked really hard and people have come from all over the country.

"I've always voted for Conservatives but the last two years I voted UKIP because of Brexit and immigration.

"But life goes on and at least they reduced the margin."

Tom Wilson, 26, voted for UKIP in the by-election and said he was "very upset" at the result.

"I think Labour winning is very bad news for Stoke-on-Trent.

"There has been years of neglect in Stoke with money spent only on Hanley.

"I think only UKIP would have made a change for the people of Stoke."

Image caption,
The One Smithfield building is at the centre of Stoke-on-Trent's regeneration - but its multi-coloured appearance has divided opinion

UKIP has made moves to appeal to former Labour voters, as well as those who formerly backed the Tories.

"They're more pro-State, pro-NHS. They recognise that strong nationalistic message supported by the working class," says Prof Temple.

Between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, the non-white population doubled and there was a relatively high population of Muslims, he said.

"I'm not saying the response was a racist one - Stoke-on-Trent was getting less and less money from the government and the EU and the feeling was the traditional working class community was being overtaken.

"Many working class voters felt they could not express their views within the Labour party.

"The BNP and UKIP gave them a chance to say how they felt."

Image caption,
Many voters feel Stoke-on-Trent, the birthplace of Stanley Matthews, has been forgotten by politicians

Now Mr Snell is the town's new MP, the challenge is on for him to win back the trust of former Labour supporters and engage with new ones.

Lee Woolrich, 33, from Stoke-on-Trent, is head of client services for a digital agency but did not vote in the by-election.

"I'm ashamed really that I didn't use my vote, but I almost don't think I invest enough in politics to make an informed decision," he said.

"I don't think young people are engaged in politics. I think they are more so recently because of what's happened in America.

"I read about Paul Nuttall and some of his views and policies and I don't believe it's what we need here."

Image caption,
Lee Woolrich said he felt ashamed he had not voted in the by-election

Mr Woolrich believes politicians need to take more of an interest in Stoke-on-Trent - he too feels the place has been forgotten and is badly represented by the media.

"Stoke is doing great without those kinds of ideas.

"I love the developments in Hanley and the cultural quarter.

"Stoke is showing signs of change and getting in line with cities like Manchester.

"On a local level, I like the direction things are going in but I don't necessarily think government in London will listen to the people of Stoke.

'Steeped in history'

"I hate that stigma that Stoke isn't a nice place to live.

"It doesn't do the place justice. It's a beautiful city steeped in history."

And Prof Temple agrees. "It's a much more attractive place," he said.

"I've been here for 24 years, I've lived all around the world and this is the friendliest, most coherent community I've ever known.

"Stoke-on-Trent has an identity most places in the UK have lost.

"There's a very strong sense of community. It's a place where friendship and family is still strong."