Stoke-on-Trent is an unsettled place, figuratively and literally. The ground under the city is riddled with shafts from coal and ironstone mining. Some of its most beautiful buildings are propped up by metal supports to prevent subsidence and the council once worried that homes earmarked for demolition would instead demolish themselves, collapsing into the mines below. The ceramics industry has retreated, leaving a moonscape where pottery kilns used to fill the city with smoke and glow.
When I visited Stoke as a housing reporter in 2011, shortly after the demise of the housing market renewal programme, it was clear that the city felt abandoned by all politicians. There were families stranded, living in streets full of boarded-up homes that were one week due for demolition and the next left without a plan. Residents frowned angrily as they talked of what ‘they’ (the special pronoun reserved for people in power) were planning to do next with Stoke. When I returned three years later, Tristram Hunt, the local MP, was trying to chivvy ministers to get a move on with a deal for the area, hoping it would help the local economy. Now Hunt too is leaving and Stoke’s once-automatic loyalty to Labour is hanging by a thread. Support for Ukip is rising.
Like many English Labour MPs who campaigned for Remain last year, Hunt found that his voters were just not interested in his wisdom on Europe, let alone swayed by it. According to one analysis by Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia, 149 of Labour’s 232 constituencies voted to leave the European Union, ignoring the advice of the party’s MPs, who overwhelmingly campaigned for Britain to stay.
Labour is losing its heartlands, and there’s no clearer picture of this than in Stoke or in the Cumbrian district of Copeland, where another Labour MP, Jamie Reed, is also quitting Parliament mid-term to take a job elsewhere.
While neither Hunt nor Reed directly attacked their party’s leadership in their resignation letters, both have been outspoken critics of the direction Labour was taking. Both wrote agonised essays about the future of Labour. In a pamphlet, which Hunt had organised, on Labour and Englishness, Reed described a ‘quiet crisis’ in towns and smaller cities across England in which the local institutions, from the high street to the newspaper to the town hall, were all disappearing, and with them regional identity. He diagnosed a ‘tin ear’ in his party to Englishness.
Both Reed’s Copeland seat and Hunt’s Stoke-on-Trent Central fit that description of a ‘quiet crisis’, though for very different reasons — which should be all the more worrying for Labour.
Copeland does not have the same existential crisis as Stoke: it has a clear identity as a town that powers the rest of the UK, with 10,000 of its jobs reliant on the nuclear industry at Sellafield and a proposed plant to replace it, Moorside, which could provide up to 20,000 new jobs. But it is the most remote constituency in England in terms of distance from Westminster — six and a half hours’ drive from London, or five hours by train. The transport links are poor: the Northern rail franchise sends slow and frequently delayed trains, often with only a couple of carriages, chugging along the coastline from Lancaster and Preston. This is an odd depiction of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’: indeed, the most recent Treasury document on that project forgot to mention Cumbria at all.
What Stoke and Copeland share is that they feel neglected, which is perhaps why both constituencies voted for Leave in the EU referendum. Both have energetic Ukip campaigns for their respective by--elections. Both are typical of Labour seats in the North and Midlands which were once described as ‘solid’, but now appear shaky at best. Hunt wrote that ‘time and again, I heard our political motivations questioned as though the party were somehow hiding a secretive anti-English agenda from the public’s scrutiny’.
It would be easy to blame Jeremy Corbyn for losing the heartlands, but it would be wrong. This quiet crisis predates his leadership by decades.
Corbyn, says the Labour pollster James Morris, is not the source of the party’s problem, but rather the final straw for voters who were already losing patience. ‘From the point of view of someone who lives on an estate in Hull, his utopian, cosmopolitan, internationalist, anti-military non--patriotic beliefs are all what they already think of the Labour party. Ed Miliband had his own problems, but he wasn’t the personification of everything that was wrong with the Labour party and none of the good things.’
Morris and others have conducted focus groups in constituencies across the party’s heartlands and have found voters running out of reasons to stay with Labour. ‘The only thing that is propping up the party is a social norm, and if that cracks, then it becomes a snowball, and that’s what happened in Scotland,’ says Morris. Another source working with MPs frets that he cannot see the floor to the Labour vote any more. In Copeland, it is retaining voters from the general election at a rate of 65 per cent — in the Oldham vote, that rate was around 80 per cent. Labour once believed voters in Scotland would always stay loyal. After the 2014 referendum, that assumption was proved wrong. Now its MPs are beginning to worry the same will happen in northern England and the Midlands.
Some MPs are trying to work out how to fix the problem. Lisa Nandy, who left the party’s front bench last summer, is the MP for Wigan and has long worried about the disconnect between Labour MPs and the towns they represent. ‘The big cities like Manchester and Liverpool feel very optimistic,’ she says. ‘But for many people in towns like Wigan it doesn’t feel the same at all. We have a real problem in the North and the Midlands because of the rise of Ukip, and I don’t think it’s really do to with Ukip. It’s to do with Labour and people wanting to send Labour a strong message.’
Nandy has identified 50 towns to try to repair the relationship between the people and the party. She is one of the more upbeat MPs, as is Denton and Reddish’s Andrew Gwynne, who is running Labour’s Copeland campaign. He organised the party’s victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, which came as a surprise to many, given the energetic Ukip campaigning for that seat. He recognised back then that Labour had a problem with English identity, and instructed his activists to listen to voters rather than calling them racist for even considering Ukip.
In Copeland, Gwynne is focusing his campaign on the NHS, often a comfort blanket for Labour when it is worried, but a serious problem locally. When I followed a group of councillors and activists around on the doorstep in Millom, Cumbria, recently, the threat to consultant-led services at the local hospital was something voters in the streets of ex-council houses were very animated about. But then again, those voters were also grumbling about Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, telling the canvassers to ‘sort it out’.
All too few in the party have understood the value of simply listening to voters’ concerns — of understanding. I heard one Labourite saying she didn’t want to have a conversation about immigration. Just as developers in Stoke were aware of the mine shafts riddling the city, the party has had plenty of warnings about its support in its heartlands over the years: it just chose to ignore them. At a local level, for instance, I understand that the party’s headquarters holds ‘contact rate’ data (the percentage of voters in each constituency who have been contacted about their voting intention) for all its MPs, which makes shocking reading. Some big names are well-known to have terrible rates, notching up no more than a few dozen in two decades.
Funnily enough, there is a direct correlation between a low contact rate and high Ukip support in individual wards. The Labour party is slowly and painfully making this connection, but it could be waking up to the problem too late, just before its crumbling support collapses down a hole.