by Matt Baker
For far too long the default position of the Labour Party in Stoke has been to look to the past. This is not just exemplified by Tristram Hunt’s decision to quit Parliament to take up a job in a museum. Or the previous MP, Mark Fisher’s similar interest in museums (he wrote a book about museums and had a second job as a museums adviser in Qatar).
The most worrying example of this mindset actually saw some in Labour show pride at peddling politics from a bygone era.
When Stoke experimented with a directly elected mayor at the turn of the millennium, it elected the progressive independent, Mike Wolfe, whose campaign was heavily critical of “Labour dinosaurs”. Bizarrely, some Labour councillors took this as a compliment and would wave plastic dinosaurs at the Mayor in the Council Chamber.
In the 20-years I lived in the city, with the exception of Wolfe, the tendency to look to the past became synonymous with its political leaders. It was a mind-set that guaranteed decline. The feeling that the city’s past shone so much brighter than its future was palpable. Sandwiched between its neighbouring cities of Birmingham and Manchester, which were both experiencing an urban renaissance, there was a keen sense that Stoke was missing out. Living standards were deteriorating and it was crying out for a vision of the future. But its leaders, and the Labour Party in particular, had no answers and all it could do was fall back on nostalgia.
When Sir Stanley Matthews, the city’s favourite son, died in 2000, more than a hundred thousand people lined the streets and I saw people in tears as the funeral procession slowly made its way round his home town. Mixed in amongst the grief was the sense that a bright link to a better time had been finally broken.
Restoring that link to a strong sense of pride in Stoke and optimism about the future has to be the number one priority for Labour and Gareth Snell.
That’s not to say this is a challenge unique to Stoke. You can see it all over the UK’s rust belt as smaller post-industrial cities struggle to reinvent themselves.
From Bradford to Sunderland to Wolverhampton, there’s a pressing need for smaller cities to grasp a new purpose, forge a stronger identity and fight off urban decay.
In Stoke this won’t be achieved simply by pleading to Government for investment. As the city’s former Mayor, Mike Wolfe, warned in his Reinventing Stoke-on-Trent lecture in 2011, waiting around for Government investment is a mugs game. “We need to use our ingenuity and community,” he argued. “We need to get on with it now.” For Wolfe, rebuilding the city’s mind-set was just as important as building houses and schools. He’s not wrong and Labour should pick up this baton and run with it.
Starting this transformation will require the Labour party to depart from a predictable paint-by-numbers politics of NHS and austerity sloganeering. Forget the central office script. There’s so much more to discuss. How to create higher paying jobs, tackle failing high streets and develop a smarter approach to regeneration among other issues. Let’s not forget this is a city that saw hundreds of protesters led by a giant white elephant march only a few years ago in protest at the then Labour Council’s regeneration plans.
It will also require much more visible local leadership and a huge grassroots effort to reconnect with a disillusioned electorate that, for the most part, can barely be bothered to cast a vote. Labour needs conversations in pubs, schools and shopping areas week in, week out to start winning over hearts and minds and show that its mission is not just to win power but to give the city a brighter future.
We need to revisit Harold Wilson’s famous dictum. “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.
It’s easy to be critical of Corbyn and problems at the top of the party. But the truth is that Westminster has no answers to the identity crisis facing Stoke and things will only get better with a stronger local party that proves itself capable of delivering.
Labour may have won last week’s by-election in Stoke. But it didn’t feel like a victory. The time to celebrate will be when the people of Stoke show real enthusiasm for Labour again.
Matt Baker worked for the Labour Party from 2009-2015.