Professor Mick Temple sends a despatch from his Potteries homeland, where the BNP have made serious electoral inroads, and have promised to use the high profile manslaughter of one of their members as a rallying cry. All this and a highly critical report of their local council too.
The British media have turned their gaze towards Stoke-on-Trent this week. And their spotlight, superficial or not, has apparently revealed that there is something rotten in the state of the Potteries.
The recent electoral success of the BNP led to a major article in the Guardian, calling Stoke the city that ‘embraced’ the BNP.
A manslaughter trial with racist overtones – BNP leader Nick Griffin attended the funeral and the victim’s coffin was carried by BNP members – offered further evidence of serious racial problems in the city.
And the Local Government Commission’s highly critical report on Stoke’s politics was a serious indictment of the way the council has been run and on the behaviour of the mainstream political parties. Their failure to work together and their failure to engage the public were posited as contributing factors to the rise of extremist politics and the BNP’s success in winning nine council seats.
All this negativity is in danger of damping down the city’s euphoria since Stoke City won promotion to the Premiership – and the feel-good factor has been felt by everyone, even including those who support Burslem’s football team.
Much more importantly, it is contributing to the widely held view of Stoke as a rotten place to live, rife with sub-standard housing, low-paid jobs and racist attitudes.
Stoke-on-Trent does not deserve this reputation. I’ve lived in many places, abroad and in England. And I’ve never lived anywhere where I have felt more welcome, safe and ‘at home’.
The city has been badly run. It does have some social problems – especially low levels of educational achievement by comparison with similar cities. But – and despite the BNP’s success – the city is no more racist than any other. Our streets are not teeming with racial tensions.
The problems of poor housing, schooling and employment prospects mean that some sections of the population feel undervalued and disenfranchised. Traditional rulers Labour have failed to respond in any meaningful manner – the BNP’s pavement politics have been rewarded with electoral success in traditional white working-class areas, from a population which wants to protest against Labour and has nowhere else to go.
Elected mayor Mark Meredith’s initial response to the criticisms and recommendations of the Local Government Commission’s report – essentially, that was the past, we’ve improved so much now, this report does not describe the current situation - does not fill one with confidence that the shrinking Labour group will be able to re-establish themselves as the natural party of government in Stoke.
And the consequences of that failure for Stoke could be more BNP gains and even perhaps victory in a future mayoral election. That really would be a disaster for a city that deserves so much better.