Stoke is a town in decline and it is in declining towns that the far right is taking hold. Daniel Trilling reports from the English Midlands
‘‘They’re a bunch of robbin’ bastards and I’m not voting for any of them,” spits a passer-by in his fifties, in typically blunt Midlands fashion. Sheltering from the rain in the porch of a defunct Woolworths in Hanley, the main retail district of Stoke-on-Trent, anti-racism campaigners are doggedly trying to convince Saturday morning shoppers to vote in the imminent European elections. They are one of many local groups across the UK taking part in Hope Not Hate, a drive to keep the British National Party from gaining a seat – and several hundred thousand pounds of funding – in the European Parliament on 4 June. Thanks to the unfolding MPs’ expenses scandal in Westminster, the campaigners’ task has just got a lot harder.
“This has come at exactly the wrong moment for us – people are now saying they won’t vote at all,” says Olwen Hamer, chair of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which is run by a handful of committed – and, right now, soaking wet – volunteers. Fringe parties such as the BNP benefit from a low turnout; in the West Midlands region, of which Stoke is a part, the far-right party needs only 11 per cent of the vote to win a seat. Voters, who are lukewarm towards European elections at the best of times, now express an unprecedented anger at the political system.
The BNP sees this as an opportunity to expand its support, with a campaign slogan inviting the electorate to “punish the pigs” (an irony, considering the well-documented track record of corruption among the party’s councillors). Its leader, Nick Griffin, may boast about the BNP being about to go mainstream, but in reality it remains tiny, having attracted fewer than 200,000 votes in the 2005 general election. Stoke, however, provides the strongest example of how the party, which is desperate to hide its roots in racist violence and appear respectable, has become adept at exploiting apathy. Nine BNP members sit on the city council; Griffin describes it as his party’s “jewel in the crown”.
While the media and politicians have had their eyes trained on Islamic extremism during the past decade, the far right has consolidated its position in local politics. Peter Hain, the former Labour minister and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, confirms this. “It’s crept up on everybody. It’s been very evident for a number of years that the BNP have got a serious strategy for establishing a platform for racist and fascist politics in suits. People in the mainstream parties, with the odd exception, have tended to be very complacent about that.”
Received wisdom says that the BNP does well in deprived former industrial areas, capitalising on the prejudices and frustration of the white working class. Stoke would appear to fit the bill. The city, a conurbation with a population of 250,000, was once supported by ceramics and coal mining (“pots and pits”, as it’s known locally). The pits were killed off in the 1980s – people here still talk about the miners’ strike as if it were yesterday – and the pots have been depleted by overseas competitors. Now, the landscape is dotted with the towers of derelict bottle kilns and factories. Sandy McLatchi, an unemployed pottery worker, tells me that racism is endemic in Stoke, mainly directed against the city’s 9,000 inhabitants of Asian descent, many of whom moved here in the 1960s. “The city is split and completely insular, each town is like a tribe of its own, and the culture lends itself very well to the BNP. They don’t like outsiders here.”
The local MP, Mark Fisher, is a rebellious Labour backbencher and former arts minister who has represented Stoke Central since 1983. When we meet, I ask if his constituency has been badly hit by the recession; he half-jokes that it has never recovered from the last one. Unemployment has been high since the 1980s and manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service industry jobs that come and go with the fluctuations of the financial markets.
But this tells only part of the story. I suggest voters in towns like Stoke are angry at the expenses scandal not because of the sums involved, but because it is yet more evidence that Westminster politicians think of themselves as a class apart, deserving of a lifestyle comparable to that of bankers and “wealth creators”. He agrees: “We’ve got a new class of politicians who are careerists. MPs are younger now, they come straight from university to being a research assistant to becoming a candidate to becoming an MP. Everyone wants to be a minister.”
Meanwhile grass-roots support for mainstream parties has declined as ordinary people feel increasingly cut off from politics. This is particularly true in Labour’s case, where membership has plummeted from over 400,000 in 1997 to well under 200,000. The collapse is keenly felt in Stoke, which has been dominated by the Labour Party for decades. Effective opposition from the two other main parties is non-existent – the Conservative party branch is rumoured to have as few as 17 members.
Fisher points to two factors that have increased the rate of decay: Margaret Thatcher’s reform of local government, which transferred more power to Westminster, and New Labour’s enthusiasm for elected mayors, which he derides as a Blairite gimmick.
“I never felt that Blair had anything except the most superficial media-grabbing interest in elected mayors. He was never interested in local government; he didn’t understand the checks and balances that it requires.”
As a result, Stoke has a political culture that wouldn’t look out of place on The Wire. I wanted to speak to the mayor, Mark Meredith, but he has been charged with corruption and is on bail, along with Roger Ibbs, the former leader of the council’s Conservatives, and Mo Chaudry, a swimming pool owner who once appeared on Channel 4’s reality show The Secret Millionaire. On 8 May, the local government minister John Healey intervened with a series of measures intended to repair the “damaged” council.
It is in this context that the BNP has stepped in to fill a gap. Its activists have attracted votes in council wards neglected by other parties, in many cases by offering to cut residents’ lawns or collect their rubbish.
Alby Walker, the owner of a small joinery firm, and his wife, Ellie, are councillors in the Abbey Green ward of the city and candidates for the European Parliament. The BNP is hoping voters will find them the acceptable face of the far right. Sitting in their shared council office, calmly extolling the virtues of hard work, they could pass for run-of-the-mill Tory councillors, were it not for the wall plastered with far-right propaganda (“People like you – voting BNP”) and anti-Muslim headlines torn from the Sun and Daily Express newspapers.
Alby chooses his words carefully (“Oswald Mosley? Who’s that, Daniel?”), insisting that accusations of racism are slurs against the BNP. Ellie is less adept at staying on-message. Last year, interviewed on local television, she described herself as “racialist but not a racist”. Yet even Alby admits that when he first became a councillor, three years ago, “I didn’t fully understand the role. I’d just got the political ideology.”
The BNP’s ideology, he insists, is nationalist, rather than racist or fascist. But it is a nationalism based on race – only white people have the right to be British. Any non-whites, even if their families have lived here for generations, “can never be British, they are guests of Britain”.
The atmosphere in the wider community is more openly sinister. Mohammed Khan, a taxi driver whose parents migrated from Pakistan in the 1970s, tells me there are parts of the city he won’t visit for fear of being attacked. And the anti-racism campaigners I met speak of a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation. Black-suited bodyguards accompany BNP councillors on election platforms and fraternise with police at demonstrations. An often-used tactic for sowing disharmony is for a BNP activist to turn up at a pub and befriend regulars by talking about football, before moving on to untrue stories about preferential treatment for foreigners.
Most worrying is the party’s involvement with education. In May 2001, the BNP distributed a leaflet outside Longton High School, a Stoke comprehensive with a large contingent of Asian pupils, that spoke of a “race war” between children. Challenged by journalists from the local newspaper, Michael Coleman, the BNP’s branch secretary, acknowledged the leaflets were racist. He is now a councillor who sits as chair of the children and young people’s overview and scrutiny committee. Since June 2008, he has also been a governor at Longton High.
Ivan Hickman, secretary of the Stoke branch of the National Union of Teachers, confirms that the BNP has been making a determined effort to get its members elected to governing bodies of schools in order to look like a respectable political party. And a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors’ posts means that there are plenty of opportunities.
The evidence from Stoke suggests that the far right is being allowed to wrap its tendrils around the roots of democracy, helped by the collapse of public enthusiasm for its institutions. After 12 years in government, Labour can point to various attempts to promote “community cohesion”. But, says Fisher, these have been largely cosmetic. “We’ve done incredible things in this city. We’ve got 90 new primary schools, a really good Sure Start programme. But that’s not community cohesion. We’ve been good on spending the money, but we’ve been bad at grass-roots politics and empowering people at a local level.”
Rather than confront the problem, however, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, tells me curtly that her government “has always been building strong communities”. By contrast, her Conservative shadow, Paul Goodman, identifies a need to “focus more rigorously on the extremism that underlies violence”.
Nor is Blears’s view shared by some of her colleagues. Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who has made a name for himself by fighting the BNP in his Essex constituency, Dagenham, is adamant that, despite the public’s anger at mainstream politics, the BNP need not profit – but only if politicians acknowledge their mistakes.
“Voters have material frustrations around housing and work and take offence that all political parties are preoccupied with Middle England,” he says. “But we are witnessing the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation ever seen – thousands of people are pitching in. It’s about not resigning ourselves to accepting that they will win.”
Back in Hanley, the sky has cleared a little and the campaigners are attracting a steady stream of people. A youthful organiser of the city’s Gay Pride festival drops by to lend his support. “The BNP try and stop us marching,” he says. “But we take that with a pinch of salt – we don’t care what they think.” Politicians may have written off the city, but its people certainly haven’t. If the left is going to rebuild itself, Stoke-on-Trent wouldn’t be a bad place to start.