Labour is in trouble in Stoke-on-Trent—but not for the reason most newspapers tell you. The racist Ukip party is fighting hard to take the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat from Labour at the coming by-election on 23 February.
Many fear Ukip could do very well—if not actually win the seat. But anti-racists are fighting hard to stop Ukip.
They were out leafleting on Sunday and demonstrated at a rally featuring Ukip leader and candidate Paul Nuttall with former leader Nigel Farage in the constituency on Monday.
The Labour Party is fighting to hold the seat, with a strong emphasis on defending the NHS. In blog posts on his website, which he has since deleted, Nuttall called for the NHS to be privatised.
“I would like to congratulate the coalition government for bringing a whiff of privatisation into the beleaguered National Health Service,” he wrote.
Nuttall hopes Ukip’s anti-migrant racism will connect with Stoke’s strong vote to leave the European Union (EU)—and replace Labour as what he calls the “patriotic voice of working people”.
It’s clear that anti-immigrant racism can take hold in Stoke—and that Ukip could benefit. Back in 2009 the Nazi British National Party (BNP) gained nine seats on Stoke city council using similar racist rhetoric.
And there are people in Stoke who accept the idea peddled from the top of society that immigrants are the cause of problems in the city.
Andrew is one of them—and he thinks Ukip is in with a chance of winning. “It’s a strong working class area and I think that the tide’s turned,” he said.
“The biggest issue is you look around town and you don’t see local people anymore. There’s been massive contentious issues with people coming in.”
Stoke Labour Party member and anti-racist campaigner Jason Hill has been canvassing against Ukip as part of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism And Fascism (Norscarf).
He told Socialist Worker, “I think Ukip is a danger. We wouldn’t be out campaigning if it wasn’t.
“Stoke was one of the councils that had lots of BNP votes a few years ago. So the anti-immigration rhetoric has been around for a long time.”
Most politicians—Labour and Ukip—along with most of the media want to paint a picture of Stoke as a city where everyone wants less immigration.
Yet on the streets of Hanley—one of the towns in Stoke-on-Trent Central—the picture is more complicated.
Council worker and Labour Party member Michelle told Socialist Worker, “Migration is not the problem—and being harder on migration is not what the Labour Party should be about.
“The problem is there’s just not enough investment. I work in local government and there’s not enough investment in that.”
Another Stoke resident, Carlos, said, “I don’t see how immigrants are a problem. I think the problem is with the council and the cutbacks.
“They sell off all the housing to these private associations and landlords for cheap. But how are they going to get any income? It’s all for short term gain.”
He added, “How can immigrants be a problem? If they’re being paid lower wages isn’t the problem with the employer? So you can’t say immigrants are taking all the jobs.”
People assume that if you voted Leave you’re against immigrants. But it’s got nothing to do with that.
It’s become a common sense to see the vote to leave the EU as a vote against immigration. But despite that there are plenty of non-racist Leave voters.
Mark McEvoy lives in Stoke and voted to leave the EU. But as he told Socialist Worker, his vote wasn’t about immigration—it was about a sense that the system just isn’t working.
“People assume that if you voted Leave you’re against immigrants,” he said. “But it’s got nothing to do with that. If you need help then you need help.
“European laws just suck. All the stupid European laws are sucking the life out of the businesses and that’s where the country’s going wrong.”
To find out what’s really behind Labour’s problems in Stoke, you have to begin by looking at what was really behind Stoke’s high Leave vote.
The Resolution Foundation research organisation found that areas where high numbers of people are out of work voted to Leave.
And Stoke-on-Trent Central has one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain.
Now in his 50s, Andrew lost his job a few years ago and has to work two part-time jobs. Unemployment is a big issue for him—and he doesn’t trust Ukip to sort it out.
“We need jobs in the area—we’ve lost everything. We’ve lost steel, we’ve lost the coal mines, all the potteries have gone abroad.
“My biggest fear is that if Ukip gets in we’re not going to get any investment in the area. We’ll just become a desolate place. It’s horrendous what’s going on.”
Ukip would like to link unemployment to immigration. But aside from the fact that study after study has shown no link between immigration and unemployment, Stoke’s migrant population is no higher than many other towns and cities.
I normally vote for Labour but to be honest they’re not much different
Many people voted Leave to revolt against the establishment. And as part of the establishment in Stoke, Labour has taken a kicking.
Andrew doesn’t just feel ignored or let down by Labour. “I feel betrayed,” he said. So there’s no doubt that the situation in Stoke is messy and complicated. People can be pulled in different directions.
Some, such as Andrew, Mark and Helena (see below) will vote for Labour without much enthusiasm.
Others, such as Haroon, may not vote at all. “I normally do vote but the system’s shit nowadays,” he said. “I don’t agree with any of them.
“I normally vote for Labour but to be honest they’re not much different.”
The real danger is that many more people could be pulled towards Ukip. Combining anger and disaffection with racism is the kind of toxic mixture that Ukip could thrive on.
Labour can prosper only by putting forward a positive alternative that relates to working class people and smashes the myths about migration. It’s right to highlight the threats to the NHS, but unless there’s also a stand against racism it will not be successful.
People can be lulled into accepting the lie that “health tourism” or “too many migrants” are to blame for the NHS crisis.
Defence of the NHS, defending migrants, fighting over class issues such as a £10 an hour minimum wage, and a Brexit that favours working people need to go together.
Yet the official Labour campaign has avoided tackling Ukip’s racism entirely.
And when Labour MPs speak out against workers’ freedom of movement across Europe, they give ground to the lies that feed Ukip.
Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership by offering a radical break from establishment politics. Labour needs a class-based and anti-racist campaign in Stoke.
That’s why it’s important that Norscarf and others, including Stand Up To Racism activists, are campaigning to expose Ukip’s racism.
A similar, anti-fascist, campaign wiped out the BNP in Stoke.
There is a real threat from Ukip in Stoke on 23 February, but it could also be a massive blow to them if their new leader is beaten.
Stoke City Council, controlled by Labour until 2015, implemented the Tory government’s cuts.
And Stoke-on-Trent Central MP—posh boy Tristram Hunt, whose resignation triggered the by-election—has been seen to do nothing.Stoke City Council, controlled by Labour until 2015, implemented the Tory government’s cuts.
When Labour lost control of the council it was replaced by a coalition made up of Ukip and the Tories, and led by the “City Independents”.
The independents grew as an alternative to Labour. But they’re a mixed bag.
They are not backing Nuttall, but although led by ex-Labour members they also include former Ukip and BNP councillors—and they have carried on with austerity.
Their cuts include plans to slash £1 million from Stoke’s children’s centres by axing 61 jobs—which will mean services will be withdrawn and centres will close.
It’s just another attack on working class people in Stoke.
Parents and volunteers protested outside the council against the plans last month.
Labour councillors, including Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez, joined the protest. He told Socialist Worker that while he was council leader, Labour “protected children’s services.”
Yet at the same time he said Labour had lost control of the council partly because of “the Tory government’s cut to local services taking a toll of £130 million cuts that we had to make.
“They were imposed on us, we had no choice,” he said.
“If we didn’t take the difficult decisions the council would have been bankrupt.” That argument doesn’t wash with Mark.
“When Labour were in they were on about shutting the children’s centres and it was the Tories who said ‘no you can’t,’” he said.
“But as soon as the Tories and the independents came in, it was one of the first things they were going to do. You vote different people in and it’s always the same.”
Helena, another children’s centre user and volunteer, said, “There has been a shift overall throughout the whole country. People have been fed up with just the same wheel spinning round and round.”
For Helena the real problem is that no MP—including her own Tristram Hunt—seems to care about the problems faced by ordinary people.
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
Some 60 Labour Councillors have now left