The people of Stoke-on-Trent are proud, patriotic and hardworking. They are proud to fly our country’s flag and they value and respect our armed forces. They believe in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and they’re angry that the government isn’t giving them the opportunity to get on and do well for themselves and their families.
It should go without saying that these are the people the Labour party was founded to represent. The clue is in the name: we are the party of working people. But over the last 30 years, the decline of our traditional industries has brought with it a decline of opportunity, of trust, of hope.
Stoke-on-Trent is not unique in this; the city is typical of post-industrial areas across the north and the Midlands. It is typical, too, in its historic support for Labour; we have held the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat since 1950. But Ukip sought to capitalise on the decline of local economies and communities, replacing the ties of the labour movement with a politics of fear and resentment.
At its peak, the BNP held nine seats on Stoke-on-Trent city council. We defeated that party, but we did not defeat the ideology that drives it. The bonds that these communities share with our party have frayed as working people begin to wonder what they have in common with a movement increasingly dominated by a middle-class, London-centric membership. In the vacuum left by Labour, Ukip emerged as the fraudulent voice of the left behind. A victory for Paul Nuttall’s party in Stoke would have risked legitimising the politics of hate and opening the door to a far-right resurgence on Labour’s doorstep.
But a Labour win could signal the start of something bigger: a long march back to relevance for those who feel the party has failed to deliver for them.
Our campaign began with a clear understanding that we needed to address the real concerns of ordinary people. That meant standing up for our local NHS services and children’s centres. But it also meant engaging with their views on Brexit and immigration and having a serious discussion about how to boost the local economy. That’s why we began with a clear promise – Labour in Stoke-on-Trent would respect the views of local people on leaving the EU. The result in the city was decisive; in some areas, more than 80% of residents voted to leave. That’s why we focused our campaign on making Brexit work for the Potteries, with a practical plan to deliver safeguards for the local ceramic industry and a clear call for local funding to be protected by the government.
There was another decision we took early on in the campaign, too: we would not allow the politics of patriotism to be claimed and exploited by the far right. We were unapologetic in developing a message that expressed pride in our local and national identity, alongside a clear plan to deliver concrete improvements for our communities. In a city with a strong defence culture, we argued that Nato has never been more important to our national security in an uncertain world.
For too long we have allowed the quiet patriotism of English people to be hijacked by those who wish to divide us. This cannot continue. The Labour party has always been a broad church, a coalition of pragmatic trade unionism and Fabian idealism. Our diversity is our strength. But we must beware the political cleavages that risk pulling our congregation apart. When self-proclaimed socialists in London sneer at the concerns of working people, or dismiss those who fly the flag as racists, they are writing off entire swaths of our party’s historic coalition. Even worse, they are writing off the very people we exist to serve. The Labour party was founded to stand up for working people, not to patronise them. If we want to form another government, we need to understand that the views and aspirations of people outside the M25 are as legitimate as anyone else’s.
By defeating Ukip here we drew a line in the sand and showed that people in places such as Stoke-on-Trent do not see that party as a solution to their problems. But the battle that we faced shows that we can no longer take lifelong Labour voters for granted. We do not have a God-given right to represent working people in the Potteries; we have to earn it.
Some of the decisions that we took here were difficult. We had to listen to opinions that we weren’t always comfortable with and views about our party that were difficult to hear. But listen we did.
As our country begins to forge a new relationship with the world, the work of the Labour party has never been more vital. We have a role to play in steering Britain towards a Brexit that recognises and supports our industrial heartlands. But to do so we must earn the right to be heard. Stoke-on-Trent Central offers lessons about how to begin that process. We must heed them.
• Ruth Smeeth MP and Jack Dromey MP helped run Gareth Snell’s successful campaign for Labour in Stoke-on-Trent Central