Starmer knows he must offer hope to hard-hit ‘red wall’ towns

As Labour leader journeys north again the task of building a new narrative has only just begun

Last modified on Sun 21 Nov 2021 10.16 EST

It is a cold night on a Stoke-on-Trent industrial estate and Keir Starmer is in town again. It’s at least his seventh trip here in search of redemption after Labour’s historic defeat in 2019, in a sign of how important he sees the Potteries to the party’s future.

“I feel I’m getting to know Stoke quite well,” he tells me. “And we’ll keep on coming. I think it’s very, very important. The sort of discussion we want to have tonight is not a discussion we could have in London. You’ve got to have it where people live, in their place, in their town, about the issues that matter to them.”

Flanked by his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, the Labour leader has gathered a group of about 30 voters of all political stripes in a warehouse on an industrial estate in Newcastle-under-Lyme, on the outskirts of the city.

There is a mix of young and old from all walks of life, sitting clustered around workbenches in a room usually used for teaching apprentice bricklayers. Only today the lesson is about rebuilding the old “red wall” of ex-stronghold seats across the north and Midlands, starting with Stoke at its heart.

There is a danger that this could be yet another focus-grouped postmortem of the 2019 election. But there is growing frustration to build on as well, as Boris Johnson’s levelling-up promises unravel to nothing, living costs go through the roof, and the stench of cronyism clings to the Conservatives.

In a show of hands orchestrated by Deborah Mattinson, Starmer’s pollster (who knows a thing or two about Stoke), just two people think Britain’s economy will be stronger in six months’ time. No one thinks things will improve for Stoke.

Dawn, a secondary school teacher who has taught kids in the area for 30 years, sums up the sense of pessimism: “It’s kind of ‘Stoke’s a dump, isn’t it, Miss? I’ll have to work hard to get out, Miss?,’ And you want to say, no you can generate a good living here as well.”

There’s a big gap between the haves and the have nots, she says. Some of her students don’t have their own bed. “We talked about our town centre and the idea that you know, you get into Hanley, and you think, ‘This is a poverty-stricken city’.”

Stoke is a place I know well, as a regular visitor for most of my life. I grew up an hour north up the M6 in Warrington, but there were regular journeys to my grandma’s in Leek, the Staffordshire town my dad is from, as well as innumerable ups (Premier League promotion), downs (too many to mention), and cold, rainy nights following him as a Stoke City supporter.

Clearly there have been better days in the city of six disparate towns, where its world-famous ceramics industry once employed half the local workforce near its peak in 1938, before decades of industrial decline set in.

But there are great strengths too, with the potteries still providing skilled jobs and tourism, albeit for far fewer people, at firms like Emma Bridgewater and Burleigh. Major companies like JCB, Michelin, and Jaguar Land Rover are investing in the area, while the online gambling giant Bet365 – started by the local Coates family, who also own Stoke City – employ thousands.

Still, Stoke was hit hard by Covid-19, having entered the emergency in a weaker position after a decade of austerity. Debt problems rose sharply, while those at the Labour town hall say there are few job opportunities for young people, a lack of training provision for technical careers, little support for small businesses, and soaring living costs.

It’s fertile ground for Labour. “In Stoke and across the country, there is a growing cost-of-living crisis going on at the moment,” Reeves tells me.“I think you’ll be wondering why the government are increasing taxes, reducing universal credit and allowing prices to get out of control and doing very little to fix those problems.”

Inflation is at the highest level in a decade thanks to soaring energy costs, with the average family expected to lose £1,000 next year. After a decade of Tory government, households are forecast to have a disposable income barely any higher in 2025 than they did in 2008. Meanwhile petrol prices hitting a record high is disproportionately felt here, in a city where public transport is poor.

Testing out their ideas for the economy, Reeves and Starmer say they would cut VAT for household energy bills, insulate homes to keep down heating costs, and put a focus on buying more British goods. It’s part of a listening exercise Starmer says will inform policies for the next election. “Your fingerprints could be on something we’ve talked about today,” he tells the audience.

The plans, although fairly vague, draw a positive response. But some worry that the costs of insulating their homes will fall on ordinary people. “I struggle to heat my home and keep the mould out. Council houses aren’t warm enough,” says Tracy. “But taxes are high enough already. It’ll take food off our children.”

There is a big focus on fairness, with the room united in annoyance at Amazon while countless shops are boarded up across the city. “We all buy from Amazon, let’s be honest,” says David. “But everybody says ‘Why are they paying no taxes?’”

Small shops might have suffered in the city, but Stoke has seen a boom in old industrial land along the A500 converted into vast warehousing and logistics sites. Figures published this year showed the city was enjoying among the fastest jobs recoveries in Britain, a point heralded by the local Conservative council leader.

Wages are rising fast in the logistics sector amid nationwide staff shortages. Still, Mark Gregory, visiting professor of business economics at Staffordshire University, which has its main campus in Stoke, says it’s hard to imagine that low-skilled warehouse jobs might drive an economic renaissance: “It seems unlikely that wage growth will outstrip inflation. The logistics piece will help a bit of the local economy but whether thats widespread seems unlikely.”

With an ageing population, a higher share of public sector jobs and universal credit claimants than elsewhere, the city is being hit hard, he says. “With the cost of living, Stoke is going to be right in the firing line.”

Reeves argues that Rishi Sunak’s budget last month lacked the substance to tackle inflation hitting families hard, while the Tories cut benefits and are poised to raise national insurance taxes on workers.

“People in Stoke are paying probably the highest taxes ever paid for 70 years,” she says. “And I don’t think people have ever had to pay so much and get so little in return. Because so many public services are a breaking point.”

It’s a powerful argument that the Tories will not only break their levelling-up pledges, but that public funds will be spent unwisely; with high levels of tax, low growth, and continuing regional inequality the only visible outcomes.

The problem for Labour, so far, is that the opposition has looked like it wouldn’t do much better.

However, in what was the ground zero of Labour’s 2019 defeat, Starmer is aiming to start building a message he hopes might change the narrative. “We’ve changed very much,” he says. “We’re very determined and focused on places like this, and the Conservative party in my view is going backwards.”

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