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If the collapse of UKIP started anywhere it was on the Bentilee estate in Stoke-on-Trent, an ambitious housing scheme built by a visionary post-war Labour government on top of disused collieries – and once Europe’s largest council estate.
At the time this article was written, UKIP’s tweed-jacketed leader Paul Nuttall was proclaiming it the “Brexit capital of the country” as he stopped for oatcakes at a shop on Beverley Drive during his failed campaign to be MP for Stoke Central.
Mr Nuttall was then the latest in a string of right-wing leaders to try it on in Stoke, a city assumed to be fertile ground because of its battles with post-industrial decline. Oswald Mosley made it the launch pad for his New Party in 1932 before forming the British Union of Fascists. Nick Griffin used to call it the “jewel in the BNP’s crown”.
On the other side of Stoke, in Wolstanton, 102-year-old Jack Hood smiles at how history repeats itself – remembering how the city saw off Mosley, who gained a foothold in Stoke but never won a seat.
Eight decades ago in 1938 he saw the fascist leader hold a rally at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, one of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent.
“I went with my lady friend to hear him speak,” Jack says quietly, his eyes bright with the memory. “The man was a fascist. He was sympathetic to Hitler. I interrupted him with questions. You weren’t allowed to ask hostile questions so we were thrown out.” The paramilitary Blackshirts, he remembers, were “very aggressive. Big, burly men.”
The pottery towns are almost equally ugly. Right in among the rows of tiny blackened houses, part of the street as it were, are the pot banks – conical brick chimneys like gigantic burgundy bottles buried in the soil and belching their smoke almost in your face. You come upon monstrous clay chasms hundreds of feet across and almost as deep, with little rusty tubs creeping on chain railways up one side and on the other workmen clinging like samphire-gatherers and cutting into the face of the cliff with their picks. I passed that way in snowy weather and even the snow was black.
We are in Stoke as part of the Daily Mirror’s Wigan Pier Project, retracing George Orwell’s steps on the 80th anniversary of the book, listening to the echoes of 1930s Britain. In Brexitland, Jack hears the echoes. “History always repeats itself,” he says.
Orwell missed Mosley in Stoke but caught up with him later in his journey in Barnsley, where he wrote that “several men who tried at the beginning to interject questions were thrown out… with quite unnecessary violence, several Blackshirts throwing themselves upon him” and later: “Anyone who interrupts can be assaulted and thrown out and then charged into the bargain”.
When Jack saw Mosley he was 23 and had already left the pot banks for which Stoke is famous to become a foreman on a building site. He went on to become the Labour council’s clerk of works for 30 years and may well be the longest-serving Labour party member, having joined in 1931 at the age of 16.
Unconsciously, after returning to the memories of 80 years ago, Jack refers to UKIP as “the New Party”. That was the name under which Mosley targeted Stoke, holding mass rallies to a core of 500 supporters. He was known to hand out money and clothes to workers struggling in the Depression.
Mosley had family in Staffordshire and knew the town because his first wife Lady Cynthia had been the Labour MP in Longton. In 1931 he fought the Longton seat under the New Party banner and polled 10,534 votes but still finished third. Two years later he formed the British Union of Fascists. He never won in Stoke, or in any election again, although he continued trying until 1966.
After Mosley’s New Party came Griffin’s BNP – who at one time had nine councillors, including all on the Bentilee, and claimed it would soon run the council. Yet the year after, 2009, when Griffin called Stoke his party’s jewel, the party imploded.
After Stoke delivered the killer blow by roundly humiliating its party leader, UKIP received what may have been a fatal wounding in the local council elections.
Brexit has robbed the party of its national purpose but locally what Nuttall misunderstood is that Stoke is not a city in decline but a city on the up – recently finding a greater voice for its proud pottery heritage with its bid for City of Culture 2021.
Back on the Bentilee, Tim Riches, 38, who runs a vaping shop and market stall in Stoke, tells me UKIP are finished in Stoke.
“They had their chance here. They didn’t win, it’s finished,” he said, having a tea break in the sunshine. “Most people round here aren’t like that anyway. They’re fed up with the lack of jobs, the lack of a future round here but it doesn’t mean they think everything’s about immigration.”
Walking through the estate with her daughter, trainee nurse Irene Mugwara, 39, says UKIP and the Tories have both forgotten one thing: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Here as elsewhere, Labour’s biggest threat now is twofold – the voters that once flirted with UKIP and Tory voters arriving from Labour via UKIP.
“There’s the ones who vote Labour like their grandads did,” Tim says, “and the young ones who don’t vote at all.”
The two young women working in the betting shop aren’t voting. One didn’t know about the general election, the other says: “However I vote nothing will change. If the hospital is going to close, it’s going to close. They’re going to do what they’re going to do”.
At the bakers, Diane Carr, 52, a shop assistant who lives in the house she was born in, says she’ll be voting Labour “because that’s what we’ve always done, my family, but I don’t really know why”.
We find only one likely UKIP voter, who says his vote is his business, and – in a sign of the changing winds on the estate – two proud Tory voters.
Peter Lewis, 55, a warehouse worker, is ready to turn blue. “I work in a warehouse with all sorts of people who have come to Stoke for lots of different reasons and I don’t have a problem with that. They do the job,” he says, “so UKIP’s not for me”.
Orwell wasn’t kind about Stoke, dismissing “the rows of tiny blackened houses… the pot banks belching their smoke almost in your face”.
The pot banks – except for the ones preserved at the Gladstone Pottery Museum – went with the Clean Air Act of 1952. And it’s hard not to think he would have approved of the Bentilee, built a year later, with its extraordinary views out across the Staffordshire countryside.
“The entire estate was intentionally settled across a southeast drift, inviting daylight into every house as the day progressed,” says Fred Hughes, 79, a former police officer and social history lecturer.
“The first tenants, more accustomed to the privations of dark terraces, were so stunned by the brightness from two living room windows that they called their semi-detached citadels sunshine houses.”
Six decades later, Labour also built the estate’s shiny £10million neighbourhood centre.
The city’s future no longer lies with UKIP. “We’re not the sort of people they think we are,” Jack Hood says of Nuttall’s failure. “These parties like to come and have a go but we like to send them packing.”
Meanwhile, anyone peddling the politics of hate in Stoke in the future should note that so far the city has turned out not to be the jewel in the far right’s crown, but its curse.
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