A statue of Josiah Wedgwood one of the titans of the industrial revolution and a prominent anti slavery campaigner stands guard at the entrance to Stoke-on-Trent train station.
The brooding figure is a reminder of the city’s industrial past when its name was synonymous with pottery and ceramics. But Stoke’s industrial might is a distant memory and the constituency is at the centre of one of the most fascinating contests of the election.
The British National party, which says it is fielding a record 326 candidates, is focusing most of its resources on two seats–Barking in east London and Stoke Central, where the party’s deputy leader, Simon Darby, is standing.
“There is a real threat from the BNP here,” says Nick Lowles from the anti-fascist Searchlight as he puts the finishing touches to one of 80,000 Hope Not Hate newspapers to be distributed across the city. “The stakes could not be higher. Four weeks from today we could be looking at our first BNP run council and there is the possibility that the party could gain an MP here and in Barking.”
The BNP has seven councillors in Stoke and its campaign has been helped by a local Labour organisation beset by infighting. Last week the television historian and Guardian columnist Tristram Hunt was parachuted in as Labour’s candidate–reportedly at the behest of Lord Mandelson. Local activists were horrified and one, Gary Elsby, announced that he is to stand as an independent.
That, combined with the social and economic fallout–unemployment is running at almost 9% and the number of people with no qualifications is twice the national average–has helped create what one Labour activist said should represent a “perfect storm” for the BNP.
“A city in long term economic decline, a Labour party in disarray and the BNP already an established force on the local council–it should be a gift,” he said.
However there are signs that the far right party is struggling. Last weekend the rumblings over Nick Griffin’s leadership burst into the open when the publicity director Mark Collett was arrested on suspicion of threatening to kill him.
The BNP said Collett, a long term confidant of Griffin, had been kicked out for attempting to launch a “palace coup” and on Monday a meeting was hastily convened to discuss the party’s future.
In Stoke the sense of a party at war with itself is not helped by Alby Walker, who led the BNP on Stoke council for four years before suddenly announcing his resignation earlier this year.
Walker said he had decided to stand as an independent in the general election because of a “vein of Holocaust denying within the BNP that I cannot identify myself with. They’ve still got senior members of the BNP who will be candidates in the general election that have Nazi, Nazi-esque sympathies”.
Since then another BNP councillor–Walker’s wife–has left and the National Front, long a thorn in Griffin’s side, has announced it is planning to stand a candidate in the city.
But Darby denied that the party was floundering. He said Walker had “been got at” and described the arrest of Collett as an internal matter. “It is either going to be Labour or me,” said Darby, who was pictured arriving at a right wing conference in Milan last year greeted by men giving a one-armed fascist salute. “This is a second front we have opened up and we think that we have a chance of causing a shock here.”
As he delivered leaflets on a pre-war housing estate in Blurton area, Darby said the main issue in the city–where 93.5% of the population are white–is the influx of immigrants.
“They are genetically modifying this area, they are bringing in people with a different genetic make-up,” he says stuffing another leaflet through a letterbox. “My election would send shock waves and would stop these people coming in,” he said.
In the Jumpz cafe in the shadow of Stoke town hall, Alby Walker says it is this sort of attitude that persuaded him to leave the party he joined in 2002. “They are obsessed with race and are good at stirring up trouble but don’t really have any answers. I couldn’t even say a black football player had played well for fear of being ridiculed. As I went along I realised I was more interested in the community side of politics–getting things done–I just wish I had come to my senses a couple of years ago.”
Tony Walley, managing director of an aluminium company, has been following the twists and turns of politics in Stoke on his blog Pits n Pots. He says Walker’s decision to leave the BNP will hurt them. “He was the one who did on the real bread and butter community politics–helping pensioners on the estate, getting people’s gardens sorted that sort of thing. There was never any talk about race or immigration.”
Walley says Labour will also be hit by the defection of Elsby, others suggest he may squeeze the BNP vote by giving another option to disillusioned Labour supporters.
However things fall in this fractured political landscape, where up to 11 people are expected to stand, Walley is adamant that it will be New Labour’s fault if the BNP do get in. “Come election night I think this constituency is going to be one of the most interesting to watch.”
Among those paying close attention will be the volunteers and political activists who make up the Hope not Hate campaign based in east London.
From its base in a vast “war room”, the organisation has built up an email list of 142,000 people, 20,000 who are actively involved in campaign against the BNP–delivering leaflets and manning phone banks. “A lot of people are disillusioned with the party politics but we have found–particularly among younger people–a real desire to get involved and do something to stand up to the BNP,” said Lowles who is heading up the campaign. “But it is all about what happens in the next four weeks and how many people we can get out to take the fight to the BNP.”
Back in Stoke, Tristram Hunt is getting to grips with the realities of a general election campaign. Armed with bananas and a take-away sandwich he listens in a cramped campaign office as Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, gives a frank explanation of where Labour has gone wrong in the city.
“A lot of our councillors let down the communities that they were supposed to represent,” said Flello. “As a party we took our eye off the ball in Stoke . . . We have had a period of navel gazing but now we have got huge energy here now and we are getting out there and taking the fight to the BNP.”
Hunt, who has been criticised for being an outsider with a public school background that may alienate the core Labour vote, nods in agreement. When Flello leaves to start another round of canvassing Hunt says that it is only the “political commentators and blogs” that are interested in his background.
“On the doorstep you can get through to people and they are not concerned about all that–it is simply about jobs and getting investment and permanent, secure employment.”
And how will he take on the BNP? “By pointing out what a disaster it would be for the city. What teacher will want to come and teach here, what lawyer will want to come and work, what company will want to come and invest?”