Like a museum abandoned by its patrons, Stoke-on-Trent is rich in heritage but short on the resources needed for the present.
Once at the heart of the industrial revolution, the city in Britain’s midlands has suffered successive shocks: to its coal mines, its steel works, and to its ceramics industry, known locally as the “potteries”. Steep cuts to local authority budgets and recent streamlining of the welfare system have exacerbated the fallout. Many fear that Brexit could be the next big shock.
“We have serious problems with housing, with homelessness, with cuts to the council and it’s all been whipped up as if it’s Europe’s fault,” said Colin Griffiths, senior organiser at the broad-based GMB trade union.
Traditionally a Labour party bastion, Stoke voted by 70 per cent to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, earning itself a tabloid newspaper sobriquet as the UK’s “Brexit capital.”
It was no accident that prime minister Theresa May last month chose one of the city’s pottery factories to make the case for her divorce deal with the EU ahead of a “meaningful vote” in parliament.
Since the agreement was resoundingly rejected by MPs she has tried to woo Labour, engaging by letter with party leader Jeremy Corbyn on some aspects of the deal and promising new funds for Labour MPs in “left-behind” areas such as Stoke if they back her in a new parliamentary vote.
But Labour party members, union officials and councillors in Stoke dismiss the offer. Few even believe Mrs May’s funding pledge will be honoured.
“That isn’t going to swing my vote either way,” said Ruth Smeeth, one of two labour MPs representing the city. “I have been fighting for additional investment ever since I got elected. I will continue to do so.”
A bigger concern for Ms Smeeth and other Labour and union officials in the city is the prospect of the UK leaving the bloc without an agreement as the March 29 scheduled exit from the EU approaches.
They fear that about 4,000 jobs in the potteries would be at risk if the government reacts by unilaterally slashing import tariffs as Liam Fox, the trade minister, mooted last week, and duties are imposed on ceramics exported to the EU.
For the ceramics industry any deal — including Mrs May’s — that preserves something of existing trading relations, would be preferable to that alternative.
“We are very scared. We rely on exports even though we have a home market. We need participation with the EU to keep the industry and the city alive,” said Sharon Yates, who represents ceramics workers for the GMB.
Welling up with tears, she added: “It’s heartbreaking. People work so hard and they will have it all ripped away.”
The tensions unleashed in the city by Brexit go to the heart of the dilemma facing the Labour opposition as it grapples with Britain’s impending divorce with the EU. Like the Conservative party, Labour is bitterly divided on its approach.
In polling earlier this year more than 70 per cent of Labour’s national membership backed a second referendum in the hope that it would result in the UK remaining in the EU. Yet many of the party’s MPs represent areas that voted to leave, in spite of the absence of a clear strategy for how they would cope with the change.
“Neither of us are so vacuous that our votes are for sale,” said Gareth Snell, the other Labour MP for Stoke. But he added: “If you accept we are leaving the EU like it or not, there has to be a longer-term domestic agenda that addresses why people voted to leave in the first place.”
Labour councillor Ruth Rosenau, who is among 44 local councillors, just under half of whom are Labour, points to the growth of far-right activism with an anti-immigrant agenda more than a decade ago as one factor that helped fuel support for Brexit in the area.
She and many Labour party supporters in the city say that in its pursuit of votes in more affluent areas of the south in the 1990s, Labour took its working class strongholds in the north for granted at a time when they most needed the party’s support.
“The city has been decimated by global forces. When China started making stuff so cheaply, even people from the potteries bought it,” she said.
Although new businesses have moved into the city including a vast data processing centre for the gambling business, Bet365, the jobs tend to be lower paid, less secure, and filled in part by eastern Europeans.
“Now even people working can’t make ends meet and find themselves going to the food banks,” said Mrs Rosenau, who worries that the far-right is again waiting in the wings.
With all the uncertainty, attitudes among those who voted to leave the EU are hardening.
“It’s costing us a fortune, all these foreigners coming into the country. We can’t keep being the social worker of the world,” said Tony Goodwin, a former serviceman in the Royal Air Force, who complained that the city has been neglected as much by Labour as the Conservatives.
“If you live north of the Watford gap you do not exist,” he said, referring to the geography that has come to symbolise sociological divides between the north and south of England.
His disenchantment is widely shared.
Denise Milward, who runs a stall for baby clothes is the kind of voter Labour could once depend on. Her husband was a coal miner when Margaret Thatcher began shuttering the collieries in the 1980s.
Mrs Milward is now a fervent supporter of Brexit. Having survived the miners strike of the 1980s she is not worried at the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, even if it results in food shortages.
“Three-quarters of the country needs to lose some weight anyway,” she said.
She added that she respected Mrs May’s determination to honour the results of the 2016 referendum. “I never thought I would say this about a Tory, but I admire the woman for standing up and trying to do her job.”
Ms Smeeth, while a Remain supporter, worries about the consequences of disappointing voters like Mrs Milward.
“This is about trust in the democratic structure at a time . . . every part of the civic infrastructure is being eroded,” she said, indicating that under certain conditions she could back a revised version of Mrs May’s deal to leave the EU.
“She has got to secure changes and she has to be better at articulating what she is trying to save. What I would never support is an industry like mine (ceramics) being sold down the river to protect bigger ones.”
Her fellow local MP, Mr Snell, added that the Labour party “runs the risk of trading between the places that Ruth and I represent because we want to consolidate votes in metropolitan and liberal areas”.