Hanging Out in Apathy Town to Find Out Why People Don't Vote
A lot of people in Stoke don't vote, but it's not because they're ignorant.
Sitting in the sun outside City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, 18-year-old Mitchell Edwards tells me he's not excited about voting for the first time. He thinks the Conservatives are going to win, and isn't happy about it. "I've ready every single manifesto of each political party. With the Conservatives, it's pretty much, 'Respect the 1 percent while the 99 percent rot away.' That's my view, at least," he says.
Mitchell talks about politics all the time, even though his friends don't join in. "They try to listen," he says. "But they're not as into it as me. How long have you got? I could talk all day."
When I tell him that Stoke-on-Trent Central has the lowest voter turnout of any constituency in the country, he is surprised. Then – on reflection – he isn't. "I feel we're shut out from politics. We're not a major city, so obviously we get votes, but they don't really count."
A few metres away, a group of girls are less judicious. "People in Stoke don't vote because they're lazy," one says. "You haven't seen the people round here," Haresh, part of a group of sixth formers playing outdoor table tennis tells me, half-joking: "No one here talks about politics. It's not a big topic. Have you seen all the crack addicts?"
Journalists visit Stoke when they want to write about apathy. The city has become a blank canvas for projections about decline, disengagement and social fragmentation. It comes with a neat narrative: Stoke-on-Trent was the pottery centre of the world and a totemic city of the industrial revolution. The organised workforce ensured that the city's political expression was doggedly Labour, for a time.
The decline of the Empire's captive market, capitalist globalisation and the Thatcher government's sustained attack on the working class produced a familiar set of social and economic conditions. Drained of its economic base, the city fell into a slump.
The BNP, and later UKIP, capitalised on this, mobilising a sizeable segment of the white population against the city's Pakistani residents. This aspect, however, is often over-stated. For every Stokie voting for the far-right were more who continued to vote Labour, and even more who chose to disavow electoral politics altogether. At the recent by-election, triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Tristram Hunt, who left politics to become the director of the V&A Museum in London, the turnout was 38.2 percent.
Today, Stoke's predicament is best demonstrated by the amount of "initiatives" it launches. These are programmes, often spearheaded by the cash-strapped council with money from the Lottery Fund, to improve the city's image with cultural events and cosmetic regeneration.
Walking north from the sixth form college where we met Mitchell, we come across the latest example of this, Hanley Park, which is in the early stages of a "£6 million transformation to provide a dynamic community green space and a vibrant, safe city park", according to a promotional leaflet. Hanley Park, which a local council worker told me is the symbol of Stoke-on-Trent for many of its residents, already seems green and pleasant – at least on a bright spring day – but is scarred by the abandoned 1930s pavilion building in the centre, which the campaign promises to restore.
"Come back this time next year," Carol, an enthusiastic, friendly volunteer at Friends of Hanley Park, tells me. "You'll be able to see how much it has changed."
A group of young adults are hanging out near the pavilion, having a rap battle, their put-downs echoing across the green fields. Humouring – and slightly embarrassed – by the amateur rappers are Emma and Marcus, both of whom say they won't be voting in the general election.
"There's only rich and poor now. There's no middle class no more," Emma says, when the conversation turns to politics. She and Marcus watch a lot more news than most of the people in their house – Marcus mentions twice how unimpressed he was with the fact that Labour's manifesto had been leaked ahead of the launch. It's precisely this engagement that leads them to a conscious opting out of the system. "Yeah, I'm choosing not to vote," Marcus says, when I ask if that's the best way to describe his approach, before adding: "But even if I was, what would I be voting for?"
We go over some of the policies from the parties' manifestos. Marcus is incredulous about Labour's decision to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour. "Are you mad?" he says, laughing. "How are they going to jump from £7.50 to £2.50 above that? I mean... if it was supposed to happen – £10 an hour – that would be nice. But it's not going to happen." I suggest Labour could pay for it by increasing taxes on the wealthy, to which Emma observes, "But they don't pay tax anyway. They don't pay it now so they won't pay it this time."
A 30-minute walk from Hanley Park, through a somewhat depopulated city centre, is an outdoor skatepark. It was reported to be the largest in Europe when it was built. Here, I meet a pair of skaters in their early-twenties, Ben and Tom. Both work warehouse jobs they found through temporary agencies. Before that, Tom served in the British army – his army pension giving him a level of security a lot of his friends don't have.
I ask them why they think their city voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union – which, a plaque announces, partly funded the skatepark we are in – and they respond with a barrage of self-deprecating epithets: "The city's all racists!... It's Daily Mail brainwashing... Everyone's a dickhead because we're in the fucking north, that's why." They partly believe it, but they also don't, recognising that their own political views show that Stoke's composition is more complex.
"My mum and dad always worked in the pottery industry," says Tom. "They're prison guards now. Everyone in my family votes and it's always been Labour." Ben, who has a gruff, lyrical voice, equivocates around Corbyn: "I'm very pro-Corbyn, but also anti-Corbyn," he says. "I think he's got the right ideas, but he's not the person you want. No matter what happens you can't spin the way he's been portrayed. He's gonna look like the IRA sympathiser. It's just The Sun being the motherfucking Sun." They both say they'll be voting Labour, but add – based on an anecdotal survey of their Facebook feeds – that most of their friends probably won't vote at all.
The conversation returns to the city's self-image, and that wry ambivalence that so many Stokies entertain comes out again. "I think a few years ago Stoke was called the second worst place in the UK to live," Tom says. "Now we're not even a place; we're just between Liverpool and Manchester and Birmingham," Ben adds. I ask what they think of the city's bid to become recognised as the UK City of Culture in 2021 – another initiative that's brought up by many of the people we speak to, mostly with a sense of ironic scorn. "Look, I think Stoke-on-Trent's the best city in England. It's a fucking pisser of a place," Ben says. "But 'city of culture'? I don't think we should get that. What the fuck culture is there?"*
Apathy is not inevitable, nor is it distributed evenly across society. It tends to be poorer voters who turn out in lower numbers than better off voters. However, as the political analyst Alex Nunns has observed, this "class differential" only started to kick in during the late-1980s, before which "working class people were just as likely to vote as those from the middle class". The sudden evacuation of lower income voters from the electorate coincided with "the dropping of class from the language of mainstream politics and the abandonment of significant social change as a goal".
Stoke Central's former MP, Tristram Hunt, was perhaps the best recent example of this post-class politics. Rather than talking about socialist policies to empower the working class, he demurred for New Labour's "We're all middle class now" approach, famously suggesting that the Labour Party should be championing "aspirational" voters who "shop at Waitrose". The fact that there isn't a Waitrose in his constituency didn't seem to phase him.
But issues of class continue to be brought up by the young, borderline apathetic voters I speak to in Stoke. Towards the end of my day here I sit in on the weekly evening meeting at the YMCA North Staffordshire – an institution that houses over 100 young people who need a place to stay, and provides vital services for an array of grassroots youth groups. Over pizza, the 15 or so people present start the meeting by telling everyone the best thing that has happened to them this week. The answers range from having started a new job or having a friend who'd been attacked wake up from a coma, to simply: "nothing".
The YMCA had held a hustings with Stoke's prospective candidates the previous week, but it didn't go well. Melanie, one of the most talkative people at the meeting, is scathing about the Conservative candidate's performance: "The other week that Conservative man didn't even have a clue," she says. "He was trying to tell us that bus fares were £3. He'd never been on a bus in his life! I wanted to tell him to get a grip because he doesn't live in the real world. He goes into his perfect little life and blocks it all out because everyone in the world is suffering because of his lot."
The young residents who went to the hustings had questions prepared to ask the candidates about "mental health spending, NHS, travel, jobs and zero-hours contracts" – "things young people care about". But the event ended up being overshadowed by the UKIP and Conservative candidates "bickering about immigration" between themselves. Slowly, the young residents started to get bored and leave.
I ask the room what the policies of their ideal political party would be, and after a few seconds of silence Demi says, "I'd have a political party if they put more funding into mental health. That aspect of mental health does get overlooked." Josh, who up until now has been quite quiet, pipes up, "Get rid of zero hour contracts. Because workplaces take advantage of that. If you're not getting the same amount of hours one week as the next, you're gonna lost out when it comes to paying rent."
I tell him this is already one of the policies announced by a major party, he says he still won't be voting: "Where's Jeremy Corbyn going to get the money from? He'll put us into more debt." Louis says he's reached the same conclusion but through different reasoning: "I just don't want to vote and then it all turns to shit, knowing that I voted for that party." Because then you would be responsible? "Not responsible, but like, I don't want to have input into this thing that's gone to shit."
My day in Stoke-on-Trent flushes out a range of reasons for political apathy, and most depend on a perceptive understanding of the political system, rather than a sort of blank, uninterested ignorance. Stoke isn't de-politicised, but many of its residents are weary of a certain form of politics. Westminster politics doesn't propose to re-build the communities fractured by globalisation, but simply canvasses them with brief and self-serving interactions that coincide with the electoral cycle. I speak to the people at the YMCA for a short while after the meeting ends, but they soon leave, having more important things to do. Then, having got everything I need, I walk to the train station and leave too.
* Correction on 6th June 2017: This article initially stated that Stoke was bidding to be the European Capital of Culture, an initiative of the European Commission. In fact it is bidding to be the UK City of Culture, an initiative of the British government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport.