Disaster Averted in Stoke-on-Trent

Nationalist chauvinism rebuffed: a defaced billboard prefigures Paul Nuttall's failure at the polls

Nationalist chauvinism rebuffed: a defaced billboard prefigures Paul Nuttall’s failure at the polls


You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln


The present author, Mark Conlon, is one of approximately 63,000 registered voters in the parliamentary constituency of Stoke Central, as are several other members of the Pathways group. Media coverage of our region is seldom flattering, displaying a narrow and tendentious focus on post-industrial anomie and its associated ills of unemployment, deprivation and crime. Due to Stoke-on-Trent holding the national record for abstention from voting, frequently we are characterized too as embodiments of political apathy. In my anecdotal experience, however, this has more to do with disdain for actual political parties than politics tout court: specifically, with the way in which the Potteries has been marginalized on the one hand by a Labour Party that has taken its allegiance for granted, and on the other by a Conservative Party that regards an area defiantly wedded to manufacturing as a vestigial throwback in the era of finance capital. Nor can it be said, when push comes to shove, and notwithstanding the ugly encroachment of far-right activism at various points since the Mosleyite 1930s, that the people of Stoke lack awareness of themselves as what Karl Marx called a class for itself instead of merely a class in itself. We shall see as much in the political episode discussed herein.

Stoke Central has had an uninterrupted procession of Labour MPs since its creation in 1950. For the past seven years, the incumbent has been Tristram Hunt, debonair Blairite academic and, inter alia, a condescending biographer of Friedrich Engels who sees no contradiction in crossing a picket line to deliver himself of a lecture on the history of Marxism. Hunt, whose first name does not mislead as to his patrician demeanour, was “parachuted” into the constituency in 2010 in blatant contravention of the wishes of Labour rank and file, who went so far as to set their branch secretary against him in the general election of that year. Aside from stray remarks on the inadvisability of nuns escaping their cloisters to take up teaching posts, he had an uneventful tenure as shadow education secretary, rallying no substantive opposition to Tory ravagement of state schooling. Finding the Potteries a little rough around the edges for his refined sensibilities, and the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party an unavailing vehicle for his ambitions, Hunt announced in January his intention to flee back to his natural habitat in the metropolis, there to take up a cushy job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. A by-election was thus triggered, set to take place concurrently on 23 February with a similar poll in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, where Labour MP Jamie Reid – regrettably, no relation to the artist of Sex Pistols repute – had outdone Hunt’s perfidy to constituents by abandoning them for a corporate vocation at the Sellafield nuclear plant.

Enter the frame one Paul Andrew Nuttall. Now here we have a slippery character. That rarest of species, a Liverpudlian Tory – so rare, indeed, that in his aborted career as history lecturer Nuttall was unable to gather the necessary data to complete a PhD thesis on the subject –  he moved further rightwards into the orbit of UKIP, becoming an MEP under that party’s imprimatur in 2009. His attendance at the European Parliament has been haphazard; seemingly only the burning issue of incandescent light bulbs has had gravitas sufficient to command his attention. In November of last year, after a farcical squabble among the UKIP demimonde over who should succeed Nigel Farage, Nuttall was elected leader of the party. He spews the reactionary boilerplate one would expect of such a figure, denouncing the futility of human rights, extolling the efficacy of capital punishment, and exhibiting contempt for the LGBT community and those afflicted by HIV. He peddles conspiratorial fantasies on climate change and a viral Kulturbolschewismus supposedly undermining the patriotic verities of bygone generations. Nativism and xenophobia form the basis of his agitation for a “hard” Brexit as preferred aftermath to the UK’s referendum vote favouring withdrawal from the European Union. He seems also to be an inveterate liar, spinning tall tales about his youthful footballing prowess and undocumented spectatorship at the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium tragedy. It was this opprobrious individual who, in late January, threw his hat into the ring as a contender in the Stoke Central contest.

For several weeks, Tontine Square in central Hanley was disfigured by a UKIP headquarters set up in an ex-pastry shop – a retail switch from pies to lies, as wags had it – from which issued propaganda proclaiming the party a staunch defender of the NHS. When its leader is on record as decrying socialized medicine in terms that would have defrosted the cold heart of Ayn Rand, cognitive dissonance is glaring. Few votes could have been garnered for the Europhobic cause when that leader saw fit to parade himself around an urban conurbation in garb more appropriate to an Edwardian country squire. On an edition of the BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Stoke on the evening of the by-election, solitary UKIP MP Douglas Carswell made a pitch for his party as champion of the sectional interest of the organized working class, and was surprisingly capable of maintaining a straight face in doing so, but only a minority of the electorate is naïve enough to believe this of Nuttall’s motley band of deregulators and flat tax advocates. So it proved in the early hours of 24 February, when Labour’s Gareth Snell saw off the UKIP challenge by securing 37.1% of the votes cast, Paul Nuttall’s share of 24.7% barely enabling him to edge out third-placed Conservative candidate Jack Brereton. Dr Zulfiqar Ali, despite the ostensibly imposing presence of Nuttall, or perhaps because of it given that Ali is a Muslim, more than doubled Liberal Democrat support by comparison with the 2015 general election. In Copeland, though Labour conceded the seat to the Conservatives for the first time since 1935, UKIP’s Fiona Mills was trounced.

Gareth Snell, formerly a councillor in Stoke Central’s neighbouring constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, is scarcely an inspiring addition to the House of Commons. His vulgar and scatological tweets in denigration of Brexit reveal a man cut from the shallow template of Labourite anti-intellectualism. No intellect appears to have intervened in the selection of such a man to represent constituents who are thoroughly disenchanted with the European project. It is a further instance of what has been the Achilles heel of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship, namely a shying away from engagement with the progressive sentiments underpinning the Brexit watershed. Without the aid of a newly acquired Corbynite mass membership drumming up partiality for Labour on the doorstep, ironically the anti-Corbyn Snell may have struggled to pass the winning post. Nevertheless, overall one can be thankful that matters turned out as well as they did in the wake of Tristram Hunt’s reckless betrayal of office. After his defeat, Paul Nuttall made the minatory prediction that “There’s a lot more to come from us.” Mercifully, Stoke-on-Trent will not be the arena for testing the accuracy of his claim.


The UK Independence Party, Disability and Mental Health


Disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down.

UKIP councillor Colin Brewer


Four years of Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government have reduced the United Kingdom – insofar as, ahead of September’s referendum on Scottish independence, it is united – to a parlous state: afflicted by spiralling debt, mired in minimal growth camouflaged by a berserk housing bubble, and with a gross bifurcation between rich and poor growing more outrageous by the day. In the local and European Parliament elections of 22 May 2014, the lamentable response of a significant portion of the electorate (some 4.3 million voters overall) was to favour the UK Independence Party, a ragtag band of petit-bourgeois dunces huckstering the prejudices of chauvinist false consciousness as purported solutions to the crisis. In Stoke-on-Trent, on a low turnout of 23.32%, and taking advantage of a vacuum left by the decline of the fascist British National Party, UKIP garnered 17,165 votes, vanquishing the hitherto entrenched dominance of the Labour Party. It’s painful to record that the most progressive option on the ballot paper, leftist alliance No2EU, drew a miserly 177 votes, and that the Greens were outmatched by UKIP by a factor of ten to one.

Across the board, UKIP’s policies are a passel of hateful bigotries, typically bellowed out by puce-faced reactionaries who, had electoral success eluded them, might come across as more blimpishly comical than nefarious. By a large margin, most attention has been focused on UKIP’s hostility to immigration, and on its demonization of the European Union as an allegedly imperious origine du mal  (a not insubstantive charge, but one where the proposed cure of corporatist autarky is worse than the disease). Undeniably, these are the most consequential aspects of the UKIP project. As revealed by a recently published British Social Attitudes survey, indulgence of UKIP anti-immigrant propaganda on the part of the political class – hardly an anguishing exercise for Tories, and no insurmountable battle with conscience for right-wing Labourites  – has served only to rekindle racism and xenophobia. Ground has already been conceded on that front, and the results are unlikely to be pleasant. If we examine less publicized areas of UKIP policy, however, an equally noxious picture emerges. In this article, I’ll take a brief look at the Little Englanders’ perspective on issues of disability and mental health.

The UKIP manifesto for the 2010 general election called for segregated education – ghettoization into “congregate” communities in evasively abstruse UKIP  terminology – for children with learning difficulties. A committee of the Council of Europe has branded UK disability payments as “manifestly inadequate” in monetary value, but according to the manifesto they are too munificent, and should be slashed to the same beggarly level as Jobseeker’s Allowance. UKIP’s spokeswoman on disability, the golliwog-fetishizing Star Etheridge, has backed off from endorsing such flagrant cruelties, but still insists that the bromidic “red tape” of health and safety laws constitutes the chief barrier to disabled people finding work, while pitching withdrawal from the EU as a panacea for all of the difficulties encountered by the disabled community. Pinning down the opportunistic details of current UKIP disability policy is no easy task; suffice it to say that nothing good can be expected of a party whose website has reviled social security claimants as “a parasitic underclass of scroungers” who should be dragooned at the earliest opportunity into punitive workfare schemes (commencing with recipients of housing and council tax benefits, with no exemptions specified for the sick and disabled). Human rights legislation, of enormous utility to disabled persons, remains in UKIP’s sights as something to be swept away as mollycoddling nonsense.

UKIP members such as Godfrey Bloom are well known for their bovine misogyny, but some venture beyond mere bumptiousness into the realms of the genuinely sinister. Useful idiots like Star Etheridge, who are not repelled by any notion of humanitarian “do-gooding” – and are actually women in this ideological enclave of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche – comprise a semi-respectable veneer behind which lurk truly obnoxious characters. Colin Brewer, for instance, a former UKIP councillor in Cornwall, has advocated the euthanization of disabled babies. Such children, in his reckoning, are akin to deformed livestock, and are the offspring of parents who are “breeding like rabbits” due to a wanton plenitude of state support. (Brewer has a fondness for bestial analogies, which may have diverted him from reaching for the expression “useless eaters” as justification for his sentiments.) Geoffrey Clark, a UKIP candidate in elections for Kent County Council, is of an equivalent mindset, although he would limit the homicide to compulsory abortion in cases of Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. These archaic stances – Brewer, with his penchant for infanticide, would find himself more at home in ancient Sparta than contemporary Britain – are compounded by a fundamental antagonism to the NHS, with UKIP bent on accelerating the Tories’ privatization drive. Under UKIP tutelage, the NHS in any case would become unsustainable owing to the party’s commitment to a highly regressive erosion of the tax base.

With regard to mental health conditions, the sympathy of UKIP activists is strictly rationed. Star Etheridge let slip her philanthropic mask when she declared, no doubt after deep ratiocination, that “retard” ought to be considered more of a contextually permissible word than a universally proscribed affront to human dignity. Paul Clapp, a UKIP councillor in Cambridgeshire, casually employs “mentally ill” as a slur in his pettifogging quarrels with fellow council members. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in the view of learned contributors to the UKIP message board, is nothing more than “psychobabble” cunningly crafted to keep “lefties” in the public sector jobs to which they are not entitled. Homosexuality, on the other hand, certainly qualifies as a psychiatric infirmity in the estimation of Dr Julia Gasper, a UKIP parliamentary candidate in Oxfordshire. Addressing the readers of an online site for gays, she held forth in the following manner: “It’s a shame that most of you are completely mad and need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Just ring up your GP, tell him your symptoms and ask for help.” She omitted to add that UKIP would like to see them, and other patients, charged for the privilege of consulting a GP. (Dr Gasper’s doctorate is in English Literature rather than medicine, though one would be hard pressed to divine it from her careless prose. Presumably she is not the most acute exegete of Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde or E.M. Forster.) UKIP’s leader, oleaginous Thatcherite Nigel Farage, has declined to censure one of his MEPs, Roger Helmer, who rants in similarly delirious fashion on the theme of homosexuality as psychopathology.

To the enlightened mind, all of this must appear absurd, wicked and more than a little unhinged, not to mention replete with ominous historical precedents. The present author, Mark Conlon, not generally given to invoking supernatural assistance, will make an exception on this occasion. May a god help us – not the authoritarian Christian patriarch of UKIP imagining, but perhaps one decreeing the fate of political parties in accordance with the principle of quem deus vuit perdere, dementat prius – should the proponents of such grotesqueries ever be in a position to implement them.