Today we consider Stoke South in our series about early success stories of building Conservative support in areas previously regarded as safe Labour territory. Jack Brereton gained the seat from Labour in the 2017 General Election with a majority of just 643. At the General Election last month Labour heavily targeted the seat. Busloads of Momentum activists arrived. Yet Brereton not only held the seat, but his majority sharply increased to 11,271. This is one of the lowest paid areas in the country.
Stoke South had never been Conservative before 2017. But the disillusionment with Labour had been growing for some time – certainly well before the Brexit vote. During the last Labour Government, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown avoided the city, leaving the impression that it could taken for granted. Labour ran the Council until 2015 but came up with wasteful vanity projects which were out of touch with the priorities of residents. The City was left behind.
Brereton was elected a councillor in the City in 2011. He was one of only two Conservatives that won. But in 2015 the Conservatives made six gains,. The independents also made gains with the result that Labour lost control. Then last May, bucking the trend nationally, the Conservatives in Stoke made a further eight gains. The Council is now a Conservative-led coalition with independent councillors. Cllr Abi Brown, the Council Leader, and Cllr Dan Jellyman, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Infrastructure & Heritage, have written for us about the progress being made. As with other examples in our series this week, Conservative membership has increased exponentially. In 2010 there were 40 members, it is now over 250.
For some Stoke residents, voting for independents has been a transitional phase on a political journey. They started off being disillusioned with Labour – wanting to make a protest, to “send a message” – but could not quite contemplate voting Conservative. A few years on, many of those overcame that reluctance – as is apparent. Other former Labour voters took a detour to UKIP or the Brexit Party before reaching the Conservatives as their destination last month. However, to say “final destination” would be hubris. Brereton is keeping the pace up as a “campaigning MP” despite the more comfortable margin of victory.
Brereton’s previous experience as a councillor was useful to him in dealing with casework effectively and in working with councillors and encouraging new council candidates to come forward. Though he is a young MP, the age of the electorate is above average. So while he uses social media, he also maintains regular communications of pushing newsletters and surveys through letterboxes. Being proactive in that way gives a good sense of the issues the public care about. Otherwise, there is a risk of MPs being distracted by pressure groups.
He tells me:
“In Stoke-on-Trent, our success has been built up over a number of years. Before 2015, we had three Labour MPs and a Labour-controlled council. Indeed, it is not many years since Labour held all the seats on the City Council.
“We have earned people’s trust through our hard work, building from two councillors, to seven, to taking control of the authority; and from no MPs, to one, to all three. We campaign on issues important to local people and deliver for the whole of Stoke-on-Trent.
“After decades of being taken for granted by Labour and their views ignored on Brexit, people were clear they wanted a change.”
Crime is a big concern. Brereton spends a lot of time with the police, including going on a raid. Education is another. There is currently a push to deliver a new free school in the constituency.
But perhaps the most important issue is economic revival. The wish is to see jobs created and new businesses start up. The ambition is that rather than being associated with decline, the City is regarded as a place where enterprise can flourish. An enterprise zone has seen derelict sites (both privately and council-owned) being revived. Business Rates are waived and planning restrictions eased. Brereton highlighted the issue in Parliament this week:
Jack Brereton: Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has transformed a number of brownfield sites and created thousands of jobs in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State support our proposals to extend the zone, and its continuation in Stoke-on-Trent?
Nadhim Zahawi: Since it launched in April 2016, Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has been a fantastic success: it has attracted private sector investment and has already secured 1,000 new jobs in Stoke. The Government are prioritising levelling up, as the Prime Minister continuously reminds us. We will want to reflect on those things, such as Ceramic Valley enterprise zone, that have worked and see how we can support them further.
It is a good message for the Conservatives as it is something the Conservative MP, the Conservative Government, and the Conservative-led Council, have worked together to achieve. It is easy for an MP to have opinions. What counts for more with their constituents is when they can show they have delivered results.