In next week’s local election Stoke-on-Trent faces a curious paradox: it is being closely watched as a bellwether for national trends, but at the same time no one directly involved in the battle seems able to predict what could happen, or what lessons might be learned.
In the most simple terms, whether or not Labour can regain control of the Staffordshire city would seem a fairly basic test of the party’s electability under Jeremy Corbyn, and failure to do so would be a blow.
Stoke is traditionally a Labour stronghold. Until Jack Brereton took Stoke South for the Conservatives in 2017, all three of its parliamentary seats had been Labour since their creation in 1950.
However, the council has switched in recent years between Labour and no overall control, and is run by a coalition of Conservatives and the City Independents, which despite its name is a party and includes among its councillors longtime independents as well as defectors from parties as varied as Labour, Ukip and the British National party.
Mohammed Pervez, the energetic leader of the Labour group, which remains the council’s biggest, is fighting an avowedly local campaign, focused on traditional areas such as litter, parking, potholes and schools. Asked for predictions, he will only say the party is “campaigning hard”.
During a canvass of comfortably sized postwar terraced houses in his own ward north of the city centre, Pervez delivers a well-drilled message about “four years of chaos” covering everything from children’s services to road maintenance.
National issues do come up, he says, chatting during a pause from the intermittent rain and hail. “Brexit is a big issue on the doorstep. Our challenge is to make people understand that this election is not about Brexit, but about local services. There isn’t much we can do about Brexit, other than share people’s frustrations.”
A few miles to the south in the civic…