Media spin and misrepresentations

Mick Temple, Professor of Journalism and Politics

It’s over. We can all breathe a huge sigh of collective relief. The Stoke Central by-election and its importance to British and European politics, meant that the world’s media attention was for a few whirlwind weeks focussed on Stoke-on-Trent.

It was certainly an exciting time for commentators like me, and it should have been wonderful for us all. It offered a chance to showcase our city and display its many strengths, especially with the bid for UK City of Culture gathering momentum.

Instead, I’m left with a nasty taste which no amount of good ale will wash away.

Of the media, only our very local press and radio emerge with any credit from this campaign. The Sentinel, with its refusal to take sides (for example, correctly resisting efforts to exclude the BNP from its pre-election hustings debate) and its determination to display a nuanced picture of Stoke and its electorate, showed a commitment to serving the public which deserves praise.

The national and international media came with an agenda, one that Paul Nuttall appeared determined to play up to. We were the ‘Brexit capital of Britain’ – not actually true, but what does that matter in this age of, let’s use the new phrase that is already a cliché, ‘post-truth politics’.

And therefore, in the eyes of the ill-informed media pack, the people of Stoke are mostly an uneducated, ignorant, racist and bigoted bunch of white working class ‘chavs’.

Let me state this. Voting for Brexit is not synonomous with being a xenophobic, ill-educated bigot. Sadly, that view is felt by even some of the well-educated people I associate with, who really should know better.

There were many well-founded rational reasons for voting leave. By the way, I need to say here that on balance, I preferred to remain in the EU, but slandering those who thought otherwise is to insult the majority of our nation.

Anyway, that aside, the picture that was presented of a great city was wilfully negative. Every derelict building, crumbling kiln, boarded-up shop, overweight person and gloomy cliché was pulled out of the bag.

The vox pops made the broadcasters’ bias clear. For every reasonable and informed opinion offered, a dozen unprepossessing punters, many not even aware there was an election happening, filled our TV screens with the overwhelming impression that they represented the ‘true Stoke’.


From German TV to the BBC, to a pretty vile video piece by the Guardian’s John Harris – which he later apologised for (too late John) – a picture of a city I barely recognised was presented to the world.

The media were clearly hoping for a UKIP win, in order that two stories could be pursued – the death of Jeremy Corbyn and the triumph of UKIP in its ‘capital city’.

I was asked by one national media station to ‘stand by’ for a radio interview for Friday afternoon Drivetime, ‘depending on circumstances’. I replied, ‘you mean if UKIP win, you’ll want me, otherwise not’? Cue nervous laughter. No surprise that the interview was ‘stood down’ on Friday morning …

Whatever the merits or otherwise of UKIP, it’s no secret that most of Stoke’s institutions were grateful that UKIP lost, fearing further damage to the city’s reputation.

And most of the watching media felt let down that their picture of Stoke-on-Trent was confounded by the strong performance of the Conservatives and Labour’s win.

Our trust in the media is at an all-time low and for many Stokies that trust was not strengthened by the spin and misrepresentations presented in this by-election.







Your vote counts!

Jackie Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Journalism

The outcome of tomorrow’s by-election in Stoke Central will be decided by the size of the turnout – and Staffordshire University students potentially could swing it.

Labour won the seat in 2015 with a 16.6 per cent majority and 5,000 plus votes ahead of UKIP. Labour has seen their share of the vote decline in recent years in what has always been regarded as a safe seat for them.

However, no-one is calling this Thursday’s result with confidence, as the traditional low turnout in this area (only around half of voters voted in the 2015 General Election) makes this result particularly unpredictable.

The bookies currently have Labour ahead, but as we have learnt, betting odds, or polls for that matter, are not a precise science

A total of 57,701 people have a vote in this election, but by-elections usually see a lower turnout than general elections. If the turnout is as low as 30 per cent (and some political analysts are even suggesting 20 per cent) this means only 17,310 people will actually have their say on who should win. A 16.6 per cent majority in this scenario works out as just 2,873 votes. Not too much wriggle room for error for Labour.

In January, 3,000 Staffordshire University students were said to be missing off the electoral register, and a campaign was launched to get them signed up. The 3,000 do not make up the total student population who are eligible to vote. The university has nearly 12,000 undergraduates and 5,000 post graduates. A survey conducted for the last General Election indicated 70 per cent of Staffordshire University students would vote.

Since the by-election has been called, an extra 2,500 people in the constituency have registered to vote. Not all these new registrations will be students. But taking into account that 16.6 per cent majority equals 2,873 votes on a 30 per cent turnout, it shows how much influence this extra 2,500 – whoever they are – have.

Interestingly in the EU referendum vote, the university ward of Hanley Park and Shelton bucked the trend of the rest of the city. Here it is estimated only 32 per cent voted to Leave. This compared to all the other wards who averaged together just under a 70 per cent vote for Brexit, according to the Electoral Calculus.

Perhaps tomorrow, the Hanley Park and Shelton ward will deliver another contrary result for Stoke Central – it is certainly in the students’ hands to do so.


Stoke Central: A creative constituency

Dr Ian Jackson, Enterprise Reader in the School of Business, Leadership and Economics and Course Leader MA Economics of Globalisation and European Integration

Two-hundred and fifty years ago in one of the first ever purpose-built factories of the Industrial Revolution, Josiah Wedgwood began a pottery legacy that is still producing world-class ceramics.  In his pursuit of excellence, Wedgwood devised a manufacturing system based on the division of labour that pre-dates the economic analysis Adam Smith; improved road infrastructure and constructed commercially successful canals; created the earliest known marketing plan; devised catalogues and sales events in London showrooms; sold his bespoke wares to the crown heads of Europe and exported across the emerging markets of North America and counted luminaries such as Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly and James Watt as close personal friends.  His factory and home at the time were in the present day constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central.

The local economy of the Potteries has evolved since those pioneering days of the mid-eighteen century.  At various times the area of North Staffordshire has prospered through coal mining, steel production and tyre manufacturing as well as the creation of pottery synonymous with the six towns of Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Hanley, Stoke and Tunstall.  The city has had its share of economic hardship, too.  There are no coal mines left that once fuelled over 2,000 distinctive bottle kilns and whilst there are about six thousand workers in the ceramics industry, many historic brands such as Beswick, Minton and Spode have disappeared.

Nevertheless, although Stoke-on-Trent was affected badly by the Great Recession of 2007-08, there are recent signs that the area is experiencing a genuine recovery.  In particular, there has been significant increases in manufacturing productivity that has boosted growth locally and according to research conducted by Oxford Economics, the city was the second fastest growing local economy between 2010 and 2015 albeit from a relatively low base.  The pivotal location of the area, equidistant between Birmingham and Manchester, has also resulted in diversifying the employment base with new jobs created in logistics and distribution although many are low paid.

The local economy of Stoke-on-Trent is forecast to have an improved value of £4.6 billion by the end of 2017 according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research, which is an estimated increase of £39 million.  This figure is enhanced by the Government, which has supported urban regeneration and further job creation through the Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone.

There is a strong Local Enterprise Partnership, too which is developing many projects including one proposal to host the country’s largest deep geothermal district heating system.  Higher Education is also important for adding value to the local economy with Staffordshire University, based in the City of Stoke-on-Trent for over 100 years providing a supply of graduates across wide number of academic disciplines including Computing and Engineering.

Staffordshire is an enterprising county.  The Potteries is a unique city.  Stoke-on-Trent Central is an area full of culture, heritage and opportunity.  In the days and weeks following the by-election, it will be the task of the new Member of Parliament for this creative constituency to help continue the economic prosperity of a dynamic and resilient area.

The Stoke Central by-election is critical for the City’s ‘left behinds’

Richard Machin, Course Leader for Social Welfare Law, Policy and Advice Practice

There has been much local and national media attention on Stoke in recent weeks and we can expect this to intensify in the days building up to the Stoke Central by-election on 23 February. Polly Toynbee has justifiably stated that the election result will send a signal from Stoke to the rest of the country and define an identity for our great city. I go along with the assessment of my colleague Mick Temple that this is a two horse race between Labour and UKIP, but given the election results that we have witnessed over the last 12 months and the fact that Leicester City are the reigning premier league champions I will leave the predictions to other people.

As a lecturer in Social Welfare Law, Policy and Advice Practice I am interested in the ways in which government policy affects the most vulnerable people in society. That’s why for me it is really important that amongst the hype surrounding this election we recognise that for many constituents in Stoke Central the last five to six years have been incredibly tough. The left behinds of Stoke are unlikely to be spending much time worrying about how this election will affect Jeremy Corbyn or whether it will herald a new dawn for UKIP. Why wouldn’t you be disenchanted with politicians if you are struggling to cope with the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’, are living with a greatly reduced income because of the benefit cap, are struggling to make a low wage stretch to pay the rent and having to make a daily choice between heating your house and eating properly?

It will be interesting to see the turnout and profile of voters in this election and the left behinds could swing it for either Labour or UKIP. In many elections such as this over the last 20 years or so we have seen the people who are most badly affected by political decisions failing to cast a vote. Perhaps the gargantuan political decisions that we saw in 2016, both in the UK and abroad, will reawaken interest and result in renewed action…but that is by no means certain. Working on a recent research project exploring the experiences of people who are street homeless in Hanley one of the main findings was that homeless people want to be heard and are frustrated at feeling they have no voice and play no part in decisions that are made about them. An election is one way in which we can all have our say but perhaps it has become such a tainted way of expressing our views that we should not expect a stampede to the ballet box on 23 Feb.

I hope that whoever is the Member of Parliament for Stoke Central on the morning of 24 February will have a genuine commitment to improving the lives of their constituents whose challenges will continue long after the TV cameras move onto the next political story. The impact of this election will be far reaching but the success, or otherwise, of the next Stoke Central MP should be judged on the impact that they have on the lives of the poorest people living here in the Potteries.

Why local healthcare is crucial to the debate

Mark Lovatt, Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Care

The NHS is omnipresent in any political debate. Intrinsic to the notion of being British, it is deified and untouchable. Obviously, it would be foolish to ignore the NHS locally and none of the candidates has let themselves down in that respect.  All have highlighted concerns about the state of the NHS, but practical solutions to address issues locally are less apparent. Problems in the system are national and, on the face of it, seem intractable in the prevailing financial climate and with the current funding streams. The ‘we need to do more with less’ mantra has stretched capacity to its limit, nationally as well as locally.  Words like crisis and meltdown are used so often to describe an underfunded, overwhelmed system that their impact is lost, somehow diluted and considered dramatic. Local candidates have provided the requisite amounts of reassuring sound bites and loaded language; this has been predictably familiar, predictably big on rhetoric and predictably short on substance.

Despite the fierce scrutiny, criticism and words designed to raise panic in the public, healthcare professionals are, in the main, a hugely phlegmatic group. People on the frontline of the NHS are no strangers to change and no strangers to promises. Largely apolitical, they ply their trade willingly and professionally, whoever is at the helm and in the stateroom. Battered by news stories of untenable problems in A + E and ever increasing waiting lists, frontline staff often have to act as apologists for the national crisis and at times are the only ones there to take the blame. For many, political ambivalence has replaced any hope that may have been inspired by past assurances that things can only get better.

The emotional labour of caring should not be underestimated, but neither should the succour that patients and their relatives provide as a counterpoint to an increasingly difficult occupation. It is these people and their resilience that, more often than not, provide the inspiration for NHS staff to carry on, but this does not sustain indefinitely. The right candidate needs to acknowledge this and recognise the very real needs of staff and patients. With an ear to the ground, they should listen to the voice of the shop floor, lobby for local solutions and address local problems. The city’s hospitals, community Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups are large employers and fundamental to the fabric of the city.  Their work and the votes of these people, count.

Whilst it is recognised that the imperative do more with less needs to be replaced by do things differently, it may be prudent to recognise that the local healthcare system has been worn down by constant change, and allow it to take a breath and let people continue to implement the good work that is currently going on. The right candidate needs to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about the current provision, have grown up conversations, and cut through the hyperbole before they look to work on locally focussed initiatives, rather than impose nationally derived, target driven strategies, that only serve to disengage.

The parliamentary candidate that Stoke deserves

Jim Pugh, Head of Education

Green shoots of growth and business regeneration. I hear this a lot when others describe Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke needs a candidate that can provide the environment to make these shoots grow and thrive. This candidate will also recognise that the people in this environment are the ones living in Stoke. They are in local schools, colleges, university and working within our local network of Business.

Put simply, when employment and wages are higher in Stoke, a higher skilled workforce will be attracted to the areas. But for all we hear of green shoots…this is going to take time…and it is during this time in which the right candidate will recognise that we’ll have to invest in the people here.

To do this the candidate needs to see the good in the City. There are some outstanding school and college leaders producing some outstanding students and graduates. Recently, Stoke Secondary Schools were ranked 93rd out of 151 local education areas for their performance in Progress 8, a measure of how successful student are at 16 based upon projected grades when they entered at the age of 11. This is great news. This sees an education ranking where Stoke is not near the bottom. Of course improvements can be made, but this is a bold step in the right direction. Furthermore, school leaders are producing these types of results in a time of budget constraints and policy turbulence.  Make no mistake, times are tough working in schools and colleges and they are especially tough in working in areas of hardship and social deprivation.

Stoke has recently been named an Opportunity area and will receive part of a £72 million grant. The money is to increase educational attainment, progress and future employability for those in the area. Great news.

There are many cities which could have equally been awarded this money. I’m obviously biased, but the Government got it right this time in awarding some of this to Stoke. Under the guidance of the Local Authority and networks of Headteachers, such as the SASCAL group, Stoke has the capacity to use the money wisely. The right parliamentary candidate must ensure this. They must get this right, and get it right now.

Academics refer to Human Capital Theory. Very simply, this theory suggests that individuals who invest in their own education and future will become more productive and therefore earn higher future wages. Those with high levels of Human Capital – thirst to improve and invest within themselves – will move to places where others have high levels of Human Capital.

The right candidate will use new funding, they will campaign – hard – for more resource. They will see that Education, what goes on in schools and colleges, does not stand alone. They will recognise that they will be pivotal in the relationship building with education, business and trade. Whilst the City needs low skilled employees, it needs teachers, entrepreneurs, architects, lawyers, artists. To compete with the likes of Derby and Nottingham, before entertaining the heavy weights of Manchester and Birmingham it needs generation after generation coming through an outstanding and supported education system ready to take up positions in world leading companies.

Empowering schools to work together for the good of the City will be critical. The candidate will recognise the Human Capital argument and in doing so understand that a graduate will have increased their ability and earning potential. By keeping them in the City, with well-paid employment and opportunities, the right candidate will understand that this graduate will better those working around them and the City as a whole.

I don’t know them well, but my hunch is that Emma Bridgewater needs financial planners, BET365 needs marketers, and Michelin need corporate buyers. I hear lots of talk of green shoots and business regeneration. The right candidate will ensure that these local employers will be able to employ from a highly skilled and highly educated local workforce.

Gauging the political temperature in Stoke Central

Jackie Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Journalism

It was a blustery February day and the vote Labour garden flags, which have sprung up like snowdrops in Stoke Central constituency, were creaking in the breeze. As a journalist turned lecturer, my news nose is twitching at election times, so I was spending a day out and about in the Stoke/Penkhull area trying to gauge the political temperature for the forthcoming by-election. I wanted to find out if feelings were still running high after the referendum vote, where nearly 70 per cent of voters in the city opted for out of the EU; or if, in an area known for low turnouts, potential voters were feeling left out in the cold.

In Stoke library, which also doubles as a council enquiry desk, my questions got a lukewarm response from people waiting in the queue. One mum, nursing her baby, has never voted and can’t see a time when she ever will. She had not heard of Tristram Hunt, the resigning MP, and didn’t know there was a by-election. Her concerns were for her baby and her mum: “So long as they are all right.”  She also believes that elections are fixed: “They know what is going to happen before it happens, and it is always that the rich get looked after and the poor don’t.”

Another mum said she wasn’t really bothered about the EU but might be persuaded to vote for someone who could provide her with better housing.

David, aged 30, explained he had tried hard to understand the EU issue, but became confused by all the information. In the end, he based his choice from what he had heard his colleagues discuss. They have now all been made redundant, after the company relocated to Berlin. This time round, David will decide who to vote for after reading the leaflets which come through the door. He felt that after last June, he couldn’t trust what he reads on the internet. “It is hard to know what is true, and what is not true anymore. With social media, it is so easy to get stories out there which might not be true,” he said.

A pensioner reading the paper in another part of the library was despairing at how few people vote. “Not enough people vote. Around two thirds won’t vote yet they complain about the NHS,” he said. He voted for Brexit and he knows he won’t vote Labour, but is unsure where to put his cross. “It’s been like because it is Stoke, we will all vote Labour. I don’t agree with that, it’s as if we don’t have any of our own thoughts,” he said.

In what has always been known as a Labour heartland, I came across one Labour voter. All the other people I spoke to were either not voting, or have not yet made up their minds. Richard, aged 64, was having lunch at the Penkhull Community café. He said: “Most people round here think Brexit is a good thing, but they are deluding themselves because it will be an unmitigated disaster. People don’t realise how much the EU subsidise areas. They have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked.”

Despite describing himself as a Guardian-reading liberal, who believes in voting, he had little truck for politicians describing them, in his honest opinion, as ‘a bunch of lying, self-serving, greedy, narcissistic twerps – most of them’.

It seems that in this by-election, the battle is not so much persuading people who to vote for, but giving people a reason as to why they should vote. Disconnection, disillusionment and distrust are all playing a part in keeping people away from the polls.




Why opinion polls are getting it wrong!

David Clark-Carter, Professor of Psychological Research Methods

The outcomes of two recent elections and a referendum were all wrongly predicted by opinion pollsters: the 2015 British general election, the American election of the President and the referendum about Britain leaving the European Union (EU).  This is despite the fact that polling organisations use well respected statistical techniques.  There are at least three possible explanations: two are linked to the people they are asking and one to the assumptions they are making.

To know for certain the outcome of an election you’d need to ask everyone who was eligible to vote (your population) and they would have to tell you the truth.  However, if you choose a sample of people from that population, according to some basic rules, and ask people in that sample how they will vote then you should get an accurate estimate of how the whole population will vote.  The first rule is that you need a random sample.  By this I mean that every member of the population has a known probability of being chosen to be in the sample.  To choose the most basic form of a random sample I would need to use a method where every member of the population had an equal chance of being chosen.

A second rule of sampling is that the larger the sample you take the more accurate your estimate and the smaller the margin of error around that estimate.  Estimates from a sample don’t have to be 100% accurate to be useful but they would need a small margin of error to be of any use.  Thus if the estimate of the referendum outcome had been that 54% of people wanted to leave with a margin of error of 2% then that would be saying that between 52% and 56% would vote to leave.  If the estimate of those who wanted to remain was 48%, with the same margin of error, then the prediction would be that between 46% and 50% would vote to remain.  As these two ranges don’t overlap we could confidently predict that the result would be to leave the EU.

A major problem is that samples aren’t truly random any more because the ways of sampling a random set of people have been subverted by changes in the way people can be contacted.  If we take the example of telephones, you could dial a random set of land line telephone numbers.  However, two developments have meant that the sample of those who answer your call is going to be unrepresentative of the wider population.  Many people no longer have a land line and rely solely on a mobile (or cell) phone and so your sample may be missing groups such as younger people who don’t have a land line.  You are likely also not to be sampling those who do have a land line but have call recognition which allows them to see the number of the caller.  Because of the volume of cold calls which are made about PPI, personal injuries, home insulation or are simply scams, many people won’t answer their phone if they don’t recognise the number of the caller.  Those having call recognition may be more affluent and so missing them may also bias your sample.

If we have a biased sample then the estimates based on the responses of the sample will be wrong.  Polling companies are aware of the issue and have developed sophisticated ways to try to take this into account when making their estimates.  However, the adjustments made are only going to improve accuracy if the assumptions they are based on are warranted and it looks as though they might not be.

The final point is that the estimates are only going to be accurate if the people you ask know how they are going to vote and either don’t change their minds or don’t lie to you.  If you have a high enough proportion of people who say they don’t know or who change their minds then your estimate of the final outcome will be inaccurate.  Similarly, if many people are too embarrassed to tell you the truth about how they are going to vote then clearly you are not going to make an accurate prediction.

Given the current problems with polling, we need to be cautious about accepting predictions about the outcome of the forthcoming by-election.

Is the Stoke Central by-election a two-horse race?

Mick Temple, Professor of Journalism and Politics

We now know the candidates who have the best chance of winning Tristram Hunt’s vacated seat in Stoke Central’s by election, to be held on 23rd February.

UKIP’s leader Paul Nuttall has eased out the popular local candidate Mick Harold, which may turn out to be a mistake. Nuttall parachuted himself in and many local UKIP supporters felt Mr Harold deserved selection for his hard work and effective performance in 2015, when he came second to Tristram.

There is also wider local resentment at the long history of outsiders who the electorate increasingly feel have not defended the city’s interest in either Parliament or the EU institutions.

The Conservatives have chosen the very young Stoke councillor, Jack Brereton, who is highly regarded by party colleagues. The circumstances may mean that his chance of winning is slim.

This election looks like being a two way battle between the party who helped deliver Brexit – popular in Stoke of course – and the defending party who have long regarded Stoke parliamentary seats as ‘gimmes’.

Not any more. The city is no longer safe Labour territory.

Although some excessively parochial critics bemoaned the lack of a ‘true Stokie’ on the short list, Labour have selected the former leader of Newcastle Borough Council, Gareth Snell. This was a surprise to some insiders, who had expected the more experienced Trudi McGuinness to win the nomination.

But those present tell me that Gareth Snell delivered a barnstorming speech to members, full of passion and humour, winning over many undecided members.

With his selection, the idea that the by-election was going to be a test of Corbyn’s popularity is more difficult to uphold. Mr Snell voted for Owen Smith in the last leadership election. And at Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Stoke tonight (Thursday 26th January) it will be interesting to discover the strength of his support for a soft left candidate who used to work for Tristram Hunt.

Gareth Snell did make it plain in his immediate response to nomination what his priorities will be – the NHS, a key national issue Labour is strong on, and day care centres, a local issue resonating with many Stoke voters. And he has made it plain he will attack Paul Nuttall on the NHS. Previous pronouncements by Mr Nuttall that he would privatise the NHS may come back to haunt him.

Local man and the NHS v parachutist and Brexit. This will be a by-election full of fizz.

The deadline for nominations is Tuesday 31st January, and as with most by-elections generating national coverage we can expect the fringe candidates to engage and, who knows, maybe a big name from the past.

The winner should come from Labour or UKIP, although the Tories will reasonably argue otherwise. But remember. We live in a world of ‘post-truth politics’ and ‘alternative facts’, where experts are (rightly in the case of opinion pollsters) no longer trusted. Few saw Brexit or Trump coming, because the people who felt strongly were outside the mainstream bubble.

I’ve got too many ‘expert predictions’ wrong recently to offer one with any confidence.

Stoke Central may yet deliver a surprise.