First things first, to pre-empt all the articles and reports due to clutter up column inches and the schedules, let's get the tropes out the way. Stoke is going to be portrayed as a proud place, but a down-at-heel place. Words are going to be expended on the boarded up shops, the derelict potteries, the brown field sites gagging for new developments. Statistics will be dredged up on educational attainment, morbidity rates, car ownership, average wages, unemployment. Journalists are going to seek out - and find - people whose views are not the stuff of polite dinner party conversation, but are taken as typical of the Stokie view of the world.
Let's kick this into touch right now. Stoke has its problems. It has some very serious problems. But interestingly, things are slowly beginning to get better. This year, there were fewer brown field sites than last year. More people are in work. Staffordshire University is completing its consolidation in the city, bringing students and jobs from Stafford to the Potteries. And Hanley - the city centre for those unfamiliar with Stoke's six towns - is undergoing a renaissance with more shops, more eateries, and more attractions locals previously had to go out of the city for. This is symptomatic of a turnaround in Stoke's fortunes, and vindicates Labour's local regeneration strategy that identified the city centre as key to improving its general economic wellbeing. There's a lot to do, but Stoke is on the up.
Labour, however, are no longer in power in the city. While all three MPs are from the party, Stoke is governed by a coalition of the Tories, UKIP and the City Independents. The Council Leader is Dave Conway, a man who made his reputation as an old-Labourish community champion against alleged failings and council cuts, and is now presiding over the gutting of the city's Children's Centres, centres that Labour ring fenced and protected from government cuts during its 2011-15 tenure. In truth, Conway is the coalition's figurehead. The real brains, if they can be described as such, belong to the three leading Tories - Abi Brown, Conservative group leader and deputy council leader (at least officially), Jack Brereton, deputy group leader and cabinet member for regeneration, and Dan Jellyman - Cllr Brereton's bag carrier and holder of the heritage brief. Between them, they run the council. When the regular Council Leader's meeting comes around with the local MPs, it's Cllr Brown who takes them. In nearly two years, the nominal council leader has attended one. Just one. It's also Brown who goes to the meetings with officers, liaises with Tory-controlled Staffordshire, does all the sexy economics stuff. If there's a positive announcement to be made, on new housing for instance, Brereton fronts it up. Meanwhile they made sure the City Independents took the cabinet positions where the coalition's going to take political hits for the cuts. Smart politics. The Tories are also ambitious - it's my understanding that the Jellyman worm has turned and is jostling with Jack for the Stoke Central Tory nomination as a step toward better things. Abi on the other hand is keeping her powder dry. She's seen the first draft of the redrawn boundaries and is said to find one of the new Staffordshire seats a tantalising prospect.
The City Independents are a manifestation of the anti-politics culture that has taken root in Stoke over a number of years. They're against a lot of things, but politically they're all over the place. Their 2015 local election manifesto was truly a classic of the genre, and included gems like building a tramway system running from north to south at the cost of billions, the production and marketing of a tea set based on the Staffordshire Hoard, and a package tour of Stoke-on-Trent that went right down to the detail of the breakfast menu. It is small wonder the Tories have rode roughshod all over them and are pinching the glory for Stoke's economic regeneration while the CIndies cop the flak for everything else. Among their varied ranks, they can count a name-dropping "friend of the stars", an unapologetic ex-BNP councillor, someone who thinks the NHS should be scrapped - but has the temerity to call themselves a socialist when it suits, a fool removed from UKIP for an anti-refugee quip too gross even for them and, yes, it has to be said, a bearer of a child sex offences conviction. The CIndies are a crew ranging from the befuddled and harmless to the downright inappropriate. And yet CCHQ is absolutely fine with Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives breaking bread with these people. Oh yes, and all this is footnoted by Cllr Mick Bell of UKIP, who's there to make up the numbers and keep Labour out of office.
Naturally, it's one of those fine ironies of which politics is fond that all the measures Labour took to turn the city's economy around only bore fruit once it left office, and now is something the current administration is keen to capitalise on. And, politically, if you follow Stoke politics askance, the image that comes across is the coalition appears to be doing okay. This is because the local paper, the beloved Sentinel, covers the current council with less of a critical eye than it did when Labour was in charge. And because they haven't made any serious missteps (yet), most people remain favourably disposed or indifferent. For example, last year they dipped into reserves to forestall £15.5m worth of cuts. It might have sent finance officers into a bit of a sweat, but the sky didn't fall in and they reaped some kudos for doing so. This year, however, they can't repeat the feat and so the axe is going to fall on more services, including the aforementioned Children's Centres. Now they have to do unpopular things, we'll see how the coalition manages.
Unfortunately, and as much as it pains me to say it, while all this was and is going on, it sometimes feels the local Labour Party has gone to sleep. This doesn't mean it has grown inactive. For example, every week sees campaigning activity in Stoke North constituency and each of the three MPs have the causes they champion. What's lacking there is an overarching citywide view, no - to use a horrible phrase - "global critique" of the council and its works. Or rather it exists, but is has yet to be drawn together as a basis of a campaign. For ultimately, this is where the by-election will be won or lost. And that presents a difficulty for the party. After two years of not getting much of a hearing, preceded by a council tenure marked by unpopular decisions and (in my view) an undeserved reputation for arrogance and authoritarianism, Labour has a hill (or, seeing as we're talking about Stoke, a bank) to climb. Thankfully, a Labour Plan for Stoke in the shape of a local industrial strategy is in the works - but that will be revealed in due course. And, crucially, by-election-wise, as far as I'm concerned Labour needs to select a candidate that either lives in Stoke-on-Trent, works in the city, or has very strong connections to the city. A parachutist from any party will not do seeing as locals feel they've been used as a stepping stone for someone who just passed through. This appetite is shared by the local party too.
Interest in the vacancy so far is what you might call "healthy". Folk who've shown an interest are Staffs County Council candidate for Cannock and 2015 Moorlands PPC Trudie McGuinness, 2005-09 Stoke mayor and former Northwood and Birches Head councillor Mark Meredith, ex-Momentum organiser Cllr Chris Spence, Cllr Steve Funnell for Bentilee, Cllr Darren Price (and 2015 Congleton PPC), Newcastle-under-Lyme CLP chair Allison Gardner, and many more. Brainstorming in the curry house last night, we came up with 30 names that would likely put in. But there's one name that definitely won't be entering the mix - mine. I've had nice messages on social media and in real life encouraging me to run. Having seen a MP close up, I think I could do it and, channelling David Cameron, be rather good at it. The truth is I'm not interested. Putting in would mean going through the motions for something my heart is not set on, and we've just bid farewell to someone who had their eye on other things. My mind could change in the future, but there's other stuff I want to do first.
There then is your rough field guide to local politics in Stoke-on-Trent Central. There's more, but I'm sure it will all come tumbling out during the course of the next few months.