Sunday, 19 February 2017

Stoke-on-Trent: a different kind of Christianity

Stoke is a city designated for dispersal of refugees by the Home Office. This may account for the higher than average support for UKIP and other xenophobic groups in the Five Towns, where jobs are hard to come by. As witnessed by the Reverend Sally Smith on Radio 4's Beyond Belief last December, Iranian Christians, fleeing persecution in their own country, have taken to the Church of England there. Perhaps this is because, being more highly educated than the average migrant, they are already familiar with the Anglican mind-set. They have certainly formed a cohesive community within the church in Hanley. However, the traditionalists there have found it difficult to adjust to being outnumbered by Iranians and most have moved to worship in other churches in the group. The higher educational attainment may have made it easier for members of the Iranian Christian diaspora to be given leave to remain and to find work, which would be another cause for resentment.

We have already seen how the Roman Catholic church in Britain has been revitalised by the Polish community, old as a result of fleeing from Nazi and then Stalinist persecution, and new from signing up to the EU right to work throughout the Union. In turn, this has benefited the wider community, not just Catholic, as the church has been able to help poorer people who have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks.

England is nominally a Christian country, but it appears that there is a distinctly unchristian feeling towards refugees in the Potteries. So it would not be surprising to see a UKIP gain in the by-election on Thursday in spite of the revelations that their candidate had a cavalier attitude to historical fact. Having campaign slogans exposed as lies well before the vote did not hurt President Trump or LeaveEU. With the capitulation of Labour, Liberal Democrats offer the only real alternative to UKIP's sour world view. It is a lot of ground to make up, but we have already seen some dramatic Liberal Democrat gains since the June referendum.

There is a contrast with Stockton-on-Tees, another area earmarked for dispersal of Iranian refugees. There, too, the church has been swollen as a result of Iranian incoming. But many groups, both existing like the Red Cross or specifically formed, have been eager to offer support,  Stockton Liberal Democrats, who have been leading the fight against mistreatment of refugee children, report an increase in membership.

Possibly a third of the votes are already in by post in Stoke. The majority of these will be from older people who are conservative and likely to lean to UKIP. However, if enough of the younger electorate, Christian or humanist, turn out on the day we could yet see a victory for optimism over pessimism, tolerance rather than intolerance and hope for rebuilding social structures for all.

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