The beauty of Stroud strikes like a magnificent, resounding bell. Alighting from the train, I am welcomed to this market town by the Hill Paul building, a former Victorian clothing factory with its seven towering red brick floors and five sets of double windows. With all the characteristics of the time, each window wears a sandstone cap matching sandstone lines running horizontally and at intervals, a formidable Roman numeric clock reminds anyone in the vicinity the value of keeping time.
Not long ago, the people of Stroud saved this historic building from demolition, just one in a great line of victories that include a house dating back to the Middle Ages, Stroud Maternity Hospital, a mature hornbeam tree, and the local branch of the Post Office. Activism in Stroud is nothing new. The Stroudwater Riots of 1825 saw mill workers join the Weavers Union in protest at low pay and unacceptable conditions. Strikes turned violent after the army was called in and after reading the Riot Act, soldiers were pelted with stones while looms were burned and strike breakers doused in the local fish pond.
I am spending the evening with Natasha Josette, a local activist and single Mum who has been working hard to get young people registered to vote. Tonight there are two competing events in Stroud town centre. One is a collaboration of ‘Register to Vote Stroud’ with ‘Stroud Against The Cuts’. The other has been organised by ‘Global Beats’. At Stroud Valley Artspace I catch up with Natasha’s co-organiser, James Beecher. Surrounded by a galaxy of leaflets, public announcement posters, newsletters and pamphlets, James sets out the aims for the evening, ‘We’re trying to increase youth engagement in politics now and beyond the election… to see what young people think about politics, why they might not be engaged and what might help them to get more engaged’.
Interviewing three young people who have registered to vote, two have already decided which political party they’ll be voting for. One considered young man wants to do more research first. The subject of learning about politics comes up a lot. Young people in Stroud want to take informed decisions. Three young men, not yet old enough to register, were quite clear that their level of maturity meant they should be granted a vote at sixteen and are frustrated that they have to wait. Going against the grain, one confesses he doesn’t agree with much of what the Labour Party stands for, but would vote for them because the Conservatives are trying to regulate the internet. Political information is gathered online and through friends ‘If one friend gets into politics’ explains another ‘they can spread the good word’.
Natasha moved to Stroud a few years back after deciding London was not the place to bring up two kids. As we talk, the conversation moves onto Stroud’s community, a subject about which Natasha is effervescent, ‘We have a very strong sense of community here! Strong community groups and single issue campaigns getting together in solidarity. And I would love to do a shout out to the rest of the country to say, if you have something as great as here come and tell me about it because I haven’t seen it before – but if it exists, tell me!’
Walking through the streets of Stroud, not a corporate chain or American brand is in sight. Instead green flags of ‘The Republic of Stroud’ flutter from the lamp posts. Stroud is a key marginal. Labour’s current candidate, David Drew, won the seat in 1997, 2001 and again in 2005, losing to Conservative, Neil Carmichael, in 2010 and 2015. There are only a few thousand votes between the winning and the losing side, so new voters could tip the balance. David Drew is a Corbyn man, making Stroud an interesting marker. If the vote goes Labour, it could be judged as an endorsement of Corbyn’s new direction. If Conservatives hold the seat, seens as a rejection of Labour’s recent swing to Socialism.
Preparing to leave the event that night, I notice James deep in conversation with two teenage boys. As we say our goodbyes, I ask how he thinks it’s gone, ‘Most people are registered now’ he confides ‘ but I was struck tonight by how interested young people are in discussing issues and debating them, and how much they already knew’. I had seen this myself and, on departing the following morning, was filled with a profound sense of confidence in the future. Stroud may go Left, and it may go Right but whatever the result, the community will be driving its direction and Stroud’s young people will be taken with it.