Abbey Green ward in Stoke occasionally crops up as a topic of discussion over at the UKLN, not least because in 2006 Paul Sutton, a Labour councillor, left that party to become the Socialist Party candidate in the year's council election. Since we were unable to retain the seat he and his brother, Dave (a sitting councillor in Tunstall) dropped out and left. Recently a thread on Urban 75 has been speculating around Dave Sutton's passage from the SP into the LibDem Alliance grouping, and also some have taken the opportunity to make sectarian capital from Stoke SP's failure to stand in Abbey Green this year. In this post I'm interested in setting the record straight about both, but more importantly what lessons socialists can draw from the episode with the Sutton brothers.
I'm not going to dwell on the 2006 election campaign - the prospects and results can be viewed here and here respectively.
Stoke comrades knew it would be more of a challenge to retain the Suttons if Paul lost his seat. Unfortunately the pair of them couldn't get away quick enough. After the ballot last May the brothers attended one party social event and one meeting of the NHS SOS campaign in the week immediately after. And then, nothing. This was despite phone calls, emails, and one visit. Next we heard was a letter of resignation received at the national office in November. Unfortunately I missed the branch where it was discussed but from what I can gather it accused leading comrades of dictatorial behaviour and believed Stoke branch were responsible for the loss of Paul's seat. Not once were these perceived grievances were taken up in the branch prior to the election nor did they make any attempt to address them afterwards. Neither did they take the opportunity to reflect on their own performances during the campaign. Small wonder a large number of comrades feel used by the branch's experience with the Suttons.
The chief problem was one of very different political cultures. They come from that proud Labour tradition where political differences are an outcome of personal differences; of the absence of an active and critical party membership and little feeling of responsibility toward it; and a politics where socialism is about state control and not the democratic self-organisation of working class people. Some comrades may ask that if this was the case, why were they accepted as SP members? Quite simply they appeared to be moving left at the time. They were having regular discussions with leading comrades in the branch, buying and reading a lot of party publications, and were visibly shaken by the lengths to which the Labour party machine went to make their life difficult in the council chamber. I can remember one such occasion where you could almost see the Labourite scales falling from Paul Sutton's eyes. Also (and despite the added weight they brought to our organisation) they were treated as any other potential SP member. Comrades coming into the organisation do not have to pass a revolutionary litmus test. They needn't know every aspect of Grant-Taaffe Thought. We do not set them an entry exam. The party would rather educate and train activists "in-house" than have them waiting outside until all the Marxist boxes have been ticked.
What could have been done differently? The pace of the electoral work meant the weekly meetings with the leading comrades fell by the wayside. In my opinion these by themselves could not have prevented their departure but would have provided a useful corrective to their continued Labourite prejudices. Another problem was integrating them into party work. They were quite happy to do stalls in Hanley and the Abbey, but it was a nightmare to get them out canvassing - itself another hold over from the do-nothing culture of the local Labour party. They were good at addressing their ward caseloads but not once did they take to the doorsteps to argue politics.
Ultimately we could only do so much. As any agony aunt will tell you, it takes two to make a relationship work. I think we did the best we could at the time. If Labour representatives do turn to the revolutionary left in the future, sensitively challenging their politics while involving them in party activity isthe common sense approach to integration. It would be interesting for instance to hear how the SWP have integrated the councillors they've managed to recruit from Respect.
Since the election Dave Sutton has sat on the council with a grouping of independents, which itself has gone into alliance with the LibDems. Hence the confusion over Dave's political affiliations. He remains one of the better sitting councillors and is regularly in the local press speaking up against cuts, closures, and mayoral cronyism. He is seeking re-election as a self-titled 'independent community councillor', as is Paul on a vague left anti-cuts platform. Personally speaking if I lived in either ward I would probably vote for them in the absence of a socialist candidate.
On the topic of a socialist candidate, the failure to stand this time round in Abbey Green is not evidence of a collapse in the branch, a fear to make plain our politics, or of a move not to split the so-called anti-fascist vote. Sectarians will be disappointed to learn that it came down to problems with the paper work. While Stoke comrades are disappointed that we're not standing this year it has meant we've been able to concentrate on solidarity work with the Burslem posties, which could potentially be more significant.