Stoke-on-Trent didn't buck the national trend. Here, the Labour vote collapsed along with everywhere else. Of the sitting 11 councillors defending their seats, only two were able to hold on to them. Compounding the disaster, group leader Mike Tappin and his deputy, Mervin Smith, were two of those ejected from the council chamber. This was the third year in a row Labour had lost their leader. As a consolation it picked up two more seats from elsewhere, but this will do nothing to dispel the gloomy great cloud hanging over the local party.
Stoke Labour's fortunes are not all the doing of Brown's gross ineptitude. Since last year, Labour have been the senior partner in a grand coalition of the LibDems and the Conservative and Independent Alliance groups. Existing as a glorified committee dedicated to rubber-stamping the elected mayor's neoliberal plans, its most high profile policies have been met with anger and opposition. For example, the mayor's office are determined to drive through a "shake up" of the city's high schools by closing and merging some of them into New Labour's flagship City Academies. This has provoked a storm of protest from those set to be affected by the changes. The depth of the opposition was such that the local party bureaucracy granted recalcitrant Labour councillors permission to fight the programme ... as long as they fell into line and voted for the closures at the council's budget meeting. Every single one of them fell into line, and in so doing many of them sealed their fate at the polls. Labour have also suffered from its attempt to close the popular Dimensions splash pool in Burslem, for the sake of a £60,000 shortfall in the council budget. Announcing such a measure in the lead up to local elections wasn't the smartest of political moves. But such blunders are typical of the mayor's office. He has presided over forced demolitions, care homes closures, more council job losses.
These are the reasons why Labour got such a kicking. And yet, incredibly, it has learned nothing from the defeat. In Saturday's Sentinel Mark Meredith opines about making "some very, very difficult decisions in the last 12 months in order to get the city's finances in order". He's backed up by the likes if Roger Ibbs and Jean Bowers, of the Tories and LibDems respectively, who signal it's business as usual where the coalition are concerned. Not that Labour councillors currently care that much - it will be another two years before any of them face election again. Instead it's the turn of Meredith himself in 2009 as the mayoral election swings round again. If the rumours are true about him upsetting luminaries in the local party it will be difficult for him to secure the Labour nomination again, let alone his grip on office.
Thursday also threw up some other interesting results. In Norton and Bradeley, former Labour leader Mick Salih was returned as an independent. Known locally as a fiery critic of Blairism-Brownism, his inclusion should galvanise opposition in the council chamber. Also, some may remember Dave Sutton, who along with his brother Paul paid Stoke Socialist Party's ranks a flying visit back in 2006. After being voted out last year in Tunstall as the sitting member for the short-lived LibDem Alliance grouping, he squeaked back in as a full member of the yellow party by a single vote! In the same ward Barry Stockley, yet another former Labour council leader humiliatingly trailed in last 100 votes adrift. In Stoke and Trent Vale, "independent" fascist, Spencer Cartlidge, polled a poor 45 votes. In Longton North Labour were able to get back in as the far right vote was split between the incumbent former BNP'er, Mark Leat, and Pauline Smith of the BNP proper.
Speaking of which, the fascists had another good round of results. They took their councillor tally to nine, winning seats in Abbey Green, Bentilee and Townsend, and Meir Park and Sandon. Local fuhrer, Alby Walker, has pledged his party will contest all 20 wards in Stoke-on-Trent in two years time with the medium term view of capturing the council itself. This is not beyond the realms of possibility. However, two years is a very long time in politics and the BNP could become victims of their own success. As they've won councillors with depressing regularity they've had to expand beyond the key cadre who kept the show on the road during the bad times. The BNP has a proven track record of winning elections and is now seen as a vehicle for careerist aspirations for those prepared to say anything for a taste of power. Take Stan Leese in Northwood and Birches Head for example. In 2006 he stood as a localist independent against the Socialist Party in Abbey Green and probably cost us a couple of hundred votes. But desperate to get back into the council chamber he's realised there's a better chance of getting in if he hitches a ride on the fascist bandwagon. Also, with power comes responsibility, and there will be many in Stoke - not least among its own support - who will be scrutinising what the BNP say and do on the decision-making committees they have access to.
Internal problems aside, how are we to combat the BNP? Labour are not in a position to arrest their corrosive influence, being utterly committed to a neoliberal programme. And unfortunately, the local anti-fascist campaign, North Staffs Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) remain "politically neutral" and bound to a strategy that limit themselves to pinning the Nazi tail onto the fascist donkey. It is a strategy that has failed to stem the BNP tide time and again. It has not challenged the BNP politically and nor has it mobilised non-BNP voters to come out in sufficient numbers to 'swamp' BNP support. Turns outs remain at the usual 20-30% local election benchmark. A counter-strategy has to take into account the unpalatable fact that many in Stoke (and nation-wide) now see the BNP as 'their party'. There are layers of young workers who have only ever put a cross next to the fascists on the ballot paper. No amount if moralising will shift them from this position.
Stoke SP's result in Burslem South of 130 votes (5.2%) signifies a good beginning in a ward we've never stood in before. To put things in perspective this is around double of what we poll when we have staked out virgin territory in the past. Accounts of the campaign can be read here and here. Over the coming weeks we will be following up contacts, arranging a public meeting and leafleting. But we're not daft enough to believe this is anywhere near the scale of the far right's challenge. We cannot fill the vacuum to Labour's Left by ourselves, and we certainly won't be in a position to offer a socialist alternative in every ward within the next two years, barring unforseen events. This will take a good deal of long-term work building our influence and alliances with the rest of the Stoke left, and we are already taking steps to this end. We pledge to ensure the ruling coalition and the BNP get as bumpy a ride as we can possibly give them.