Once upon a time you would be hard pressed to find a more solid Labour stronghold than Stoke-on-Trent. The potteries, the mines, and the steel works gave birth to a close-knit working class that produced generations of Labour party activists who absolutely dominated the city's politics. But all that began to change when the wind of deindustrialisation blew through North Staffordshire. The pits and steel mill are gone, and the ceramics industry is but a pale shadow of a former colossus. In their wake came call centres, casualised retail jobs, long term joblessness and bleak prospects.
The splintering of Stoke's working class eventually found expression in its politics. As late as 1997 every single one of 60 council seats were taken by Labour. But since then politics have caught up with economics and that de facto monopoly has been broken. Stoke heads into this year's council election ruled by a coalition of Tories, independents, and LibDems. In addition to Labour's 13 seats and the BNP's eight, there are five groups of independents with 23 councillors between them. The council chamber is also home to the internet-based Libertarian Party's single sitting councillor. In addition there are constantly shifting factional battles and fallings out among the various groups - the latest victim of which being the BNP, who lost their group leader after deputy fuhrer Simon Darby was parachuted into Stoke Central as their parliamentary candidate.
But by far the biggest victim of fratricidal disputes has been Labour. It's been doing a good imitation of the most split-crazy elements of the Trotskyist left these last five years as councillors have walked out and been readmitted, broken away, and defied group discipline. There's been plenty of action outside the chamber too. Labour mayor of the city, Mark Meredith, was deposed after a campaign led and supported by local Labour activists secured a successful referendum on the abolition of the mayoralty. And presently the regional and national party have banned three of the movers behind the campaign from standing for council on a Labour ticket, and have taken several measures against them. So bad have things got that last Saturday's front page of local paper, The Sentinel, carried news that these long-standing members intend to sue the party.On top of this Stoke Central CLP have been boycotting meetings of the city-wide Labour party in solidarity with the three, and held its AGM a few weeks ago in defiance of a ruling by the NEC.
And so the decision of sitting Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher to stand down could not have come at a worse time.
Mark has had a number of medical problems and is currently recovering from surgery that would see him out of action for most of the election period. But there's suggestions from a number of quarters that he's been leant on too. By who and why will reveal itself once the selection battle for his successor heats up. According to Stoke's Pits n Pots blog, the powers that be are poised to draw up an all-woman shortlist for selection. I have heard from alternative sources that there will be an open selection, an 80-20 tilted selection (toward women applicants), and a direct imposition of a candidate. In other words, no one has a clue what's going to happen. But I am encouraged by a few of the (local) names that have thrown their hats into the ring that we won't get some Blairite clone.
It is clear that if Stoke Central suffers a fate similar to Ashfield, the constituency party will be damaged by a slew of resignations and/or activists deciding to campaign elsewhere. The possibility of a current party member trying to do a Blaenau Gwent cannot be discounted, nor can a significant collapse in Labour's 9,770 majority. Unfortunately, because of the fragmentation of Stoke's politics and the decline of Labour it is the BNP and independent fascist, Alby Walker, who are best placed to make significant inroads into that majority.
What a sorry state of affairs.
Update: As I was writing the above it was revealed that Stoke Central CLP has been suspended. This means it cannot hold any formal meetings until the suspension is lifted, which will be after the elections. What this means for the selection process is unclear.