Sunday 8 May 2011

Stoke Local Elections: Thoughts

Until approximately 2:30 Friday morning, Stoke-on-Trent was famous for four things: the pottery industry, Stoke City Football Club, Robbie Williams, and the BNP. But no more. As Labour powered to a 24 seat majority, voters across the city decisively turned their backs on the far right. All five of their sitting councillors were dumped out of the chamber, their challenges elsewhere came to nought, and the unashamedly racist England First (née the White Nationalist Party) could only make up the numbers as fascist also-rans.

This doesn't mean the city can be declared a BNP-free zone, as tempting to do so is. The 3.4%
city wide vote mustered by the BNP downplays the scale of their support. In the 10 wards where they fielded a candidate, they polled 2,528 votes out of 35,467 cast, or 7.12%. Despite losing every seat, having an organisation falling apart at the seams, running no real campaign to speak of, and seeing a wedge of its soft support returning to Labour, the fascists are still polling at historical highs for the far right and the local rate is many times greater than their piddling national vote share.

The problem is many of the conditions that allowed the BNP to spread like a cancer through the city's body politic still remain. Persistent unemployment, welfare dependency, poor prospects, housing shortages, and further cuts form the noxious soup from which the fascists can draw sustenance. But they won't necessarily make a comeback in four years time for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, undoubtedly having a thinly-diguised outright Tory government at the country's helm blunts the animus the city's electorate has felt toward Labour this last decade. When it was in power it is hardly surprising some of the anti-politics sentiment it fed assumed radical right wing forms at the ballot box. And already the ruling coalition of the centre right has inspired left-wing street movements, though this has not (and is, in my opinion, unlikely to) make itself felt electorally.

Secondly, Stoke-on-Trent Labour has undergone a significant sea change. The faction fight immediately prior to Tristram Hunt's selection for Stoke Central CLP cleared out a ruling clique focused on resolutionary socialism, hobby horse obsessions, and bone idleness. This has allowed a new campaigning culture to take hold committed to rebuilding the local party and labour movement. And the initial results - 12 out of 14 constituency council seats, the disposal of the BNP, strengthening relationships with the trade unions, and a growing membership - vindicates our proactive approach to politics. Provided this strategy is deepened, and there is no reason to believe it won't be, the BNP and sundry anti-politics independents will have a very difficult time countering it.

The bigger longer term challenge for Labour is tackling persistent low turn outs. While this year is not significantly worse than the usual numbers voting in local contests (as second order elections, they tend not to "matter" as much), it can be dispiriting traipsing from door to door encountering (usually, young) people who are either indifferent to, completely alienated from, or say they do not understand politics. Some readers might like to think this is the outer shell of an immature bolshevism. In fact it is symptomatic of the accumulating break down of civic/political culture that has been ongoing as neoliberalism and deindustrialisation has ravaged the land. Celebrating it as a rejection of discredited mainstream politics is completely misguided - a socialist society cannot be built with ignorance as its foundation. Labour has to go against the grain and rebuild itself from the ground up, as an organisation that has a real community presence beyond the bi-monthly news letter and occasional knock on the door.

So while what Labour has done in campaign terms this last year is impressive, it is but the first step on the long road to the city's political rejuvenation.

Now, of course, something would be amiss if I didn't take the opportunity to comment on the far left vote. Standing as 'Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts', the local Socialist Party branch stood in six seats in surely what must constitute the biggest far left challenge in Stoke-on-Trent since, well, ever. The results were less than stellar and mirrored
their outcomes elsewhere, which saw three sitting councillors lose their seats. In the city, TUSC polled 486 (3.8%) out of the 12,656 votes cast in those wards. While this isn't too bad in far left terms (the standard poll a far left candidate can expect is between one and two per cent), considering the scale of cuts forced on the City Council, this is pretty poor. To put things in perspective, town clown and friend-of-the-blog Gary Elsby polled almost twice the total combined TUSC vote. Or, to put it in even starker terms, this vote is less than what the SP achieved standing only in the old Abbey Green ward in 2006. Of course, I have no doubt the success of the campaign will be weighed in terms of x number of leaflets delivered, y number of papers sold, and z number of new recruits. But if you're in the business of building a new workers' party, which the SP claims to be, you will never convince the bulk of Labour-supporting trade unionists to break away on the basis of such trifling numbers.

With Labour's grip on the most politically conscious layers of the working class growing, it's pretty obvious where socialists should be.

Image credit:
Pits n Pots


Derek Wall said...

thanks, interesting blog post, I am not convinced though that there is much space for the left in the current Labour Party.

of course as a green I might well say this, but the left in one organisation is helped by the left growing in other political it is an observation I don't take comfort in.

Anonymous said...

"With Labour's grip on the most politically conscious layers of the working class growing" - Do me a favour! Are you having a laugh or something? Labour doesn't even have a grip on it's own cock!

Chris said...

My god, there are actually people who take the trouble to waste shoe leather or petrol (in these times!) to vote for the Gary Elsby that posts comments on this site. My god things are worse than I thought.
Your point about socialism not being built on ignorance is a correct one. I wonder if the left, or more precisely, the working class, need to get more snobbish. I am reminded of the Chris Rock attack on black culture in the US, where education is seen as uncool etc.

PS Good luck in the cup final!

luna17 said...

It's good to see you getting the blogging bug again, and it is a very insightful post.

I strongly suspect the BNP is totally finished in Stoke. Don't underestimate how utterly demoralising it will be for them to lose all 5 remaining councillors - and further recriminations and splits will follow. It's a thundering defeat for them.

The scale of the swing to Labour probably does indeed reflect the proactive, campaigning approach adopted by local activists. I'm not a Labour member so this isn't my concern, but it gives a sense of what the party could do across the country if the leadership learned the lessons.

The TUSC results are no surprise - and no getting away from the fact they are poor. Anti-cuts sentiment is being expressed in votes for Labour, not in votes for the radical left. The space available for the left outside Labour is limited.

Phil said...

Derek, you're right. A strong left in Labour, outside of Labour, and/or the Greens getting progressively redder can float all our boats.

I would like to see a strong left outside of Labour, but that will not come in the shape of a new workers' party. In a political context where the labour movement is still quite weak and Labour proper is gradually regaining the ground it lost in the Blair/Brown years, the chance of an emergence of a new party is next to zero. Which is why increasingly arguments for a NWP revolve around Ed Miliband's 'pro-captialist' politics and ignore the real, organic links in the process of being rejuvenated at the grass roots level.

I think there is space for a small electoral alternative, but that political space is about the same size as the Greens and the BNP. It could be exploited, but as long as the far left is in thrall to to self-interested gurus and revolutionary identity politics that ain't going to happen.

Phil said...

Re: the swing to Labour in the Potteries, I do think the polling day operation we had in Bentilee played a big part in getting the vote out. And the arrival of crap weather toward tea time may have disinclined BNP supporters from venturing out.

But also Bentilee and the Abbey were in receipt of anti-fascist literature urging people to turn out. I cannot say for certain how effective it was in the absence of hard and fast data, but it would be churlish to deny it had any impact at all.

Phil said...

Chris, you may be surprised to know Gary and I get on quite well in real life. And I have to say he did much better in the election than I expected him to.

Alex Dawson said...

I've already seen the predictable infantile denunciations about Phils point on Labour being the most supported political force by working class people.

It is obviously absolutely understandable for members of the TUSC component parties to try to divert attention from the statistical facts as to admit any growth in support for Labour at all would go against the ingrained mantra that all working people hate Labour and only vote for it in absolute weeping despair at the lack of an alternative.

I'm certainly not claiming the results show Labour is setting back on a march to socialism. The vacuous "too fast, too deep" message we keep on hearing chimes only with that small yet disproportionately powerful section of "swing" voters who flit between Tory and Labour.

The best chance in a generation to try to shift political power away from that relatively small and deeply self-interested section of society through the AV referendum was resoundingly lost.

So it is inevitable that Labour strategists will continue to try to appeal to that narrow section of society, largely ignoring the concerns of its base beyond mouthing lukewarm platitudes.

As Phil says, the alternative in the form of TUSC did no better than the multitudinous formations before it. It actually lost sitting councillors. (Looking at the results, it appears these losses were mainly due to a modest resurgence in support for Labour.)

Neither did the alternative do anything noticeable to the low turnout.

The main reason for this disappointing outcome is that both the "inside" and "outside" lefts have singularly failed to challenge the actual political narrative.

My experience of talking to people in my area in this election is that voters on the whole have bought the Tory lie that there is this deficit weighing the country down and we must be rid of it as soon as humanly possible.

We have all failed to nail the lie.

Labour has largely accepted the deficit as a "problem" which utterly cripples every argument it tries to make against cuts.

Meanwhile, the outside left hasn't properly articulated why the deficit is a nonsense - merely that all we must do is "copy" Liverpool and get money from the government pot to save jobs. The huge problem with this strategy is that a lot of people genuinely believe that government pot is empty.

Until we collectively nail the lie, and hammer the message home that the deficit is an invention, we will all carry on losing the fight against cuts.

The positive side of the result is certainly that the BNP and the fascist copycats have finally collapsed, and that in Stoke bar a handful of independent oddballs and a few Tories, the electorate have overwhelmingly backed Labour, and that will now be the case for four years barring any splits and defections.

Gideon will come back for more cuts, targeted at Labour areas, next year and the year after.

Socialists within the Labour party need to work now to nail the lie of the deficit amongst Labour ranks first and foremost, but also working people more widely, to have any chance of defeating cuts.

Socialists outside Labour might find they would do better to work with us to achieve this, rather than childishly publicly denouncing everyone else for not agreeing that attacking the Labour party and demanding councillors copy Liverpool in the 1980s is the only possible political route that can be followed to defeat cuts.

Gary Elsby said...

Nice blog full of spin Phil.
You even had time to ridicule me as well. Bless.
Ok, lets forget that Stoke is famous for the Spitfire for the time being.

Don't you think that if you were writing this as part of your Phd that someone would pick you up for your glaring and obvious ommissions even on hind-sight?

1. You have been a member of the Labour Party 12 Months a bit more tops.
Your entire membership has been under David Cameron and his Tory fledglings, the Liberals.
2. You have never been a member of Labour under an Elected Mayoral system, so bent, that even the Government outlawed it.

This makes your critique a bit of a damp squid.

You call memebrs of old, idle.
You try getting members organised who reject everything that Labour does!
Many of Labour's historical figures walked away. Some broke the whip in the Labour Group and walked out never to return.
Even the Group whip broke the Group whip and walked out!
Members walked out in droves.
The Labour mayor joined the Tories.
Labour members said NO and walked out.

Then you get Cameron and you get new members no-one's heard of.
Tories start to cut funding.
New members get anxious and rattled and all want to help out.

You couldn't have it any easier than it is now.

But you still come ou with the old bollox that no one did nothing yesterday and this lot are the cavalary.

Where were you Phil when Maggie was wrecking Stoke?
We were on the front line and scoring 60-0 in the Council chamber.
Where were you when the Mayor ignored Labour?

The propaganda being pumped out now by hysterical 'activists' never lifted a finger to help in any election at all in Stoke-on-Trent.

I asked the West Midlands to fund our side-line fight with the BNP just like they did other areas in their domain.
NO they said.
So we funded our own rearguard actions out of our own pockets.

You got free funding
Free leaflets
Free posting
Free everything.
A Governance Commission
A transition board
A boundary commission
(all bending the outcome for Labour as predicted by everyone).
You have new recruits full of beans, no Mayor and Tories running the Country 'shutting everything'.

Easy peasy lemon squeazy.

Andrew Coates said...

I wonder where TUSC is going now.

In Ipswich Labour won back control of the council, with a campaiging team, including those who have worked with the anti-cuts campaign, Suffolk For Public Services.

Unlike Stoke (if what you say is the case)m Ipswich Labour have always had a strong campaigning side. The difference this time is that they have worked as part of the broader *labour movement*. Some of the newly elected councillors are also strong trade unionists and socialists.

Of course the Ipswich Labour victory owes a lot to the record of the local Liberal-Tory Coalition that has run the town, and people's hostility to the national coalition.

But I can't help feeling that the ability of local Labour parties to reassume their labour movement links will squeeze TUSC and its front 'anti-cuts' organisation still further.

Gary Elsby said...

The TUSC campaign wasn't bad, far from it. I thought their agenda was a credit to all socialists everywhere.
They flawed slightly in how they organised an election, but other than that, their message was what everyone is saying.

No-one has yet owned up to voting or supporting Labour in Stoke-on-Trent.

Labour's campaigning methods are what I believed they would be. With a shit message to boot.

The election in stoke-on-Trent was completely rigged for a Labour landslide.

Simple and as bog standard as that.

Anonymous said...

Scottish election analysis from newly launched International Socialist Group Other in depth stuff on sectarianism in Glasgow and the riot in Kelvingrove park on day of royal wedding

Next Left said...

The combined votes for Solidarity and the Scottish Socialists came to less than the vote for the Christian Party or the BNP.

Truely appalling.

But the Trots will march on, oblivious to the evidence, certain that their day of vindication will come.

It would be laughable if it were not so genuinely sad.

Anonymous said...

Gary, it's damp squib not damp squid. All squids are damp. Jesus and you stood for election?!

Gary Elsby said...

I'll make history in the next one.

Anonymous said...

Yup the worse vote ever at a general election will be the history you will make

Gary Elsby said...

The it will be really stupid of me to open up a Constituency Office in Hanley and have my election agent run it for me.

If you want to underestimate my desire for social justice, then be my guest.

4p (guilty).

Andrew Walton said...

I think it is obvious where socialists should be . . . not in the Labour Party!

Labour may be doing OK at the moment, having been able to convince a few voters to hold their noses and vote for them in preference to the Tories. However, they were battered in Scotland in protest at cuts north of the border.

When English Labour councils in turn make swingeing cuts to local services, then people's wrath will descend on Labour itself. Without a party to represent working people, voters may well turn again to the far right - whether the BNP or a splinter party.

I still think TUSC is an important step forwards. If it gets more trade union backing, then it can grow. There is no demcoratic space in Labour left for socialists - look at the piddling support for (soft left) Diane Abbott and (hard left) John McDonnell in the last leadership elections.

I disagree with the "lesser evil" argument - we need a principled, left alternative, otherwise the working class will just be sold out by Labour again and again.

Krys said...

Breaking with my party line here big time, but I disagree with the position that the socialists should be in the Labour party.

It really is time for some for us to review the traditional wisdom of that left that we "stay in the party" and try reform it from within. It has *already been* reformed from within. The neo-liberal Right beat us to it. The party has been utterly hijacked, and used to help establish a political monoculture that locks out opposing views, and make parliament a nice little right-wing echo chamber.

The Labour party cannot be recovered. Sticking with it due to a fetishisation of its past only makes the left weaker by creating yet another source of division amongst us.