Saturday, 4 May 2019

Why Labour Went Backwards in Stoke

Everywhere you look there's carnage. Petty ambitions and broken careers lie scattered across England's shires as the Tory party suffered its worst set of local results since 1995. Yet there were a few outliers. You know, bits of the electoral map seemingly sealed off from events elsewhere. In those places different rules, different political physics were in play and the Tories didn't suffer at all. In fact, they did rather well. And one of these peculiar places just had to be sunny old Stoke-on-Trent.

As predicted the Tories made progress, and certainly much better than either they or I forecast. Representation more than doubled from seven councillors to 15, making gains at the expense of their City Independent allies and Labour, who fell to 12 and 16 seats respectively. And the popular vote made for some grim and sobering reading for anyone who wants to paint Stoke red again. Counting only the top vote in multi-seat wards, in the Stoke South constituency the Tories ran away with 9,372 votes vs a mere 5,369 for Labour and 4,058 for the permutation of CIndies and independent Independents. In Stoke North Labour topped the vote with 5,986, vs 5,337 for C/Indies and 4,744 for the Tories. And lastly, Stoke Central saw Labour come in with 6,540, and 4,798 and 2,663 votes going to City Independent and Tory candidates respectively.

Central was also the only constituency where there were no Labour losses and came out with a net gain, albeit of one in former fash stronghold, Abbey Hulton. The successful CIndie down there was ex-BNP'er Melanie Baddeley, proving some voting habits die hard. Nevertheless, Labour's Jo Woolner did the city a favour by taking out the ridiculous Richard Broughan. Elected in 2015 as a UKIP councillor, he has since passed through the CIndies before settling in the openly fash For Britain. Potteries politics watchers will remember him for making light of the death of 71 refugees in Germany, as well as his unfortunate habit of "accidentally" sharing details of his sex life on Facebook. Getting hauled before standards more times than the rest of the council combined also counts among his achievements.

There were further Labour consolations in the north of the city. Dave Conway, the former (nominal) council leader was forced into retirement by David Williams. Ever the modest man, I understand Conway had an English Heritage blue plaque fixed to his property marking his personage, which I think speaks for itself. It was also a delight to see the back end of "Friend of the Stars" Alan Dutton in Burslem Central. Elected twice previously as Labour, he defected to the CIndies in 2015 because he "didn't want to sit on the sidelines". That didn't stop him from periodically asking if he could rejoin Labour. Still, running this time on a policy platform of "I'm a Stokie, and Labour's candidate is from Nottingham" (Jane Ashworth is actually from Rochdale), no tears will be shed for the political passing of this small-minded runt.

Surveying the new intake, one name does stand out - Shaun Bennett for the CIndies. Once upon a time a ubiquitous internet presence on matters pertaining to Stoke and politics, Shaun was a Tory activist who got deselected for opposing the Labour-led grand coalition that ran the council between 2010 and 2011, and a long time ago took it upon himself to defend a Tory MEP's homophobic comments. He's sure to provide a little colour around these parts over the next few years, and prove difficult for a renewed Tory/CIndie coalition to manage. Apart from Shaun, the same old dim bulbs make up the dozen CIndie councillors. Who, in case you need reminding, includes a woman who stood on a manifesto calling for the banning of cervical smears, another who thinks the NHS should be abolished and, of course, a registered child sex offender. Even that is no barrier to political advance in Stoke-on-Trent.

What of the Tories? As far as they're concerned, if it isn't broke why fix it? The same group of activists have taken the Tories from also rans to the leader's office in less than a decade, scooping up the Stoke South parliamentary seat along the way. Consistent campaigning, which is tough for a party who could hold its association meetings in a matchbox, consistent messaging, disciplined organisation, fronting up all the good news stories in the local press and leaving the bad to their coalition partners, they have proved to be the canniest operators in town hall. Yes, sure, when the editor of the local rag is a Brexit-frothing right winger more concerned with grabbing a selfie with Tory group leader Abi Brown than holding her or her party accountable, your passage to success is smoothed down somewhat. Also helping is their breaking into local Muslim community politics, recruiting mainly in the south of the city. Whether this is a case of ideological commitment, or a cohort of young(ish) men wanting a slice of the council pie hitherto blocked by older, Labour-affiliated community leaders is only something they can answer. But it is possible this could become a future source of tension, especially when they set about dismantling what is left of council-administered social security infrastructure.

How then to explain Stoke's anomalous results? How have the Tories bucked the national trend? As argued many times before here, the Stoke electorate is more sophisticated than the Brexit Central and BNP land-style headlines we've seen over the years would lead you to believe. In 2015 plenty of voters showed a willingness and an understanding of split ticketing depending on the election. There will be people who on Thursday voted for the CIndies, will support Farage's Brexit Party later this month, and go for Labour at the next general election - and would argue their seemingly inconsistent choices are entirely consistent. The second point is there has always been a substantial, if at times latent, right wing vote. As late as the mid 90s there was a Tory association bar in Stoke town centre. The rise of the BNP during the 00s was only partly thanks to Labour's breakdown under Blair and Brown. Of relevance was the collapse of Tory party organisation. Effectively, where the established right wing party was absent right wing voters preferred to plump for the far right as opposed to Labour. I'm sure these developments and the local party then being chaired by one Gavin Williamson is but a coincidence.

Local elections also favour the Tories because of the profile of the people who vote in them. Older voters are more likely to vote generally speaking, and doubly so in elections where the outcomes are perceived not to matter as much - something Stoke's Tories have cynically but astutely capitalised on. Older voters disproportionately vote for the right all across the developed world because the acquisition of property over time has conservatising effects, and even where that is absent the experience of retirement is analogous to an atomised, petit bourgeois location. This helps explain why as British politics is in flux, we see a turn to the right in a number of old industrial towns and cities. The institutions that helped glue these communities together and kept elements of class consciousness alive have collapsed. The pub, the post office, community centres, bus routes, their closures and withdrawal has exacerbated these tendencies. Without what Chuka Umunna, in a rare helpful moment, called the "foundational economy", a politics based on symbolism, values and belonging "beyond" the specificities of every day life - nation and nationalism, nostalgia, and in Stoke's case, an idealised (and backward looking) city/community identity - is more likely to catch on than either the managerialism of the centre or the bold politics offered by the Corbynist left.

Set against these seismic shifts, what could Labour have done differently to effect a different outcome? There are some operational criticisms to be made. For example:

* In the north a no hope seat - which should have been obvious from canvass returns - was prioritised when diverted resources might have avoided Labour's narrow loss in Burslem Park.

* Patter matters. When faced with an anti-Corbyn punter on the doorstep, there is an ingrained habit of some to nod along and say they think he's a load of rubbish too. If you think that's going to get Labour any votes, you don't know the first thing about party politics.

* Labour's local manifesto was fine, but its main points could have done with unveiling long ago and been hammered at every opportunity for a year and a half as opposed to the last few months.

I'm sure there are others those closer to the campaign would have as well. However, most crucially Labour's campaign, with one or two exceptions, did not leverage its huge advantage: the membership. Over the course of the campaign, apart from some assistance organised by the MPs' offices most candidates have had to rely on themselves and a couple of friends and family members. The invitations to campaigning sessions have gone out, but the membership were largely absent. Instead of blaming them for "laziness", Labour has to ask why. It's partly cultural: deliberately choosing small and uncomfortable rooms for meetings, having chairs berate members for not turning up regularly, continuing on with a boring, unwelcoming culture of ever-so-important business, the fact of not involving members suits some thank you very much, and public bellyaching by people who should know better all conspire to keep the membership immobile. This is counterproductive.

A more welcoming party, a more participatory party can help bring through new activists and good candidates, but not all members are ever going to be involved. But if they feel part of it, feel inspired enough to identify with it, they will do the party's work where they are - encouraging colleagues to vote Labour, encouraging family members to vote Labour, encouraging friends and acquaintances to vote Labour, of bedding the party into the fabric of everyday life. The antidote then to dissolution, of the pressures that, for the moment, work to the Tories' advantage in post-industrial towns is to not chase and pander to the phantoms filling the social void but instead seek to fill it with a community, a politicised community of our own. It can be done, and it must be done. Otherwise the Tories will reap the advantages of this shift, and come the next general election take not just more councils, but more parliamentary seats in places like Stoke.

12 comments:

John "Two Birds" Mann said...

Smeeth puts a lot of people off.

Boffy said...

Phil,

Your analysis here is anecdotal and technical, but completely fails to address the political, which is the obvious reason why Labour went backwards in Stoke.

I actually know through my son of lots of younger people who came over to Labour in 2015, when Corbyn was elected Leader. Some of them became Labour Party members, one only after having initially being rejected for membership for having once supported the Greens. He also made clear to the party at the time his membership appeal was going through that he would withdraw it if Corbyn was prevented from standing. Nearly all of these younger working-class, better educated Labour voters and members, part of that new working-class you have also talked about in some of your posts, are vehemently anti-Brexit, and appalled at Corbyn's antics over the issue, especially his class collaboration with May to try to push through Brexit at any cost.

Corbyn even came to Stoke to launch Labour's campaign. In Gareth Snell, and Ruth Smeeth, we have two right-wing MP's, who have been at the forefront of pushing the reactionary pro-Brexit agenda, lining up with the Tories on several occasions, even against the whip. No Labour Leave voters in Stoke could have been under any illusion as to where Corbyn, or their local MP's (and as far as the general punter is concerned they are the Labour Party), on trying to push through Brexit at any cost, and they rejected you.

Not surprising. As you say, there is always been a sizeable far right vote in Stoke. Mosely's home was Apedale Hall. His wife Cynthia was MP for what is now Stoke South, and Mosely himself stood there in 1931 - ironically the last time we had a treacherous Labour Leader doing deals with the Tories to push through reactionary measures.

Confusing the chronically deprived and precarious as being natural Labour voters has always been a crude mistake of Labourites. The fact is those elements are far more likely to vote for fascists, not vote, or vote for Tories than Labour. So here too. They chose the real nationalists over Labour's pink nationalism. At the same time, as across the country, Labour's actual core vote, amongst the more advanced sections of the working-class, either sat on its hands, or voted for parties, which on this issue - the main issue of the day - have a clearer more progressive policy than Labour.

Unless Labour wakes up and changes course its going to get decimated. J Ramsay McCorbyn, and his Stalinist puppeteers are leading the party to disaster with their nationalistic agenda, and Popular Frontism.

Phil said...

If you're looking at questions of local strategy, of course it's going to be "anecdotal". But the truth of the matter is the story of this election is less one of Labour going back and one of Tory advance. That isn't peculiar to Stoke - we saw Tory advances elsewhere in the 2017 general election. Therefore this post places these results in that context, and offers an explanation for them. If you think this can simply be short circuited by dumping Brexit, then you haven't paid much attention to the results, never mind the ongoing decomposition and recomposition of voting behaviour.

Boffy said...

"If you think this can simply be short circuited by dumping Brexit, then you haven't paid much attention to the results".

Really?

As I pointed out on Friday the obvious takeaway from this election was that the most Brexity parties lost seats, and the most anti-Brexit parties won seats. Proportionally, the most Brexity Part - UKIP - was all but annihilated. The next most Brexity, the Tories ended up losing over 1300 seats. The next most Brexity Party - Labour - recovered a bit from what it looked like would be a loss of 200 seats, in the morning, to a loss of 80, but at a time when McDonnell had forecast a gain of 400 seats, and when the Tories were getting a drubbing, was disastrous. By contrast, Liberals up 700, Greens up 200.

I don't think you have to have a Masters in psephology to understand what message that is sending! Moreovoer, further analysis shows Liberals and Greens won seats and votes in Labour Leave areas across the country, which is a clear indication that that the Labour Remain voters in those areas (which on average even in those Leave seats comprise about 60-65% of the Labour vote) actively switched from Labour to Liberal or Green - a massive warning for Labour come the European elections, given that apparently Lexiters in the Shadow Cabinet, and LOTO have been claiming that Labour Reminaers can be ignored because "they have nowhere to go" - when, especially given the boost given to the Liberals and Greens from this election, and from the advantages for them of the use of PR, not to mention the fact that, Remain supporting Labour voters in Scotland and Wales will have very credible alternatives in the SNP and Plaid.

But, you may be right that Corbyn simply claiming to have had a Damascene conversion at this late stage, and coming out to claim to now oppose Brexit will not be enough. So much more the reason that the "respect the Brexit vote" narrative was stupid and unprincipled from the start. It seems the Left will have to suffer another devastating defeat as a result of pursuing a Stalinist Left nationalist course, and a period in the wilderness, before it has the chance to learn the lesson.

Anonymous said...

This was a reasonable critique and I was taking it seriously until the last paragraph, when you veered sharply off the rails. Now I think you're a fruitcake.

Blissex said...

«further analysis shows Liberals and Greens won seats and votes in Labour Leave areas across the country, which is a clear indication that that the Labour Remain voters in those areas (which on average even in those Leave seats comprise about 60-65% of the Labour vote) actively switched from Labour to Liberal or Green»

While I am a "Remainer", I think that this analysis is deeply flawed, and there are two important points, at the *national* level (I dunno about Stoke):

* There was a very low turnout. Many "Leavers" probably felt betrayed by the Conservatives and abstained, and similarly some with Labour.
* The LibDems are the traditional choice for a protest vote in local elections because local elections don't matter much and those who vote for them are sure they won't get in power nationally. It is another form of abstention.
* Neither of the previous points matters in general elections, that matter.

As to that I think back to the 2004 local elections, and that however in the 2005 general election where affluent property owners, still satisfied with New Labour's booming property prices and rents, did not vote for the Conservatives yet.

«J Ramsay McCorbyn, and his Stalinist puppeteers are leading the party to disaster with their nationalistic agenda, and Popular Frontism.»
«devastating defeat as a result of pursuing a Stalinist Left nationalist course,»

The difficulty here is that the current Labour policy on brexit has been decided by the national conference, where "Remainers" rather than stalinists have a large majority, and recently the by NEC, 2-to-1.
Most Labour members and voters would prefer revocation, but a large majority (both "Remainers" and "Leavers" are willing to compromise on "soft exit".

Speedy said...

A valid point about older turnout and conservatism. With older voters local issues resonate more as they spend more time locally. They actually read the planning applications and depend on the library etc.

On the other hand Brexit is such a polarising issue one could see it motivating more angry anti voters to anti Brexit parties like Lib Dems.

So in a sense possibly both Boffy and Phil are right. Much would also depend on the local demographic make-up I would imagine.

Boffy said...

Blissex,

Reply To Blissex

There was not a very low turnout nationally. The turnout was around 30%, which is average for local government elections, and possibly slightly above.

Leavers may have felt betrayed by the Tories nationally, but local Tories are viciously pro-Brexit, and have made their views known. Besides, although UKIP stood fewer candidates, itself a reflection of the collapse of its support, it did still stand a considerable number of candidates. If Tories felt betrayed, then why did they not vote UKIP where they stood candidates? Instead, UKIP lost the candidates they did stand, rather than them attracting a flood of additional support!

As far as Liberals, why then did they not pick up the protest vote in 2017, rather than see their vote collapse, and mostly go to Labour? But, proportionally, the Greens did even better than the Liberals, and the greens are not the normal party for protest votes. They also picked up seats in previously Labour seats, in Leave areas, showing a movement not of disenchanted Tory voters in protest, but a movement of disenchanted Labour voters that overwhelmingly back Remain.

The idea this does not matter, is what the Lexiters have been trying to argue. It will come the Europ Elections, based on PR rather than FPTP. Moreover, FPTP, favours the large parties so long as they get the majority of the vote. If the Tory vote collapses to the Brexit Party, and Labour's vote collapses to an alliance of Liberals/Greens/Chuka in a General Election, then as has already happened in Scotland with the vote going to the SNP. Both Tories and Labour would get smashed, as FPTP turns viciously against them.

Worse, if May turns right, or is replaced by a Raab, the Tory vote will be quickly reconsolidated, whilst Labour's will be shredded. The Tories will win a thumping majority, and Labour will be destroyed. At the very least, the Corbyn project will be destroyed, as he gets a worse result than the Blair-rights expected in 2017, opening the door for them to sweep him away.

The course being pursued by Corbyn is not what Conference agreed, and everyone knows it. Moreover, the Conference composite was itself a fudge brought about by heavy pressure from Corbyn and McCluskey where the majority of CLP's had submitted anti-Brexit motions calling for a clear position of another referendum, and a campaign to Remain. Actually, the polling shows that the Remain voters are now more militantly behind stopping Brexit than making a compromise on a soft Brexit, which in any case is unachievable.

Boffy said...

I think the analysis by one of the Sunderland Labour MP's on Sophie Ridge, yesterday, was right. She pointed out that a) there was a clear swing away from Brexit to Remain, compared to 2016, in Sunderland, which was the most Brexity area in 2016.

She pointed out that, the swing in Sunderalnd was not from Labour to Tories, or more Brexity parties like UKIP, but an 11% swing from Labour to Liberals. The Greens also picked up a seat in Sunderland for the first time, and it was a direct win from Labour.

The message is clear, the large majority of Labour voters are Remainers. The small minority of Labour voters who are Leavers, will probably vote Labour - as they have for the last 45 years when Labour backed EU membership - even if it opposes Brexit. But, by trying to hold on to them, by being a pro-Brexit party, it is turning away large sections of its majority support from - mostly younger - Remain supporting Labour voters. It is pushing them in increasing numbers to the Liberals and Greens.

A more unprincipled position its hard to comprehend, but by pushing away all of those younger Remain supporting Labour voters, to the Greens and Liberals, a more shortsighted position its also difficult to comprehend, because it could then be losing them for the next generation!

After all its not as though the Greens in particular, but also the Liberals could not adopt the clothes of Corbyn's traditional social-democratic agenda, which the Tory media like to portray as "Marxism", but is only a return to the kind of reformist policies of an Attlee or a Wilson that for 30 years after 1945 were even continued by Tories when in office.

Boffy said...

Incidentally, just on the point about Labour Remain voters having nowhere to go etc., my current Labour MP is very anti-Brexit, so I have no problem voting for them, but if I were living in Stoke, then because I see stopping Brexit as THE class issue of this generation, and stopping it, as a fundamental class duty, then unless Labour rapidly changes its position to a clear "Stop Brexit", I would probably vote for any Liberal or Green, or other candidate committed to such a course of action.

If Brexit is stopped, the campaign to rebuild the labour movement, and pursue a course of progressive social-democracy can continue unrestricted, alongside other progressive social-democrats in Europe.

If, however, Brexit goes ahead, workers and socialists in Britain will have suffered a severe setback that will also affect our comrades in Europe. It will throw us on to the back foot, having to counter a vicious rise in reactionary tendencies, and the consolidation of a right-wing, reactionary (in the true sense of wanting to turn the clock back) Tory regime, seeking to further promote the small private capitalists, smash unions, increase all out free market competition, and scrap all regulations. It will unleash further nationalism in Scotland and Wales, and Northern Ireland, further acting to create national divisions even amongst the British working-class.

To stop that a one off vote for a bourgeois party other than Labour would be a small concession to make.

Unknown said...

Not all doom and gloom as far as Labour in North Staffordshire is concerned . I have just done a synopsis of why we did well in a former Tory bastion Leek West where Phil Taylor and I took two of the three seats. I doubled my vote on the by election total of March 2018 . Labour did very well in Leek generally winning 9 of the 12 seats . Only one Tory survives in Leek and the town council is now Labour controlled

Leek West – how did it go ?

Well, the strategy was a great success and Phil and I won . I increased my vote from 387 in March 18 to 714 last Thursday and Phil got 560 and sneaked into 3rd place ahead of Neal Podmore .

Central to the strategy was pushing forward the idea that we were a strong and experienced team with 20 odd years experience as Councillors . The message on the doorstep was reiterated and the material we produced also emphasised this . We went for the slogan “ A stronger voice for the Moorlands” instead of the “ Derby Street / Downing St “ one which we had strong reservations about . Keeping the message local especially about the Hospital campaign and playing to our strengths helped our cause

We played a long game and were visible . Since Phil’s selection in August we were present at events in Leek West such as the school crossing furore where we went to Woodcroft in Sept. We attended the Action West End meetings from the autumn onwards . We collected signatories over blocked gullies in Spring Gardens in Nov and Phil went out with me on a 39 steps tour in Oct

We were campaigning in March with the introductory leaflet . It took me 22 hours to deliver the first leaflet, but we got around the ward . We canvassed early and achieved an 100 % coverage of the ward in 29 canvass sorties. Charlotte helped in 4 of the canvasses , but it was largely down to Phil and I . Having newish data from the 2018 by election was very important

I was savvy in the use of the media appearing sometimes 3 or 4 times in the Post and Times. ( The nature column I write for the Post and Times is widely liked ) I wrote letters in the Post and Times plus the historical articles in Leek Life and there was the Moorlands Radio Show which people enjoy

We thought the Leek TV appearance worked very well for us. We were relaxed and Phil was able to expand on some of the themes of the campaign . It received 1.7k views

We were also very proactive and I have a reputation as a “ can do” Councillor and I could point to tangible results such as the climbing frame on Westwood Rec and the boarded up properties which were linked to anti social behaviour in Jubilee Terrace .

I was also astute in the use of social media over the months I have been a Councillor I have a reputation for great transparency in informing people what I do . Phil I think benefited from this

The written material that Phil and I was highly regarded as it pointed to real local issues such as the Big Mill and the Larches . The material was praised for its positivity and its literacy. Andy Kidd deserves the plaudits for all the work he did. He played an integral part in the victory

Getting enough volunteers was an issue. We received help from Keith in helping deliver the initial leaflet in March and I spent a Saturday afternoon ringing up volunteers from Leek West’s own membership of 24 with assistance in getting the electoral address and Labour voter David and his wife, Phil, Martin and Ian helped plus Judith , Graham , Ruby and her son, my daughter Phoebe .

The numbers on the delivery sheets were also wildly out by about a third and conflicting advice about delivery targets which could be achieved caused friction.

We spent Election Day in our strong areas to great effect. It was shoe leather , I walked 30,000 steps on May 2nd and the slow worm that won it

asquith said...

I voted for the City Independents, in the absence of anyone worth voting for. The nationwide results show clearly that people are seeing Brexshit for what it is and reject Corbyn's failed grandstanding on the issue.

Of the handful who turned out, Over 50% voted for Dr K. Why? In what way do they imagine he will serve and benefit people in Goldenhill?

In the Euro elections I shall be supporting either the Liberal Democrats or this new anti-Brexshit party, I don't much like either of them but it's about minimising the damage and trying to salvage what little we can. This isn't some abstract debate as I could lose my livelihood in the event of no deal.