Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Fiddling While Stoke Burns?

The 21st century hasn't been kind to establishment politics in Stoke-on-Trent. Up until six years ago the council was run by a cabinet of councillors presided over by a council leader. Because Labour had dominated city politics for approximately 400 years the council chamber had become dominated by cronyism and patronage. If you wanted a career in local politics, all you needed to do was sign up to the Labour party, keep your nose clean and it wouldn't be long before you found yourself a seat down Stoke Town Hall. In 2001 a group of local politicos organised under the 'Mayor 4 Stoke' umbrella managed to pull together 9,500 signatures to force a referendum in May the following year on replacing the council leader with a directly elected mayor. Mike Wolfe, the spokesperson for Mayor 4 Stoke was elected in October and served until 2005, when he was ousted by Labour's Mark Meredith (pictured).

It is difficult to overstate how the mayoralty has changed the face of local politics. You would be hard pushed to find a Stokie who hasn't got an opinion about the mayor. Wolfe's and Meredith's actions have been open to wider scrutiny than was ever the case with the old council leader. If more people are thinking about Stoke politics, then that's a good thing isn't it? Not really. The establishment of the mayoralty gutted the council chamber of its decision making powers and concentrated it in the hands of the mayor and the unelected council manager. The former withered to become a glorified committee for rubber-stamping the decisions of the latter, and these decisions have almost without fail been a diet of cuts, job losses and privatisation.

However, this situation cannot continue. The government has called time on this experiment in local "democracy" and requires Stoke adopts one of two systems by May 2009. A return to a leader elected by councillors plus a cabinet, or mayor and cabinet. In addition an 'independent' governance commission has returned a damning report on Stoke's 'broken' system and has outlined
14 recommendations for renewing local democracy.

All these issues were the topic of a
Radio Stoke-organised debate tonight with a specially invited audience of "stake holders". On the panel were Stoke Central MP, Mark Fisher, Staffs Uni boss and report co-author, Christine King, Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley, leader of the Potteries Alliance and a spokesperson for the anti-mayor Democracy 4 Stoke, Staffs Uni politics prof Mick Temple and Mark Meredith himself. With plenty of oppositionist councillors and some mayor supporters in the audience, the scene was set for a potentially combustible exchange of views.

The first question came from Ted Owen, also of the Potteries Alliance. He asked if the panellists found anything particularly objectionable in the report's recommendations. PKB replied that he wasn't too keen on point seven, which calls for the strengthening of political party machinery in the city, which he thought was one of the few things local politics didn't need. He also took issue with the report for blanket blaming everyone on the council for Stoke's woes - the responsibility lay with the mayor and the manager. MM tried to wriggle out of getting tarred with the blame brush by attacking the council for failing to take "tough decisions" in the past. MT suggested the report did not go far enough - he would like to see four yearly unitary elections. This allows for better long term planning and will boost turn out, as, in his opinion, the current system of annual contests "alienates" voters. Speaking in the report's defence, CK said its recommendations were based on the widest possible consultation with local people. Specifically on the party issue, she said respondents felt they did not know the difference between the main parties any more. The report's invitation to stronger party organisation is about making the distinctions clearer.

On behalf of
N Staffs TUC, Jason Hill asked how seriously can we expect the government to take local democracy when they will only allow two options in any referendum? Unfortunately, everyone saw it fit to ignore the comrade's question and answer something completely different. MM chose to harp on about party responsibility to local democracy and MF celebrated the council chamber's representation drawn from nine parties (including the BNP?). PKB, still thinking he was answering the previous question attacked the mainstream parties for being of one mind on all the big issues, such as MM's plans to close schools and push through city academies. MT went further and suggested parties should be banned from standing in local elections all together(!) He argued if this was the case independently elected councillors would be required to stand on their records and not their rosette. This would give us a city governed in the interests of everyone, apparently. In my opinion, such touching political naivete (coming from a politics professor!) is a recipe for a beauty contest, not an election.

Thankfully, Matt Taylor of Stoke
Radical Press repeated Jason's question, and drew attention to the absurdity of the referendum. At the moment it looks as if the government will determine what option will be put forward to a referendum. Whatever this option is - council leader plus cabinet or mayor plus cabinet - if it is rejected the fall back position will be ... an elected mayor plus cabinet! You couldn't make it up! At least on this point the panel were united in their opposition to this absurdity.

Among other contributions, Harry Brunt of Staffs Parish Councillors' Association offered another alternative arrangement for Stoke's local democracy: a parishing of the city, which would bring representatives closer to the people. MT agreed but also argued for a repatriation of powers to the council that have been delegated to unelected quangos, and was also for devolving some budgetry powers to more local levels. He did not elaborate on how dispersing power away from the centre of the council would sit with the tendency to centralise it around the mayor+cabinet model he favoured. MF favoured compulsory voting, which of course is more likely to alienate than engage. MM's response to all this was to reiterate his 'strong leadership' mantra. He argued clear leadership at the top was necessary for 'enterprising ideas', an example of which was ... the imminent mass mail out of the mayor's top tips of dealing with climate change.

It is tempting to treat this issue and all the shenanigans around it as a waste of time. After all, aren't there more pressing matters facing Stoke than constitutional tinkering? Dismissing it as such would be a serious mistake. Not only is the mayoralty a hot issue one regularly encounters on stalls and the doorsteps, it is an opportunity for socialists. When the political establishment is debating about how best to govern us, we need to put forward our own independent positions as a means of mobilising working class people around their interests. As far as
Stoke Socialist Party are concerned, we are opposed to presidential mayors on principle. Direct election strips away any kind of accountability the mayor has to their councillor colleagues and gives them enormous power to impose their will in the face of council opposition. The council leader and cabinet system is deeply problematic and is prone to party manipulation and cronyism, but it is more amenable to popular pressure from below in between elections. That is why we will be supporting this option in any referendum.


Martin Meenagh said...

I know this post is going to seem aggressive but I really do think most local government 'debate' is just another excuse for people to be taken for mugs in this country. Don't take my questions personally.

Am I right in thinking that the Stoke council tax is comfortably below the national average, that increases are around 4-5% (below real inflation) that you have 3.1% of your budget, (an addition paid for by central government and therefore my taxes) being spent on 60-odd new community support officers? Do people not want that?

I think that your post is a little confused. A Mayor, cabinet and manager would, you say 'alienate' people; but the old system seems to have been about getting hacks onto seats with low turnouts and doing very little.

I'm also not sure if you are proposing to massively expand parish council 'elections' too, or just indicating that someone else is proposing that.

Seriously, is the response to 'alienation' to get anyone with a family, a few mates or a party machine behind them elected?

And how is a large group of people more accountable than an individual, or more legitimate if turnout for that individual's election is higher and their accountability greater?

I presume Stoke is also one of these councils trying people's patience by forcing them on pain of lawsuit to become rubbish sorters and collectors whilst inventing new fines for them or terrorising parents with social workers?

Honestly, local governance is lalaland for political hacks, isn't it?

I think that we could eliminate two thirds of councillors and no one with a proper job would notice, anywhere.

Oh--and are you seriously saying that everyone sick on the council isn't swinging the lead either? Ever? How many council employees even vote?

Leftwing Criminologist said...

well ultimatley both systems at phil suggests are falwed but at least there is the council hold a council leader to account which beats an out of control mayor.

people do like low council tax increases, but not at the expense of massive cuts to local public services.

Anonymous said...

I think it is possible to combine low council tax increases with maintaining and improving public services, as the alternative budget put forward by the Sutton brothers when they were briefly in our fold shows.

In my local area there are plenty of ways to increase council income (scrap second home council tax discount, increase rent for chain stores for example) and reduce some outgoings (scrap the extensive CCTV, end the expenses gravy train, stop using job agencies, use inhouse direct labour units rather than contractors, stop hiring Private Dicks to spy on local pubs etc.).

Money can then be ploughed into public transport and housing, further reducing the pressure on peoples wallets.

Establishing elected neighbourhood committees with budgets and real powers would make decision making more democratic and also more effective, and gets around some of the problem of the bureaucratic and potentially corrupt official council structures.

Martin Meenagh said...

Thanks for that. I don't pretend to the local knowledge you gentlemen have. I wonder about the neighbourhood committees though--that ideas been knocking around since Lyndon Johnson. That said, they've always failed before because of strong party allegiances and systems--what if those break up? They might work.

Still, especially Jim-- I agree about in-house services, what the council seems to be spending on, and on the waste that goes on. I have probably less faith in local democracy.

I appreciate the fair way you answered my points. Sorry if I came across as dismissive, I was in part letting off steam.

Anonymous said...

This is so useful to me Phil!

there is a campaign picking up in Swindon at the moment to trigger a referrendum because they want to have an elected mayor.

thanks for the great ammunition.