Friday 24 October 2008

Stoke Scraps Elected Mayor

Yesterday the people of Stoke were invited to choose how we are governed. Did we want a modified version of what we have at present - a directly elected mayor and a cabinet made up of favoured councillors, or its abolition and replacement by the traditional council leader and cabinet elected by and accountable to the chamber? By 21,231 to 14,592 votes the city turned its back on the mayor. Thus instead of a hotly contested election in May 2009, a council leader will be sworn in and the incumbent Mark Meredith will be out of a job.

Contrast this with the situation six years ago. After a run of scandals, bouts of infighting and a period of general incompetence, the Mayor 4 Stoke campaign, led by Mike Wolfe, successfully campaigned for and won a referendum setting up the mayoralty by 28,601 to 20,578. Wolfe then went on to win the mayoral contest by a narrow margin of 300 votes. Part of his appeal was undoubtedly his excellent work managing Stoke Citizens' Advice Bureau. But also, as an independent, there was a clear break between him and the cronyism of the ancien regime. The moribund politics of Stoke were about to be shaken up.

Wolfe's Mayor 4 Stoke campaign appealed because the mayoralty appeared to have the potential to get things done. It was established as an executive whereby the mayor and the unelected council manager concentrated decision making in their hands. Their decisions required approval by full council meetings, but that was the limit of councillors' powers. There was no accountability in between the mayor's fixed term elections vis a vis the chamber, enabling him to stand above the intrigues of the chamber and not beholden to its petty agendas. The new mayoralty also coincided with a new phase in the ongoing city regeneration saga, a process long promised but realised at a painfully slow pace. Wolfe seemed the man of the hour that could drive regeneration through.

Unfortunately he did not live up to this promise. Stoke suffered the same diet of council cuts and job losses as everywhere else, but what really turned support away from Wolfe was his plans to raise council tax to pay for the regeneration. Needless to say this didn't go down well in a city containing some of the most deprived estates in Western Europe. By the time he was voted out, a sprucing up of Stoke's parks, the start of the complex demolition of Unity House and some truly awful examples of public art was all he had to show for his two year tenure.

The second mayoral election coincided with the last general election, held on 5th May, 2005. The boosted turn out at the polls helped Labour's support in the mayor vote. Wolfe was dumped out of office by Mark Meredith (pictured), with a healthy 13,000 vote majority. As far as the local Labour party were concerned, he had the advantage of being something of a fresh face. He was virtually unknown and could be presented as a break from the past.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. His first budget in 2006 was opposed by then Socialist Party councillors, Paul and Dave Sutton. Instead of cutting back on services and jobs while raising council tax to cover the city's deficit (Meredith's plan), they called on the council to withdraw the tens of millions it had in investment banks (Icelandic or otherwise) and organise a campaign to win back the money central government had been shaving off for the previous decade. This, they argued, would meet the deficit without having to attack council workers. The SP proposal fell with nine votes in favour - our councillors plus seven independents. The then two-strong BNP group impressed, voting against AND abstaining, showing how all over the place they are when it comes to protecting the "British workers" they profess to speak for. But more significantly a number of Labour councillors refused to tow the line and vote against, abstaining on this and Meredith's budget. They were handed disciplinary sanctions by the regional machine, and a few resigned. And needless to say, enacting this programme led to further rounds of anger and political disillusionment.

However, this antipathy was not reflected in the referendum's turn out, which has been the source of acute anxiety for some. Only 19 per cent of Stoke's registered 181,000 voters visited the polling booth. This has predictably led to some hand wringing and a good deal of blaming Stokies themselves for having nothing to do with the referendum. This recrimination, found usually in the more political layers of Stoke-on-Trent is a position Stoke SP completely rejects.

Firstly, the two campaigns - the Yes and the No vote operations have had little in the way of visibility. As someone who is politically active it was only by chance I came across signs of either campaign - the Yeses when they were doing a leaflet drop in Hanley at the same time we were doing our regular stall, and the No by virtue of a fly poster on a disused shop! So much for capturing the public's imagination!

Second, there is the misnamed 'apathy' factor. Large numbers of working class people are turned off by mainstream politics. It's not something unique to Stoke. Since neoliberalism became the unassailable political commonsense after the 1992 Tory general election victory, mainstream parties have competed on very narrow political ground. They have not had to bother too much with the aspirations of working class people because the labour movement had been effectively muzzled by the anti-trade union laws and the defeats of the 1980s. Extra-parliamentary opposition movements of the recent period may have put the heat on the government but have ultimately been unsuccessful in challenging its direction. So all three parties have pursued a managerial politics of cuts, privatisation, civil liberties erosion and war, and have successfully alienated a huge chunk of the electorate. This has found itself expressed more in political disengagement than through the radical politics of the far left and far right. What's more, the establishment at all levels are completely blind to this. Following Labour's election wipe out in May, local politics more or less carried on as business as usual. Small wonder people are going to turn out when those who would be its representatives refuse to listen or learn. Make no bones about it - the blame for "apathy" falls squarely on the establishment's shoulders.

Where now for Stoke? While the yeses celebrate and the no campaign gently weeps, there has been an immediate if slight improvement in the prospects for socialist politics in the Potteries. First of all the nightmare scenario of a BNP mayoralty has passed and its highly unlikely their candidate for council leader, Alby Walker, will not garner enough support in the chamber. This doesn't mean the struggle against the BNP is over - anti-fascists still have a great deal to do to break their support away from their racist and xenophobic politics. But the referendum result affords us a breathing space to do so. Where mainstream politics are concerned, as there are no council elections until 2010 I will be really surprised if there is a qualitative political break between the course already embarked upon by the mayor and his successor. Whoever this will be is likely to be one of the leading figures within the present Lib/Lab/Con coalition that supports the mayor.

As far as the left are concerned the combination of politics-as-usual and the economic downturn may combine to create a favourable environment for the spread of socialist ideas. But so it will for the BNP too, who, electorally speaking, are light years ahead. However, the force of events will compel workers to struggle at some stage in defence of what they already have. On past experience the BNP have stayed well away from these sorts of mobilisations because they know the logic of class struggle runs against the grain of their politics. In the long term, the future is red.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Unfortunately although the Elected Mayor system was rejected and we no longer have to worry about the prospect of a BNP Mayor we are not yet out of the woods.

Rumour has it that the City Independent group of councillors have been discussing with the BNP the possibility of forming an alliance to run the city after the Elected Mayor leaves office, and one of their number has publicly admitted having approached the BNP to ask them to support him to be the Leader of the Council.

This situation will have to be watched closely.

Anonymous said...

Having visited (passed through) Stoke recently, isn't a bit of an odd place generally?

Only thought I'd mention this.

Phil said...

Yes, it is ;)

Uncle Bob, we're now playing a longer game against the BNP. The immediate danger has passed but NorSCARF will be carrying out its programme of activity as if there's an anti-BNP mayor campaign to fight.

As for the independents, they're completely all over the place. Though most of them are grouped as City Independents there's little that unites them politically - they tend to bend in the wind. There are a handful of independents that will have no part of a BNP deal, but as you say, there's a continued need to keep 'em peeled.