Sunday 11 November 2012

The Year the Town Hall Shrank

BBC Four's The Year the Town Hall Shrank is hard-hitting, powerful stuff. As a profile of Stoke-on-Trent, it is unflinching and uncomfortable. The fate befalling those on the end of austerity is deeply upsetting. As a critique of the ideologically-motivated cuts imposed on councils by central government, it's damning. Yet for all that, there is something unsettling about The Year beyond the tough subject matter. And last Thursday night's episode, which prominently featured the BNP, exemplifies it.

"We have proven people will vote BNP in large numbers when the conditions are right" Michael Coleman, the "brains" behind Stoke BNP intones as we catch up with them in the lead up to last year's local elections. And, for once, Coleman was right. A few snatched words shared by Dave, a refuse collector, sums up the attitudes of that pissed off section of Stoke's working class who, at one point, had returned nine fascists to the Council chamber. He and his family were traditionally Labour voters and always supported the party at general election time. But he had started voting BNP locally because they considered themselves patriotic (but not racist), didn't like the idea of immigrants getting housing when his son couldn't get onto the Council's waiting list, and were frustrated with the local authority.

Stoke BNP's 'Activist of the Year 2010' Mickey White hailed from a similar constituency. As Coleman observed of him, Mickey was "typical of new BNP members - disaffected, betrayed, can't get work, struggling to get anywhere with his family, sees no future for mainstream politics, and is looking for something new". While Mickey certainly has "issues", he talked about the appeal of the BNP and how they made sense of his everyday lived experience. At home, surrounded by his family, he observed how at his dad's workplace it was "the foreigners" who were getting all the overtime as the expense of "British blokes". I imagine spending 18 months on the dole has reinforced his perception that local working people were losing out. Mickey then holds up a couple of anti-immigrant tirades from The Sun and The Mail that "prove" what's going on (so much for their disavowal of the political consequences of their poisonous "journalism"). And at the same time, Micky looks up to Coleman, an admiration that borders on hero worship: "I respect everything he says and does. He speaks the truth".

The Year tries to get at Coleman's motivations too. Parked near a Mosque as worshippers file in for prayers, he is asked "what do you see?" His answer is revealing: "I see the future of our country. I see a group of people who are well-organised, have money, and the support of the regime under which we live ... this was an English working class community. I don't like it. I fear it." Coleman voices similar sentiments about the new Mosque planned for Normacot, a sign, he says, of "an occupation by a body of foreign people".

Unlike Mickey's path to nationalism, or the soft support evidenced by Dave, Coleman's commitment to the BNP is inseparable from a paranoid, racist loathing of anyone who does not pass his white British litmus test. As we have seen of late, his bigoted commentary on the summer 2011 riots got him in hot water with the law. Unsurprising considering that, by his own admission, the BNP want to "stir up and agitate".

Unfortunately for the BNP, for all their campaigning (do they always go out leafleting dressed in trousers and matching blue shirts?), for all their grand standing and claiming to be Stoke-on-Trent's authentic voice, the people of Stoke spoke and returned Labour with a decisive majority. Not one BNP councillor retained their seat. And for Mickey, who appeared to believe he was going to get a seat in the multi-member Baddeley, Milton and Norton ward, he limped home with a feeble 3.4%.

While I am a firm believer in giving fascists enough rope to hang themselves, there is much to criticise in their portrayal. Unlike The Year's treatment of Council Leader Mohammed Pervez (pictured), who is often depicted as bewildered and on the receiving end of Blast Film's sharp questions, neither Coleman nor Mickey were challenged on their beliefs. They were offered the opportunity to explain where they're coming from without criticism or contradiction, whereas Pervez was not afforded the same privilege. As we Big Brother fans used to say back in the day, the BNP got a 'good edit' while the producers had it in for the Council Leader.

The biggest problem is the perspective adopted by the documentary itself, which reminded me of the Allegra Stratton affair. Stoke is treated as 'the other' to the burgeoning dynamism of the South East. There is constant talk of derelict factories, joblessness, public sector-dependency, immigration, and economic uncertainty. You are left with the impression the city is one giant council estate full of dilapidated buildings and benefit claimants. There is nothing about new schools, the new hospital, new housing, and the stream of ongoing regeneration projects. It is a place of irrepressible misery and irreversible decline.

But in contrast to the South East, at the same time Stoke is an earthy place full of honest folk. Via the focus on the BNP (who, at the time of filming, only held five out of 60 seats), the film panders to the fascination sections of the metropolitan elite have with our homegrown fascists. They are to be poked at, laughed at, be appalled at. Yet, the BNP here serve as a marker of working class authenticity. They are a sign working class people are thick and mired in bigotry. By confirming themselves as the liberal intelligentsia's exotic opposite, their privileged position as opinion formers and decision makers is assured to their satisfaction - they know best. As American activists are fond of saying, Blast Films really should have checked their privilege.

Nevertheless, this is compulsive viewing for all and not just the handful of Stokies who follow local politics in The Potteries. But just remember whose eyes you are seeing this through.


Unknown said...

I saw the documentary last week, I missed the first one. I felt involvement in this project by the Council is proving to be a disaster. Most coverage in the post and radio has been damning. One of the most revealing aspects of the programme was the Milliband section he seemed to be slumming it and Pervez seemed to be craven and wanting to find favour. It was not dignified. I did feel sorry for Mickey the BNP bloke who was badly out of his depth. As someone who has been unemployed and has a young daughter I could recognise his resentment whilst being aware that he made a terrible mistake hitching his star to the BNP

Phil said...

There is hope for people like Mickey, which is why I feel in-your-face anti-fascism isn't always the most appropriate response to the BNP's softer members and support. But that's a debate for another post.

asquith said...

My mum lives in that ward, and voted against Micky, who struck me as just not being very bright. I felt sorry for him as well because he obviously didn't see the blow of unemployment coming at him.

But one thing did jump out. IIRC, Dave's son is going to have a kid? I wonder why it doesn't occur to such people to delay having families until they can support them. It's not as though contraception is hard to come by, and I don't like their assumption that the mere fact of being white Britons makes them entitled to a council house. That's a different matter entirely to immigration, of course.

I heard a passing remark about how the council takes it upon itself to do more than is usual. Presumably this means that in other (more propsperous?) areas, it isn't considered normal for there to be old people's homes, swimming pools, and other things that have private-sector counterparts to be run by the council? They never, IIRC, followed up that one comment they made.

I appreciate that the programme is about the city's hardships, but they don't make enough of the success stories, like the potteries that are still going and have even been set up in recent times. Only last week I was at Moorland Pottery in Burslem, buying a bit of shite from the factory shop. And then you've got Titanic Brewery and its offerings, which they could easily have found within a stone's throw of the town hall.

Nothing yet about City Sentral/Potteries Shopping Centre saga, or the Citizens Advice Bureau. I'll be watching the next one as well.

Phil said...

I don't think the Council do more than any other council. It's just that what it does do the government thinks can be supplied better and cheaper by someone else - a belief that has yet to stand the evidence-based policy test.

Anonymous said...

"There is constant talk of derelict factories, joblessness, public sector-dependency, immigration, and economic uncertainty."

OK ... then ...

"There is nothing about new schools, the new hospital, new housing, and the stream of ongoing regeneration projects."

All of which are presumably public sector funded. Isn't that public sector dependency?


Phil said...

No one said Stoke's economy didn't have key sectors funded out of the public purse. But remember, for every public sector job you take away, three private sector jobs in the supply chain, service provision, local shops etc. are lost. There is no Berlin Wall between the two sectors - they are mutually interdependent.

Anonymous said...

And you want us to vote Labour?

Phil said...

No. I want people who really care about building a better society to *join* Labour.

It's too easy to grouse from the sidelines.

Gary Elsby said...

Even I was totally shocked by those programmes that made labour look like a shower of shite.

The press officer briefing the Leader what care home was closing!
The Leader(or Director) never setting foot inside the home (queue visit).

If that is the current Labour Party in Stoke, then we have confidence that 500+ (and counting) members have walked out since Tristram 'won' his seat.

Lord Ashcroft (who now owns a newspaper in stoke) is going to have a birthday soon.

Phil said...

500+ members? Do you make these figures up? As the vice-chair of what was the city party I can easily check up!