Wednesday 20 November 2013

Stoke Labour and Political Crisis

If I had a penny every time someone said "Stoke Labour is in crisis", you could sink a copper mine in my pocket. Time after time, the local press and the minute Stoke local politics bubble has breathlessly claimed the three constituency parties making up our fair city are in chaos or turmoil. And so today, almost a week after not winning a by-election contest; after Joan Walley, the well-respected MP for Stoke-on-Trent North announced her retirement at the next election, and after the resignation of Local Campaign Forum chair, Tony Walley from the party following a series of bust-ups with Council Leader Mohammed Pervez; you now find me sitting alone among the embers of a burned out shadow, of the charred beams and brittle ashes of a collapsed party.

But you don't. As per, the talk of calamity and disaster is so much hyperbole. This isn't to say all is rosy in the Potteries garden. Of course it isn't. There are some very difficult problems besetting Stoke's Labour Parties. Examining the reasons why Labour is in the position it's in requires calm, sober reflection. The excitable rantings of do-nothing but know-everything party members on other fora are best left alone - they don't bring anything to the table. We need to analyse. Dig down.

Luke Akehurst observed in his most recent weekly overview of local by-election results, that Stoke local politics are "extremely idiosyncratic". Yes, they are. The reasons for this ultimately lie in the city's fractured political economy. The industries that built our city - mines, steel, pots - they're either history or much reduced. Like everywhere else, gone are the days of the job-for-life or leaving school for good on the Friday and starting work at the pot bank come Monday morning. But the relatively recent collapse of these industries - the mines and most of the pots went in the 90s, the steel in the 00s - has thrown the civic and political culture, the local ways of life, into profound crisis. Trade unions have withered and so has the Labour Party. The Tories, who until the late 90s had a social club in Stoke Town centre, have evaporated and condensed in seats on the city's edge. The path from the shop floor to political office is no more. And the new jobs, which have not been replaced the old like-for-like, are low paid and precarious. Call centres. Retail. Warehousing. Difficult to organise. Difficult to rebuild local politics with.

So what, some might say. Shock horror, Stoke isn't "special". Most Midland and Northern cities have gone through the same. Stoke's pain is pain Northampton, Nottingham, Bradford, Burnley, Sheffield, and dozens of other places have experienced. And I wouldn't disagree. There is, however, an important factor unique to Stoke-on-Trent. The overwhelming bulk of these islands' towns and cities are concentric, with a clear core around which are organised districts, suburbs, and satellite communities. Stoke isn't. The city is a federation of six towns, each with their own town centres and distinct identities. In the post-war period, this poly-centric character was compounded by the building of more-or-less self contained suburbs within the city limits. And there's also the small matter of Stoke being contiguous with Newcastle-under-Lyme, again with its own fierce sense of self-identity and - generally speaking - more affluent resident profile. Mix in Kidsgrove to the city's north and you have a conurbation of just over 350,000 people.

Yet the unique character of the North Staffs urban sprawl has held it back, economically speaking. Concentrating retail and other commercial services in a clearly definable city centre clusters together businesses, and drives people and business into the core areas. It is literally a case of the more, the merrier. But the advantages of this concentration has passed Stoke by, as its businesses are dispersed across different and not easily-accessible town centres. Effectively each town centre competes with one another both for local business AND funding from the City Council pot. These centres also have to compete with Newcastle town centre too. There's no easy way round this, as the one city strategy pursued by Labour and the local authority has shown time and again. Stoke has to find a way to overcome its fragmentation. But fragmentation is coded into the city's political DNA.

The collapse of the relationships that previously sustained local politics, and the insularity of the city's towns, suburbs and wards are a heady brew. Especially when economic regeneration comes into conflict with these remaining senses of identity. Also, feel free to stir in a widespread anti-politics sentiment (itself conditioned by the devastation wreaked on Stoke's economy) and a resigned antipathy toward the influx of East European workers, and you now have an idea of the background against which local politics has to operate.

Hence, last week's by-election. It is true that Labour's contact rate is low. It is also true that the achievements of Labour's Duncan Walker, the remaining councillor in the Baddeley, Milton and Norton ward aren't as well publicised as they could be. And there's the small matter that the former incumbent, an ex-Labour councillor who resigned from the party for "principled" anti-cuts reasons, has just got sent down for 16 months after stealing and defrauding my CLP of £10k. That publicity isn't what you would call "helpful". Now, it is tempting to note that the Tories topped the poll in this three-member ward back in 2011, when there was a swing across the country toward Labour and so believe we didn't have much of a chance. But no, Labour should have done better. It should have been a victory worthy of the energetic campaign my comrades Candi Chetwynd & co put in. But it wasn't.

The main message coming from the doorstep from former Labour voters was their anger and frustration with the local authority, which we've been running for two-and-a-half years. The perception is that Labour doesn't give a monkeys and doesn't listen. So the now-notorious decision to build a new Council HQ in Hanley (the nominal city centre for outsiders) to kickstart a new business park right in the heart of the city - and thereby maximising the economic benefits of clustering - is taken as evidence of folly as its budget is slashed to the bone by an uncaring and vindictive government. Folly, and trampling all over the city's unique identity. Why should Hanley get the investment while Stoke, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton and Longton are left behind? goes the argument.

Labour also gets to carry the can for a high-handed, alienating and widely-believed-to-be-incompetent City Council bureaucracy. Its scandals and incompetencies are PR disasters for Labour. For example, in its costings for the new Council HQ the officers responsible overlooked the amount needed to kit out the new buildings with the innards, furniture, and other fixtures. Its less than robust tendering processes, its contempt for the third sector and housing associations, and the unceasing churn in personnel all reflect badly on my party, which in turn doesn't go down well with the electorate - to put it mildly.

But in a way, none of this should be surprising. Labour may be the only city-wide political party, but the dramatic changes of the last 20 years have hit it hard. The talent who would have worked their way up through the unions have been scattered to the four winds. The 2011 council was, in a number of ways, Labour's Year Zero. To recover, it has to bring stability to Stoke's economy. It has to allow people to feel secure in jobs that pay better and value people more than most of the fare that is currently on offer. If Labour can manage this which, to be honest, is not entirely within its gift - locally speaking - then the labour movement can rapidly make up for lost ground, and with it a renewal of our local parties can be carried through. This requires long-term planning and projects that will contribute to the city's economic health over a long period. So, junking the new council HQ may be popular, but would not help Labour's prospects in the long-term. The British disease afflicting our rulers has always seen short-termism win out over foresight and planning for the future. Stoke Labour has to have the courage to break with that, decisively.

Chatting to an old comrade on Saturday night at a post-election bash, he told me that Labour lost 15 or 16 seats when it decided to build the Potteries Museum. A similar number fell when it piled money into transforming a vast industrial wasteland to the west of the city into the 1986 Garden Festival, which in turn went on to become an out-of-town shopping and business park. These both bought long-term gain for the price of short-term pain.

The snipers and the gripers will never be happy. But Stoke Labour could be and must do better. Even with its problems and the continued issues with the City Council, it is on the right course. Stoke's political crisis won't be sorted out until its economic crisis is dealt with, and that is exactly what Labour is addressing.


John Brooke - Not from the BBC said...

I hope you don't mind Phil - i have pull this over to my site with a link back to yours to give it a wider audience.

Good points.

Phil said...

No problems, Mike.

Gary Elsby said...

Are you settling on the notion that Labour lost this election (says who it was theirs to lose?)because the pits shut?
Come on.
It was won by a local celebrity who was always going to be hard to beat.
Labour don't win by-elections in S-o-T and so shouldn't expect to win them other than in exceptional circumstances.
You also have to factor in that a good part of the (former) Labour Party does all it can to see Labour does not win.
All credit to Reilly.
On the political front, can't you see that the City Independents are now going to lose out massively across this City in 2015?
They are a by-election party maxing out their own vote on the first pass.
Come 2015, normal service will resume.
Labour, Tories and Liberals are parties in continuous flux and quite rightly so. The intent is to produce a winning form and agenda.
The City Independents are running a protest vote with no agenda (other than rejecting Keynes, Roosevelt and Miliband (and Cameron).
They have no agenda and only have a platform.
Labour must at all times, call for a City Independent manifesto, of which they will not deliver.

Phil said...

No Gary.

My advice would be to read the piece again. Go away. Think about it. And then come back.

Gary Elsby said...

OK, I'll add in the HQ move and the general perception that Labour doesn't care anymore.
Other than that, my feelings about what is going on remains the same.
I don't disagree with your views, I just think you're being a little hesitant with writing what you really want to write.
I understand that.

Bill Cawel said...

No losses after the 86 garden Festival. I was re-elected in Hartshill comfortably that year.

Labour Party in Stoke suffered losses in the late 80s when it was supportive of the Pir Pandaraman Centre in Fenton

Phil said...

There's no hesitancy here, Gary. You need to grasp the political economy to make the right political decisions.

Btw, remember, I know that you really do agree with the council move ...

Phil said...

Hi there Bill, were there not losses in the lead up to the festival? Once it was built and had been a success, I can imagine most people turned off by the decision to build changed their mind in light of their own experience.