Wednesday 21 January 2015

On the Stoke-on-Trent City Independents' 2015 Manifesto

A novelist turned aspiring musician. Two former leading BNP activists. A man who's been in more parties than Paris Hilton. Someone who thinks the NHS should be scrapped. Another likes spending time on Guido Fawkes and ConHome calling for a UKIP vote. And there's the bearer of a conviction for possessing child sex abuse images. A motley crew and no mistaking, but of whom am I speaking? It's the colourful (some might say gaudy) cast of the Stoke-on-Trent City Independents' candidate list for this year's local elections.

As readers know, there is no finer pearl of a city than Stoke-on-Trent. Perched atop Staffordshire a stone's throw from the border with Cheshire, it is a polycentric conurbation that emerged from a federation of six towns - north to south, Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton, and Longton. To muddy matters, it is contiguous with the loyal and ancient borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. In all the urban sprawl is populated by some 360,000 souls, which, by way of comparison, makes it significantly larger than Nottingham. Stoke-on-Trent, however, has its issues. It's on the wrong side of nearly every deprivation index going. On public health indicators, life expectancy and morbidity rates are below and above national averages. It is a place where the glaciers of globalisation have carved deep grooves of empty, brown field valleys into the cityscape. As per elsewhere jobs are being created, but far too many of them are low paid, temporary and otherwise insecure.

Since 2011, Labour have been running the local council. Its priority has been to get the city back on its feet through a, to put it mildly, controversial regeneration strategy. Some of this has been innovative and won national plaudits, such as the £1 house scheme. There's been the slightly bizarre, such as being the UK's only disaster resilient city according to the UN. Some haven't worked, like the the plan to exploit coal bed methane and a hoped-for shopping centre (with the awful, illiterate name of City Sentral) is more or less dead. And another, the Smithfield development, the building of a business district funded by loans taken out by the City Council has proven most controversial of all. It's been the subject of a couple of protests and a march, and has attracted criticism for being unnecessary, for being a wealth and jobs transfer from Stoke Town to Hanley, and for lacking a cast iron business case.

On each of these issues, the City Independents, as the official opposition on the council have been doing their job and opposing. Yet when challenged by Labour members about their alternatives, they have very little to say. At least until now. The City Independents are the first party locally to put out their manifesto. At last, we can see what colour their politics run and whether theirs amounts to a coherent vision for the city.

Before we begin, let's throw some caveats down. I don't think members of the Labour Group walk around with dazzling halos. Nor is everything absolutely hunky dory at the council. After all, I spent two-and-a-half years scrutinising it up close, and there were a number of occasions I didn't like what I saw - often times because senior officers had overstepped the mark and/or were trying to cover their arses for some reason or another. Nevertheless the bulk of our councillors and most of the officers are doing the best they can trying to rebuild the city's economic base under very straightened circumstances. Not an easy job by any means. Likewise, the City Independents in the main are well-intentioned types who want to see the best for their city. It's just their way is a potpourri of micro management, nostalgia, and crackpot schemes.

Crackpot schemes? Hark at him, a Labour supporter whose party has splurged on gas prospecting, HS2 bids, the Chelsea Flower Show, and the city centre business district. What a cheek! In truth, none of these schemes are particularly mad. Perverse perhaps to spend millions at a time of austerity on such things, but "you have to speculate to accumulate" as the old saying goes. The first three may be dead in the water, but they were perfectly legitimate projects to spend taxpayers' cash on to try and attract businesses and raise council income. As for the fourth, the jury remains out on that one. Time will tell. But if these schemes are crackers, what can we say for the City Independents'? In their "New Culture of Genuine Realistic Positivity in Stoke-on-Trent" (p.29) we are promised the reinstatement of the bus station (p.34) after a new one was built two years ago, the outright purchase of the Staffordshire Hoard and the design and marketing of a tea set based on it (pp.31-32), the selling off of the new business district (p.33), and, bizarrely, the construction of a north-south off-road tramway system (p.35). These aren't promises you understand but measures to be investigated, exactly like the gas prospecting and Chelsea Flower Show networking initiatives they pilloried. The difference being that the latter had an investment rationale. How would trams - though nice - bring jobs to Stoke-on-Trent?

They will also "immediately initiate a reality check" (p.20), whatever one of those are, should they win power. There will also be a "Stoke ambassador" (p.30) who will work to attract new business to the city. It's almost as if the three MPs, the chief executive and council leader, and the economic development department aren't doing that already. The Our City magazine is due to go, along with the council's communications department (p.25) - I guess we'd have to rely on group leader Dave Conway's foghorn for news from down the civic. The council will also lead on creating a package tour of Stoke to entice visitors to visit our fair arcades and quaint pottery factories. It will begin with an oatcake and bacon/vegetarian variant breakfast (p.32).

One whinge of the City Independents is how "authoritarian" Labour is (p.21). As the party won a majority on the council in the 2011 local elections, they find it objectionable that it uses it uses that majority to implement policies. What a shocking affront to liberal democratic political practice. Yet whatever Labour's faults are it is not proposing that police charge for call outs. That's right, if your neighbour is being annoying or there are kids standing on the street corner you can phone 999 and the cops will come out and charge the "perpetrators" a call out fee (p.28). So much for habeas corpas. So much for due process. So much for not realising a council can do no such thing. Add to the authoritarianism a dashing of sinister. On page 2, the City Independents declare themselves "accountable solely to the genuine people of Stoke-on-Trent". Genuine people. Just who are these "genuine people"? If I go up 'anley duck of a Saturday afternoon and mill around the crowds, am I to assume that some of the folks I see are not "genuine people". Is this some kind of dog whistle implying that certain Stokies aren't "genuine" in a manner familiar to at least two of the City Independent candidates' past political practice? Or are "genuine people" merely those who agree with this gaggle of silly geese and subscribe to their Genuine Realistic Positivity? A little bit of light creeps in when they single out Council Leader Mohammed Pervez for the capital crime of - gasp - working outside the city (p.14). I guess as a Labour member, someone who works outside the city, and hailing from somewhere else despite living in Stoke for nearly 20 years, I'm thrice-damned and my genuine personhood is open to question.

To top all that off, it is quite possible that even were the City Independents to win a majority on the council in May that not a single policy will be implemented. One of their chief bugbears is the whipping system, or rather the expectation that elected members of a party abide by the policy measures voted through on majority vote by the members of that group. Against this the City Independents want their councillors to support group policy according to their conscience. We might well find ourselves in a situation where they are hopelessly split between designing the tea set first, or setting the package tour's breakfast menu, or implementing policies that might benefit the people of the city. Quite apart from the idiocies too numerous to count, this manifesto isn't worth the Word document it was scrawled on because the City Independents themselves cannot guarantee that they will support it.

I shouldn't mock too much. In 2012 I ran Labour's ill-fated local by-election campaign in the Springfields and Trent Vale ward where we lost to the City Independents' Jackie Barnes. Their then manifesto was authored by Cllr Lee Wanger, and most doormats received 20 pages of plagiarised Facebook memes, the candidate's dismal thoughts on immigration (Labour's candidate was an Asian woman, pure coincidence I'm sure), and lamentations about cervical smear campaigns and schoolchildren not being let out to play alone any more. The lesson I took from that is forest worths of rambling nonsense are no barrier to electoral success in Stoke-on-Trent.

What the City Independents are is our very own stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off brigade. UKIP do not do well here because Stoke already has an anti-politics tribe of voters, weaned on the BNP and political fragmentation. Like the purple party, the City Independents appeal to this constituency, which they mistake for being "the people" at large. Yet whereas Labour, far from being out of touch, is constantly informed by its hundreds of local members, input from working people in the trade unions, and the discipline of selling politics face-to-face on the doorstep (when was the last time a City Independent went canvassing?), the indies speak for themselves and a smattering of residents association regulars in those that they control. Where a way forward is proposed in the manifesto, it points backwards. Fines without due process, tea sets and tours, even their favoured tramway mega-project drips in nostalgia for a Stoke-on-Trent where everyone knew their place, there were no outsiders - however you define them - and you could get on without paying any mind to life outside the city. Even their emphasis on the six towns, forgetting completely that about half of all Stokies live in districts not associated with those historic towns, speaks volumes.

They're angry, they're frightened, they don't like the modern world, and they don't know what to do about it. This manifesto, this rambling screed of the dud, the mad, and the smugly, is a 9,500 word celebration of cluelessness and confusion. If you vote for this lot, don't say you haven't been warned.

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