Tuesday 23 April 2019

Stoke's Two Nation Toryism

The local elections are well and truly underway in Stoke-on-Trent, and in 2019 these are something of a novelty. For readers who don't follow the ins and outs of Potteries politics (what's wrong with you?), Labour is the challenger party to a council coalition of self-styled "City Independents", a UKIP councillor and your friends and mine, the Conservatives. How then have matters gone since they took control in 2015?

It is a truth commonly acknowledged that Stoke's Conservative Party won't win any Mensa prizes, but the fact their politics and governing strategy has steered the Independents these last four years tells you all you need to know about the calibre of the governing coalition's senior partner. With the stepping down of former Council Leader Dave Conway and his replacement by Ann James, it's a case of nothing having changed down the civic. In the original coalition talks to keep Labour out, the Tories were given the deputy leadership - naturally - and it seems the pick of cabinet positions. So of course they went for the portfolios covering economic development, regeneration and heritage, because these are considered the sexy responsibilities in local government, don't often generate bad news, and present plenty of positive coverage media opportunities. For instance, if a pottery goes under - which has recently been the case with the 200 year old Dudson factory - you don't need to say a thing. It's "challenging markets", poor management, or some other excuse. But any new investment into the city can be hailed as a vote in confidence in the council's strategy. Or if there's new building going on, up pops Cllr Dan Jellyman in a hard hat.

Let's look at another recent example: Stoke's City of Culture bid. Leaving aside the problems with the City of Culture initiative generally, and control-freakery issues with the city's pitch itself, it was nevertheless universally seen as a Big Good Thing locally. It put Stoke on the map and allowed the city to project itself as something other than the capital of Brexit. or a city well known for a long-running flirtation with the BNP. Yet, where were the City Indies when all this was happening? Deputy Council Leader Abi Brown fronted it all up, purposely excluding Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell - Stoke's two Labour MPs - as well as her coalition partners. And, of course, the City Indies were too dim to see the Tories were taking them for mugs, and getting all the good press and the photo ops.

Consider further the condemnation by Ofsted of the City Council's inadequate provision of children's services, something the report notes has gone downbank markedly since 2015. Ofsted says there is nothing wrong with the dedication or professionalism of social work staff, but they were not "being supported adequately". Management oversight is poor, there is no prioritisation, and caseloads are too high - all codes for a department less than adequately resourced at a time demands upon it are rising. What defence have the Tories offered? Nothing, their Stoke website literally reports 'nothing found' when searching Children's Services. Of course, they have an element of plausible deniability - because they left all the bad news-generating departments to City Independent cabinet members, they can hold their hands up and plead the "nothing to do with us, guv" line. They are in fact as culpable as their friends - they're the ones sitting round the cabinet table nodding this stuff through and putting kids in danger.

To be fair to the Tories, if I was an unscrupulous careerist saddled with a befuddled gaggle of independents whose 2015 manifesto was full of racist dog whistles, plans for a tea set, and a package holiday tour of the Potteries (complete with menu), I'd probably take advantage too. When a rival party offers themselves to you as a meat shield for all the shitty things you want to do, you'd be a fool not to take them up. And Stoke's Tories are no fools.

The strategy has, up until now, worked for the Tories. The local rag, The Sentinel, has barely uttered a single critical comment about leading councillors - a far cry from the days prior to 2015 when shafting Labour was de rigueur in the paper's offices. Is this because, on the whole, the Tory-led coalition have a savvier media strategy, or have not put a single foot wrong? It's a mystery, but of one thing I'm sure - I definitely do not think this has anything to do with Abi Brown and Sentinel editor, Martin Tideswell, occasionally sharing chummy selfies with one another at work and at play. The shrewdness of the Tories has paid other political dividends too. They have offloaded a certain amount of historical toxicity. Avoiding all responsibility for the city's woes, they have built up a position that saw them poll very respectably during the Stoke Central by-election (partly aided by their position as the party of Brexit's delivery), and subsequently building on this in the general election across the city's three seats, capturing Stoke South in the process. And as proof of their consolidation, for the first time in decades they have found enough members to stand in all 44 council seats in May's local election. A lesson in how well you can do when you play your advantages right.

There is another element to the success of Stoke's Tories, and that's its two-nation approach to local government. Stupid coalition partners and a friendly, uncritical press can only go so far. If you look at their local manifesto, it betrays an understanding that most voters don't really know what councils do. As long as the roads aren't a mess, parking is sorted, new buildings are getting built, shabby town centres are sorted, the bins carry on getting collected as is, and council money doesn't appear to be egregiously wasted, then a great many voters don't really care - hence why turnout for local elections everywhere are always depressed. The Tories are capitalising on this. Their flashy regen strategies, which include using council money to build a Hilton-franchised hotel, and a nearby Stalinesque block of build-to-rent private housing give the impression that the city centre is on the move. Never mind it's precisely because children's services have been left to rot that this is possible, the Tories have made a calculated assessment - as they have done with stripping back SureStart centres, and support for the homeless - that voters will put baubles and bricks before the blighted lives of the city's most vulnerable residents, because they don't have to pay the consequences of their policies. In other words, they are courting one group of voters and attempting to appeal to them while purposely and pointedly ignoring those they consider worthless, up to and including making their lives even harder. There's compassionate conservatism for you.

The question is whether the Tories will record another advance at these elections. Well, they have deftly manoeuvred to ensure nothing bad has stuck - we'll see if Labour running hard on the children's services scandal will have an effect. And, as we saw in 2015, Stoke's regular electorate is quite sophisticated and it's unlikely the local Tories will get flak for May's Brexit incompetence. The sad truth is given their savvy, their easy ride in the press, their shiny programme, and the character of the voters who tend to turn out for local elections, they are well placed to increase their councillor tally, particularly at the expense of the self-same idiotic allies who've enabled them.


Anonymous said...

'The flashy regen strategies' is a bit harsh when it was Labour's policy to start Smithfield. And there seem to be plenty of house building sites in progress around that I can see
You could justifiably call foul on criticising it before in power then , when it looks successful , claiming the credit. But Smithfield was and is good for the city.

Anonymous said...

Pervez isn't that popular given his past credentials of flower shows, partnership with the ex-CEO and rants about HS2. Backing him up is a deputy who likes to be called Jean. Then you have a group of ragtag individuals some of whom understand very little and can barely string a sentence together from watching webcasts.

Labour appear to be desperate to take overall control upon having paid Mr Zuckerberg for sponsored posts in certain social media.

My prediction is that it could be close for Labour to gain control back. Voter apathy rules locally especially in Labour supporters whereas Ind/Tories will make sure to vote.

Blissex said...

«As long as [ ... affluent middle class concerns are satisfied ... ] then a great many voters don't really care - hence why turnout for local elections everywhere are always depressed. The Tories are capitalising on this.»

Our blogger seems to have just discovered mandelsonianism; that many voters are "I am alright Jack" thatcherites, and therefore electoral success depends on low national or council taxes funded by low social spending (plus big property price increases).

Which brings my back to my usual topic: how can the labour movement appeal politically to those who thanks to the good wages and low house prices of the 60s and 70s won for them by the trade union and Labour governments have become middle class and think they are no longer proletarians but petty gentry?
Unfortunately When Tony Blair discovered "Sierra man" Mandelson persuaded him that New Labour needed to be "quasi-Conservative" thatcherite to appeal to that constituency, and the "lefties" continued to sing the "Red Banner" but switched into identity politics.

Phil said...

Aha, I know a little bit about Smithfield as it was sprung during a local by-election by the officers, and I ended up writing the first leaflets about it! Nothing wrong with the Smithfield development per se. But cutting kids' services to the point of endangering children in care to build Hilton a hotel? Or to build houses and flats for private rental via a council owned company? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...


I am beyond my level of competence but the strategy set out there and the briefings I get to see seem reasonable given the constraints on them. They can't move HRA money into General Fund. I don't know what local Labour critique of it would be. Obviously there is a lot could be done different at national level, but its not an option to do nothing until there's a Labour Housing Act.