Tuesday 27 December 2022

On 30p Lee's Ha'penny Mini-Me

A couple of months ago I went to Tunstall. Never the most thriving of Stoke's six towns, my first trip there since before the pandemic found it even more down at heel. The Stoke North constituency, which its "famous" incumbent Jonathan Gullis likes to call Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove, and Talke to differentiate himself from his lately ennobled predecessor by adding the "and Talke", has suffered horribly under 12 years of Tory rule. More shops than ever are shut and boarded up, with many in advanced states of decay. Save Shelter and the indefatigable Iris's Cats in Need, the local economy is so hard up it cannot sustain more than these two charity stores. It has now been three years since Boris Johnson's famous election victory, and all this part of the Potteries has to show for it is a crumbling town centre, empty purses and wallets, and frightening levels of food poverty.

That's not the only thing falling into ruination. So are the Tories' chances at the next election, and this is something Tunstall shares with nearly all the so-called "red wall" areas. In Tuesday's FT, we learn from one of Gullis's Westminster colleagues that "the red wall is dead. It’s possible we won’t hold any of the seats we won at the last election. Some people are just hanging around for their severance payments." Our mysterious correspondent forgot to add many aren't even waiting for that, with another slew of announcements expected after Tory MPs have spent the festive season reflecting/hammering their contact books.

Perhaps remembering Johnson's broadside against the "doomsters" and the "gloomsters", Gullis looks on the bright side and says the Tories could hold on, but Rishi Sunak has to offer an inspiring vision. The punters need to "see and feel change." The problem is they do see and feel it every time they look at their shrinking incomes and growing outlays. Defending the record in Stoke, Gullis points to a few trifles, such as some funding won from government to improve local bus services. Which was only 26% of what the Tory-run City Council put the bid in for, so don't expect dramatic improvements in time for the general election. Then there are the 500 Home Office jobs slated to arrive in dribs and drabs over the next few years. Taking into account the 120 Hanley DWP staff about to be sacked after years of whittling down the work force, and the hundreds of jobs axed at the local authority, we might just be about breaking even. At least there is the town improvement deal granted to Newcastle and Kidsgrove. While Newcastle Borough Council (also Tory-run) are spending a huge wedge on a new multi-storey, Kidsgrove can look forward to a new ticket office and a (more modest) car park in the not-too-distant. Despite putting on the brave face, Gullis appears resigned; "Rishi has yet to lay out that vision for this area — or for the country, if I’m honest."

If Gullis and Tory MPs like him are disappointed their government aren't delivering, they haven't been paying attention. At the beginning of 2020 and at the height of imperious pomp, writing for ConHome Tory strategist James Frayne argued that the government didn't need to do anything to hold on to their new voters. Apparently, they didn't care about public transport and bus services, want to see social security ground into nothingness, don't mind if their local high street looks like a Depression-era shopping arcade, and want more tax cuts paid for by public sector "waste". With this level of misrecognition over who there 2019 voters were and why they supported the Tories in the first place, it's a wonder they won so handsomely. To be fair to Johnson, he did appear genuine about carrying through the so-called levelling up strategy. He understood that if his party was going to hold on in places like Stoke, they needed to deliver. Unfortunately for him and the political health of the Tories, the do-nothing counsel offered by Frayne was the Treasury orthodoxy, and accepted by many in Johnson's circle. Including Sunak. The Big Dog was effectively brought to heel in Cabinet, and now under the guise of repairing the country from the atom bomb dropped on the economy by Liz Truss, Sunak has made the depletion of the state his overall objective.

There are two ways a Tory politician can respond to a situation where government doesn't care for their seat or the people who live in them. You could try the ubiquitous community thing, like his Stoke Central colleague Jo Gideon is doing. There isn't a crisp packet opening she won't attend if there's a photo opportunity in it. Gullis, billed by the FT as a "restless and popular local campaigner", have mistaken his regular appearances in The Sentinel for appeal. My old friend, former Labour Council Leader Mohammed Pervez, might be available to provide some instruction on this. Knowing Stoke once had a recent problem with BNP support in the City - partly because the Tories used to be too weak to stand in most local elections - Gullis hasn't been shy about scapegoating asylum seekers and commanding coverage for his efforts. Affecting concern about the wellbeing of vulnerable adults, his scurrilous campaign names the two city hotels being used as temporary hostels, fully knowing how publicising them could lead to targeted attacks. Tabling his 10 Minute Rule Bill a few weeks ago to get the flights to Rwanda running had nothing to do with fairness for refugees, or protesting against the government for housing asylum seekers in the Potteries without making resources available to support them, it's his re-election strategy. He's consciously latching onto the anti-woke identity politics. In the absence of undoing the economic and social injuries done to Stoke by his party, he's picking at an imagined wound in in the hope rabble rousing and dog-whistling will save his bacon. Gullis is far from an original on the Tory back benches, and has something of the Lee Anderson about him. 30p Lee's ha'penny mini-me, you might say.

Despite sitting on a decent-sized majority, it's not likely Gullis's efforts will be enough to save him. He'll take his £20 grand "resettlement grant" when he loses, and not give Stoke a second thought beyond a place name he puts on future CVs for safer Tory seats. The division he's stirring up won't, sadly, disappear as quickly.

Image Credit


Rich said...

I could be wrong but a couple of months ago I was looking at local jobs, and I’m sure I saw that most of the jobs to do with the home office, or at least departments dealing with asylum, were only fixed-term jobs anyway? So surely these 500 jobs would be the same. 18 months fixed-term or something similar. He didn’t peddle that did he?

Shai Masot said...

Oh well, at least Ruth Smeeth got her peerage just before Christmas. Some very welcome good news in these depessing times.

Anonymous said...

In your last-but-one para, there is some confusion about who's meant by "his". Does it refer to Mr Gullis, or Mr Pervez? I had to look twice, and it's only knowing what you meant that makes it clear. This would be easy to quote out of context.

Anonymous said...

He claimed they're all office jobs with no face to face work, unlike the actual job specs which say those applying will need to interview people as part of their immigration applications 🙄🙄

Blissex said...

«most of the jobs to do with the home office, or at least departments dealing with asylum, were only fixed-term jobs anyway?»

In the university and private sector very few jobs are not fixed-term, and in any case I have seen many "permanent" jobs disappear in redundancies, with motivations like "profits too low". Security of employment for "permanent" employees is largely illusory, by and large employment is "at will", even if the timescales are a bit longer than for zero-hour contractors. The labor unions and the labor tribunals are largely powerless because of adverse legislation endorsed by New Labour (Peter Mandelson's “in the urgent need to remove rigidities and incorporate flexibility in [...] labour markets, we are all Thatcherites now”).

It all started at scale with a test by Tony Blair over 20 years ago, the redundancy of 500 NHS expensive permanent older nurses (mostly trained in the UK) to replace them with cheaper younger agency temp nurses (mostly trained in third world countries); it was very successful, as there was no public opinion pushback, as most New Labour voters were delighted with booming housing cost inflation. Many employers took notice of this success.