Wednesday 5 April 2023

Rubbish Politics

Back in Stoke, I picked up a Labour leaflet from the doormat. It featured my old muckers Cllrs Amjid Wazir and Alastair Watson talking about the hot topic of the moment: fly-tipping. Tbh, it is an issue around my former stomping ground. A week before we were due to move, from nowhere a pair of brand new window shades - still in their boxes - were dumped next to the house. Knowing that something vaguely useful won't stay dumped for long they were gone by morning. Another was earlier today. In one of the alleyways a pushchair was left unloved. By the time I left at 2pm, it had gone. And the best ever was when a lodger of Alastair's found a cache of Mega Drive games dumped in am alley near his house. £20 later and the crate was mine. But freecycling Stoke-stylee can't and doesn't lay claim to every discarded item, and fly-tipping costs the local authority around £500k/year. What's the solution? Cllrs Watson and Wazir want more resources devoted to cleaning up the city's streets. An entirely reasonable response.

Not Keir Starmer's answer though. To try and inject a bit of excitement into a drab local election campaign, the leadership announced its own plan to combat the scourge: heftier fixed penalty notices and forcing fly-tippers to join community payback-style clean up squads. Ah, there's nothing more satisfying than out-Torying the Tories with a new punitive policy they hadn't thought of first. As authoritarian voters delight in the idea of wrong 'uns getting a good hiding, I suppose it was inevitable Starmer's crew would cook up a wheeze that would appeal to these people, who aren't likely to vote Labour anyway, and be consistent with his own politics. Still, it's the local elections. The voter pool likely to turn out are disproportionately of pensionable age, and it might turn a few of their heads.

Like the discarded bits of furniture and bags of cement cluttering up country lanes and back alleys, this proposal should be skipped. It's another example of inauthentic get-rich-quick populism, which is contributing toward the construction of Starmerism's own scapegoats. On this occasion, it's the shadowy (nay, hoodied) figure of ASBO-begging malcontents he once set up 24-hour courts to deal with. But if this is tough on crime, where is tough on the causes of crime? People don't fly-tip because scattering one's broken and useless worldly goods has become a national pastime. Since 2010, local authorities have been forced to scale back refuse collection and either curtail their bulky waste collection schemes or hugely increase the charges on them. Most councils now collect bins fortnightly as opposed to weekly, and the number of municipal tips have been cut. If, then, someone has say a broken fridge, the nearest tip is many miles away, and the cost of paying the council is too steep, what are they supposed to do? Turn their garden, if they have one, into landfill? A good opportunity to have a go at the Tories for systematically undermining and cutting local government funds you might think, but no. On this score Labour has remained silent. It might imply an incoming Labour government wants to spend money.

And here is the rub. Rather than try and lead public opinion on anything, Starmer prefers to baby the audience. If he's pretending that granting councils more powers, will fix local services without the resources they need to repair shattered public and community infrastructures, then he's taking Labour's would-be voters for mugs. They know the country is in a hole, and while millions are prepared to vote Labour to get the Tories out they are expecting Starmer to do something. That also includes switchers from the Tories. The longer he stays quiet, the greater the political risk.

There is another dynamic at work here. Starmer and the shadow cabinet are keen to hold down expectations for their own craven reasons, but it's not like his cadre of councillors need much persuading. With one or two notable exceptions, local politics are the epitome of dismal politics. Cleaning up the dog shit, filling in the potholes, and pushing whatever regeneration scheme has lately dropped down the consultancy pipeline, local elections are an opportunity to double down on what the bulk of councillors are happiest doing: being petty council managers. What these elections most definitely are not are opportunities for raising wider questions that could actually help empower residents and forge more engaged, self-activating communities. Like what we've seen in Preston and Stockport, or what the Greens are proposing with council-controlled rent caps. It's much harder to be the Big I Am when communities are coherent and have their own ideas about what's best for their areas.

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1 comment:

Kriss said...

Massive sympathy for individuals who can't afford council collection for their old fridge but it's not the whole story. Near me there's a car park next to an unused factory building which is due to be pulled down and built on (timescale: 10 years). We also live near some waste ground and both are constantly the target for fly tippers - these are not individuals, they are builders and the like, who are regularly dealing with waste, turning up with a transit van full of crap and dumping it where they think they won't be caught. They are working, can afford a van, but can't be arsed to buy a license to use the council tip. Can only wonder about the cost of forcing these individuals to do community service, would it be a deterrent?