Saturday 6 May 2023

Stoke Labour's Council Victory

Well done to Stoke-on-Trent Labour for taking back the Potteries on Thursday. Going into all-out elections with 12 seats, it emerged from the fray with 29 to its name. The Tories were bumped down to 14, which is one less than what they won in 2019 sans subsequent defections to them, and pleasingly the so-called City Independents were put in the ground. They went from 12 last time to just one. It couldn't have happened to a nicer ragtag and bobtail outfit. Needless to say, the revival in the party's fortunes after my leaving the place is entirely coincidental.

Is there room for a bit of gloating in a supposedly serious analysis of Potteries politics? You bet there is. Labour sent CIndie leader Ann James packing in Great Chell and Packmoor. But much more satisfying was the dumping of Tory Janine Bridges by the electorate. Stoke politics watchers will have followed her inglorious career for some time as she skipped from party to party to maintain a pre-eminence on the local council she felt entitled to. Indeed, had she survived Thursday night I wouldn't have given it a week before a text popped up on Labour Group, and now Council Leader Jane Ashworth's phone requesting a tete tete about defecting back. Also gone is CIndie Lee Wanger, marking the first time since 2011 that the councillor roster is free of a convicted child sex offender. With him went Jackie Barnes, who won a by-election after putting out a manifesto that, among other things, railed against cervical smears and in more recent years became famous as Stoke's racist Lord Mayor. Ex-BNP CIndie Melanie Baddeley was also booted out in Abbey Hulton. It's taken 20 years, but the legacy of Stoke's most toxic political period has finally been removed from the chamber.

Along with Bridges, all the recent defectors to the Tories' ranks found their treachery kiboshed at the ballot box. Ally Simcock in Sandford Hill and Candi Chetwynd in Ford Green, both of whom professed to be socialists at some point, jumped to the Tories when their egos were tickled. Thankfully their services were terminated at the first available opportunity by the good people of their wards. I cannot lie that as a former friend, seeing Chetwynd lose has been a highlight. Not least because she spent her time as a Tory councillor palling around with Jonathan Gullis in social media shorts and photo opportunities. A cautionary tale that even politics time servers like me can get taken for a ride.

There were some very gratifying results. The persistence of Mubsira Aumir finally netted her a seat in Fenton East, as did Javid Najmi in Moorcroft and Sneyd Green. I'm happy to see Chris Robinson back on the council after losing by a 10 vote margin in 2019, Sarah Hill after an 11 year absence, Adrian Knapper in for Birches Head, and Duncan Walker as Labour's man in Baddeley, Milton, and Norton. Kudos to comrades Shaun Pender and Andy Platt for making their seats safer. And a shout out to long-time friend of the blog Gary Elsby for coming at the bottom of his poll.

Where did the Tories go wrong? Historically, Stoke's politics have been a bit iffy and tended to introversion, though that began to change at the last local election as local and national trends converged. In 2015 after Labour lost and a CIndie/Tory coalition took over the council, the Tory group under erstwhile Council Leader Abi Brown ensured they controlled the most publicity-friendly positions in their coalition cabinet. I.e. The economics portfolios. They then spent the next four years taking credit for every new bit of investment, every new build, and the renewal of the city's parks. Some of this was what Labour were planning to do anyway, but in office their coalition happily cut down the council's social spend further so a disused boat house in Hanley Park could get spruced up, that the hedges were trimmed and maintained, and monies could be put aside to house the Potteries Museum's Spitfire in a bespoke goldfish tank.

It worked. By cutting services to the bone, the Tories knew they were "only" impacting on people who tend not to vote or would never support them anyway. And what they purchased with their suffering was a simulacra of economic regeneration. With new buildings going up and the parks returned to their Victorian heyday, their changes could be seen. It gave off a vibe of moving on from decades of Stoke stagnation and struggles of trying to reinvent itself. But it was a veneer and could only work for a while. When the double whammy of Covid and the Tories' cost of living crisis came along, the city was put back on its arse. Crowding more people into the city centre with council build-to-lets did not pay off as their disposable income, which was projected to sustain a hospitality-led revival of Hanley, was gobbled up by inflation. And as for the city's other five town centres, at best all they got was a lick of paint.

There were the regen blunders too. In February Dan Jellyman, the Tories' number two - in both senses of the term - resigned from his regeneration and heritage portfolio after he okayed the demolition of a Josiah Wedgwood brick sculpture. This came after a somewhat questionable turn in priorities. Opening earlier this year, the Tories found £15m for a multi-storey car park on the site of an existing under-used car park. If that wasn't enough, in February 2022 the (admittedly dated) but also under-used multi-storey on Meigh Street in Hanley got bulldozed and will get replaced by ... a new £18m car park. As the Tory council in nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme are doing more or less the same thing, we're left to speculate whether a commitment to car-driven regeneration has gripped the two Tory groups or what might loosely be described as off-book incentives. Who can say? It's a matter of conjecture and opinion.

Going from the scores on the doors, the car park fiasco plus the Tories' national malaise are what put paid to their chances. Extrapolating forward to the general election, the results suggest Gareth Snell will take back Stoke Central without much trouble. The good news for watchers of the aforementioned member for Stoke-on-Trent North is that his time in the spotlight will come to a close. I look forward to Labour's David Williams cooking Gullis's expired career on the rotisserie. Stoke South is another story. Despite Labour gains in the south of the city the Tory vote was pretty solid. And on the revised constituency boundaries due to come into force, added to it are parts of Newcastle constituency, Stone, and Staffordshire Moorlands. It would take a massive swing to dislodge Jack Brereton, the sitting Tory MP.

Time for some unsolicited advice. Stoke Labour should bear in mind the key lessons of how the council was lost in 2015. Acting like managers as opposed to politicians, giving the officers too much leeway in determining priorities, being unclear about what the council was trying to achieve and doing things that looked like they were taking the piss not only scuppered Labour's majority, but massively ate into its general election vote. As a fan of the Preston model, of course I'd recommend the Group looks at that and adapts it as a means of delivering its manifesto. This would do a better job than dreaming up a new regeneration project with its pie-in-the-sky promises of loadsa jobs and loadsa knock on investment. But also, ensuring Labour weathers whatever storms are likely to break over Stoke-on-Trent, councillors have to be buried like ticks in their communities. Voter ID is not the be-all and end-all, and while important being responsive, dependable, and most importantly present will go a long way to regrowing the roots that have withered over decades. The councillors will benefit in the long run, and that personal connection can deliver votes by the skip load come general election polling day. Defeating the Tories this time was the easy part. The tough stuff starts now.

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Sunita Chandla said...

Excellent write up, read in ages!
What makes it worth the read that it's just not a report but carries a gentle word of caution to the winner for carrying on the game!

Old Trot said...

Such uncritical optimism , Phil ! A bit of a memory lapse , surely, as to how Labour's generations-long grip on Stoke on Trent Council was lost in the period 2012 onwards .

Anyone who remembers the much praised, searingly sad , three part, BBC 4 documentary 'The Year the Town Hall Shrank' in 2012, will be much less optimistic. The documentary portrayed in tragic detail the hopeless , endless, capitulations by the Labour councillors to the Tory-instituted accelerating cuts in the central government support grants to local government of that period, in the context of Stoke on Trent. Under its almost comically pompous Labour Council leader the administration cut just about EVERY council service to bits (including decanting confused, frightened, ancient residents out of council-run old folks homes). So the Labour administration was simply the administrator of local austerity.

And the outcome ? The desperate voters ended up voting for ANYONE but Labour - from the BNP, to Tories , to a rag bag of localist 'independents' . Now, as austerity continues apace in the subsequent years - the now even MORE desperate voting public have voted Labour in again - but what will they do now ? Forget all the PR bullshit about the 'Preston Model' of localist economic salvation. Pure Guardianista hype. The reality is that servile Labour councils will continue to administer ever-greater cuts in line with Central government diktat. And the Labour Party under Starmer and his corrupt cronies will NOT restore the budgetary support local government desperately needs - because that would require taxing their rich . paymasters.