Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Stupidity of Stoke's City Independents

Ah, Stoke-on-Trent. How I love thee. It's not the oatcakes that captured my heart, but the utterly dysfunctional local politics. And the latest twists and turns by nominal Council Leader Dave Conway has caused my heart to throb even more. This week the long, drawn out saga of the new council offices' concrete floors has got resolved. As predicted by this blog, there was no real cause for concern. However, Cllr Conway has ruled out a proper move. One of the two buildings is to be occupied by council staff, and the other will be marketed for tenants until this capital asset can be disposed of - no doubt on the cheap. Needless to say, this is incredibly stupid.

A little story. As long-time readers know, I'm from Derby originally and that is where I now work. Since I left the place on an Autumnal morning almost 20 years ago the city has transformed itself utterly. There are new buildings everywhere, a huge shopping centre, and a vast business park where there used to be nothing but rotting ruins from Derby's industrial peak. All the big names in shopping, eating, and services have a presence too. You might say it's an example of successful regeneration. That isn't to say it's without problems - the city's renaissance has barely touched some of the inner city wards and outlying suburbs, and some of its schools have some issues. But overall, it's a position most medium-sized cities would like to be in.

Derby and Stoke share a key advantage - location. They more or less occupy the same position in the Eastern and Western parts of the Midlands. They're both on a London line and both reside near heavily urbanised areas. Stoke is between Manchester and Birmingham. Derby is a stone's throw from Nottingham, Leicester, and Sheffield. Both are surrounded by relatively affluent county hinterlands. There are, however, divergences. Derby kept its crucial manufacturing base and supply chain, Stoke did not. As Rolls Royce kept chugging along, as Toyota arrived, as trains kept getting made and repaired, the Potteries lost its potteries. Steel, gone. Mines, gone. Pot banks - mostly overseas. Derby therefore had a much stronger economic base on which it could draw, and the persistence of manufacturing acted as an attractor for more advanced industry and hi-tech firms. It had an added advantage too. Like most 'normal' cities, it had a core shopping and business district. Public spending for economic regeneration could be concentrated in one central area, which ran from what became Pride Park to the city centre proper. That is an advantage Stoke lacks. As a federation of six towns, it has six centres. Hanley, as the Potteries' traditional commercial heart is the generally acknowledged city centre. However, compared to other cities of a quarter of a million people (320,000 if you lump in the good people of the contiguous towns of Kidsgrove and Newcastle-under-Lyme) there's very little to write home about. A few high street names, a small modernish shopping centre, a bus station, and a handful of eateries. Non-retail business is almost completely absent. Why? The primary reason is the other towns compete with rather than complement Hanley. As a city dominated by low-paying jobs, what disposable income there is gets spread thinly across those town centres. As such, Hanley looks like a small town rather than the heart of a sprawling, populous conurbation.

That's the background, without a little bit of violence to some of the detail. How then does one regenerate a place like Stoke with two disadvantages vis a vis its competitor city 40 miles to the east? There's only one option available, and that's to try and overcome the accident of the city's geography. During Labour's 2011-2015 tenure, the limited resources available to the City Council tended to be spent in Hanley. In a series of related projects, the strategy was to make the nominal centre a proper centre attractive to inward investment. More business = more jobs = more reasons to live in Stoke, thereby upping the council tax take. The council did this by improving the roads (including getting a missing quarter of the ring road built), pedestrianising and sprucing up bits and bobs and, most controversially, relocating the main council offices from Stoke to the centre. There was a sound business case for doing so. It meant the demolition and redevelopment of a decrepit section of Hanley. It would also have entailed two thousand or so council staff being about in the city centre in peak business hours, popping into shops, eating out at lunch and after work. Its very presence would have clustered more people to give it the economic boost the centre badly needed. By virtue of its presence it would have drawn people that have dealings with the council - everyday folk, businesses, out-of-town visitors - into the centre too. In all, a clustering of spending power would have improved the centre, provided ready made business units for inward investors with easy access to key council personnel, and have helped that nebulous but nevertheless important structure of feeling: business confidence.

That was before the City Council was gifted to the city's new rulers, a clueless coalition of independents, Tories, and UKIP. All three were opposed to the council move to the new Smithfield development. The indies because time for them stopped in 1971. The Tories because they stupidly think regeneration is driven by business investment, an evidence-free belief that contradicts the experience of city rejuvenation everywhere - including London. And UKIP because they know a bandwagon when one trundles by. The case against as articulated by the independents saw people take to the streets boils down to a set of interrelated arguments.

1. Hanley is always favourited when it comes to public funds. It's not fair.
2. Moving the civic centre from Stoke would devastate the town.
3. The present civic centre is a perfectly adequate building.
4. It's a waste of public money. The move wouldn't create a single job.

As the move was premised on the council's location, not the fitness or otherwise of its present abode; and that the case for regeneration was always about knock-on effects, the latter two points can be consigned to the 'dealt with above' drawer.

On "fairness", over the years I've heard a great deal about the distinctive character of the six towns. That each place has an identity that should be cherished and nurtured. What does this mean? In Stoke I can hang out in the library, do some shopping in Sainsbury's, and nip for a pint down Wetherspoon's. Things that can also be done up 'anley, duck. Down Longton way I can avail myself of the market and scoot around some charity shops. Everything that an be done in all the other towns, except Fenton. Perhaps that's where the character doesn't lie. Maybe it's in the dilapidated buildings that afflicts the towns. Or the communities grown up around factories and pot banks that, like everywhere else, now find most of its cultural meanings in popular/mass culture as conveyed by television, the internet, radio, papers, and magazines. Is it in the pubs independent councillors drink in, or at resident associations where the same-old same-old turn up and reminisce about leaving school on the Friday and have a job by the Monday morning. Is there something I'm missing, an essential 'Stokieness' about Stoke that marks it out from 'Hanleyness', 'Tunstallness', 'Burslemness', 'Longtonness' and 'Fentonness'? There is no such character, truth be told. As much a minority, and it is a minority, think their towns is the bee's knees there are no distinctive identities now. And since the majority of Stokies live in districts outside of the towns, this is irrelevant to the lives of the city's residents and the ways they think about themselves. If you want to talk about fairness, how is holding back a regeneration project so the "precious" unique qualities of Stoke's town centres fair when, ultimately, it means fewer jobs.

On the second point, true, moving the council wouldn't have a beneficial effect on Stoke town centre. The case, however, has been massively overstated. Having worked in Stoke myself, if I nipped out at lunch time more often than not it was to the pub. Or to the supermarket. Or perhaps for a Wright's Pies. Funnily enough, most council workers did exactly the same. You could sit in the window of the White Star and watch council workers file into town and return with either a Wright's Pies or Sainsbury's bag. The town's so-called retail offer consists of charity shops, three bookies, and a Cash Converters. The disposable income of council employees aren't going to the independent coffee shops, the clothes stores, the restaurants, and whatever other small business you can think of. It's going into the pockets of one large and one medium-sized chain. Besides, since Staffs Uni announced its full relocation to its base in nearby Shelton, Stoke Town is set to be inflated by the arrival of a couple of thousand extra students. The passing trade would have been more than made up by new students living in the town. Because of a lack of imagination and a seeming unawareness of what's actually happening, should the continued health and wellbeing of a supermarket and a baker's trump economic regeneration that would benefit the city as a whole? Our pretend Council Leader and his small-minded helpers think it should.

Now the Smithfield development has been passed as move-in-able, the council has decided that one building is to be occupied by staff ... already located in Hanley. The Hanley local centre, the library and archives, and the offices scattered about are going to be condensed here. Everyone else is staying put. Now, that concentration will save money on rent and bills but completely defeats the purpose of the whole exercise and fatally undermines a key prop of city regeneration. Instead, our cack-handed coalition are pushing forward with something they call a "six town strategy". In other words, spreading limited resources thinly in the hope things will somehow get better. Such an approach might have made sense if the city was different and each of the towns had something unique to offer, but they don't. All are smaller, more depressed versions of Hanley itself.

Fewer than three months in and the new council are all set to compound Stoke-on-Trent's economic weakness. If they can screw up economic strategy because their own prejudices come before evidence and experience from elsewhere, I shudder to think how they will deal with the cuts coming from central government.

Five Most Read Posts In July

Most popular last month were:

1. Jeremy Corbyn and Hard Left "Infiltration"
2. Understanding Jeremy Corbyn's Support
3. Harriet Harman's Tax Credit Debacle
4. Some Advice for Andy and Yvette
5. Understanding Labour's Abstentions

Third highest ever monthly viewing figures? That will do nicely, thanks. Yes, going by the posts that got readers' juices flowing last month you could be forgiven for thinking the blog has become a subsidiary of LabourList. What it does reflect is a wider spread of political interest in the Labour Party and how we can make sense of the eruption, seemingly from nowhere, of Corbynmania. Is there likely to be more of the same next month? Of course.

Also, eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that I've finally sorted out a Facebook page. I'm only, like, five years behind the times. Feel free to like, share, like, share, like, and share some more. For even further ease, here's a direct link.

As a firm believer in second chances, in case you missed them last month here's my open letter to Yvette Cooper. If she wants to win, she needs to start acting like she wants to win. And there's this piece on the ATL's member raids on other unions in further and higher education. Do read, it's the first bit of "proper" journalism I've done for quite a while.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Local Council By-Elections July 2015

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- June

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were six by-elections in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash
**** Other this month included Llais Gwynedd (123), SSP (81), and Scottish Christian (33)

Overall, 46,430 votes were cast over 29 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. A total of five council seats changed hands. For comparison see June's results here.

July is usually a sleepy month, but by-election-wise it's been busy and fascinating in equal measure. First things first, the idea Labour is in some sort of meltdown is shown here to be the kind of accurate forecasting one can expect from dodgy polls. The only ones that really matter involve people going to vote, and there's no suggestion Labour's having an overly rough time considering it a) doesn't have a leader and, b) the stupid and desperate naysaying from increasingly unhinged right wing sections of the party. To come top of the polls and lose a single seat is no cause for concern at all. 11 of the 29 seats were Labour holds, while seven were Con holds.

The really interesting story for geeks is among parties the next tier down. After an age of lamentable results, could we be seeing signs of a LibDem revival? Yes, a couple of their results are in super safe seats, but to have netted three new councillors and be within spitting distance of 15% ... these are the kinds of results they were last getting back when Clegg was the newly-minted wunderkind. It's still too early in my book to say there's a revival underway, though I will say the pattern of LibDem results are changing. Whereas they used to be either very, very good or shockingly poor, we are starting to see more middle-range vote tallies come in. Watch this space.

Coping with the opposite problem is UKIP. Again, too early for trends and all that but these suggest the bottom is dropping out of their world. This month's vote average of 144 is a poor return considering the number of candidates who took the the field. Are some 'none of the above' votes transferring back to the LibDems, or is it periodic under performance as the main political story last month has been all about Jeremy Corbyn? We'll see next month if the swill flowing across the tabloids about Calais will have an effect.

In other news, there's no sign of the SNP slowing down, and no early warnings that Plaid is going to experience a similar take off. Greens are in their normal range, and TUSC put in an appearance for once. However, with the complete collapse of its political perspectives - the Labour dog having some quite lively lefty life in it yet - how much longer are the token challenges going to carry on for?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Dear Yvette Cooper

Dear Yvette,

Re: Leadership of the Labour Party

I read extracts of your interview with the Indy with some interest as, I think it's fair to say, your platform for Labour leadership is considered the 'lightest' among the contenders so far. No one is in any doubt what Liz Kendall stands for. Ditto Jeremy Corbyn. And last night on Newsnight, Andy finally put more flesh on the bones of his National Care Service idea. I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say he followed my advice, but it's stark that whereas your three opponents have defined themselves you are yet to do so. And that's a shame, because some big ideas are getting floated in the leadership election this time round, and you should be meeting like with like. If you win on the basis of being the least offensive to everyone you will be storing up future legitimation problems for your leadership.

Today's Indy interview goes a little bit of the way in setting out what you believe, but nowhere near far enough. Let's talk about Jeremy, seeing as everyone else is. You say:
Inevitably there is frustration and anger at the prospect of five more years of Tory government. It is really important we channel that anger into defeating the Tories. It is no use just shouting from the sidelines. It is no use being angry about the world. We have got to change the world.

I don’t think we want to go back to the 1980s and just be a protest movement ... Today’s four and five year-olds could have to spend their entire childhood under a Tory government if we are not determined and ready to win again.
That message isn't going to win over many Jez supporters now, especially when when the grating and the dud of the party's parliamentary/spad/journo establishment have articulated it in spectacularly panicky terms. And not being daft, you know this too. The only reasonable conclusion one can infer is that you're explicitly pitching for Liz's second preferences. Yet, as we know from Labour First's open letter to Progress, it seems some Liz supporters are bent on not lending their second preferences to either you or Andy. You've got to win them over rather than posing as a steady-as-she-goes default choice.

You do have some advantages here. From what I can gather, most Liz supporters see themselves as forward-thinking progressives. Tony Blair's silliness about the future being the only comfort zone is so much gibberish to some, but it chimes with how Blairites view their tendency. The left and the centre - which includes you and Andy - are yesterday's people. You fight shy of what they perceive as the real world and you offer little in the way of confronting and managing it in pursuit of economic efficiency and social justice, as they like to put it. Liz's platform, for instance, recommends itself to technocratic minds. Her plan to decentralise power, for example, is a good one that would keep the wonks and the geeks very happy. Her politics, however, have some very serious weaknesses that you do not share. There are breaches your campaign can step into.

The largest of these is 'the future'. In your Indy interview, you discuss the opportunities presented by Green industries and you rightly castigate the Tories for treating it them as green crap. Good. But you need to go further. If the future is to see a renaissance of British manufacturing you have to bang the drum hard for onshore and offshore wind, wave power, solar power and, to make sure it's Team Yvette that's future-tinged, perhaps say a few words about nuclear fusion research. You also have to set your face against fracking for pretty obvious reasons: more carbon emissions, landscape and property blight, overstated claims of a jobs bonanza. A plurality of the public are opposed, and not a few of them live in seats we need to win back in 2020. The Tories have left an open goal on this one, particularly as they favour fracking for short-termist reasons.

You are also the only candidate consistently talking about science, the digital revolution, and preparing the economy for jobs that don't even exist yet. As I'm sure you know, one of the biggest policy challenges coming is a new wave of automation. These could render redundant a number of low skilled, low waged, labour intensive jobs. More importantly it could sound the death knell for a great many office-based jobs too. As Paul Mason points out in his new book dealing with this topic (among other things), business as a whole is laying off investing in this way for the moment. When the market is more buoyant and the big savings become clearer, it's going to happen. This can be dealt with in one of two ways. Pretend it doesn't exist and hope that these jobs are replaced like-for-like by the expansion of other industries. That seems to be the Tories' course and, as the 1980s and the so-called "jobs miracle" since 2012/13 tells us, that is simply not going to happen. Or some far sighted leadership can be shown now, and you're in the best position to do this. Be warned though, it might involve thinking some properly unthinkable thoughts.

By stealing a march on these things you won't just win over Liz supporters; there are floating Andy and - yes - Jeremy supporters who might be inspired by what you have to say. You can show the Labour selectorate that you know what's coming and you're the only one who's thinking about those challenges. It also puts the Tories on the back foot because of their short sighted and reckless approach to managing the economy.

Look, my politics differ a lot from yours. However, I recognise that you have a lot of experience, have the thick skin a leader needs, and these qualities commend you both to the position of the Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister. You will not get to see either of those offices unless you start distinguishing yourself from the others, and certainly not by trash-talking Jeremy. What's it to be?

Yours sincerely,


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Relax, There Is No Labour Meltdown

Another day, another bout of mischief making. In today's Indy we learn that things aren't looking too rosy for Labour. In a specially commissioned poll, it "shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband. Blimey, that doesn't bode well for 2020. They go on:
... voters think Labour has gone backwards since its crushing defeat under Ed Miliband. Only 24 per cent of people believe the party is more electable than it was in May, while 76 per cent say it is less electable.
The article also pours scorn on the idea of a core vote strategy as the route to electoral success. Drawing on Fabian research, adding up all the Green and LibDem voters to Labour's total still leaves the party trailing the Tories in the marginals.

Two points are worthwhile noting. Firstly, who is arguing for a targeting of Green and LibDem voters? True, some - but by no means all - in Camp Corbyn think Labour can win an election without having to bend over to attract Tory-leaning swing voters. Yet their analysis is more complex than the simplistic guff regurgitated here. They observe that to win back in Scotland, where the SNP are posing as an anti-austerity party; to see off UKIP - who ate into Labour's vote in 'safe' and swing seats; to win back Greens whose vote disproportionately hit Labour's and allowed the Tories to sneak through in a number of places; and to mobilise the missing millions who sat the election out, Labour has to offer something other than a colourless, technocratic pitch. Where it comes to Tory voters, some can be won on the merits of a platform offering a fairer, more secure capitalism and an end to austerity's dog-eat-dogism. A point made by Matthew d'Ancona, and emphasised in a missive from CCHQ last week telling Tory MPs and officials to knock off promoting Corbyn as it could shift politics to the left.

As it happens, I think pinning your electoral hopes on a coalition involving large numbers of abstaining voters. They are no more on the left than people who do vote, and their reasons for not particpating are - again - quite complex. The unavoidable road back to power takes us through lands populated by Tory voters who can be persuaded to vote Labour again. This however is not captured in the Fabian research because the question it's trying to answer is based on a false premise. Again, so there is no uncertainty, no one thinks we can win by cobbling together a coalition of Green and LibDem voters.

A lesson that the Indy could do with learning when it next commissions a poll. So 76% of people think Labour are less electable now than three months ago. Colour me shocked. In case their editorial office hadn't noticed, Labour doesn't have a leader and therefore the results uncovered are utterly meaningless. Most party members I know would conclude, right now, that Labour is unelectable on this measure alone. That's before you factor in the almighty row caused by the caretaker stepping outside of her remit, and the leadership debate's forays into the gutter. Meanwhile, in actual elections taking place every week in local authority by-elections, the results can hardly be described as a meltdown.

Once again, it needs reiterating that the press - even The Indy - don't have Labour's best interests at heart. Some are overtly striving for a Die Linke/SPD-style split, ensuring the permanent marginalisation of the centre left; and others will contribute to the narrative because it generates clicks and coverage at an otherwise dull and sedate time of year. And some are prepared to make themselves look quite stupid in the process.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Hard Left "Infiltration"

The press are not neutral arbiters when it comes to the Labour leadership contest. If they can use the debates between party members as a way of deepening divisions in the party, they will. At the forefront of these attempts is the so-called quality "paper of record" The Times, which of late is transforming itself into a straight propaganda sheet. Earlier this week, a fairly innocuous piece by Charles Falconer setting out his support for Andy Burnham was spiked with the headline "Women are not tough enough to lead Labour". It was misleading bollocks as he said nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect. The 'Burnham is sexist' meme got a lift before, the day after, The Times issued their mea culpa.

And now they're at it again. The front page legend goes "Hard left plot to infiltrate Labour race", with the subby "Harman urged to halt leadership vote". It reads "140,000 new activists are projected to have joined ... with many signing up to back the hard left candidate". And "The Communist Party of Great Britain has called on supporters to join and back Corbyn as part of its revolutionary "strategy"". Then we we "Labour MPs say" their CLPs are being flooded with lefties (of course, these sources go unattributed). Let's unpack some of this.

First off, taking my very old friends the cpgb as evidence of any movement at all is the thinnest of thin gruels. Here's a 30-strong collective who've spent over three decades peddling their politics to little effect. They've also participated in practically every left regroupment project going, managing to alienate virtually everyone they've ever come into contact with. By far left standards, that's some feat. The Times also goes on to say that some TUSC candidates have also signed up. That may be the case, but some proof would be nice. Furthermore, the two main forces on the far left - the rape cover-uppers in the SWP, and my increasingly stop-the-world-we-want-ti-get-off erstwhile comrades in the Socialist Party are standing aloof from what's going on. Any real political movement of tens of thousands of politicised people is a real risk to their coherence as organisations. There's that and the fact the organised "hard left" outside of Labour would be hard-pressed to muster 6,000-7,000 members and supporters. The numbers we're talking about dwarf that pretty pitiful figure.

On that flood of new members, it says a great deal about the mindset of The Times and the briefers quoted. They cannot grasp that real people have all kinds of views, and that some might be attracted to a party when a menu of different options are unveiled. They cannot conceive how anyone would join Labour of their own volition to support a candidate without some plot or shadowy clique behind the scenes manipulating things. I can only speak for my CLP, but since the start of 2015 about 100 people have joined sturdy old Stoke Central and 70 of them signed up after the election. From those that have come to meetings, most are not there just to vote in the leadership contest. They've joined because they want Labour to win nationally against a cruel and stupid government. Some of these are Jeremy Corbyn supporters, but by far and away the most important - and numerous - contingent of that constituency are established members. If the doomsayers want either Andy, Yvette, or even Liz to win they need to shut up and try and understand where the Jez supporters are coming from.

Half-way in we get to John Mann MP, the one "urging" the suspension of the Labour leadership contest. Acting as the party's cut-price Simon Danczuk while he is temporarily indisposed, he says it's "becoming a farce" as long-standing members are getting "trumped" by people who don't care about the Labour Party. Too right, John. We can't let any old any old swamping the members, can we? Except, according to this piece John penned for Progress, he'd go even wider and let anyone choose the party's parliamentary candidates, including - presumably - "people who have opposed the Labour Party and want to break it up". What a tool.

Of course, John - and also-quoted Labour donor/David Miliband groupie Assem Allam and Lord John Hutton - are being useful idiots for Conservative/Murdoch ambitions. They've seen Scotland, they've seen how it is possible to completely rout the party in its traditional core areas. And they want to repeat the same in England and Wales. Their inspiration here is German politics, how the left is split between Die Linke and the SPD. The former contains the radical, anti-austerity elements and the latter the so-called moderates. In practice where national politics are concerned, it has doomed the former to perpetual opposition and the latter to shoring up Angela Merkel. It would suit Murdoch and the Tories if such a scenario could be imposed on British politics as it makes the possibility of the centre left ever forming a government again incredibly unlikely. If Labour MPs and other senior figures want to avoid this, they'd do well to stop fanning hysterical attacks on Corbyn, they'd do well not to give the Murdoch press and its Express, Telegraph, and Mail allies reasons to put the boot in. Because they're not only - yes - scabbing on the party, they're putting their own careers on the line too.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

What I've Been Reading Recently

Nicking this idea off Mark Carrigan, here's what I've read these last few months.

The Enigma of Capital by David Harvey
The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Talcott Parsons: Theorist of Modernity by Roland Robertson and Bryan S Turner (eds)
Sperm Wars by Robin Baker
On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
Prostitution and Feminism: Toward a Politics of Feeling by Maggie O'Neill
The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
Joining Political Organisations by Laura Morales
Voters and Voting by Jocelyn Evans
Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes
Krushchev's Russia by Edward Crankshaw
Poseidon's Wake by Alastair Reynolds
The Cambridge Companion to Marx by Terrell Carver (ed.)
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Preparing for Power by the Revolutionary Communist Party