This doesn't mean the city can be declared a BNP-free zone, as tempting to do so is. The 3.4% city wide vote mustered by the BNP downplays the scale of their support. In the 10 wards where they fielded a candidate, they polled 2,528 votes out of 35,467 cast, or 7.12%. Despite losing every seat, having an organisation falling apart at the seams, running no real campaign to speak of, and seeing a wedge of its soft support returning to Labour, the fascists are still polling at historical highs for the far right and the local rate is many times greater than their piddling national vote share.
The problem is many of the conditions that allowed the BNP to spread like a cancer through the city's body politic still remain. Persistent unemployment, welfare dependency, poor prospects, housing shortages, and further cuts form the noxious soup from which the fascists can draw sustenance. But they won't necessarily make a comeback in four years time for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, undoubtedly having a thinly-diguised outright Tory government at the country's helm blunts the animus the city's electorate has felt toward Labour this last decade. When it was in power it is hardly surprising some of the anti-politics sentiment it fed assumed radical right wing forms at the ballot box. And already the ruling coalition of the centre right has inspired left-wing street movements, though this has not (and is, in my opinion, unlikely to) make itself felt electorally.
Secondly, Stoke-on-Trent Labour has undergone a significant sea change. The faction fight immediately prior to Tristram Hunt's selection for Stoke Central CLP cleared out a ruling clique focused on resolutionary socialism, hobby horse obsessions, and bone idleness. This has allowed a new campaigning culture to take hold committed to rebuilding the local party and labour movement. And the initial results - 12 out of 14 constituency council seats, the disposal of the BNP, strengthening relationships with the trade unions, and a growing membership - vindicates our proactive approach to politics. Provided this strategy is deepened, and there is no reason to believe it won't be, the BNP and sundry anti-politics independents will have a very difficult time countering it.
The bigger longer term challenge for Labour is tackling persistent low turn outs. While this year is not significantly worse than the usual numbers voting in local contests (as second order elections, they tend not to "matter" as much), it can be dispiriting traipsing from door to door encountering (usually, young) people who are either indifferent to, completely alienated from, or say they do not understand politics. Some readers might like to think this is the outer shell of an immature bolshevism. In fact it is symptomatic of the accumulating break down of civic/political culture that has been ongoing as neoliberalism and deindustrialisation has ravaged the land. Celebrating it as a rejection of discredited mainstream politics is completely misguided - a socialist society cannot be built with ignorance as its foundation. Labour has to go against the grain and rebuild itself from the ground up, as an organisation that has a real community presence beyond the bi-monthly news letter and occasional knock on the door.
So while what Labour has done in campaign terms this last year is impressive, it is but the first step on the long road to the city's political rejuvenation.
Now, of course, something would be amiss if I didn't take the opportunity to comment on the far left vote. Standing as 'Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts', the local Socialist Party branch stood in six seats in surely what must constitute the biggest far left challenge in Stoke-on-Trent since, well, ever. The results were less than stellar and mirrored their outcomes elsewhere, which saw three sitting councillors lose their seats. In the city, TUSC polled 486 (3.8%) out of the 12,656 votes cast in those wards. While this isn't too bad in far left terms (the standard poll a far left candidate can expect is between one and two per cent), considering the scale of cuts forced on the City Council, this is pretty poor. To put things in perspective, town clown and friend-of-the-blog Gary Elsby polled almost twice the total combined TUSC vote. Or, to put it in even starker terms, this vote is less than what the SP achieved standing only in the old Abbey Green ward in 2006. Of course, I have no doubt the success of the campaign will be weighed in terms of x number of leaflets delivered, y number of papers sold, and z number of new recruits. But if you're in the business of building a new workers' party, which the SP claims to be, you will never convince the bulk of Labour-supporting trade unionists to break away on the basis of such trifling numbers.
With Labour's grip on the most politically conscious layers of the working class growing, it's pretty obvious where socialists should be.
Image credit: Pits n Pots