Monday, 26 May 2014

Ukip pose the biggest threat to a Labour Party that still doesn't know what it stands for

This has been a good weekend for Nigel Farage and Ukip; and a truly awful one for the political establishment.

In the British local elections everyone’s most, or least depending on your perspective, band of rebels gained dozens of seats and would have had 17% of the vote nationally if the result were replicated in a general election.

Ukip dis equally well in the European election held over the weekend, again they gained seats, pushing the Tories into third place and contributed to the near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats.

All of a sudden a fringe party are starting to look like players somewhere other than in the sometimes overheated rhetoric of their leader. This has prompted much chin stroking and not a little knee trembling in the corridors of power.

The people have spoken; the scoundrels, but what can it all mean? What indeed, here’s my take.

Ukip have two key advantages over the three main UK parties. The most obvious is Farage himself, like or loathe him he’s one of the few of the current crop of politicians with what might be called the ‘common touch.’ His cheeky chappie who likes a beer and tweaking the nose of pompous officials in Brussels or Westminster act, and it is assuredly an act, has been devastatingly effective.

They have another advantage too and that is they are selling the simplest message in politics, ‘we are against’, what they’re against seems dependent on the individual candidate and the conditions on the ground since they seem to operate more like a franchise than a has allowed them to tap into the powerful wellspring of public concerns about issues liken immigration or the EU.

On occasion thus has led them into some dangerous territory, more than one candidate has had to be quietly removed for making comments that are at best ill-informed and at worst openly racist within hearing of the press. This should have been damaging, yet somehow Farage has managed to dribble the debate around such obstacles like a gifted winger with the ball at his feet.

At one level Ukip, whether they explicitly wish to or not, provide an outlet for the sizeable chunk of the electorate who are ill at ease with multi-culturalism, but fear being identified with the overtly racist BNP. Here instead is a party that allows them to cloak their prejudices behind a fantasy of returning Britain to some arcadia where tea is served at four, there’s cricket on the village green and old ladies cycle to evensong through the mist. It is, of course, twaddle and quite dangerous twaddle too.

The rise of Ukip has been awkward for the Tories, tempting them back into the morass of squabbling over Europe that destroyed John Major’s government in the nineties. It could though be utterly disastrous for Labour, providing a focus for discontent in ex-industrial cities the party has taken for granted for far too long.

It is here not in the leafy Home Counties that concerns over the shortage of jobs, crumbling public services and immigration are most acute. A feeling that is fed by a tabloid press that is almost exclusively right wing and thrives on moral panics and disinformation, in the resulting din the message that Tory economic policies not Eastern European immigrants or the EU are to blame for people’s misfortunes gets drowned out.

Ed Milliband has already been criticised for running a poor campaign in the local and European elections and being generally out of touch with the grassroots of his party and its core vote. Not without good cause, the campaign, much like his tenure as leader has been a farrago of pratfalls and missed opportunities.

The party political broadcast put out by Labour as part of the campaign serves as an example of just how dire things were. Shot in Black and white (ooh arty) it contained every cliché about the coalition presented with the archly smug self-satisfaction with its own brilliance of a sixth form revue. Even for a moribund genre with no audience this marked a stylistic nadir.

What it didn’t contain was the one thing it most needed to, namely some hint of how Britain might be different under a Labour government. This is because after four years in opposition and countless initiatives and consultations the party still has no idea.

A poor showing in Europe and the local elections probably won’t unseat Ed Milliband as leader, not yet anyway, none of his rivals are keen to take over the ship just as the electoral iceberg hoves into view. It will though be one more charge on the rap sheet against him when the recriminations start in May 2015.

This will hold back the important and inevitably painful discussion the party must have about what it stands for and who it seeks to represent. If his unavoidable demise is a return to the Blairite project of being a washed out pink version of the Tories then they might as well be consigned to the vault marked nineties tat and forgotten.

If the success of Ukip has been based on the simplistic message of ‘we’re against’ then Labour and the left in general need to work harder and more courageously at selling a message of their own. Not just articulation what they’re against, but being brave enough to say what they’re for; that socialism isn’t a dirty word or a dead idea, it a means of creating a fairer society.

Ukip rose from nowhere and will soon enough sink back into obscurity, the worst thing about being the poster boys for anything is that sooner or later someone new comes along to take your place. The left needs to be braver in putting forward its alternative because whatever does may well be worse.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Labour shift the deckchairs around as a £150 million cuts tsunami looms.

This week the weather improved, we even had a couple of days of sunshine, unfortunately little else seems to have got any better.

It is still certainly midwinter for the city’s finances with the Sentinel reporting on Wednesday that £150 million in spending cuts could be heading our way between now and 2021. This on top of the £80 million in cuts made so far.

This is the result of a likely reduction in the Revenue Support Grant (RSG), the money given to the city by central government, just as the projected revenue the council needs to function is predicted to rise from £214 million to £257 million.

Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Mohammed Pervez said this had created a ‘perfect storm’, in which wealthy rural areas were favoured over poorer urban cities like Stoke because they are better able to raise their own revenue.

He told the Sentinel that the ‘only way to get out of a perfect storm is to accelerate hard and keep a firm hand on the wheel,’ and cited initiatives such as the Central Business District and plans to create the country’s largest geo-thermal district heating system as examples of what was being done to address the shortfall.

Amongst those people unconvinced by his comments was Dave Conway, leader of the City Independents group in the council chamber, who told the Sentinel cuts on the scale proposed would not need to be made if the council ‘cut its cloth’ according to its means, starting with not ‘borrowing money to pay for a building in Hanley we don’t need and paying consultants to say where people can park.’

The probable reduction of the RSG is entirely down to government policies that favour leafy shires with sizeable Tory majorities over places like Stoke where the party barely exists. How the council responds to this is though entirely its own work and so far the results are far from impressive.

As Mr Conway points out building a new Civic Centre has created a burden of debt the city could well do without and the council’s love affair with hiring consultants is a habit we can no longer afford. Never mind though we will soon have four extra ‘higher tier’ managers parking their coffee cups down at the Civic, because in a crisis the thing you need more than anything else is more managers.

The Labour group, who will pay the price for this latest piece of foolishness at the ballot box seem surprisingly sanguine about things, issuing a bland statement about finding the right people for the job. Perhaps they were distracted by a reshuffle that looked to everyone outside the bubble like an exercise in shifting the deckchairs around on the deck of the Titanic just as she steams into the ice field.

Very little has changed Janine Bridges and Alan Dutton have been cast into outer darkness and Olwen Hamer and Joy Garner have been welcomed back into the fold; Ruth Rosenau has been rewarded for a leadership ‘challenge’ that was really about going through the motions by retaining her seat. Quite what all this shifting and shuffling will do to improve the quality of governance on offer is debatable.

The huge debts generated by the CBD project are likely to be hung around the neck of every taxpayer in the city for years to come, like an avalanche it has gathered so much momentum it cannot be stopped. Something can and should be done to prevent another such white elephant can be allowed to trundle over the horizon.

In any system where one party has a virtual monopoly of power the end result will always be hubris and waste on the part of the leadership. If we are going to face a tidal wave of cuts that will make the hardships of the past few years seem tame then Stoke needs a real opposition in the council chamber.

One with the courage to hold every decision made by the cabinet and council officers up to forensic scrutiny and enough votes to throw a spanner in the works whenever necessary. If a dangerously complacent Labour Party is relaxed about the hiring of four extra senior managers just as hundreds of council workers are about to have their jobs put at risk then we need to ensure they have a dozen or so fewer councillors after the next election.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

What ‘Fentonians’ want is self-determination.

This week a petition signed by almost two thousand residents of Fenton was handed in to the Civic Centre calling for the creation of a town council, prompting Stoke-on-Trent City Council to lunch a review into what form one would take were it created.

Members of the council’s general purposes committee said they were unclear as to what ‘Fentonians’ actually wanted. Possible options include a fully-fledged town council funded through a precept on the council tax and the setting up of an area committee, this would have fewer powers than a town council but would still allow residents to influence services.

A town council for Fenton would consist of eight elected members and be funded through an extra 50p levied on council tax payers living in the area. Fenton Community Association, the organisers of the petition, believe having a town council will protect local services and give the often ignored town a stronger voice.

Speaking to the Sentinel Councillor Neil Day said the council did need ‘help after the number of councillors was reduced’, following the 2010 review by the Boundary Commission for England the number was cut from sixty to forty four, but said he was ‘worried that these parish councils are set up on the crest of a wave’ only for it to turn out later that ‘someone just wanted their grass verge cut more.’

Councillor Martin Garner suggested any governance review should be expanded to cover the whole city, the committee decided to focus on Fenton. Also speaking to the Sentinel he said he had ‘yet to hear any arguments why Fenton is special and needs a separate town council,’ adding with some flippancy that they might just ‘want revenge on Arnold Bennett,’ the author famously ignored the town in his novels.

This is in no way a personal attack on Councillors Day and Garner, both are, I am sure, conscientious servants of their constituents. Unfortunately events have conspired to push them out front and centre to articulate an attitude on the part of the council that tells you everything about why political engagement in Stoke has fallen off a cliff.

To save the mandarins down at the Civic Centre a little chin stroking I’d like to make a suggestion as to what ‘Fentonians’, as they so patronisingly name then, want. It really is quite simple; they want self-determination.

There is nothing, as such, that is ‘special’ about Fenton, the town is fairly typical of most places in our city. A little down at heel certainly, but with a strong sense of and pride in its unique identity, it also has a sizeable portion of the voting public who are tired of the old deal between the Labour Party and local communities. You know, the one where we are suitably grateful for what little we’re given and don’t question the status quo because nanny always knows best.

If ten percent of the electorate in Fenton are in favour having a town council then the city council is legally obliged to look into how one could be set up. Trying to suggest exercising their rights is an attempt to gain special treatment does not make me feel confident the resulting review will be as open to the possibilities of change as it should be.

What really causes offence though is the suggestion the people in Fenton are motivated by nothing more than a desire to get their grass verge cut more often and suchlike trivia. Nothing could be further from the truth, they are deeply worried about the loss of local services and angered by a regeneration process that seems intent on putting Hanley first and everywhere else a distant second.

Fenton Community Association have proved themselves to be determined defenders of their town, as shown by the way they have fought to save the former magistrates court from joining the long list of buildings in Stoke demolished because someone thought there was a few quid to be made from sticking something more ugly in their place. Perhaps that’s the problem, they’ve given nanny a scare by showing they are more than capable of standing on their own two feet.

A town council in Fenton needn’t be a threat to the city council, in fact it could be an asset. Were there to be one in all six towns it could help to drive forward regeneration by giving local people a genuine sense of involvement in the process.

The downside, from the city council’s point of view anyway, is that a little of its power would be diluted, egos would have to be reined in and grand projects like to CBD and the still to materialise City Sentral shopping centre might face stronger scrutiny, mostly from people who can’t be leant on by a party hierarchy of they ask awkward questions.

Threatened or not the city council may just have to suck it in and learn to live with the idea that in the interconnected, wired, world of the twenty first century people want to have a greater say in what happens in their area. Where Fenton leads other towns and many smaller communities will follow.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Stoke council to close its recycling centres for two days a week.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to close its two main recycling centres for two days each week to save £50,000 a year.

The tips in Burslem and Stoke will close on, respectively, Wednesdays and Thursdays and Mondays and Tuesdays.

Speaking to the local press council officials said the closures were part of the £20million in spending cuts to be made over 2014/15 as a result of government austerity policies.

At the same time the council is recruiting extra staff to deal with an ongoing problem with fly-tipping. The four new members of staff will target areas of the city most at risk from illegally dumped rubbish.

Speaking to the Sentinel Andy Platt, cabinet member for environmental issues said ‘we’d like to keep both sites open all week, but we haven’t been given the money by the government to do everything we used to do.’

This latest of what seems like a thousand cuts highlights much of the flawed thinking going on inside the Civic Centre about where to make cuts.

As on so many occasions the cut to services seems to be counter-productive to say the least, the £50,000 saved will count for little if extra staff have to be engaged to deal with an epidemic of fly-tipping.

Closing recycling centres for two days a week also seems to fly in the face of attempts to make Stoke into a greener city; that would suggest creating more opportunities to recycle not less.

What will anger local people most though is the apparent lack of clear priorities when it comes to spending. The council have committed £1.2million to a doomed attempt to bring HS2 to the city and yet can’t keep a vital service open.

Attempts to blame the partial closure of recycling centres, along with many of the other spending cuts on ‘government cuts’ to which the council has no response other than to cut everything in sight is wearing thin to the point of transparency.

A sceptical and increasingly restive electorate may not be convinced that the gains made, if any, have been worth the pain incurred in the name of balancing the books when they go to the polls in less than a year’s time.
Politics Forum, Monday 5th May 2014