In truth, observers of the Stoke political scene should have seen a big hit coming. Rightly and wrongly, these last four years Labour has acquired a reputation for high-handed arrogance. It has made unpopular decisions that can't be reduced to Tory-mandated cuts, and every example of council incompetence, from housing benefit screw ups to crumbling concrete floors in the new civic centre, have been laid at its door. So deep is the antipathy that it's probably fair to say dissatisfaction with Labour locally hit the votes of each MP the city returned to Westminster.
There are lots of things Labour needs to do in Stoke if it hopes to win the Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year and retake the council in 2019. But I'm not going to talk about any of that. This post is about focusing on the new regime, a "combination of purple, black and blue, it's not so much a rainbow as a bruise", as John Woodhouse puts it.
I don't know if Guinness keep track of time taken for a party to break its manifesto promises, but the moment City Indie - and now council - leader Dave Conway picked up the phone to the Tories and UKIP, he dumped over one of their key promise scant seconds after the election result. As page four of their manifesto has it: "the City Independents will not consider allying with any other party or group or individuals as this would send out confusing and contradictory messages." I wouldn't want to suggest the remuneration package that comes with council portfolios had anything to do with the decision to dump a pledge: I'm sure it was all about the practicalities of keeping Labour out. That said, why make an undeliverable promise in the first place?
Whatever, no one will recall that four years hence. But what people may remember are some of the difficulties brewing around their promises. Nonsense about package tours with council-prescribed oatcake breakfasts and Staffordshire Hoard crockery is sure to make the cutting room floor. It's doubtful the tram system will get a look-in too, more's the pity. But first on the leader's desk is the ongoing saga of the Smithfield project, the attempt to kick start the development of a city centre business district. If the City Indies could wave a magic wand and return the site to a hole in the ground, they would. And, if reports are to be believed, that might actually happen. Rumours abound that the prefabricated concrete slabs that make up its flooring are, let's say, not of the requisite standard. By that I mean they're liable to crumble away in short order. This was a contractor, not a council fault but it may mean two buildings' worth of £60m might have to be demolished. Best hope those other more serious rumours that council officers did not build penalty clauses into the contract are untrue too. This no doubt will be flogged for all its worth over the next four years. However, if all that remains is a hole in the ground that can become a problem for Conway's coalition. Ask Bradford.
The next big one is economic development. Just because Dave's buddied up with some nice Tories doesn't mean the DCLG are going to look more fondly on Stoke-on-Trent. As we will find out in the emergency budget Osborne is convening in July to clean up the mess left by the previous government, anything outside the NHS, education, and overseas aid is going to be shaken down, and then some. Labour's approach was to manage the cuts as best they could, and use whatever was left to drive economic development. Whatever you might think of that strategy, I've seen more things built in Stoke these last five years than the previous 15. Labour wanted to offset the cuts by attracting more businesses and building more houses so rates and council tax could make up the shortfall. The City Indies agreed with regeneration but vociferously denounced the core/cluster strategy Labour pursued (i.e. trying to concentrate as many businesses and services in the city centre as possible), even though it is tried and tested in every other successful city. Well now they have the control, sooner or later they will find trying to spread council-led regeneration thinly has fewer benefits than they think.
Then there are the cuts. Having read the City Independents' pronouncements on cuts over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking they were all cooked up in Labour's regional office. Conway and friends are about to find out that's not the case. And here comes a very big problem for the coalition. The Indies don't like cuts and are nominally against them. The Tories here, like everywhere else, are relishing the chance to take a chainsaw to local government. So when Dave's administration is tasked with another £20m shortfall, will he revert to full tub-thumping mode and denounce the government from the rooftops of Chell? His heart says yes but ... he has his new Conservative friends to please. They won't relish their ally moaning and groaning about them to the local media. The alternative then is to offer muted criticisms, but that risks upsetting some of his group councillors. The problem there is because the City Indies have foresworn the concept of party discipline, they can never guarantee that all of their group is going to vote with the leader and observe the coalition deal. After the customary honeymoon period, there is the very real risk of paralysis.
Let's talk about those City Independent councillors as well, some of whom are, as we might say, "controversial". There is Janine Bridges, previously of the Labour Party - and before that City Independent. She curiously found a conscience and discovered her opposition to the "dictatorship" Labour had imposed on the city five minutes after her challenge for the deputy leadership of the council group ignominiously collapsed. She says her resignation was about the the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and yet now sits in group meetings with a fellow City Indy who is on the sex offenders' register for the possession of child abuse images. With principles that change with the wind, Dave Conway had better watch out. Then there's my old mucker Jackie Barnes. Her and I have form. She soundly beat a local by-election campaign I ran by issuing a 20 page manifesto calling for the banning of cervical smears and dubbing people born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s the greatest ever. It worked, and I'm not at all bitter (though perhaps council officers announcing the business district plan just prior to the campaign had more to do with it). But since her election in 2012 she has courted controversy by getting herself barred from The White Star, a local much-loved (and council staff frequented) boozer. Small beer when it comes to political scandals, sure, but can her boisterous behaviour be contained?
Much more seriously than either of these is the unwelcome return of Melanie Baddeley in Abbey Hulton. Page two of the City Indy manifesto reads "HELPING to create conditions for everyone to thrive regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, disability or background." That is provided you are one of the "genuine people of Stoke-on-Trent", whoever they are. Now why is it that Labour, the Tories, the Greens, TUSC, the LibDems, and even UKIP didn't feel the need to feature a homily to equality and the City Independents did? Could it be to do with Cllr Baddeley and their candidate for Meir Park, Ellie Walker, having previously sat as BNP representatives? You bet. As Stoke BNP fragmented prior to its welcome move into irrelevance, Walker left the group and renounced her past association. She and her husband didn't know they had represented a fascist party for five or so years, you see. Easy mistake, I suppose. Baddeley, however, was a BNP councillor until Labour turfed her out in 2011. As far as I'm aware, she has not distanced or accounted for her active BNP membership, nor retrospectively apologised for the racist literature put out in her name, nor publicly repudiated that association. None of this would matter a great deal, except this year Dave Conway has appointed her deputy Lord Mayor, which means she will be Stoke's first citizen in approximately a year's time. This ridiculous position, which should have been scrapped years ago, means that Baddeley will be the official face of the city for visiting dignitaries, for big inward investors, and can look forward to having her mug slapped all over promotional material. Call me, I don't know, someone with commonsense, but surely it's monumentally stupid to have this role filled by a councillor who, not long ago, was a key member of a party that whipped up hatred against local Muslims, thought a good chunk of the city's population had no right to be there, and tarnished Stoke's image as a racist place. Stupid yes, but no problem for our City Indies, the Tories, and UKIP who are letting this happen.
If the coalition can't even get a simple grace-and-favour right, what ill does this bode for the complex problems Stoke faces? Let's see. By announcing their intention to get rid of the council chief executive (by name), and the press department, they have already pre-empted the consultation process required by law and have put the local authority in a ridiculously weak position when it comes to deleting those posts. All affected may even have grounds for a constructive dismissal suit, and that could cost the council a fair whack. They want to reverse the present council leader and cabinet system, and return to a committee-based way of doing things - seemingly without realising this requires primary legislation in Westminster. And they hope, magically, somehow, that without getting the city centre right the depressed town centres of Stoke, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, and Longton will sort themselves out.
It's not looking good.
Stoke's governing coalition is a fragile thing that's going to have a hard time holding itself together. The only consolation having this frightful ball of piss and wind visited upon my city is that I now have something else to write about. Don't disappoint!