Friday, 2 November 2012

Gone to Pot?

Good afternoon everybody. Following yesterday' rather self-pitying post (which I'm ascribing to the stinking cold I'm trying to fight off rather than Bruno's accusation of a 'mid-life crisis'), I'm back and raring to go once more.

Mostly because I watched last night's BBC4 documentary about Stoke-on-Trent. The first in a three-part series, it tracked the city council's leaders, cutback protesters and the victims of cuts as horrible decisions were made. It was utterly heartbreaking. The leader of the council came across as a fundamentally decent man whose response to the terrible job thrust upon him was to isolate himself from realities on the ground: bullied into a 5 minute visit to a care home hours before he voted to close it, you could tell that he'd rather be staring at a spreadsheet. His paid CEO was a snide, overpaid hatchet man whose protestations of woe belied a fundamental impatience with democracy… though the councillors' fixations with upcoming elections didn't make them feel too good.

There were some wonderful things about this documentary. The editing, composition and photography were first-class: filming confused residents' listening to a radio broadcast of the news that their home was to be closed was a master-stroke. In fact, a motif of the film was corridors: old people shuffling slowly down bare, institutional corridors, then cutting to the ornate council buildings to follow politicians and unelected officers striding down grand corridors, occasionally blocked by card-access doors really brought home the distance between the rulers and the ruled. It was wonderful, too, to hear so many Stoke accents for a sustained period of time - I suspect that if you've never heard Garth Crooks on Match of the Day, then you've never heard it because Stoke's a sad black hole where a proud culture once stood.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on the local politicians. Stoke is a victim of bad national government and global capitalism, plus the vindictiveness of a Tory state which openly despises the poor and the northern: one telling scene saw the council leader reading out the local government cuts (designed to bail out the bankers on whom we lavish more pity than we do for the old, sick, young and hungry): 1% or so for Wiltshire, Somerset and other white, Conservative-voting areas, 8% for poor old Stoke.

Stoke was until the 90s a 100% Labour city, which led to the kind of endemic corruption, laziness and inertia which happens in any one-party state - and I say this as a member of the Labour Party. Added to this, the winds of economic change overthrew the city and nobody had a coherent solution. The pillars of the economy were nationalised coal and steel, and the potteries: mass male labour and (in the potteries) mass and often skilled female labour. Unions were strong and the city had a proud civic culture of the kind which can only exist when the working and middle classes are independent and strong.

All this has gone. The coal and steel industries completely failed to modernise, and privatisation killed them off. Globalised capitalism did for most of the potteries: owners preferred to ship the factories off to near-slave wage economies to bolster their profits rather than modernise their home production. Skilled workers were laid of in the tens of thousands and the potteries still closed: consumers wanted the prestige of pots made in Stoke, not merely branded with historic names. Some pottery remains: high-end stuff and some volume production, so it's not impossible. It's just that the shareholders aren't interested for the most part. Some skills remain: oatcake manufacture, and apparently Stoke boasts a distinctive class of burglars who specialise in ceramics - they can break in, value your china and get out before David Dickinson can get a smarmy smirk onto his leathery face. Into the void came the BNP, adept at turning what should be class-warfare into resentful racial conflict, and a sense of political, cultural and economic exhaustion

One of the points made in the documentary was that Stoke Council is now the city's largest employer. I'd guess that the NHS is next - there are numerous massive hospitals and the inhabitants drink, smoke and eat chips with their oatcakes while waiting to die from a coal- or clay-related respiratory death. In fact, I'm not too bothered about this fact: it's Keynesian economics. The gap in the labour market hasn't been filled by the private sector because it's not interested, despite the city's many geographical and economic advantages, and so government has stepped in. It's not ideal, but it's a temporary solution.

Stoke's the emblem of capitalism and its failure. Under the Conservatives and New Labour, politicians coldly decided to abandon the working and unworking poor. Their old employment was gone - to Japan, then to China or wherever. There were too many of them to help. Instead, some of them would be found insecure, low-paid working cleaning offices, serving coffee or polishing nails. The rest would subsist on benefits if they behaved, paid for by whatever bones the financial services sector deigned to toss down from the table. Then it turned out that the banks and transnational corporations were incompetent, dishonest liars who not only were intent on minimising any taxation (while relying on governments for infrastructure, healthcare, education and so on), but were actually secret socialists all along: when the crash came, they decided that they needed benefits more than the poor old population. No more tax receipts from corporations, no homegrown industry to fill the gap.

So here we are. One of the chilling scenes of the documentary was the council meeting in which the £36m budget cut was passed. Wizened, lined faces of heavyset men and women loomed at the camera as they voted for the city's doom. A couple of Tories seemed almost jubilant, but the general air was depression and defeatism. The spirit of the 1930s, when millions of people often led by their councillors  resisted and protested was nowhere to be seen. Either the council did what it was told or central government suspended local democracy. This is one of the most pernicious aspects of our current government: the worst cuts are channelled through the councils because they're mostly Labour, and so the blame is shifted from the Tories and the Lib Dems to another tier.

Can Stoke, and places like Stoke, be saved, or are they the collateral damage of global restructuring? I think they can… though if I had a complete answer, I'd be in charge, and not just of Stoke. Certainly I'd block the TNC's from generating paper losses by sending cash overseas untaxed. I'd cut taxes on locally-produced goods and I'd bring in a massive swathe of environmental legislation which would boost employment massively. For instance: upgrading every window in the country to triple-glazing like Germany. Manufacturing, installation… huge employment opportunity, and the mass scale would keep costs down. Solar panels on every roof. New train and tram lines. A huge expansion of education. Taxes on pollution and pointless financial transactions. And that's before I get on to the mass nationalisation programme…

Ah, the dictatorial juices are flowing in my veins now.

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