Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dust settling over Kingstanding

Well, we have a new councillor for Kingstanding and after eight years of asking, the voters gave Gary Sambrook a run at it for the next two years, as he serves out the remainder of Cath Grundy's term in office.

I thought we'd get home, but not by much - I thought a majority of under 100 was likely, but in the end, Gary won it by 138 votes. As I said at the outset and as I say about all by-elections - they are peculiar, singular beasts and the result in any one by-election is not necessarily indicative of a wider trend. This was no exception.

Even though Labour was the incumbent party, we were putting up a new name against Gary Sambrook, who has been the permanent Tory candidate for years. It is virtually impossible for a new candidate to match that level of name recognition in a few short weeks. The Tory campaign clearly recognised this and focussed very heavily on Brand Sambrook rather than potential toxicity of their own party - much of their material barely mentioned the Conservative Party. There was even a small, full-colour, glossy folded leaflet that mimicked a parish newsletter in style and which dealt only with Gary. In many ways, he had all the advantages of incumbency without the negative risks. Similarly, Rob Pocock eventually won in Sutton Coldfield, against all the odds, by being a candidate with terrific name recognition. Perhaps the key test of whether this might be a sea change in Kingstanding will be the May result, when the Tories will put up a candidate with less of a ward profile than Cllr Sambrook. There will be something similar in Sutton Vesey, but at least there has been a bigger window to establish a new candidate. I suspect the Tories will struggle in Kingstanding.

Secondly, rather than trying to defend their role in government and the massive cuts that are being enforced upon Birmingham and on local authorities generally, the Tories decided to go negative early on and attacked Lorraine Owen for the heinous crime of not living in Kingstanding. They failed to mention that Gary had himself tried to win selection in a safe Sutton Coldfield seat, where the local members didn't find him to their taste and preferred Ken Wood - touted by some as the next leader of the Tory group, owing to doubts in Sutton Coldfield over the suitability of Alden Jnr for the top job. Of course, if Lorraine was ruled unfit to be a councillor in Kingstanding, you struggle to understand why the Tories have put up with their current group leader for so long, as he doesn't even live in Birmingham. Incidentally, Lorraine is terrifically hard working and she will make an excellent councillor.

This wasn't quite the massive defeat in Labour's heartland as it has been portrayed. Yes, Labour have held this for a number of years - and still have two serving councillors - but if you look at the Labour majorities, they are rattling around marginal territory. We won in 2008 by just 80 votes, by 580 in the general election year of 2010, 174 in 2011 and 405 in 2012. Add in voting on a freezing cold February day and the lower turnouts expected in by-elections - down to 19% from the 23% in 2012 and it looks shaky.

I said at the start of the campaign that it would come down to turnout on the day and so it came to pass - just 71% of the 2012 Labour vote turned out, compared to 98% of the Tory vote. This is pretty much a straight Tory/Labour fight, as the LibDems polled their lowest vote in the city in 2012, collecting a whopping 80 votes (excluding Shard End, where they didn't even run a candidate). UKIP ran a candidate, who took 266 votes - a creditable 8% for a first run out - hardly indicative of a likely win in May. Incidentally, the National Front vote also held up. 33 out of their 34 voters from May 2012 managed to find their way to the polls, doubtless keeping to the far right all the way.

So, for my money, this is an unfortunate blip rather than the start of a turning tide of Labour support. The picture will be clearer after May, but I don't think the Kingstanding result is a reason to panic.

[EDIT: Corrected error in para 1. Gary has not stood eight times before. Been at it since 2006 or so, mind you. I have a theory that voters get bored seeing your name and realise the only way to get rid of it is to actually elect you. Worked for me, anyway.]

And so the media caravan moves on....

I was at last night's end of series debate in Digbeth for Channel Four's 'Benefits Street.' Sadly, as usual, it was the London media rolling into the provinces to share their wisdom and scatter some star shine around. We had columnists from the national press and the millionaire founder and owner of Pimlico Plumbers, who operate in London. They see an economic recovery around them - property prices bubbling up alarmingly, the financial sector awash with bonuses and new jobs being created (74% of the newly created jobs are in London and the South East). Today, they've all returned to their comfortably cushioned lifestyles in London, shaking their heads at the state of people, until they are able to turn up in the next northern city to treat people like exhibits.

Aside from the "cast" of the programme and a handful of questions from the audience, there were no voices from the city. There were no local business leaders, academics or politicians from any side to talk about the problems that Birmingham faces.

The truth is that those who were the focus of the series are not representative of James Turner Street, still less those on benefits or of Birmingham. The focus of the debate was on unemployment, yet out of work benefits account for just 3% of the DWP spend. If it had been realistic, half of the series would have been devoted to pensioners. We would have seen those struggling in low paid, zero hours contracts or dropping in and out of work and reliant on benefits to fill the gap between their poverty pay and something close to what it costs to live. We might have seen some of those sanctioned by quota-driven advisors in the JobCentres - got to get the "off flows" to use the jargon - for some of the most Kafkaesque reasons. If you turn down an interview to sign on, you get sanctioned, but if you choose the interview and fail to sign on in time (within minutes), then you also get punished.

Yes, there is fraud and abuse of the system - that will always happen. It needs to be tackled, but it amounts to under 1% of the budget, although the DWP assign over 3000 people to investigate it, compared to the 300 assigned by HMRC to investigate the higher costs of tax evasion.

I thought it was interesting that the two rightwing columnists chose to focus on the people in the series - Allison Pearson (who vanished during the first commercial break) gave a clinical opinion on one participant's mental health, suggesting that she wasn't really ill, despite - one assumes - the professional view of a genuine, qualified doctor somewhere along the line. I suppose we were at least saved from having to suffer the opinions of Katy Hopkins, who was off being objectionable about immigrants instead - Owen Jones told me that he wouldn't have been on with her.

On the other hand, the left wingers - Owen Jones and Mehdi Hasan - dealt more with the facts and figures that truly underpin the debate - the fact that employers rely on it to subsidise their wage bill and that billions poured into Housing Benefit is simply being passed on to wealthy buy to let landlords. The private rented sector is now a bigger housing provider in Birmingham than the City Council. If you want to tackle the cost of benefits, then building social housing with managed rental costs is a key solution - it creates jobs and literally puts a roof over families' heads. The private sector has not been able to provide the numbers needed at any point since before WW2 and shows no signs of doing so now - why should it, when scarcity boosts prices?

Chris Bryant made some useful points, but wasn't allowed the freedom to speak given to the Tory Minister for the Disabled, Mike Penning (a man so across his brief that he thinks Disabled Living Allowance is an out of work benefit - it isn't). Chris did make a very key point - alcohol and drug abuse is a societal problem that reaches from our poorest streets to the very wealthiest. Mike is one of those traditional, working-class Thatcherite Tories with a background in the ranks of the army and in the fire service, although he then spent time doing PR for IDS.

Richard Bacon challenged Mehdi Hasan over the numbers using food banks. Mehdi reckoned it was half a million, Richard Bacon was certain it was 300,000 and his figures were indeed right - but they applied for the total in the previous year. Mehdi Hasan was more up to date. Half a million of your neighbours and fellow citizens used emergency food assistance from a Trussell Trust food bank between April and December 2013 alone. Over half of those referred are in need because of benefit delays, cuts and sanctions and many others are the working poor - hardworking families. It should be a source of shame that the sixth richest country on the planet has people so abandoned that they have to ask for food that doesn't need cooking because they can't afford the electricity.

In the meantime, Channel Four will take the nice little boost in advertising income, fold up their caravan and steal away into the night, patting themselves on the back at all the chatter to find another community worthy of exploitation. Some of those featured in the series will probably pop up on reality TV shows for a couple of years and the news for others was positive with jobs on the horizon.

You can't help but feel that Channel Four owes that street something more.

Benefits Street has generated much heat, but little light.