The problem with Erdington politics

Politics in Erdington ward is broken, and not wholly for the reason that you might be expecting if you’ve been following the story about Cllr Gareth Compton‘s (Erdington, Cons) back firing attempt at humour. The reason Erdington politics is broken is that there is no real choice, and there is little effective opposition to Gareth and his colleagues.

Among left wing Birmingham Bloggers (that’s most of the people who would identify themselves as “Brum Bloggers” then) Cllr. Compton is something of a cause célèbre due to a number of funny turns he’s had where he’s had a good old fashioned blow out at the liberal bloggers he’s apparently dubbed “The Smugeratti” (see comments here). His latest outburst really does take things to 11 compared to previous incidents, and there’s some indication he may face legal censure over the comment. All that being the case, I expect a few further apologies and this will go gently into the night. Hopefully somewhere along the line Cllr. Compton will learn from what he must surely see was a mistake, and grow. I’d be genuinely pleased to see him use Twitter in a positive way to engage with citizens (note to self: I’ll need to unblock him first). In terms of his work as my councillor, I have very few complaints but there’s no way, partisanship aside*, that I could vote for him in his current Gareth v 1.0 persona. 

In May 2011 Cllr. Compton comes to the end of his term. If he seeks re-election, I expect he will win because there is no effective alternative to vote for. That means I’m either staying home or voting none of the above.  And that’s at the heart of the real problem we have here in Erdington. 
In the blue corner…

Cllr. Compton is part of what in my head is called “Team Alden”. We have three Tory representatives in the ward. Compton, winning his seat in 2007, was preceded by Robert Alden in 2006 and followed by Bob Beauchamp in 2009. All three worked hard as activists before they stood, and were very visible, creating a compelling narrative around their engagement in the community. 

In the red corner…

There’s no one. Susanna McCorry lost her seat to Robert Alden in 2006, and failed to recapture a place when she stood against Gareth Compton in 2007. Both her 2006 & 2007 campaigns were run very negatively: they weren’t about highlighting Susanna’s work, but about attacking the youth of the new generation of Tories represented by Alden & Compton. Between elections, even when we had Labour councillors, the red team were nowhere to be seen. By comparison, Team Alden were visible both physically and in our letterboxes firstly as activists and then as sitting councillors. They never took their foot off the gas, and they still haven’t**. The sitting and experienced Labour team seemed blindsided by this. They lacked presence, they lacked a credible position, and they took the fight to the gutter with negative campaigning which didn’t stand a chance against positive, proactive and present Tory activism.

In the yellow corner…

In my ward, the Lib Dems are a token force, coming out only at election time, and rarely doing anything more than than sitting on the ballot paper.

Where’s the new generation of local Labour activists in Erdington?

So Susanna McCorry lost her seat, and Renee Spector retired. Surely the torch has been passed to a new generation? Perhaps but they’ve fallen into the same groove as Erdington’s Lib Dem grassroots; I get a leaflet three years in four, and there’s a name on the ballot, but there’s no sense of purpose there. I’m sure the past two candidates Christopher Hilcox and Mark McKenzie were decent chaps who would have cared about the job and the community that they serve, but they were mere ciphers to me.

So for those people who are calling for Gareth Compton to lose his seat if he seeks re-election in May 2011, I ask you: where’s the alternative? Unless the story escalates, most voters won’t be aware of the things Cllr. Compton has said that call his judgement into question. Instead they will see him getting on with the job in a generally helpful way, and walking up their streets canvassing and campaigning. That is of course unless Labour make an issue of these faux pas and once again choose to run in the muck rather than mounting a credible and positive campaign. I very much hope they won’t do that.

The wider context in Erdington

There’s a bigger issue here which relates to the constituency of Erdington, which encompasses Erdington, Tyburn, Kingstanding and Stockland Green wards. Cllr Alden is the Tory PPC for Erdington, and while he lost out to Labour’s Jack Dromey at the last election he seems to have been successful in scaling up his energy from ward to constituency level. Despite the lack of grassroots activity by Labour in Erdington, those in the local Labour party who I know were rather bullish about their chances in the run up to the general election in 2010. Erdington was seen as a very safe seat. So safe that it was seen as being a good place to drop in a Labour insider from outside Brum. The net result is that Erdington is no longer such a safe seat, with a near 30% majority slashed to 9%. Labour seemed to take us for granted in 2010: “here’s Jack, you don’t know him, he’ll be good, promise.”.

The Lib Dems didn’t care much for Erdington either, fielding Cllr Ann Holtom as a PPC.  Ann copy and pasted her councillor manifesto into her parliamentary one, which seems to suggest she wants to be MP for Castle Vale. This manifesto came complete with the amazing typos “(Ann) has been Councillor in Tyburn War since 2002″ and “the cut and throat of campaigning” [emphases added]. When these mistakes were pointed out to party activists they were greeted with indifference. 

In summary

It’s hard not to feel disenfranchised if your politics is of the left and you live in Erdington. Our councillors (well, one of them) are making mistakes, sure, but the Tory party seems to be the only party that are active here. That means that Gareth Compton can get away with making a show of himself with very little to fear. It also means that our local politics are bust. It feels like a one party town (even if we do have a Labour MP still). Now this is the point, dear reader, where you tell me to get off my arse and do something: if I hunger so much for plurality and for some real politics I should join the local Labour party, seek a nomination, and make a stand. 

Well firstly, I’m kinda busy right now so that’s not for me, and secondly that’s not the way this is going to work. This is how it’s going to work: I challenge the local Labour party to come and get me. Make me care again. If you can, I’ll sign up and join you. I’ll knock on doors for you. I’ll get off my arse and help with the project of making Erdington care about you again. That’s a great and healthy project, but you need to start it yourselves if you expect people to join you.

Come and get me.

*  I’m a natural Labour voter, my first instincts are red, although I have one or two quirky positions. Don’t we all.
** admittedly there may be some targeting going on here: I’m not sure if they have the same momentum in other streets in the ward for example.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org

  • windscorpion

    Liberals are much visible down here in sunny Tyburn though the Tories still out spam my letterbox much more. Labour again are almost invisible apart from near to elections.

  • Jon Hickman

    Yes, I think Ann Holtom is still your councillor?

  • steve zacharanda

    Well done, great piece. Erdington is the perfect example of how Labour took its heartland for granted. Renee Spector opting to sell her house to developers was the final nail in the coffin. SEDAC saw off McCorry and her plans to charge disabled people to go into disabled day centres. The Tories saw the gap and worked hard, yes they were backed by Ashcroft Cash but they spent their days cleaning up shit to get recognition. Gareth Compton was always gonna come a cropper. He was the Enoch Powell to cuddly Alden’s Ted Heath.The Lib Dems, they lost the great ‘Obi-1-Tony Foley’ (if they expell me i’ll be stronger than ever’ over the Nokia Davies fiasco. For both the LibDems and Labour – In the words of Orange Juice – Rip it up and Start Again

  • Jon Hickman

    Steve, thanks so much for the reply. As an aside, it’s because of this depth of knowledge that local journalists have that I get so mad about the way the local papers ripped up their network and consolidated in Fort Dunlop. The fact that it also meant that most of you who had specialised local knowledge were shifted to other papers was really frustrating: talk about a drain of knowledge.

  • Dominic Fisher

    Good article. I have to say that you’re lucky to have one party going out and doing the business. Many residents of Brum don’t even have that. I have to take issue with s couple of Steve’s comments. Firstly, to believe that in 2005 with not a single Tory in sight in Erdington constituency, Ashcroft or any other big-spending donor would pump money in here is laughable. You don’t need big money. Membership fees, regular fund-raisers and a few crackpot activists prepared to deliver thousands of leaflets every month is all that is needed to run the campaigns Jon is aware of. And no, it isn’t just his street. 😉 Secondly, the Powell/Heath comparison is funny if you knew Gareth’s views on the EU. That the Tories built a majority in Erdington to get their third councillor in 2008 bigger than that in Sutton Vesey suggests they have been doing something right. Renee Spector now lives on my patch and remains a joy. She tried to prevent us from leafletting her apartment block.