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.

By 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