Beating voter apathy more important than who won this time around

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

I can’t help but feel local elections are akin to a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the S.S. Titanic.

They actually do little more than divert our attention away from the iceberg looming up on the Starboard side.

As vital as they are to local democracy, it is hard for me to get too excited beyond a private smile when someone I know to be a good councillor (irrespective of their political affiliations) is re-elected.

At least then I can rest assured that, in their particular ward, local people will have a voice and that voice will come from someone who cares and who isn’t just trying to climb the greasy pole.

Of course, it isn’t just me who struggles to muster much interest in local elections. It’s the majority of voters too.

The turnout across Staffordshire varied from the anomaly that is Cheslyn Hay, Essington and Great Wyrley (52 per cent) down to a paltry 21 per cent in Keele, Knutton and Silverdale where Labour’s bright young thing Gareth Snell met his Waterloo.

I guess the average turnout was around 30 per cent.

Simply put: The majority of the electorate are even less bothered about voting in these polls than they are at General Election time.

For me, this apathy is by far the greatest threat to our democracy and the biggest issue facing politicians and parties who, by the very nature of the system, live for short-term gain.

The word you often hear after an election is that parties need to ‘re-engage’ with the electorate.

Indeed Labour MP Tristram Hunt used it yesterday in his column in The Sentinel.

The word re-engage is as close as you’ll ever get to an apology from your MP, a local party leader, the Prime Minister or his Right Honourable ‘Friend’ on the other side of the Despatch Box.

It covers a multitude of sins, stops politicians from having to admit they’ve made any mistakes, and is their way of explaining away the fact that election turnouts have been falling in the UK since the early 1950s.

Until we get a grip of this by impressing upon primary and secondary school children the importance of casting a vote, come hell or high water, then I’m afraid apathy will continue to reign.

Here in Staffordshire, as expected all parties were trying to find crumbs of comfort in the election result which actually meant very little changed.

The Conservatives held on to control of the authority with the slimmest of minorities while Labour enjoyed the typical resurgence of a party in opposition during the mid-term of a government taking unpopular decisions.

The fact is many people do find it impossible to divorce national politics from local politics and thus many a hard-working ward councillor pays the price for what his or her party has or hasn’t been doing at Westminster.

As a case in point in our county, poor Lib Dem councillors vanished off the political map – paying the price for their counterparts in the House of Commons selling their souls to the Coalition dream.

Meanwhile Ukip came from nowhere to grab a quite remarkable 24 per cent of the vote (broadly in line with the national picture) – but actually only won two seats as opposed to four the last time around.

It would be very easy to dismiss Ukip as the recipient of this year’s protest vote or to try to besmirch the party, as some leading politicians have done, as a haven for fools and extremists.

Yes, there is an element of protest voting going on as regards Ukip – just as there was when the BNP gained a foothold in Stoke-on-Trent.

But I think the message from the electorate is more nuanced than simply being a case of ‘anything other than red or blue at the moment’.

At a time of austerity and deep economic uncertainty, I think many people are tired of the spin, point-scoring and yah-boo politics which is the bread and butter of mainstream parties.

I also believe that Ukip has touched a chord with those who are fed up of the Tories, Labour and the Lib-Dems skirting around the important issues of Europe and immigration.

Not so long ago Ukip and its rather eccentric leader were seen as little more than a fringe group.
But last week almost a quarter of those who could be bothered to vote chose to support Ukip.

That’s a lot of votes.

Thus one can understand the conviction of Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s that his party isn’t “just some little pressure group that will go away if someone in No 10 starts singing the same song”.

If nothing else perhaps Ukip’s populist success will force the mainstream parties to ‘re-engage’ with the public on the issues that really matter to them.

Oops, there’s that word again.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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Overhaul of the benefits system isn’t black and white

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

It is sometimes difficult to see beyond the rhetoric when politicians are arguing over issues such as welfare.

Of course, it suits some people to paint the exchanges as a simple Tory versus Labour, blue versus red, rich versus poor battle.

They would have you believe that the Conservative party – or Coalition government – is hell-bent on punishing the most vulnerable in society while protecting the well-off.

Initiatives such as the ‘bedroom tax’ – which sparked angry demonstrations in North Staffordshire this week – seem to support the claim that there is some sort of class war going on and you therefore have to choose a side.

But if you look beyond the headlines and the soundbites you’ll see it isn’t quite so black and white.

This week a raft of controversial changes to the benefits system come into force which include the nonsensical reduction to benefits for people in council or social housing if they have an empty bedroom in their homes.

It’s a huge own-goal by the government which has the potential to seriously disadvantage a group of people who can’t afford to have their financial support reduced.

There is also a benefits cap which will prevent any household receiving more than £26,000 a year from the state – a sum which is supposed to reflect the average gross salary of a full-time worker.

The latter sounds fair enough in principle but it stands to reason that the occupants of every home should be assessed depending on their specific circumstances.

Therein, of course, lies the problem with the welfare state.

Blanket rules for everyone don’t work. They simply aren’t fair because everyone’s circumstances differ.

The great shame is that the much-needed debate over the welfare state is being drowned out by the outcry against some changes which are clearly ill though-out.

However you spin it, this country pays out hundreds of billions of pounds each year in benefits (a projected £216b in 2015/16) and it is a bill the UK simply can’t afford.

Under the previous Labour government the welfare bill rose dramatically and it is only right that during these austere times, when everyone is having to tighten their belts, that the benefits system comes under scrutiny too.

Last year I wrote about proposed changes to incapacity benefit – a controversial subject in an area like North Staffordshire which has higher than average numbers of people claiming the allowance.

My column prompted criticism from all quarters, including letters from the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau and various claimants citing their own reasons for being absolutely deserving of the said benefit.

My contention was a simple one: If you were genuinely unable to work through ill-health then surely you had nothing to fear from the new, albeit stricter tests, which the government was introducing.

Now the results of the incapacity benefits review are known.

Official figures show that 878,300 – more than a third of those who had been claiming benefit – decided not to take the tougher medical assessment to determine whether or not they were fit for work.

Another 837,000 people were found to be fit to work immediately.

A further 367,300 were assessed as being able to do some kind of work.

Only 232,000 of the total number of people receiving incapacity benefit in this country were classified by doctors as being too ill to do any sort of job.

This means that, according to doctors, seven out of eight people who had been receiving incapacity benefit could and should have been looking for employment rather than relying on hand-outs.

One could argue that this demonstrates that during Labour’s time in office the welfare state masked the true unemployment figures by ‘hiding’ hundreds of thousands of people behind a fog of sickness benefit.

I would simply say that while certain changes – i.e the ‘bedroom tax’ and cap on benefits per household – seem random, unfair and rushed, these figures clearly show that an overhaul of the welfare state was long overdue.

The government may be wrong about some changes to the benefits system but there’s no denying the unpalatable truth that large numbers of people have been in receipt of benefits to which they shouldn’t have been entitled.

Incapacity benefit is one example of a flawed, bloated system which incentivised not going to work.

It wasn’t helpful to the individuals lulled into a life of dependency and cost the country an absolute fortune.

Addressing this won’t solve all our economic woes but surely every little helps?

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The end of an era for working class heroes down the pits

When I started work as a cub reporter in the late Eighties I caught the tail end of one of the industries on which our city made its reputation.

In the 1930s there had been more than 20 mines operating across the North Staffordshire coalfield.

They stretched from Victoria at Biddulph in the north to Hem Heath in the south and from Madeley in the west to Parkhall in the east.

Looking across the relatively refined landscape of the Potteries nowadays, it is hard to believe that at one time tens of thousands of men earned a crust below ground in miles of shafts, passageways and tunnels which criss-crossed the area.

Indeed, there is very little in terms of commemoration for the generations of men who spent their working lives at places such as the Racecourse Colliery in Cobridge, Sneyd Colliery at Hanley, Norton Colliery, Apedale Colliery and many more.

For decades these mines were the engines of industry but from the 1960s a succession of pits were closed during a period of innovation and mechanisation – including Berry Hill at Fenton, the Deep Pit at Hanley, Parkhouse at Chesterton and Mossfield in Longton.

Then, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government swept to power and, although no-one realised it at the time, the writing was on the wall for coal mining in the UK.

Here in North Staffordshire only a few pits remained open into the period of the Miners’ Strike (1984-1985).

But at the time Hem Heath, Florence, Holditch, Silverdale and Wolstanton still employed almost 6,000 between them.

I was there on the day that some of them closed but to give me a sense of what life was like for the men who grafted underground I spoke to former miner and local historian Keith Meeson.

Keith, aged 66, who lives in Stanley, founded the Apedale Heritage Centre and has perhaps done more than anyone to keep the memory of North Staffordshire’s mining heritage alive.

He was just 15 when he began work in the lamp house at Holditch Colliery in 1960. Generations of his mother’s family had been miners and his dad worked down the pit for 50 years.

Keith said: “Originally my dad had tried to get me a job as an electrician at Shelton Bar.

“To be honest, he didn’t want his son having to do what he did.

“However, my uncle – Winston Rowley – was the under manager at Holditch and he came for Christmas dinner just after I had left school.

“He asked if I had been fixed up with a job and sort of overruled my dad.”

Soon after Keith began work at Holditch.

He said: “I think it was seeing my dad in his rags and clogs which left a real impression on me. I look back on my time at Holditch with real fondness.

“I also used to sit there in the dark at times and wonder what was going on in the fresh air a mile above us.

“They were great men, the miners. Real working class heroes because it was a dirty, difficult and dangerous job.

“They had their scraps and fall-outs but 10 minutes later they would be the best of friends again. They would do anything for you.

“The only thing I can compare the camaraderie to would be the Army. I would say it was like being in the forces.

“Miners had a very special bond.”

By the time the Eighties drew to a close, only Florence, Hem Heath and Silverdale collieries remained open. Florence merged with Hem Heath in 1990 and the renamed ‘Trentham Superpit’ ceased production in May 1993.

Silverdale was the last to go in 1998, bring the curtain down on a crucial, at times grim, and forever proud chapter in the history of the Potteries.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Stand up and be counted by making your vote your own

Here we go then. It’s decision time. Have you made your mind up which way you’re going to vote yet?
I have. In truth I’d decided before I sat down to watch the historic leaders’ debates on television.
I’d made my mind up long before Nick ‘man of the people’ Clegg turned in his first nauseating performance on ITV.
I had come to my decision way before David Cameron’s impersonation of a frightened rabbit in the headlights.
I’d chosen the party for me weeks before we discovered what Gordon Brown really thinks of your average voter away from the forced smiles and platitudes.
I must say I have enjoyed this election campaign enormously.
I’ve loved the wall-to-wall media coverage, the endless spin of biased national newspapers, the big-name gaffes and the, at times, surreal leaders’ debates.
I suppose we should be grateful to television because having Brown, Cameron and Clegg verbally sparring in front of millions of potential voters truly energised what could have been a very dull three weeks.
I have to confess that I watched the leaders’ debates with almost the same enthusiasm I’ll have for the World Cup. Almost.
How marvellous it was to see these three men, out of the kindergarten comfort zone that is the House of Commons, having to answer to Joe Public.
How wonderful to see them pleading with millions of TV viewers at a time when the stock of politicians is lower than that of car park attendants.
I only hope that those who did watch the debates, perhaps for the first time engaging with politics, haven’t been hoodwinked by the cult of personality.
Interesting as it was to be able to gauge the relative oratorical skills of the leaders of the three main political parties, we should remember that this isn’t a beauty contest.
This isn’t The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t about the best performance.
This is about deciding on a statesman who you think can lead the UK through the most challenging of economic times.
It is about appointing a Prime Minister who won’t be a poodle for America or in the thrall of Europe.
This is about looking beyond the spin, the posturing and the point scoring and trying to decide which man leads the party best equipped to deal with whatever matters to you.
Growing up on your average estate in Stoke-on-Trent means I should, technically, drag myself down to the polling station and put my X in a Labour candidate’s box.
However, the truth is, politics has never been so cut and dried for me.
Surely the other parties are allowed to have good ideas too.
Surely parties transform, policies evolve, personnel changes and Governments run out of steam.
How then can I commit to being a life-long supporter of any one political party?
Whoever wins on Thursday I’m hoping for a clear majority to avoid some kind of awful, soggy coalition, which doesn’t have the power to take the kind of radical decisions which will be so necessary for the UK over the next few years.
As Thursday approaches I would urge you to vote for the party which doesn’t think any topic that is important to the electorate is taboo.
I would ask you to not just vote for a particular party because you voted for them at the last election – or because you always vote that way or because that’s how your parents voted before you.
Be yourself. Make an informed decision based on the state of the nation and the current political landscape rather than reverting to type.
Don’t be a doormat for convention or be led by the nose to the voting booth.
By the same token, don’t be seduced by personality. Focus instead on policies which appeal to you.
Crucially, don’t be swayed by the tsunami of polls predicting who will win what. Your vote does matter.
Whatever you do, don’t take this wonderful, hard-won freedom for granted. Get out there and vote.