Jack Ashley: A truly great Parliamentarian who continues to inspire us all

I don’t have much time for politicians, if truth be told. I can’t be doing with the double-speak served up by so many of them and their simple inability to answer a direct question.

Indeed, I blame much of the public apathy towards politics in general on the mistrust so many feel towards those who seek public office.

The days of rotten boroughs may be long gone, but politics remains an inherently grimy business ruled by self-interest.

In recent years the ‘cash-for-questions’, ‘cash for honours’ and MPs’ expenses scandals have done little to enhance the reputation of political parties in the UK or those elected to serve.

That said, very occasionally individuals come along who seem to transcend party politics and go some way towards restoring one’s faith in the system.

Jack Ashley, or Lord Ashley of Stoke as he became, was just such a man.

Two years ago I had the privilege of welcoming Lord Ashley on to the stage at the King’s Hall as part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Citizen Of The Century celebrations.

Jack, who died on Saturday, was 87 at the time, frail and in a wheelchair but determined to be part of an historic occasion where we marked the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

Unfortunately, fate conspired against us that night and the great charity champion and campaigner for the rights of the disabled was left stranded in the clunky old lift for a couple of minutes.

It ground to a halt as we attempted to bring Jack on stage to receive his civic honour.

It could have been a disaster. However, such was the calibre of the man that he laughed off the gremlins and received his award with sublime grace.

What’s more, it was at that moment that I realised just how the people of the Potteries had taken this bloke from Widnes to their hearts.

There was no way anyone was going to let a technical hitch spoil the moment.

Indeed, such was the warmth felt towards one of the great Parliamentarians from the 400-plus audience, that it took just a few additional rounds of applause and Jack was on stage with me.

The word ‘inspirational’ is greatly over-used these days but it is certainly appropriate in the case of Jack Ashley.

His life in public service is remarkable – not because of its longevity but because of what he accomplished during his time as an MP and in the House of Lords.

When an elder statesman such as Lord Ashley passes on we have come to expect tributes for their peers.

However, when David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown – to name but a few – spoke of the admiration for our Jack there is no doubt they meant it.

Lord Ashley of Stoke was a pioneer, you see. A man who, quite literally opened doors for millions of people.

Having won the Stoke-on-Trent South Parliamentary seat in 1966 he could quite easily have thrown in the towel two years later when he lost his hearing.

However, as this country’s first deaf MP, he learned to lip-read and was held in such high regard – even by political foes such as Prime Minister Ted Heath – that they turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Because of Jack Ashley, many people realised that a disability didn’t have to be a barrier.

Because of his sheer force of will others, like former Home Secretary David Blunkett, forged a career in politics in spite of a disability.

Jack Ashley was arguably the greatest champion disabled people in the UK have ever had.

He was a man driven not by self-interest but by the needs of others and someone who placed fairness at the heart of his own personal agenda.

During 26 years as a member of Parliament he campaigned tirelessly for society’s second class citizens – the under-represented and the victims of everything from thalidomide to the arthritis drug Opren.

Jack Ashley was someone who changed attitudes for the better and we should be grateful that a man elected first and foremost to serve the people of Stoke-on-Trent did that and so much more.

Forget statues to the man in charge of the Titanic. How about a permanent memorial to a man whose legacy is supremely positive for us all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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We should all calm down, dears

The furore over the Prime Minister’s “calm down, dear” jibe at Shadow Treasury chief secretary Angela Eagle makes me smile.
It is yet another example of both the double-standards in politics in this country and the willingness of the PC brigade to leech away at anything vaguely humorous.
Ms Eagle said today in an interview: “I think when you are the prime minister, that kind of behaviour to women members of the Commons isn’t exactly what you’d like to see, is it?I think there have been a lot of women very annoyed by it.”
Surely only those who don’t have a sense of humour, Angela.
She ought to try working in a newsroom.
Here’s the thing… This remark, which apparently echoes a well-known car insurance advert starring Michael Winner, was said during Prime Minister’s Questions.
As anyone who has listened to PMQs will know, the exchanges on the House of Commons often involve knock-about humour.
Indeed, banter and wit (I use the term loosely) from both sides of the floor is the lifeblood of these short, sharp and often brutal sessions.
David Cameron’s retort may not have been the funniest thing anyone has ever said in Parliament but to cry foul and be offended is a bit rich – considering that all parties are equally guilty of this sort of yah-boo politics.
Labour seems to have lost the General Election, lost the plot and now lost its sense of humour too.

Tick Christian if you really want to

Hands up all those who had heard of the British Humanist Association more than a month ago.
I rest my case.
Most of us hadn’t a clue this organisation even existed until its much-publicised campaign surrounding the Census documents which have just hit our doormats.
The BHA is campaigning vigorously to prevent people ticking the ‘Christian’ box when they fill in the forms if they don’t attend church or identify themselves as Christian in what they term a ‘meaningful way’.
Campaigners – including letter writers to The Sentinel – believe that ticking ‘Christian’, rather than ‘No religion’, influences central and local government policy.
They argue that it has led to an increase in faith schools and a disproportionate amount of funding being given to faith groups.
Having used this column before to criticise our churches for being dull and often less than relevant, as a lapsed Methodist Potter I feel duty bound to leap to their defence on this occasion.
This is yet another attack on religion here in the UK – specifically that most embattled and timid of groups: Christians. The archetypal soft target.
You see, I simply don’t see it as a bad thing that 70-odd per cent of people who filled in the 2001 census forms considered themselves to be Christian.
Yes, there’s no doubt that many of us will have done so out of some misguided sense of loyalty – or a yearning to belong to an identifiable group: a need to have a label rather than calling ourselves ‘non-religious’.
But so what?
We all know that the number of people actually attending churches in this country is small percentage of the overall population.
It is also a fact that the multi-cultural nature of our society means that Christian is no longer the dominant religion it once was in the UK.
The reason that most of us don’t attend church is because life gets in the way.
We are having our weekly lie-in, taking the children swimming, playing football, walking the dog, having a little quality family time or, heaven-forbid, working like yours truly does every Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean that many of us don’t still consider ourselves to be Christian.
Many of the things the BHA argues against I actually see as positives in our fractured society.
In my experience faith schools are generally excellent – which is why so many parents are desperate to have their children attend one.
Relatively small numbers of people may sit in pews and sing hymns on a regular basis but to assume that the church impacts only on those who do is naive in the extreme.
The Christian church, or perhaps more accurately those who make up its congregations, are very often at the heart of our communities – staging events which bring people together and providing love, care and support to some of the most vulnerable people.
David Cameron talks of the Big Society. I would say our churches adopted this idea a long time ago and have been practising what the PM is now preaching for many years.
I don’t take kindly to being told what boxes to tick by the anti-spiritual brigade.
Furthermore, I certainly don’t view the casual adoption of the Christian tag or the defaulting to a particular religion for the purposes of a statistical exercise as somehow dangerous or undemocratic.
It doesn’t matter to me whether someone is Christian, Muslim or athiest so long as he or she is a decent person.
If that feeling of belonging to a particular group helps someone in their life then I refuse to view it as detrimental.
Surely one’s faith is a personal thing. I attend church sporadically but I pray daily and my faith is very important to me. Crucially, I suspect I’m not alone in this approach.
So by all means tick Christian if you want to.
After all, only you and him upstairs really knows whether or not you are telling the truth.

Time to stand up and make a difference to our society

When Prime Minister David Cameron began talking up his vision of a Big Society, no-one really knew what he meant.
Six months later, and even after his keynote speech at the Tory conference, there were still many people who were left scratching their heads as to what the PM was actually going on about.
If you believe the sceptics, the Big Society is little more than a smokescreen for the massive cutbacks which are looming.
They will tell you it is the coalition government’s attempt to get volunteers and labour on the cheap for all manner of things usually delivered by professionals within the public sector.
However I, for one, am prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.
This is because, whether or not “just call me Dave” truly believes in citizen power and the taking of individual responsibility, the idea of a Big Society seems to me to be very laudable in this day and age.
Irrespective of whether or not we agree with the Government’s approach to tackling the national debt, the PM’s mantra – which, in fairness, he was chanting long before the election – is a good one.
It’s good in the same way that, even if you don’t believe in God and don’t go to communal worship every week, you can still appreciate that the church does a great job in our communities.
One reason that I like the idea of a Big Society and think that perhaps it isn’t all just posturing and platitudes, is that even members of Mr Cameron’s own party are sceptical about it.
This is because they know it is a vague, nebulous concept to sell to the electorate
There are certainly no quick political wins with this soundbite.
So what is the Big Society?
In his speech to conference, the PM told us: “Your country needs you.”
He’s not wrong – on so many levels.
We’re up the creek without a paddle and we can quibble about whose fault it is all we want and crucify as many bankers as we like.
However, ultimately, we are all going to have to play a part in sorting out the current financial mess.
One thing is certain, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
That means everything from our councils to schools and local charities – all aspects of our communities – are going to suffer.
What better time then to nurture a sense of individual responsibility and to get people off their backsides and doing their bit for their neighbourhoods?
Every week in The Sentinel, I read of people bleating about their lot.
Usually, this involves criticism of public services such as councils, the health service or the police.
In their eyes, it is always someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility to sort out whatever the latest problem is.
This is because the Nanny State has created a class of people who expect to be waited on hand and foot and think public services are there to tend to their every whim.
Many are not prepared to lift a finger to actually help themselves – or anyone else, for that matter.
I single such people out because this attitude is symptomatic of selfish Britain 2010.
You see, you don’t have to believe in David Cameron’s Big Society vision to actually embrace the concept.
There are school governing bodies, parent teacher associations, residents’ groups, youth organisations and local charities, to name but a few, crying out for volunteers during the toughest of economic circumstances because so many people can’t be bothered to help.
Anyone who needs inspiration to get involved just has to think about the winners of this year’s Sentinel and Britannia’s Our Heroes community awards.
They include 72-year-old Barry Bailey, from Shelton, who has raised a quarter of a million pounds for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice.
Then there is 13-year-old Toby Tomlins, from Norton, who – without a word of complaint – cares for his terminally-ill older brother Barny.
What about the inspirational committee of Chell Heath Residents’ Association who scooped our award for community group of the year by transforming the lives of families in their neck of the woods?
If the PM had been present at the awards he would have seen that plenty of people in the Potteries are already practising what he is preaching.
People like my old school friend Julie Hancock, who recently took it upon herself to organise a naked calendar shoot involving women from North Staffordshire to raise thousands of pounds for the Help The Heroes Charity.
At its heart, the Big Society is whatever you want it to be.
We can all sit around and moan.
The question is, what are you going to do to help your community through these tough times and make our society a better place in which to live?
*Martin organised a sponsored, all-night ghost-hunt at The Leopard pub, Burslem, in aid of Cheethams children’s ward at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

I’ve had enough of spongers… it’s time we found Bob a job

There’s a bloke who lives near me. We’re going to call him Bob.

As I put the recycling bin out before driving to work the other day he spotted me and wandered over, morning paper under his arm.

“I saw you last night,” he said. “Burning the midnight oil again were you?”

I took a deep breath and smiled.

Bob was referring to the fact that I could be seen from the street in our box room working on my computer after 10pm.

Having rather a lot of time on his hands, Bob tends not to miss anything that goes on in our road.
It had been something of a long day, I told him.

I had been up at 5.30am, driven to work, done my shift, driven home, made tea, bathed the little ’uns, read bedtime stories to them, made lunchboxes for the next day, had a bath, then done a couple of hours work on the computer in my PJs.

Bob chuckled and told me to be careful not to burn myself out. Then he strolled off to read his paper.

Now, it should be said that I’ve got nothing against Bob personally.

However, as I got into my car that morning I realised I have a problem generally with the Bobs of this world – of whom there seem to be far too many.

Bob, like me, lives in a modest semi-detached house. His family, like mine, has two cars.
But it is there that the similarity ends.

Bob’s little sports car sits on the drive and rarely moves. He parks his clapped out run-around across his driveway – presumably in some deluded belief that it will prevent thieves from making off with his second-hand Toyota.

I work full-time and my wife works four days a week. We use both cars daily and rely very heavily on our parents to help us with childcare arrangements around school dropping off and picking up times.

It is fair to say that, without them, we’d be stuck.

In contrast, neither Bob nor his wife work. They have a little boy, aged three, and Bob’s wife is expecting their second child this autumn.

Despite the fact that neither Bob nor his wife go out to work they send their daughter to nursery every day.

This means that Bob, who is in his late forties, can divide his time between the local golf course (of which he is a member) and DIY on his house.

Now, as far as I know, Bob’s family haven’t won the Lottery, or come in to a huge amount of money recently courtesy of the death of a great aunt.

I know Bob, who is in his late forties, previously worked for a council, but was signed off with stress some years ago and hasn’t been back since. (His words, not mine).

So, here’s the thing. I get rather annoyed when I read letters in The Sentinel from people asking that we don’t tar all benefits claimants with the same brush.

Yes, I know there are genuine cases of people who – for a variety of reasons – cannot go to work despite the fact that they would dearly love to.

However, for every one of them I suspect there must be another four lazy, malingering Bobs and Bobettes who are quite happy to take State handouts and do bugger all seven days a week.

If you doubt me, then take a look at the most recent ‘worklessness’ statistics for Stoke-on-Trent supplied by the Department for Work and Pensions.

In September 2009, 24 per cent of the city’s working population was economically inactive. That’s 35,500 people.

Of these, 8,180 were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and a further 17,920 were claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or incapacity benefits.

Thirty years ago not working was enough to bring shame on an individual or a family.

Now we have generations of children growing up not knowing what it is like to have a working role model and thinking that sponging off the State is the norm.

This is a situation that definitely worsened in the last 20 years and one which I sincerely hope the new Government will tackle in its attempt to engineer David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

In my opinion, the vast, vast majority of people who aren’t working could work – if they really wanted to. Surely, we can all do something.

So, in this time of radical decisions and cost-cutting why don’t we, as a society, do ourselves a huge favour that just might get the Bobs of this world off their backsides?

We should tell them that if they want benefits (of any kind) they have to earn them by doing their local community a service every week because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of working to keep them at home.

So Bob is too stressed to go to work in an office. Fine.

Let’s have him picking up litter, scrubbing graffiti off walls or cleaning up some of the eyesore sites that blight our estates.

Anything to get him off the bloody golf course and back into the real world with me.

Good luck with that in-tray, Prime Minister…

Dear Dave and Nick, When the deals have been done and the dust finally settles on a truly fascinating General Election, it’s fair to say your new Government will have its work cut out.

I’m assuming here that the bonkers vision of a Labour-led, mathematically-inadequate ‘rainbow coalition’ doesn’t come to pass.

Let’s be frank, despite what some cloud-hugging liberals may think, political marriages of convenience do no-one any favours.

An outright winner would have been far better for the country at this most trying of times but, given the outcome, a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is perhaps the lesser of several evils.

At least with a reasonable majority your partnership has a chance of steering the Good Ship UK in one direction – rather than having us going round in circles like some demented duck at Westport Lake. (That’s a local reference, my honourable friends).

Despite the fact that, unlike many people, I don’t believe Vince Cable to be some kind of all-knowing, economic Yoda figure, given that the Tory front bench is inexperienced and unproven I’d like to see you using the coalition talent pool to best effect – with a few senior Lib Dems taking ministerial posts.

For me, stability of leadership is key right now.

What we definitely don’t want is another General Election in six months’ time creating a political merry-go-round where nowt gets done while our economy stagnates and the money markets go into freefall.

Now that we have prised Gordon Brown’s fingernails out of the leather sofa and dragged the sore loser kicking and screaming out of Number 10, the real work can begin in earnest.

There’s no getting away from the fact that we’ve all got to tighten out belts.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to my colleagues in the public sector but they are facing a pay freeze. (Many of us in the private sector have had one in place for two years already so hopefully they won’t react with too much melodrama).

Up until now those working in the private sector have borne the brunt of job losses during the current economic downturn.

However, to give us a fighting chance of tackling our national debt crisis, there will also doubtless have to be significant job cuts in the public sector – given the huge burden it places on all of us.

I don’t see this as an option – it’s a necessity – because we’ve all seen, heard and read about the waste, the quangos, the non-jobs and the army of bureaucrats currently leeching away at the taxpayer.

The unions won’t like any of this and there’s a distinct possibility of industrial unrest on a scale not seen for decades – against which your new Government must stand firm.

This, I suppose, will be the acid test for the ‘new kind of politics’ we’ve heard so much about in recent weeks – where all parties have pledged to do what’s best for the country.

Labour will have a key role to play here, of course. The party of the unions can either work with your Government by instituting important checks and balances on policies – or it can revert to the kind of peevish point-scoring we normally see from the opposition front benches in the House of Commons.

(You’re all as bad as one another for that, I’m afraid).

Whatever happens with the economy, your Government must not lose sight of the fact that as we gnash our teeth and fall out over domestic policies UK service personnel are still fighting and dying overseas.

Having been in Wootton Bassett on Friday to witness the repatriation of Lance Corporal Barry Buxton, from our neck of the woods, I feel more strongly than ever that we need to do more, as a nation, to support our servicemen and women.

Let’s pay them a decent wage, equip them properly, look after them when they return home and give them the respect they are due for doing a job most of us can barely comprehend.

By the same token, while I don’t believe we should pull the troops out of Afghanistan tomorrow, I’d like to think that sooner rather than later your Government had formulated an exit strategy to bring our boys and girls home.

Good luck with all that, gents. Something tells me you’re going to need it.

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.