Gender is irrelevant: It’s how good people are that matters…

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

It was less Night of the Long Knives and more Morning of the Rolling Pins in Downing Street this week as the Prime Minister gave us the first glimpse of the kind of shenanigans we can expect in the countdown to next year’s General Election.

It was thumbs up to women and mothers in David Cameron’s new-look cabinet and thumbs down to white, middle-aged men.

Speaking as one of the latter, I should just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the oft-quoted aim of having more women in senior positions within government.

In fact, you can apply that objective across the entire UK workforce as far as I’m concerned.

Having more women chief executives, directors and managers makes absolute sense. Why wouldn’t we? I can name you half a dozen brilliant female executives working here in North Staffordshire who you’d be proud to have as your boss.

For me, it’s not about gender equality – it’s simple maths: As a society we are clearly missing out on some really talented and capable people if so few women are able to get the top jobs.

Men do not, despite what some of them may think, have a monopoly on good leadership. Neither are they unique in having the best ideas, the highest IQs or the ability to take difficult decisions.

By the same token, hands up if you’ve worked for a bloke who was so inept he couldn’t run a bath? Yes, me too. And hands up how many have worked for similarly poor female managers who think pastoral care is a type of low fat milk?

Am I pleased that the Prime Minister has replaced a bunch of men in suits with a bunch of women in, er… suits?

Well, I suppose before you answer that you have to look at Call me Dave’s reasons for ringing the changes because I’m sure it has very little to do with smashing through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents women from rising to the top of their profession.

It’s surely no great surprise that Education Secretary Michael Gove has been unseated ahead of the country going to the polls.

He’s so unpopular with the teaching profession because of the reforms he’s implemented in recent years (some of them entirely justified, I might add) that if he was a schoolboy he’d be Billy No Mates up the corner of the classroom with head lice and a penchant for eating his own bogies.

I’m afraid to say that, to my mind, Gove has been cynically sacrificed in the pursuit of votes and to avoid damning soundbites from Labour and the trade unions and nine months of negative headlines from left-leaning newspapers.

In total David Cameron has promoted 10 women in this reshuffle. I don’t know them. They may all be brilliant. Perhaps they are and the PM has only just noticed.

Or perhaps, more likely, Mr Cameron is trying to give his party – which is caricatured as millionaire Eton types who are all friends with bankers and don’t know the price of a Wright’s pie – a softer, more human veneer.

As opposed to the millionaire Labour front-benchers, of course…

Perhaps the thinking is, rather patronisingly, that women will vote for a party with more women. Or that because women still, statistically, do the majority of household chores, look after family finances and provide most of the childcare in the UK then they will have more faith in other women to run the country.

Those who can remember Labour sweeping to power under Tony ‘the Iraq war was entirely justified’ Blair will recall similar excitement in the national press when the ‘Blair babes’ – not my phrase – were unveiled, and more women than ever before were elected to Parliament.

I have to say that this is all just window-dressing to me.

Honestly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s who’s in the cabinet or how many women MPs we have so long as they do a good job.

That, of course, is an entirely separate debate – the answers to which will vary depending on whether you’re sporting a red, yellow or blue rosette come May.

In wishing the women who’ve just been promoted to the cabinet all the best in their new posts I would just caution them not to get too comfortable in their new offices or get carried away with ordering too much branded stationery. After all, 10 months is a long time in politics.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

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Let’s have a proper debate about the UK’s membership of Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels.

The European Parliament in Brussels.

Amid the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter’s day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months tick by.

Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK’s involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.

David Cameron’s stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.

In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was ‘time for the British people to have their say”. (Well, if he’s still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).

Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently ‘wafer thin’.

Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech ‘statesmanlike’, saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.

Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.

He wrote: ‘The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin.’

Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to ‘counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics.’

While I can’t agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.

He questioned: ‘Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?’

The truth is we don’t tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country.

Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.

Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party’s (and possibly the UK’s) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.

The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.

We simply don’t understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don’t really know what’s at stake.

For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain’s key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.

But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us ‘opting out’.

It’s not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.

My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.

One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives.

There is a feeling among many (and I’m not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.

These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals ‘milking’ the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country’s independence.

There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the Euro over the Pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding ‘no’.

On this Sceptered Isle there’s never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent.

In the light of the PM’s speech, now is the time for an honest and open on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.

How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?

Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley argued many times, asking such questions doesn’t mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.

It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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.

General Election sketch piece – 2010

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell was covering his fifth General Election – his first being as a cub reporter at the King’s Hall in Stoke back in 1992…

“Evening”, said one of half a dozen blokes holding anti-fascist placards standing outside the King’s Hall.

“Owrate youth,” I replied, and he stood down – realising I was far too scruffy to be representing the BNP.

By 10.50pm we hacks were huddled around a TV in the press room as the teacher’s pets of the Houghton and Sunderland South constituency broke the land speed record to declare the first result.

Stoke-on-Trent’s ballot boxes were still being carried in at this point and the counters hadn’t even taken their seats.

“What’s going on?” asked the incredulous city council chief executive, as he watched people sipping coffee and leaning against walls. “Why haven’t we started, yet?”

I just shrugged my shoulders.

Three quarters of an hour later the feeding frenzy began – 220 counters going at the ballot papers like so many battery hens.

As they worked, the footsoldiers of each party hovered around them, grim-faced and taking copious notes in the fashion of over-zealous GCSE exam invigilators.

“What are you doing?” I asked one of them.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how it’s gone,” he answered, rather sheepishly, by way of explanation for his pointless scribbling.

Despite the mind-numbing inevitability of Labour winning all three city seats for the umpteenth time, the party faithful were still rather twitchy.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” said one veteran campaigner.

Certainly Stoke North’s long-serving MP Joan Walley wasn’t.

She had arrived at the count long before the ballot boxes, bless her – welcoming every vote home like a shepherd counting her flock.

The same couldn’t be said of her Labour party colleagues.

Curious, I went on a, er… Tristram Hunt.

“Bit of a poor show from your new bloke,” said a journalist colleague to a Labour party activist at 1.30am. “You’d have thought he’d have been here by now.”

“Actually, he is on his way,” said the man. “I’m Lord Hunt, Tristram’s father.”

Ouch.

He must have been confident of victory because Haringey’s finest didn’t arrive until after 2am – finally justifying the hordes of BBC staff who had descended on Stoke, doubtless using Multimap to find their way to the Potteries.

Now you know what Auntie spends your licence fee on.

Surprise, surprise – there were no surprises here in The Land That Time Forgot.

Which leaves our city very firmly in the red… in more ways than one.

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.

X marks spot where casting a vote should be a duty for all

I well remember the excitement of visiting the polling station to vote in my first General Election.

It was 1992. Mum and dad came with me down to an annexe at Holden Lane High School and I recall thinking that I had properly come of age.

Four years earlier I would have been huffing and puffing my way through PE just a few yards away from the booth where I was now putting the X on my ballot paper.

It never entered my head not to vote.

It didn’t matter to me that Stoke-on-Trent North was as dyed-in-the-wool Labour as it gets and that my vote wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to the result.

As far as I was concerned I had a duty to take part. After all, hadn’t people died to give us such freedoms?

Twelve months earlier, as a cub reporter, I had been thrilled when given the task of covering the local election count at the King’s Hall in Stoke.

At the time, the local Labour party had a vice-like grip on the council and the whole place seemed, to me, to be run like their own personal fiefdom.

Stewart Titchener, the council’s chief executive for many years, was the returning officer.

Someone of genuine gravitas, the man who in 1980 had been chosen to join the team of election supervisors in Rhodesia left a real impression on me.

I remember being transfixed by the people counting the votes and the candidates walking the aisles like so many cats on a hot tin roof.

I recall the jibes and the euphoria as the results were announced – and my own nerves as I checked and re-checked the results before filing my copy.

Fast forward to today and the current General Election campaign is in now full swing.

Sadly we know that – in spite of all the hype and the wall-to-wall media coverage – the whole shooting match is being ignored by millions of potential voters.

We’ve seen history made with the first televised debate involving the leaders of the main parties.

Meanwhile, celebrity supporters of the various parties – such as Take That’s Gary Barlow – can be found mixing with the great unwashed in places like Nantwich.

All this on the back of the MPs’ expenses scandal which irked even the politically unaware.

However, the sad fact is that – if the last election is anything to go by – then about 40 per cent of the electorate won’t even bother to vote.

The turnout for the 2005 General Election was just 61.28 per cent.

Locally the figures made pretty grim reading with only the Staffordshire Moorlands count (with 64 per cent) recording a turnout higher than the national average.

In the city just 48.4 per cent of the electorate turned out in the Stoke Central constituency where Labour’s parachuted candidate Tristram Hunt will this time contest Mark Fisher’s vacant seat.

Even the ancient and loyal borough had nowt to shout about – only mustering 58.2 per cent of its potential voters.

And, if you think those figures are bad, consider the turnouts in local elections.

At the last city council elections in May 2008 the turnout was just 30.2 per cent.

In last year’s European elections the turnout locally was a measly 26.73 per cent – the lowest in the West Midlands.

When we scrapped (wrongly, in my opinion) the elected mayoral system in Stoke-on-Trent, just 19.23 per cent of the electorate voted.

To my mind there’s only one solution to this paralysing apathy.

We can talk all we want about voters being disenfranchised and politicians can trot out platitudes about re-engaging with the electorate until the cows come home. None of it makes a scrap of difference.

To my mind, as well as being a civic right, voting should be seen as a civic duty.

It is time to make voting in all elections a legal requirement of every citizen of the UK over the age of 18 – as they do in other countries.

Even if some people simply turn up and put an X in the box marked ‘none of the above’ at least it means they will be taking part.

At the same time, all children should be given a basic grounding in politics in order that we equip them to make informed decisions.

Perhaps then the importance of voting and politics in general will start to permeate down to the millions of voters who, at present, just can’t be bothered with it all.

It may seem a draconian measure – but better that than the current situation where many people are more interested in the contestants on Britain’s Got Talent than who will be our next Prime Minister.