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’ll lose honesty by asking councillors to mind Ps and Qs

Part of me quite likes the fact that our first citizen chided his fellow councillors the other day for their language and behaviour in a meeting.

On the one hand, it is nice to know that the Lord Mayor, councillor Denver Tolley sees his role as more than simply ceremonial and is prepared to take such a stand.

However, I suspect he has his work cut out in trying to stop elected members in the council chamber from “airing their dirty linen in public”, as he put it.

In other words – preventing them from speaking their minds in the presence of Her Majesty’s press.

Apparently, councillor Tolley was annoyed and embarrassed at the way in which some of his colleagues were conducting themselves and their outspoken criticism of council officers.

The Lord Mayor didn’t appreciate hearing planning officers described as “worse than tadpoles” at negotiating funding from developers.

Mr Tolley is quite right to be annoyed – it’s an awful slight against tadpoles.

You see, the language of the council chamber may be colloquial, ill-judged or misinformed at times.
But it has been this way in Stoke-on-Trent for the 20 years that I have been a journalist.

At least they are flagging up issues that matter to the taxpayers of our city rather than trying to score points like our Honourable Friends on either side of the House of Commons.

We can quibble about the calibre of local councillors until the cows come home but there is something refreshingly honest about an elected member venting his or her spleen in the presence of the media.

Granted, some are playing to the gallery, but many are simply attempting to articulate their frustrations, and the concerns of the people in their ward, against a local authority where for many years senior officers have been a law unto themselves.

The Lord Mayor’s attempt to sanitise debate in the council chamber has echoes of wider efforts by the public sector to control the flow of information to the press and media in the mistaken belief that they can somehow dictate the news agenda.

This is because some councillors and council staff feel that local newspapers – like the one employing yours truly – treat them unfairly and only report bad news.

It is rubbish, of course – a misconception built up over time among people who aren’t very good at handling criticism.

The truth was borne out by the city council’s own audit of The Sentinel’s coverage a couple of years ago which stated that more than 70 per cent of articles were either positive or neutral towards the authority and its services. Argument settled then.

However, this doesn’t prevent nonsensical edicts being delivered to my colleagues here at Sentinel HQ. Such as the one earlier this month which told our reporters they were no longer allowed to telephone cabinet members directly and had to go through the council’s Press Office.

“Control-freakery beyond belief” was how councillor Mike Barnes described the policy. He’s spot on.

When will the powers-that-be realise that they can’t gag councillors and they can’t prevent local papers from championing the communities they serve?

Surely it is part of the job of a councillor to communicate with taxpayers and, by the same token, it is the job of the local press to challenge, inform and educate their readership.

To that end, how pleased I was to read that the new Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has pledged a crackdown on council-funded free newspapers and magazines.

He slammed “town hall Pravdas” as he called them – labelling council newsletters “propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting”.

Too right. I should know – I worked as a cub reporter writing for the city council’s own newspaper for five years and let me say that is remarkable how you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Thankfully, most taxpayers see straight through the spin and the soft soap routine peddled by such publications.

The fact is, ordinary people rely on local journalists – independent of party politics and free of red tape – to tell them the bad news when it needs telling.

Just as they rely on their councillors to speak their minds without fear of censorship by other politicians or interference from suits in the Press Office.

Eminent British publisher Lord Northcliffe once wrote: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Amen to that.