Back to the future for city politics

Judging by the city council election results some people in Stoke-on-Trent have obviously got short memories.
Presumably they have forgiven Labour for the excesses of Worldgate and the Cultural Quarter which confirmed Stoke-on-Trent’s status as a political basket case – a city incapable of governing itself.
Yet here we are in 2011 and familiar faces are returning to haunt us.
The old adage that you could put a monkey in a suit and stick a red rosette on it and it would be voted into power in the Potteries still rings true.
To be fair, I’d prefer one party to have overall control rather than have some sort of coalition of convenience where nowt gets done.
The problem is that, without an effective opposition, there is nothing to prevent the self-interest and internal party politics which was the hallmark of previous Labour administrations from returning.
Make no bones about it: This latest election landslide – which leaves Labour with 34 of the 44 seats on the city council – is a reflection of people’s dissatisfaction with the coalition government’s national cuts.
It is also a result of your average Stokie (who can be bothered to vote) reverting to type.
Someone once asked me if I would be prepared to stand for election as a city councillor.
“God no,” I replied. “I can make more of a difference working for The Sentinel.”
Nothing has changed.

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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.

Parachuting in candidates shows little respect for voters

The Honourable Tristram Hunt. There’s a good Potteries name if ever I heard one.

Indeed, the man selected by the Labour Party to contest the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat at the forthcoming election sounds more like a knight of the Round Table than a bloke who could soon be representing the voters of Birches Head and Bentilee.

Just when you thought the stock of politics and politicians in this country couldn’t fall any lower, we are shown yet another example of crass insensitivity.

There have been many cases over the years of the main parties parachuting candidates into so-called ‘safe seats’.

It’s a despicable practice and one which underlines how little the power-brokers in London care for the feelings of the electorate.

In fact, even some of the Labour Party’s own stalwart supporters in its Constituency Labour Party (CLP) are appalled at this ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ approach to the selection of prospective MPs.

So much so that one of them – Gary Elsby – has effectively quit to take a stand against what he sees as a ‘Google candidate’ – i.e. someone whose knowledge of the Potteries is derived entirely from the internet.

Presumably, Lord Mandelson et al are hoping to prove the long-held theory that the Labour Party could pin a red rosette on a monkey in Stoke-on-Trent and it would still get voted in.

They are again assuming the ‘anything-but-Tory, anti-Thatcher, they-closed-the-pits’ brigade will turn out and do the business on polling day – which is ironic seeing as how they don’t seem to give a monkey’s about the views of their own CLP.

Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, our Tristram – who turns 40 next month – is an eminent historian and the son of Lord Hunt of Chesterton. No, not that Chesterton.

His CV is very impressive. However, I dare say he knows about as much about Stoke-on-Trent as I do about Haringey – where our Prospective Parliamentary Candidate currently resides.

Does that present a problem? I think it does.

Let’s face it, the Potteries has been pretty poorly served by successive governments for the last 40 years.

As we celebrate the centenary of the federation of our Six Towns the city certainly has plenty to be positive about.

But, make no mistake, we are still saddled with the same socio-economic problems that have blighted North Staffordshire for nigh-on half a century.

This is a city with high levels of unemployment, deep pockets of deprivation, and a population burdened with serious health issues and low aspirations.

It stands to reason, therefore, that to effect substantial change in the Potteries one has to understand the nature of the beast.

Tristram Hunt is obviously a very clever man and he may be a thoroughly decent bloke.

But does he know how long we’ve been waiting for a new bus station? Does he have a grasp of how the thousands of jobs which have been lost in traditional industries in recent years continue to affect the local economy? Is he up to speed on the regeneration process being overseen by RENEW North Staffordshire?

No, no and no. It’s not his fault – he just doesn’t know and can’t be expected to understand because, until very recently, he presumably thought Stoke-on-Trent was that place you pass on the way to Alton Towers.

What is even more worrying is that this decision demonstrates that the talent pool in a large working class area like North Staffordshire is so poor that it can’t produce one candidate that Labour is happy to sponsor.

This isn’t an anti-Labour rant. It would make no difference to me which party foisted a ‘foreigner’ on us – it would still be wrong.

In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal and umpteen sleazy episodes in recent months, politics and politicians need to be seen to be both clean and in touch with their electorate.

Sadly, parachuting candidates into safe seats is yet another example of the disregard with which the main political parties and career politicians hold voters.

I only hope that this decision will come back to haunt Labour.

Left to its own devices BNP will be shown for what it is

I suppose we should have seen it coming a while back when the British National Party’s leader described Stoke-on-Trent as the jewel in his party’s crown.

Nick Griffin was bound to darken our door with an election looming, particularly given the BNP’s success at a local level here in the Potteries.

Cue the predictable demonstration from idealistic university students and a small number of people who believe in using loud-hailers to espouse their vision of a multi-cultural utopia.

Some people would have you believe that all BNP supporters are fascists.

Others will tell you that the far right party is an affront to democracy and that its members shouldn’t be given the oxygen of publicity. It’s all cobblers.

The fact is, as offensive and reprehensible as the views of some of its supporters may be, the BNP is a legitimate political party and its members have every right to peddle their ill-informed manifesto.

In many ways, letting them do just that is the best way of tackling any threat they pose.

Just look at what a mess Mr Griffin made of his controversial appearance on Question Time.

It appears that you don’t need to challenge the bloke to expose him for the muppet that he is – you just have to let him speak.

Credit where credit is due, however.

The BNP’s leadership may be wrong about many things, but they aren’t shy of broaching subjects which bring other parties out in a cold sweat.

Take immigration, for example, or the European Union.

There is no doubt in my mind that a public debate needs to be had about immigration and the failure of this (and previous) UK Governments to implement a coherent strategy to deal with the fact that our borders have become so porous.

Unfortunately, all of the main parties seem afraid to tackle an issue that continues to exercise many people in this country.

Then there is the thorny issue of this little island’s membership of the EU. Weren’t we promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? Again, no dice.

Is it any wonder that voters are turning their back on Labour and the Tories?

I’m not bothered in the slightest about Nick Griffin launching the BNP’s national election campaign here in North Staffordshire.

I’m more concerned about the fact that some supporters of the mainstream parties, and indeed some politicians, seem to blame the party’s recent success on the media rather than looking a little closer to home.

Does anyone honestly believe that it is the fault of journalists that the BNP has secured a bunch of seats on Stoke-on-Trent City Council?

I suspect the truth is actually that voters in some areas of the Potteries were so disillusioned with the usual suspects who have made such a pig’s ear of running the city in the last 20 years that they sought an alternative.

They perhaps just wanted a hard-working councillor who answered their phone calls and replied to their letters – and they didn’t much care about his political affiliations.

This disenchantment with politics and mainstream politicians is mirrored nationally.

Indeed, in the wake of the expenses scandal I dare say MPs are now more unpopular than estate agents, traffic wardens and, er… some journalists. So is there much chance of the BNP’s first MP being elected in Stoke-on-Trent later this year?

I doubt it.

Someone once said you could dress a monkey in a suit and pin a red rosette to it and people would still vote Labour in Stoke-on-Trent. I doubt this General Election will be any different.

Thus Nick Griffin’s visit was probably little more than an interesting sideshow ahead of the main event.