Friday, 29 April 2011

The left has a world to win, but it will never do it like this.

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in Stoke-on-Trent and I’m standing in the foyer of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery waiting to attend a hustings event for the leaders of the political groups contesting the local elections.

Outside on the way into the museum members of the Socialist Party hand out leaflets, as does a representative from Unite Against Fascism, Stoke has an unfortunate recent history of electing far right councillors and BNP leader Nick Griffin recently chose the city to stage the launch of his party’s manifesto. Everybody milling about in the foyer seems to belong to one group or another; undecided voters of the sort that stay at home in droves allowing the far right to make worrying gains in what used to be a Labour stronghold are notable by their absence.

A bright and friendly PA bustles through with a clipboard for people to write down their questions, a pointless exercise I later discover since the Chair of the meeting decides all the relevant questions have been asked from the floor and so the written ones can be ignored. This will not go down well and adds to the already tense and factious atmosphere of the meeting.

All of a sudden the star of the show, Mohammed Pervez, leader of the Labour Group and of the council, arrives trailing a camera crew in his wake. He does not cut an impressive figure and this turn out to be a precursor of the poor performance he will give on the podium. Everything about the way he moves is suggestive of a man who feels uncomfortable with his position in centre stage of this event and the wider political life of the city.

We meander through into the Foyer Theatre, a dowdy bowl shaped space with tiers of seats reminiscent of a university lecture hall, I sit in front of two Labour activists who have arrived with Pervez and eavesdrop on them as they gossip about their party colleagues. Looking around none of the thirty six people present look like they have wandered in off the street out of curiosity; everybody, as will emerge later, has come with an agenda.

The Chair, PCS Regional Secretary Andrew Lloyd, an affable Welshman, asks us to move forward to things easier for the cameras, we all shuffle awkwardly forward and I find a seat at the end of a row looking down and to the right of the stage. Noticeably everyone sits in little huddles, socialists in one corner, campaigners fighting to keep children’s centres over on the far left and a knot of supporters from the Labour Party directly opposite their leader.

Three group leaders are present at the meeting, the Tory leader is indisposed and the BNP haven’t been invited and this announcement draws one of the few rounds of applause of the night. Placed on the podium from left to right, physically not politically, are Nick Gore of the Liberal Democrats, the chair from PCS, Mohammed Pervez leader of the Labour group and Andy Bentley of the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

Nick Gore is the first to speak and it would be fare to say his didn’t set the room alight with his oratory. Mr Gore’s speaking style consists mostly of reciting a list of local and national policies the Liberal Democrats have been able to push forward since going into coalition nationally and locally. They have seen off ID cards and got future pensioners a £150 state pension, locally his party plan to promote ‘green jobs’, but nobody including Mr Gore is quite sure what these actually are. Taking questions he seems nervous and struggles to defend a party that many accuse of selling out too many of its principles to attain power.

Labour leader Mohammed Pervez begins his speech by saying how important the elections are and stressing the need for a city like Stoke to be led by a single party with a strong mandate to govern. Under Labour, he says, Stoke would be a ‘working city’ again, this is a phrase he will work into the ground as the evening goes on using it in the answers to at least three questions and his closing remarks. Adding to the impression that he has been over rehearsed and under prepared for such an important event.

Where things go most wrong for him though is during questions from the floor, he is caught out badly on his approach to the spending cuts waffling ineffectually about ‘managing’ the process of deficit reduction and his having written to the Secretary of State pleading for Stoke to be treated as a special case; unsurprisingly Eric Pickles declined to do so. Later he is caught out over claims made in election leaflets put out in the city that Labour had ‘saved’ local children’s centres from closure, when all he really seems to have done is gain them a stay of execution.

Andy Bentley of TUSC knows his audience, the small one based mainly around his party, well and pressed their buttons with considerable skill, talking about Tory cuts and the unnecessary nature of the £36 million in cuts made by the council locally, instead he suggested using the city’s reserves and borrowing powers to protect services. He also attacked the PFI schemes that have made a few companies rich at great expense to ordinary working people.

His was certainly the most passionate speech of the night and he can be credited for suggesting the cuts are something people can fight back against rather than something the be managed at best and, more likely, endured at worst. Unfortunately he also seemed to inspire those present to indulge in the in fighting that is so prevalent on the left of British politics and which does it so much damage. A representative from Unite Against Fascism attacked his party for putting up a candidate against a Labour Councillor in a ward where the BNP had growing support, Labour attacked TUSC’s plans for fighting the cuts as unrealistic; to his credit Bentley answered both points well but this observer was still left with the impression of needless squabbling amongst people who might achieve more if only they could present a united front.

A number of things deeply disappointed me about the event, there was, for example little interaction amongst the candidates on the podium. I wasn’t expecting an ‘I agree with Nick’ moment from anyone present, but hearing people defend their position rather than regurgitate pre prepared sound bites would have been valuable. What really disappointed me though was the fact that the public weren’t present at all, largely because the event had not been advertised, everyone arrived with a political position of their own and I doubt they had changed it by the end of the evening.

What should have been an opportunity for engaging with the public, something politicians talk endlessly about wanting to do was turned instead into another opportunity for internecine squabbling. This should be the left’s moment, savage spending cuts directed by central government and the collapse of the ‘live now pay later culture’ that fuelled the economy for the quarter century up to the collapse of Northern Rock make their argument that public policy should be based on the needs of the many not the profits of the few more attractive than ever; yet they seem determined to blow the whole thing.

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