Saturday, 23 March 2013

Playing to an empty gallery

The meeting following the budget council was always going to be less of a carnival than the budget council, in much the same way that Boxing Day is always an anticlimax compared to Christmas Day.

Proceedings began as usual with the charming anachronism of prayers, this time round a rather downbeat Chaplin offering up a reading from the book of Isaiah and a prayer for opinions to be expressed in charity and decisions made in wisdom. Nice sentiments, but not usually the way things are done down at the Civic. Actually given what was to follow he might have been better reading out the funeral service.

Business proper began with awards being handed out to Kath Banks (Hollybush and Longton West) for her community engagement work with the Fire Authority and to a young woman who had taken part in the Local Enterprise Partnership’s Apprenticeship Recognition Programme. All very nice and I’m sure both awards were richly deserved, but it seemed a little more like a school assembly than democracy in action.

Then we got to the meat of the meeting, if you’ll pardon the pun, a long spiel from Lord Mayor Terry Crowe (Eaton Park) about his role being to ‘keep order’ during council meetings. Quite so, but the question of who’s order hung in that air as he spoke like the smell of stale kippers. You might think he was protesting a little too much about his decision to clear the public gallery at the last meeting being correct; I couldn’t possibly comment.

The ghost of the Civic Centre move was raised, again, even though the issue itself was quietly rubberstamped behind closed doors by the council the day before by the only one of the six petitions put before the meeting to gain enough signatures to have a chance of being sent for scrutiny.

It was presented by an articulate young man called Christian Foster who gave a calmly reasoned speech that dismantled with forensic logic the case for moving the Civic Centre to the Central Business District. His contribution to the debate was better than anything that followed and far above the standard exhibited by most elected members, which is perhaps why it received such a frosty reception.

Step forward Paul Shotton (Fenton East), Deputy Leader of the council and its favourite hatchet man. He began by making an admission that the council hadn’t done a ‘good PR job’ over the Civic move; crikey you don’t say, then launched into the predictable defence of the move that pretty much compounded that self same PR disaster.

Poor silly public complaining about the move and how much it will cost, we’re all being manipulated by an opposition determined to ‘play to the gallery’. Where Christian Foster made his case using reason and rhetoric, Councillor Shotton preferred to use good straightforward insults; a hammer and cold chisel as opposed to a diamond tipped scalpel if you like.

He had as a backing band an oily crew of Labour councillors who took turns to jump to their feet to recite ad-nauseum the party line that moving the Civic whatever the cost is the only option. Honourable mentions should go to independents Randy Conteh (Penkhull and Stoke) and Paul Breeze (Birches Head and Central Forest Park) for speaking out in support of sending the decision for scrutiny; they turned out to be lonely voices in a wilderness of indifference.

The decision not to send the decision to the overview and scrutiny committee was, unsurprisingly, carried. It was followed by a boo from the public gallery worthy of the entrance of a pantomime villain, if this bothered Councillor Shotton he gave no outward sign, in fact if he’d had a waxed moustache he’d probably have been twirling it furiously.

From there the meeting slipped intractably into the morass of tedium, Andy Platt (Boothen and Oakhill) made a long and rambling speech about changes to the council’s constitution, this was followed by an equally turgid oration from Gwen Hassall (Abbey Hulton and Townsend). I don’t doubt both had important points to make, but all the life seemed to have been sucked out of the chamber; this was democracy by numbers with all the passion factored out.

Later, in a short debate on the Health and Wellbeing policy Councillor Conteh made a good point about the lack of public involvement at the consultation stage, he didn’t get a response from the Labour benches. That said more than words ever could about their lack of interest in what the public think.

I’m not, I hope, enough of a cynic to think that the only motivation for members of the council entering public life is gaining and holding onto power. In their awkward way they mean well, but they are so deeply sunk in their bureaucratic silos they can’t reach the outside world.

The business of politics is often grindingly mundane, but it is never unimportant since it touches every aspect of our daily lives. Which makes it all the more important that it should be done in a way that draws in and engages the public rather than shutting them out and boring them into apathy.

By far the most positive aspect of the evening was a conversation I had with a member of the March on Stoke campaign about their plans to encourage as many communities as possible around the city to set up parish councils. It’s a way of taking a few of the reins of power away from semi-professional politicians and putting them back into the hands of local people.

The plan has its virtues, less bureaucracy and more accountability; and its drawbacks, the largest being a temptation to parochialism, which one wins out will decide the success or failure of the whole project. There is also the small matter of getting potentially dozens of parish councils to work together to advance their shared interests requiring United Nations level mediation skills.

Whatever the problems setting up parish councils across the city poses the result has to be better than the dreary, lifeless exercise in futility acted out whenever the current council meets.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The political class starring in a tragedy of its own making

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over the Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce saga which ended this week with the judge who sentenced them to eight months imprisonment each describing it as a ‘tragedy of their own making.’ Yet again the Liberal Democrats have shown themselves to be the comic relief of British politics, at their hands even corruption is like something out of a second rate sitcom.

You can spend hours casting in your imagination the small screen version of this sad farrago of swapped speeding points, hubris and the operatic anger of a scorned wife. The late Richard Briers would be a shoo-in to play Chris Huhne as a suburban blowhard with delusions of grandeur; henpecked to the point of madness by Prunella Scales as the shrewish Pryce.

When it comes to the script the only team for the job would have to be Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, the geniuses behind Steptoe and Son and other comedy classics. They seemed to understand better than anyone else that the divide between laughter and tears is thinner than cigarette paper; in the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce it is virtually transparent.

When the tears of laughter dry there is something deeply tragic about their public fall from grace. Personally tragic in the sense that these are two people who will forever be defined by a single mistake and equally tragic in the effect it will have on how we relate to the political class most sensible people wish we didn’t have.

Chris Huhne seems to have genuinely believed that avoiding the minor embarrassment a speeding ban may have caused him sanctioned committing a serious crime. In fact had he taken the points and the ban that followed the whole incident would have been long forgotten; now it is the only thing anyone will ever remember about him.

His then wife Vicky Pryce was happy to collude with him in perverting the course of justice and reneged on that position not due to the promptings of her conscience but in a feat of pique when he dumped her. An instance of adolescent petulance that hardly does justice to an intelligent woman and was further compounded by absurd claims that she had been coerced into telling lies by her husband; frankly by the look of him Mr Huhne would come off worse in an altercation with a wet paper bag.

This is, I suppose, the only outcome of having a political class that sees the world outside its own limited orbit as a collection of abstractions. Everything and everyone becomes just another piece to be moved around the board in the great game of fulfilling their ambitions and bolstering their inflated self image.

This scandal, like the one about MPs expenses exposes the hypocrisy and lack of ambition festering at the heart of the political establishment. If you’re going to sell your reputation down the river shouldn’t you do so for something a little more substantial than a new duck house or the chance to fiddle your speeding points?

The hypocrisy of the political establishment can be seen all too clearly in the response to the jailing of Huhne and Pryce by the party of which they were both once members; they have dropped them like hot potatoes. Hardly a very liberal way to behave and, you suspect, listening to some of the pious calls for them to be locked up and the key thrown away, a reaction to their being horrified by two of their number having been caught than by what they have actually done.

In truth neither Chris Huhne nor Vicky Pryce should have gone to prison even though they committed a serious offence, at the end of they day they’re a couple of deluded dopes; not Bonnie and Clyde. By breaking these two dowdy butterflies on a wheel of self righteousness the political establishment is simply making itself look absurd.

The comic cuts surrounding this trial have only served to further sap public confidence in politics and those people who practice it, making it ever harder to argue that most politicians aren’t ‘just in it for themselves.’ Perhaps in a week when the new Pope promised a more frugal approach to how the Vatican does business our politicians might try something similar to rehabilitate their reputation.

I don’t imagine sackcloth and ashes becoming the order of the day at Westminster, but giving some serious contemplation to serving the purpose of the institution rather than the demands of their ambition might be a useful exercise for the incumbents.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why are we so polite to them when they ignore us?

Kingsway Stoke on a Thursday evening at the end of February, I’m standing in a queue of people waiting to get into the Civic Centre for the meeting at which the council will vote on its budget for the year ahead. By all accounts it could be a stormy evening; unions representing public sector workers, members of the March on Stoke campaign and a small, but noisy contingent from the Socialist Workers Party are all present.

Behind me in the queue a young woman juggles a toddler on her hip, ‘This is where we queue to get into the party,’ she says in a bright voice. The toddler goggles in wonderment at the crowds and the flags as his mother remarks the ‘this is a very different energy than nursery’ in the same bright ‘aren’t we all going to have fun’ tone of voice. ‘Its going to be exactly like nursery in there,’ chips in a wag.

He has a point, there is something slightly childish about the response of the council to so many people turning up to what is after all a public meeting. Within minutes an official appears to say there is no more room in the public gallery and plans to relay the meeting to a screen in another part of the Civic Centre have been cancelled. There is a ripple of disapproval through the crowd, someone, maybe one of the SWP activists shouts ‘Let us in!’ very loudly, then just as it looks like things are going to turn ugly the official appears again to say they will be showing the meeting by video link after all.

Around fifty of us troop upstairs to the faded civic grandeur of the Jubilee Room where a sort of impromptu encounter group develops. Everyone wants to vent their anger at the council and its plans to move the Civic Centre from Stoke to Hanley. One particularly touching speaker is a woman in her sixties who breaks down in tears as she talks about the city she loves being ‘sold off’ one bit at a time. This isn’t the confected anger of professional protestors; there is genuine anger and sadness here.

The meeting when it starts lives down to the expectations of the audience and rapidly turns into an unseemly squabble preceded by council leader Mohammed Pervez reading out details of the latest spending cuts and the council’s plans to lure jobs and investment to the city with all the gravitas of a speak your weight machine that has lost interest in its job. He is followed by a parade of Labour councillors reading out speeches that have been written for them by the party’s regional office, most choose to do so whilst making a close inspection of their shoes.

Two opposition councillors, Paul Breeze and Andrew Lilley, the latter a member of the cabinet until he resigned over the spending cuts earlier this year, make impassioned speeches against the cuts and are shouted down by the Chair for making ‘personal remarks’. Later in the meeting the public gallery will be cleared because someone, allegedly, shouted an abusive remark, although it was inaudible to the microphones relaying the meeting to the Jubilee Room.

However fragile the sensibilities of Labour councillors are deemed to be by the Chair those of the oppositions are, seemingly more robust. If the remarks that could be judged as ‘personal’ were to be removed from the speeches given by deputy leader Paul Shotton and Councillor Pervez both men might have been reduced to communicating through mime.

Watching this unedifying spectacle I couldn’t help but contrast it with the scenes played out on the Kingsway a little earlier. These may be still salad days for March on Stoke, but they seem to have tapped into a powerful lode of public feeling, a force that is handled properly could be transformational.

What I arrived Alan Barret, the leader of this campaign that might soon have to start thinking of itself as a movement was mingling with the crowd, but not, seemingly, ‘working it’ in the way a politician might. He cuts, at first glance with his beard and hat with a feather poked into the band, an eccentric figure. At close quarters he is warm, self deprecating and much sharper than his opponents think; he may be an idealist, but he is fully in touch with the realities of life.

At one stage a middle aged man approached and asked him why people were so ‘polite’ to the council when it ignores their concerns every time. To his credit Mr Barret said he didn’t know; I don’t know either, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Perhaps we are too deferential, Stoke is a city built on skilled trades but lacks the sense of its own worth found in other places, perhaps because the potteries paid less than comparable industries. People are still certainly too tolerant of the Labour Party’s hegemony over political power, without a credible opposition any party will become complacent and disengaged from the electorate.

This has left us trapped between the rock of knowing that staying as we are isn’t an option and the hard place the city is liable to end up in thanks to the ‘Mandate for Change’ Councillor Pervez and his cabinet invoke like a magic charm. Despite claims to the contrary people who oppose the moving of the Civic Centre and question the viability of the Central Business District aren’t against ‘aspiration’, they want to see their city prosper; but they know at an instinctive level that the plans put forward by the council so far won’t achieve their aims because they ignore the needs and concerns of local people.

It is possible to see the tough corner the council has been painted into by a government that has a rigid economic plan of its own to force through and sees little point in helping to regenerate a city where the Tory vote is minimal. On the evening of the budget meeting I found myself talking to two Labour councillors in a pub near to the Civic Centre, their frustration as they explained the complexity of raising money to fund public services seemed genuine.

As did their earnest pledge that they hadn’t abandoned Stoke, one promised that within two years we would see ‘steel in the ground’, bringing new development and jobs to the town. Perhaps we will too, although residents of this city have heard a great many proposals for building utopia that haven’t quite been fulfilled and so the scepticism barrier is set, rightly, very high.

Personally I would feel more inclined to believe in the regeneration of the city becoming a reality if its political life were more robust. The ugly shambles of the budget meeting, which rubber stamped the spending cuts behind closed doors hardly showed the sort of engagement that will be needed to bring about real change.

Instead it spoke of a council that has become detached from the people who elected it trading on old loyalties and inertia to maintain its position. Compared to that the admittedly unformed, but open, positive and good natured type of politics offered by the March on Stoke campaign is going to go on looking more attractive to people who are tired of the same old parties doing business in the same old way.