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.

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