‘Labour don’t stand for people like us anymore; they’re only in it for themselves,’ a woman in her sixties tells me, as she speaks her head shakes with anger.
‘They’re shutting everything down, then they give themselves a pay rise,’ it’s a man speaking this time; he’s in his forties and has two children in tow.
I’m standing in Hanley town centre collecting signatures for a petition against the closure of Abbots House, a care home for dementia patients where my Father spent some time earlier this year. It is a busy Saturday morning with shoppers rushing to and fro, most pass by clutching bags or with mobile phones clamped to their ears, a few, more than a hundred by the end of the morning, stop and when they do they express a raw anger with the Labour Party which has had a virtual hegemony over running the city for decades.
Near to where I’m standing workmen are taking up the old paving slabs and replacing them with shiny new blocks as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the town centre. They’re also replacing the old streetlights with flash new ones, for some reason these are burning brightly even though it is daytime.
To explain how I came to be here we have to take a step back and it has rather a lot to do with those lights.
We need, I suppose, to step back to 2001 when I joined the Labour Party, Tony Blair had just won a second term in office with a huge majority and I thought I was joining a progressive and principled political party. It is hard to imagine now just how appealing Tony Blair and New Labour were to people who had lived through the tumult of the 1980’s, the decade when greed was good, society was a quaintly old fashioned notion and Labour were eternally unelectable also rans.
The marketing was masterful, guided by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell New Labour pulled off the trick of fooling most of the people for the best part of a decade. By the time I left the party in 2010 after nine years of active membership I had come to realise that the compassionate image was a false front masking something far less pleasant.
The Labour Party had become a hollowed out organisation that hadn’t just lost touch with the concerns of its core vote it had long since begun to take them contemptuously for granted. A party founded to speak up for working people had become a vehicle for the competing egos of a political elite, most of whom had never had a job away from Westminster.
Ample evidence of this can be seen in the endless feuds between the Blair and Brown factions, the shameful waste of the mandate provided by two huge majorities and the failure of Labour, despite three years of soul searching under the leadership of Ed Milliband, to find anything distinctive to say now they’re in opposition.
Locally the Labour Party had become complacent after decades of almost unbroken control of the city. Unelected officials from regional office routinely treated party members with decades of service with contempt and the open and fair debate essential to good policymaking was determinedly stifled.
Three years on little has changed and nothing has got any better. Under the leadership of Councillor Pervez Labour has continued to take the people of this city for granted. They have foisted upon us the expensive gamble of building the Central Business District, alienated residents of Stoke with plans to move the Civic Centre to Hanley doing untold damage to the economy of the town in the process and presided over savage cuts to services.
Earlier this year after much thought I joined the Green Party because they seemed to be the only party that talked about issues of social justice and sounded like they meant what they were saying, two weeks ago I accepted their invitation to stand as a candidate in the Badderley, Milton and Norton by-election.
What Stoke-on-Trent needs is an effective opposition voice in its council chamber, an opposition that will hold the ruling Labour group to account whilst at the same time having the maturity to work in cooperation with any party that has the best interests of our city at heart.
We need to have a serious discussion about the priorities influencing the way our city is governed. Long term regeneration cannot be tied to the retail sector, too many other towns are taking that route and the internet is changing the way we shop, we need to build a skilled manufacturing economy capable of exploiting the opportunities provided by green technology.
We also need to have a serious and open discussion about how we protect vital services, too often under the current administration the most vulnerable people are being asked to pay the highest price. That isn’t fair and it stores up serious problems for the future that will cancel out any savings made now.
I believe the Green Party can provide a real alternative for dissatisfied voters in Stoke-on-Trent, because ours is a party that believes politics only works when everyone works together for the common good.
Something has gone seriously wrong in the political life of our city, the plans to move the Civic Centre against the wishes of the majority of the public have soured relations with the council; many people no longer trust their elected representatives to listen to let alone speak up for their concerns. A swanky light fitting burning wastefully in the daytime is an apt metaphor for a Labour group that has grown too complacent, too distant to represent the people of this city; it is time we put the lights out on them both.