Monday, 25 November 2013

The last thing Stoke needs is another celebrity MP.

Last week veteran Stoke North MP Joan Walley announced that she will stand down at the next election, setting in train a race to be her successor akin to the recent hunt for a new Dr Who.

Over the next few weeks everyone will be talking about regeneration and at some stage the baddies from Labour’s regional office will trundle onstage waggling their antenna and barking ‘you will obey!’ in a scary monotone.

Several prominent local party members have been suggested as possible contenders including former group leader Joy Garner and ex cabinet member Debra Gratton.

Both are solidly loyal to the party high command, if unlikely to stir up much in the way of excitement amongst local voters.

A more interesting option might be Olwyn Hamer, another former cabinet member and one of the few local Labour councillors to have the talent to be a full time politician.

She is a competent performer in the council chamber and a forceful character with a clear set of political values. Ideal qualifications for a prospective MP you might think, however being on the list as a possible candidate to be a MEP, not to mention the fact that she has sufficient talent and independence of mind not to be cowed by regional office might count against her.

All these rational considerations were thrown to the wind anyway at the end of last week when the Sentinel published an article suggesting that a young woman by the name of Mabel McKeown was ‘hotly tipped’ to be Joan Walley’s replacement.

Who she? Well might you ask.

Ms McKeown is a former aide to Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and an unsuccessful candidate in the Ealing Broadway council London Assembly elections.

She is also the daughter of 1980’s TV star Tracey Ullman and a regional office spokesperson speaking to the Sentinel on Friday described her as a ‘very highly respected political adviser’, who would ‘make an excellent MP one day.’

Possibly so; but not today and not here, I have nothing against Ms McKeown, but the last thing this city needs is to have another celebrity, or in this case I suppose the child of a celebrity, MP foisted upon it.

The situation as it is unfolding has some unfortunate similarities to the events following the retirement of Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher in 2010 and the subsequent ‘parachuting in’ of Tristram Hunt as his successor.

A hugely respected local figure has announced her retirement and almost at once a slate of paper candidates have emerged, possibly to provide a smokescreen for the virtual coronation of the candidate regional office wanted to get the nomination all along.

That might be Mabel McKeown; it might be someone else, anyone who has encountered Labour’s regional office for the midlands knows only too well that they love nothing better than surrounding even the simplest task with more bluffs and double bluffs than you’d find in the plot of a spy novel.

The point is Labour Party members and then voters in Stoke North risk being railroaded into accepting a candidate they didn’t really choose and who, in all probability, has no connection to the area apart from seeing it as a stepping stone.

There are some important differences between now and 2010 and members of the Labour Party in Stoke North need to use them to their advantage.

For a start time is on their side, they are choosing a candidate with more than a year, rather than a few weeks, to go before the next election. There is no need for the selection to be rushed, party members, not paid officials need to set the timetable and to make the decision they want to not the one they’re told to.

They will be aided in this by the fact that unlike in 2010 regional office casts a much less menacing shadow over constituency parties, largely because despite all its other faults the Labour Party under the leadership of Ed Milliband is far less paranoid and authoritarian than it was during Gordon Brown’s tenure.

Over the next few weeks Labour Party members in Stoke North will suddenly discover they have become figures of importance overnight. Their phones will ring off the wall with earnest young men and women seeking their views, their wisdom and, most of all, their endorsement.

They need to recognise they are in a position of strength, they should not be afraid to ask awkward questions of every prospective candidate who crosses their path and to cast their final vote with what they’ve heard in mind.

Selecting the right replacement for Joan Walley matters, perhaps more to the people of Stoke than who wins the general election. This city needs a team of MPs who understand the huge social and economic challenges it faces and have the courage and pragmatism to put addressing those challenges ahead of advancing their own careers.

As an active member of the Green Party I’d like one of those MPs to be one of ours, but know the current voting system doesn’t make that a practical possibility. That’s why I’m hoping Labour Party members in Stoke North make the right decision, if that means upsetting their party leadership so be it.

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