Tuesday, 21 October 2014

This is what the revolution might look like.

Think of a political meeting held on a cold October evening and what image comes to mind? Probably one of a dismal little gathering taking place in a dingy room somewhere, everyone going through the motions without feeling they can really change anything.

Attending the monthly meeting of the reinvigorated North Staffs Green Party promised something different, not least because this was to be the meeting at which the party chose its parliamentary candidate for 2015.

The setting was the futuristic new fire station in Sandyford, when I arrived there were already ten people present, an outstanding turnout for a political meeting in a city where civic life is rapidly atrophying, before the seven o’clock start time this number had more than doubled.

Looking around the room the average age of attendees was well over forty, not a surprise, politics is a business for the middle aged. There were though several younger people present, a testimony to the party’s strong following at Keele University and proof that despite the best attempts of the media to say otherwise the young are engaged with politics; at least they are when it takes the trouble to engage with them.

The atmosphere in the room was warm, warmer certainly than that at meetings of larger parties in the city, where the business of politics is done by people with scowls on their faces and all too often either an agenda to push or an axe to grind.

Things got under way with all the usual fuss you’d expect, minutes needing to be gone though and found accurate, apologies to be recorded and drinks doled out. Tea or Coffee such a simple question and yet it manages to cause so much confusion.

It was all done in an amiable and slightly chaotic manner, making a refreshing change from the soul sapping pedantry and point -scoring you get at so many political meetings. In the discussions that followed about the merits and risks associated with coal-bed methane extraction and plans for the forthcoming elections everyone had their say, points were made with passion and conceded without rancour, the stultifying conformity other parties impose was thankfully nowhere to be seen.

Then it was on to the main business of the evening, choosing the party’s first candidate to fight a parliamentary seat in Stoke-on-Trent. The only name on the ticket, the party held an open nominations process in which all members were encouraged to participate, was that of Jan Zablocki. A long time trades union activist and the sort of campaigner who used to be the backbone of the Labour Party, until they decided to first take them for granted and then ignore them completely.

Earlier in the evening Mr Zablocki had been ambling around the room taking orders for tea and coffee and then bustling about the small kitchen with the urn and teabags. This is something of a first; in my experience prospective parliamentary candidates tend to have a more highly developed estimation of their own importance, particularly if they also have a fraction of the life experience and have notched up far fewer miles on the campaign trail.

In his nomination statement Mr Zablocki spoke about his belief that the representation of the people of this city by its current MPs as being ‘feeble and ineffective’ and being ‘driven by a desire to satisfy the narrow, entrenched agendas of their political masters rather than a genuine desire to speak out for improvements to the lives of local people.’

The Green Party, he said, represented a form of political representation that was ‘more closely in touch with the real needs’ of local people and ‘more sincere and determined about dealing with the issues that have blighted the lives of the people of our city and increasingly divided the nation between those with great wealth and power and those without.’

He ended by saying ‘we need a powerful voice closely connected with local people, their history, their everyday lives and an understanding of their aspirations for a better future. I believe I can be that voice for the North Staffs Green Party.’

The speech was delivered with a passion I have encountered on previous occasions when I have heard Jan Zablocki speak, the last being at the recent public meeting on the proposed sell off of cancer services. This is a man to whom politics matters deeply and he is refreshingly unashamed about saying so.

His is a voice as far from the patrician tones of the candidates parachuted in to the city by the three main parties as New York is from Newcastle under Lyme. This is very much the voice of the man in the street; but don’t let that fool you, behind it is a sharp intellect and an assured ability to pose questions that leave his opponents twisting in the wind, as happened to the hapless stuffed suits from the CCG at that meeting on cancer services.

After a secret ballot Mr Zablocki was endorsed as the Green Party candidate without a vote being cast against him. His wasn’t a slick performance and he stumbled a little when taking questions from the floor, but it was an honest one given by a man who clearly believes in what he is doing.

I have attended political meetings across the city for the best part of a decade and much of what I have seen has left me feeling disheartened. All too often it feels like being a witness to the end of something; this felt like it might be the beginning.

The Greens have a steep hill to climb, the first past the post electoral system we were all scared into hanging onto in 2011 works against them, as does the electoral inertia that sends a dwindling number of active voters out to tick the Labour box every few years. And yet there is a feeling that something has changed in the political life of the UK, the Scottish independence referendum showed that people will engage with politics when it takes the trouble to engage with them.

If Ukip, a party distinguished chiefly by what it is against can come as far as it has in such a short space of time, how far can a party that believes in things and has the courage to talk about them go? This really could be what the revolution looks like.

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