Sunday, 15 February 2015

Labour should park its pink bus along with all the other gimmicks.

This week shoppers at a branch of ASDA in Stevenage were treated to an offer that was 'special' in entirely the wrong way.

It was the launch of the Labour Party's 'Woman to Woman' campaign and involved deputy leader Harriet Harman trundling up in a van the colour of a sunburnt Miss Piggy in search of the party's lost female voters.

To say this first big stunt of the coming election campaign caused a bit of a fuss is rather like saying the pigeons got a bit of a surprise when a dirty great cat appeared in their midst.

Twitter went wild with users, not all of them women, burning up their keyboards typing out pithy messages about how this was 'patronising' and 'sexist.' Even the usually Labour friendly Daily Mirror got in on the act with political correspondent Kevin Maguire tweeting 'Pink? Pink? I'd have expected Harriet Harman to demand a blue bus election bus to fight gender stereotypes.'

Defending the whole sorry stunt in an interview with ITV's This Morning show Harman said the colour of the van, which she had twisted herself into comical knots trying to say was magenta rather than pink, had to be eye catching because 'there is a big hole in our democratic politics.'

Its one shaped like the 9.1 million women who chose not to vote in the 2010 general election because, she said, 'they just don't think politicians have any interest in their lives,' and that she wanted to send the message to women to 'use your vote, use your voice because politics is too important to be left only to men.'

Noble sentiments, most things are too important to be left only to men; at least they are if you want anything to get done about them.

Later, speaking to the Huffington Post Harriet Harman defended the colour of the bus (its pink not magenta OK) said 'well it doesn't have big pink eyelashes on the front;' phew what a relief, because that would have been really patronising wouldn't it?

She also claimed her 'Woman to Woman' campaign was was the first campaign aimed at women, which would have come as a bit of a shock to the suffragettes.

There are times when the antics of politicians really do make you despair, its almost as if they're trying to make themselves irrelevant; this is one such occasion.

Supporters may point to the fact that a ComRes poll conducted for the Independent on Sunday still gives Labour a small lead over the Conservatives, but a bungle this big so early on could be a further nail in the party's electoral coffin. The same poll shows Ed Milliband trailing David Cameron on most questions relating to leadership abilities and sanctioning a mess like this is hardly going to do him any favours.

This is a scheme that is long on marketing gimmickry and painfully short on actual ideas, politicians trundling around the country in a bus looking for voters is hardly an original concept. The fact they've decided the colour of the bus matters to which voters they attract is a new wrinkle, suggesting they think the whole process is a bit like hunting for moths. As a whole though it is all too sadly typical of the sort of nonsense Labour have been prey to since the advent of Tony Blair.

You have to feel sorry for Harriet Harman, she is an intelligent woman who has spent her career speaking up for her gender in parliament, often facing harsh criticism and cheap ridicule in the process; she deserves better than being wheeled out to front stupidity of this sort.

This is further proof that Labour, in this instance, the Tories with their black tie balls and Fifty Shades of Grey style relationship with city hedge funds are sure to come up with something equally silly some time soon, are totally out of touch with the electorate.

There is no such thing as 'women's issues', in the sense of issues that are of concern to women and nobody else. Men often think that more should be done about domestic violence or to improve access to affordable childcare; women want the government to do more to help small businesses and think the UK should have a strong defence policy.

Personal experience is a far more reliable guide to political priorities than gender or any other crude generalisation. Thinking this isn't the case is in effect supporting the 'divide and rule' tactics that force voters into dozens of small camps each set against the other that supports the defunct status quo.

It is a mindset that Labour, a party that originated in a radical challenge to the establishment, should be fighting against; not endorsing through silly stunts, however well meant they might be.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The decline of our high streets is about more than just empty shops.

It is an unfortunate truth that wherever there is a league table there is a good chance that Stoke-on-Trent will find itself near to the bottom.

That happened again last week when the Local Data Company published its league table for town with the most vacant shops, three of the six towns making up our city placed in the bottom ten.

In Burslem, according to the report, 29.4% of shops are empty, in Hanley its 27.7% and in Stoke 26.6% of shops are standing empty, the national average is 11.8% with towns in the South doing better than those in the grim old North.

Traders across the city called on the council to do more to support businesses in the six town centres, Cynthia Bruce, owner of the Aisle of Brides store in Stoke told the Sentinel that 'rents here are too high' and said that something needs to be done to 'give people an incentive to move here.'

In defence the council drew attention to the £4.1million spent on restoring buildings in Burslem town centre and the £900,000 facelift scheme being delivered in Stoke through a partnership with English Heritage.

Council leader Mohammed Pervez told the Sentinel the 'problems of empty shops affects cities up and down the UK,' and said the council's regeneration strategy is about 'working closely with private sector partners, helping to create the space and conditions for businesses to thrive.'

The decline of the British high street is a tragedy that has been unfolding in slow motion for decades. Everybody thinks something should be done about it; but nobody seems to know exactly what.

That doesn't mean that nothing has been done, just that most of the attempts at revival have been pretty ineffectual if often well meant.

Take the so called 'Portas Pilots', when the government brought in abrasive TV personality Mary Portas in to help revive flagging town centres with, of course, a camera crew following close behind.

The key feature here is that what was going on was a television programme first and a scheme to save struggling high streets from oblivion second, a very distant second at times. In the way of modern television the driving force was conflict and Portas provided this in spades, striding around speaking plainly, or being plain rude depending on your view of such things.

The camera loved it, many of the towns involved didn't, spin the tape forward a couple of years and most are no further forward from where they started and the people concerned have gained little apart from, perhaps, the feeling they have been chewed up and spat out that is common to anyone who has been in contact with the less than magical world of reality television.

The truth is our complacent political class isn't much fussed what happens to the high street, or streets, in towns like Stoke, like an earthquake in China there demise is sad, but too far away to have an impact on their lives. They inhabit a mostly southern world of bijou towns with artisan bakers, a couple of art galleries and a delightful little gastro-pub, a super place to live, if you're rich enough.

There is no sadder place to be than in the centre of a town like Stoke that is slowly dying from a mix of inertia and official indifference. Sadly local government seems no more interested in the plight of the high street than the national variety.

Too many councillors and local government officials have bought into the witless idea that the high street and the small independent businesses that are its core are, like steam trains and fountain pens, a charming anachronism that have had their day. Big chains and flagship malls are where its at; nobody and nothing else makes the game.

You can see evidence of this in the way Mr Pervez and his cabinet have trumpeted the forthcoming arrival of fast food chains Nandos and Frankie and Benny's at the expanded Intu Potteries Centre. The jobs they will bring are welcome in a town where too many people are without work; the corresponding replacement of local character with corporate sameness isn't.

The tragedy for towns like Stoke lies in the fact that to the people who live and shop there they matter for reasons way beyond where they buy their groceries. They inform deep feelings about identity and act as a barometer for the health of our communities.

When they are allowed to wither it is hard not to feel that yet again local people are having something important taken away from them by an elite who never see, let alone have to live with the consequences of their actions.

The lesson of the big crash of 2008 is that people want a society that operates on a more human scale. That's why shoppers are deserting huge out of town supermarkets in favour of the shops on their doorstep, dropping processed food trucked in from miles away for produce grown locally; and why the idea that only London can deliver good governance looks like the real anachronism.

Sadly the political establishment, despite its members boasting a constellation of starred double firsts in PPE from Oxbridge are, again, one jump behind the rest of us. As a result they can't hear the death rattle of the high street because of all the noise they're making about austerity being the only game in town.