Sunday, 29 March 2015

Debates suggest the contest is Hunt’s to lose.

Last week the first local election debates took place, they were rather like the pre- season friendlies that precede the Premier League, they give some guide to who is up for the game and who is just making up the numbers; this time round they also suggest the end result might not be a forgone conclusion.

The first debate was held at the Civic Centre on Thursday evening and had been organised by the YMCA for the purpose of helping young people ‘connect’ with politics. It would be fair to say that my expectations weren’t high, such events can be a little worthy and forced, thankfully my preconceptions were confounded.

The young people involved were well informed and took the whole thing seriously, not something I have always found with, allegedly, adult audiences at political meetings. That said we had been waiting in the chamber for things to get started for less than ten minutes before a female voice shouting ‘Heidi’ crackled through the ageing PA system, followed by a mass of giggling and shushing; these were still teenagers after all.

And doesn’t our ailing political system need them more than ever, not just to provide a handy pool of voters of tomorrow, the young have the virtue of still believing in wrong and right as near absolutes. This can, of course, be dangerous when taken to extremes, but when managed properly provided a welcome corrective to the world weariness of voters who have let experience make them cynical.

The issues occupying the minds of the young voters present on Thursday night were predominantly related to the economy and mental health, between which it is possible to draw strong links.

Responding to their questions allowed Green Party candidate Jan Zablocki to score early points and applause attacking zero hours contracts and the ‘false expectations’ set up for young people by consumerism. Mick Harold, Ukip, made a less than impressive start, sprinkling his answers with mumbled ‘you knows’ and basically recycling old Daily Mail editorials dressed up as policies, a tactic he would use in both debates. Tory Liam Ascough managed to create a silence through which tumbleweed rolled when he said that cutting benefits ‘wasn’t a bad thing’ before repeating the party line about freeing people from dependency by making them destitute; not many votes won there I fear.

The main disappointment of the evening was the main event, the opportunity for the audience to hear Labour incumbent Tristram Hunt debate with the other candidates. He barely seemed to be in the room, spending an inordinate amount of time looking up at the, admittedly impressive, ceiling of the chamber and fidgeting in his seat like a bored schoolboy during double maths. When he answered questions he seemed to be reciting a script prepared beforehand using the lazy politician’s playbook, everything was prefaced by an ‘encounter’ with a hypothetical constituent, but any hint of passion or even interest was absent.

You could have been forgiven for getting the impression that he was finding the whole thing a bit of a drag, at least on Question Time there’s usually David Starkey to have a row with. The whole performance was strongly suggestive of bored entitlement and can hardly have made a good impression on the first time voters in the audience.

The following evening I found myself standing in the foyer of the Science Block at Staffordshire University listening to a man with a large Ukip rosette pinned to his lapel reciting very loudly the sort of opinions that do nothing to dispel his party’s stereotype. It is a space that resembles a motorway hotel more than a seat of learning with its coffee bar and acres of plate glass.

This second debate had attracted a larger and more varied audience, grey haired professors in baggy cords mingling with students and a smattering of long- time local political activists. In one corner ex-mayor Mark Meredith was holding court with several students, shoring up the youth vote for a comeback maybe, at some point Stoke North MP in waiting Ruth Smeeth loped through the foyer exuding weapons grade entitlement with every step.

Then, at last, the man himself Tristram Hunt, arrived, fashionably late to do his sound check and instantly gave those standing near a little amusement by struggling to open the door into the auditorium. Things like that just aren’t supposed to someone who is, by his own estimation anyway, the next prime minister but one.

This time round the issue that defined the debate was immigration, largely due to a small but noisy group of Ukip supporters being in the audience. It must have disappointed them that their man was no more impressive than he had been the previous evening, recycling the same truisms with a little more passion this time round.

Jan Zablocki gave another impressive performance, catching Hunt out twice, first on his having written in an article for the Sentinel that immigration wasn’t an issue locally only to say on the night that is was a major one on the city’s doorsteps; then picking him up when he said Labour would outlaw ‘unjust’ zero hours contracts when in the previous debate he had said they would ban them outright; oops.

Liberal Democrat Zulfiquar Ali also gave a strong performance, coming across as a decent man with a genuine feeling for local issues, but, sadly, one who had hitched his wagon to a party doomed to be a political punch bag at the forthcoming election.

Once again Tristram Hunt barely seemed to be participating, spending much of the evening sitting back in his chair arms folded exuding undisguised boredom, at one point he even took the opportunity to do a little paperwork. Perhaps he was finishing off another column he will have to pretend he can’t remember writing.

Out of the two debates it is possible to identify Jan Zablocki as a clear winner; he showed admirable eloquence and command of detail, more importantly he made a connection with both audiences gaining by far the most rounds of applause. Liam Ascough and Mick Harold proved to be plodding also ran’s, either or both might up their game as the contest goes on, but for now their deposits look like lost money.

The big question is just what does Tristram Hunt think he is playing at? Perhaps he’s deploying a sort of rope-a-dope tactic, lulling us all into a sense of false security before unleashing a devastating combination of rhetorical jabs and hooks; I doubt it though.

His assertion in both debates that after the election there will be a Labour or Tory prime minister come what may suggests he hasn’t quite got how things have changed over the past couple of years. Whilst technically true the leader of either party will in all probability have to work with the Greens, Ukip, the SNP or the parties from Northern Ireland to form a coalition, so it would be a good idea to start working with them now on a local and national level.

To keep the boxing metaphor going Tristram Hunt and Labour in general reminds me of a boxer so confident of winning his next bout that he sets up his training camp in the coffee shop of a luxury hotel. Pride often comes before a fall, the game has changed for good and if either fails to respond to that fact the coming election may be theirs to lose.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Debates must cut through the 'smoke and mirrors' of politics

Debates must cut through the 'smoke and mirrors' of politics

North Staffs Green Party PPC for the Stoke Central Jan Zablocki says this week’s debates must 'cut through the smoke and mirrors' that surrounds politics.

Mr Zablocki will be participating in the debates to be held at the Jubilee Hall on Thursday night and at the Science Block at Staffordshire University on Friday evening.

A long -time activist for the Communications Workers Union he has put defending worker’s rights and speaking up for local people at the heart of his campaign.

He has also been leading the fight for a replacement visitor’s centre at Park Hall Country Park in the Weston Coyney council ward where he is also standing as a candidate.

Speaking about his priorities for the forthcoming debates Mr Zablocki said he hoped the debates would ‘provide an opportunity for people to see through the smoke and mirrors of politics and expose the real difference between the Green Party’s policies and those of the three main parties who have got us into such a mess.’

He added that he hoped the debates would show ‘young people in particular that they can use the power of their vote to make a difference and change politics in Britain to build a better future for themselves.’

A spokesperson for North Staffs Green Party said their ‘inclusion in local and national debates shows the party’s phenomenal growth in standing and influence and that ‘Jan is an eloquent speaker who will give as good as he gets on stage.’

Friday, 20 March 2015

Radical changes to the fire service are a cut too far.

On Monday Staffordshire Fire and Rescue bosses announced a radical review of the service in response to an expected £5.7 million cut in government funding. A significant drop in ‘high severity’ call-outs, such as major road traffic accidents or fires that spread from their point of origin, was also cited as a reason for the proposed changes.

Speaking about the fall in high severity call-outs Staffordshire Chief Fire Officer Peter Dartford told the Sentinel the situation today is ‘much different than it was five or ten years ago and that’s predominantly because of the proactive work that we have been doing in the community which has resulted in fewer fires.’

The proposed changes to the service include removing fire cover from 18 stations across the county, cutting the number of fire appliances from 42 to just 15 and axing the jobs of all 499 retained fire fighters. At the time the number of full time fire fighters will rise to 390 as new jobs are created to provide round the clock cover at the remaining stations.

Peter Dartford told the Sentinel the service faced the ‘challenge of a reducing budget so we have to think about how we can do things differently while continuing to deliver all the same services and outcomes for the community, but with less resources.’

There’s doing things differently and then there’s doing something that appears to be plain mad; guess which category these changes fall into?

I have heard Peter Dartford speak at public meetings on a number of occasions and he is clearly passionate about fire safety and has achieved some impressive results since taking up his post. More to the point he is clearly nobody’s fool.

Which makes it all the more surprising that he can suggest that just 15 fire engines could ever be enough to meet the need of the entire county, a single major accident on the M6 or a large enough fire could produce problems that put lives and property needlessly at risk.

Perhaps these proposals are the opening bid in a game of poker being played between Dartford and the bean counters at the Treasury. A way of saying, ok so you want cuts then we’ll make some; but when the worst happens and it will the smoke stained fire fighter staggering out of the rubble like Steve McQueen in Towering Inferno will be pointing the finger of blame at you.

That’s the best case scenario, although I wouldn’t like to bet on the mandarins of the Treasury having the sensitivity to get the point, their record on empathy is notoriously poor.

There is another and much darker possibility, that the imperative to cut and cut deep has become ingrained in the culture of public services leadership. A flaw in their thinking that causes good men like Peter Dartford to do bad things with worse consequences in the service of an ideological assault on the state and.

If that after five years of ‘austerity’ is where we have been brought to then, as a wise friend with no small amount of political experience himself said to me this week, the people who brought such policies upon us should themselves be cut from public life.

Naughty under Lyme

According to flirtatious website Illicit Encounters one of the nation’s hot-spots for extra-marital affairs is, drum roll please, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Research carried out by the site, perhaps by having their staff peek through the gap whenever they see bedroom curtains drawn during daytime, puts the town at sixth place in a national league table with 1.64% op residents playing away.

All quite harmless I suppose and not really the business of anyone other than the consenting adults involved. I can’t help wondering though how long it will be before some bright spark at the council launches a bid for the Ironmarket to be used as a location in the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Petition or not time is up for boorish Jeremy Clarkson.

Controversial Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson is in trouble again, this time for, allegedly, throwing a punch at BBC producer Oisin Tyman in a row over catering. As a result he has been suspended and the show has been pulled from the schedules.

He may be absent from our television screens Clarkson isn’t though out of the headlines, on Wednesday, the day the story broke, it led every TV news bulletin. There has also been a petition set up and signed by over four hundred thousand people calling for him to be reinstated.

I am not it has to be admitted part of the target audience for Top Gear, I’ve never owned a car or been trusted with a driving licence; so I didn’t sign the petition and won’t miss him if he never comes back. You might think that’s a blunt way of putting things, I’d say that someone who made bluntness his stock in trade shouldn’t expect anything else.

He is the sports jacket and badly fitting jeans clad incarnation of what might be called saloon bar bloke; a bore with a dodgy hairstyle and a sack of reactionary opinions who has made a career out of opening his mouth without first having engaged his brain. In the unlikely event of him sitting next to me on the bus I’d get off and walk even if it was raining.

That isn’t to say he’s totally without either intelligence or a certain sort of wit, far from it. When he first came onto the scene twenty years ago Jeremy Clarkson was a breath of fresh air, he brought to the usually staid world of motoring journalism the sort of irreverence and passion, always backed by knowledge, you more often find in writing about the arts.

At a stroke he made the worthy but unexciting Top Gear into appointment television, even for we non drivers.

Sadly fame on a global scale caused his talent to curdle at the same time as it made his ego expand; he took refuge in a self- indulgent comfort zone of opinions so reactionary they wouldn’t get column space in the Daily Express and a juvenile desire to shock. At the same time the programme with which he was so closely identified stopped being a serious programme about motoring and became a playground for his ego and those of fellow presenters Richard Hammond and James May.

There followed years of scandals and ill- judged comments, followed by shamefaced promises that nothing like that would ever happen again; not until the next time anyway. Needless to say there could only ever be one end to all this, a transgression for which Clarkson could never apologise and the BBC could never be seen to forgive, the only surprise is how long it’s taken to get here.

This latest outrage marks the end of Clarkson’s career, with the BBC anyway, the corporation’s management couldn’t be seen to condone his behaviour towards one of their employees and retain their authority.

Like many a performer before him he will probably stomp off in search of pastures new, Sky would almost certainly give him his own show, but they won’t give him the sort of editorial control he’s enjoyed at the BBC. In the event of another incident like ‘accidentally’ saying a racist word on air or making some witlessly offensive generalisation in his newspaper column they’d drop him like a hot brick in the name of keeping the sponsors sweet.

What of Top Gear itself? The BBC owns the rights to the format and so there is no reason why the programme couldn’t go on, although it might be time to change direction. All those silly stunts and forced laddish banter are starting to look dated and more than a little desperate, this could be a good time to go back to making a magazine programme about motoring.

You never know there might even be room for the next Jeremy Clarkson, an informed and irreverent voice sending the whole thing up rotten; this time though auntie shouldn’t let its owner get too big for his or her boots.