Sunday, 6 September 2015

Stoke Labour group need a new leader not another witch-hunt.

The soap opera surrounding the race to be the leader of the national party has distracted attention from the drama being played out within the Labour group on Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

This week the decision taken by the group to remove the whip from councillors, Alan Dutton and Ruth Rosenau after they voted for City Independent Dave Conway to be council leader following May's election brought the divisions within the party back into focus.

Dutton and Rosenau also gained black marks against their names for being publicly critical of group leader Mohammed Pervez and calling for him to resign.

Casting them into outer darkness for six months a spokesperson for the Labour Party told the Sentinel the whip had been withdrawn following an 'internal decision taken by the Labour group' that had found them to be in 'breach of group rules.' They had, said the spokesperson, 'a right of appeal.'

And, in all probability the likelihood of being told to take a long walk of a short pier for their pains. Yet again justice has been dispensed within the the Labour group with all the reasonableness and sensitivity of an automatic checkout reciting 'unidentified item in bagging area' with mechanical regularity.

Alan Dutton told the Sentinel that he was 'unhappy' with the decision, adding that 'it wasn't as if we voted against Mr Pervez since he wasn't standing', to be council leader, and that before the election he had criticised the Independents, then in opposition, for sitting on the fence 'but as soon as we're in opposition he wanted us to abstain on the leadership vote.'

Ruth Rosenau, also speaking to the Sentinel said she was 'disappointed' about the result and had hoped the group would 'have been more understanding' of the position she had taken. The perceived flaws in the leadership Mr Pervez had provided was, she said, a major cause of voters becoming 'disengaged' from Labour.

Both councillors said they were considering their position and would wait until the national leadership of the party had been decided before taking any further action.

There are few sadder sights than a party struggling to come to terms with finding itself in opposition. One moment they're calling the shots, the next they're stranded on the sidelines scowling Norma Desmond style about how they're still big; it's politics that has gotten small.

Locally and nationally Labour have been the authors of their own misfortune. In Stoke the party gambled big on HS2, Smithfield and paying for a stand at the Chelsea Flower Show only to lose even bigger.

Ed Milliband deservedly lost the general election and did the decent thing by putting his hand up and resigning. The party then went on the drop the ball by spending way too long choosing a new leader; but at least they had the sense to drop one who was a dead man walking.

In Stoke Labour made a mess of things that was entirely predictable to anyone who has watched their antics over the years. First they lost their way, then they lost the election; now they've gone into opposition with the same leader.

Anywhere other than inside the bubble protecting the senior members of the group from reality it would have been unthinkable for Mr Pervez to remain in post. Yet he has and seems to be immune from being challenged.

This highlights a problem Jeremy Corbyn or whoever else might win the Labour leadership next week will have to tackle as a priority. Officials in the party's regional offices have assumed powers that go way beyond their proper remit, side-lining party members and elected councillors in the process.

In Stoke Mr Pervez is very much their man and always has been, he owes his position to their patronage. Even the rather tame opposition shown by Dutton and Rosenau is seen as an existential threat to the established order that must be crushed at all costs.

The butterfly mustn't just be broken on a wheel, it has to be hung, drawn and quartered afterwards just to show everyone else who is in charge.

This matters for two distinct reasons. Locally as the coalition led by Independent Dave Conway gets ready to deliver its first budget good governance demands that it be closely scrutinised, a job that should fall to Labour. To date their performances as an opposition have been lacklustre at best, they are hardly likely to improve while the party simmers with internal tensions and its leader's position grows less tenable by the day.

The talent pool within the group is admittedly shallow, but there are options were Mr Pervez to do the decent thing. Members could support Ruth Rosenau were she to stand for leader again, she was a capable cabinet member and deserves the opportunity to step up. Better still they could prevail upon Olwen Hamer, perhaps the most talented politician representing any group on the council to stand for the leadership. She would almost certainly bring a fresh perspective and spirit of independence to the role.

The sorry story being played out is Stoke shows in miniature a problem that is crippling the Labour Party nationally. Twenty years of obsessive central control by New Labour has crippled its internal democracy, the backlash against this is one of the drivers behind the Corbyn surge, but it could take years to put things right.

Here in Stoke this story has an ending that is as sad as it is predictable. Alan Dutton and Ruth Rosenau will end up joining the marching corps of capable and committed people driven away by a party that seems to prize unthinking loyalty above everything else.

The Labour group will trundle on in the same old way bemused as to why the public don't seem to trust or even like them any more and getting a little less relevant with each passing year. Only by having the courage to ditch a leader who has failed can they bring about a different ending and find a new relevance.

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