Thursday, 19 October 2017

Bus changes could put us on the road to nowhere.



What came first, the bus or the passengers? That is less of a trick question than it might at first seem.

First Potteries have announced another round of cuts to their services, with routes from Longton to Hanley (6) and Newcastle to Ball Green (98) among those affected. The company has blamed a ‘continual downturn' in passenger numbers in the evenings and on Sundays for forcing the change.

Speaking to the Sentinel over the weekend First Managing Director Nigel Eggleton said he ‘understood' the changes would ‘not be well received', but added that it was ‘neither practical or cost effective to run busses with no-one travelling on them'.

Responding to the cuts Councillor Daniel Jellyman, cabinet member for transport, also speaking to the Sentinel said the council was ‘naturally disappointed' and they are contacting other operators to see if they will take on the journeys that are being removed, adding that ‘bus operators are private businesses' and will only run busses ‘if it is good for their business'.

Public transport isn’t sexy; but politicians ignore it at their peril, because when the system fails it can open the door to some truly ugly problems.

If older people feel trapped in their homes because they can’t get into town then their health may decline, putting pressure on our tottering social care services. The lack of a reliable bus service could be a barrier to people finding and staying in work, adding to existing social and economic inequalities.

You don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to understand the physics of what happens when you give the first in a line of dominoes a push. There is though a certain sort of politician who manages to ignore the obvious.

The sort that twitters brightly about attracting ‘young professionals’ to cities like Stoke-on-Trent to drive its regeneration. They usually do so as they gurn for the cameras at the launch of another plan to a build shopping mall or apartment development.

Their defining characteristic is an ignorance of their quarry and its habits to rival that of Elmer Fudd. The young professionals they hunt so determinedly belong to a generation that values authenticity and originality, the last place they want to live is another clone town.

They are also the greenest generation ever, to them an interconnected public transport system isn’t a nice to have optional extra; it’s a necessity.

Sadly, First Bus don’t have the ambition to create one, neither do the other important players, the train companied and the council. You can, perhaps, forgive businesses for ‘lets please the shareholders myopia’, but politicians without a vision are like fish out of water, all they do is flop around helplessly.

There is something rather sad about an Independent group that aspired to put trams on the streets when in opposition washing their hands Pilate style as the bus service dwindles to nothing now they’re in power.

First say they have a long -term strategy for creating a ‘sustainable’ bus network for the area; their passengers may take some convincing. The changes are set to come into force next month.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Labour must learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

These must be ‘epic' times in which to be a Labour activist. The party's conference in Brighton this week is shaping up to be something of a celebration, rather than the cross between a cat fight and a wake everyone was expecting.

In many respects, it has been more like the sort of conference a party had in the Autumn before an election it is odds on to win, not after one it lost, if by less of a margin than expected.

The announcements of bold new policies have poured down from the platform, with shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledging to help people ‘trapped’ by sky high credit card interest rates. He called on the government to apply a cap like that imposed on payday loan companies, saying that if they don’t so; then the next Labour government will.

Elsewhere there have been pledges to take PFI contracts back in-house, to renationalise the railways and utilities and to pour billions of pounds into the NHS. Residents of Islington who reported hearing a mysterious rumbling below ground can be reassured what they heard was just New Labour reaching optimal velocity in its casket as every one of the red lines it feared to cross was trampled into the dust.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, until recently the ‘dead man walking' of British politics he has been transfigured into the most unlikely Messiah figure since Brian himself. Every time he steps outside it is into a crowd scene of the sort Cecil B DeMille used to direct as the multitudes press forward to touch the garment of their idol.

Quite how this relates to the cross geography teacher persona he exudes in TV interviews or his low wattage speaking style I don’t know and nobody else seems to care.

Yes, these are glorious days for the faithful, it is a brilliant Indian summer and Labour is the sun warming their hopes.

I hate to be the wicked fairy at the christening, but there is a long way to go and a lot of pitfalls to face before, or if, they get across the finish line. Labour need to learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

Despite all the adulation and the gig at Glastonbury the flaws inherent to Corbyn and the movement he aspires to lead are very much still in place. Cheerfully amateurish chaos is an acceptable way to run your back office if you’re an insurgent disrupting the status quo, it’s a ticket to disaster if you aspire to run the country.

New Labour, for all their cynicism and sense of entitlement, were brilliant at being organised. That bought them a lot of credibility when they were seeking to displace Major's Tories, the tabloids like to stereotype the left as agents of chaos, Corbyn's neglect of the need to be organised gives them an open goal to aim at.

For all the applause, they get in Brighton this week, or from the CLP meetings that suddenly need to book a bigger room for the first time in years, those platform promises might yet become a millstone around the party’s collective neck.

Labour won praise for going into this year’s snap election with a manifesto that was both ambitiously left wing and fully coated. Their next effort will no doubt be less adventurous, the proximity to power always encourages caution.

That is sensible, a government in waiting should talk about what it can deliver, not what it would like to do. If it does want to do bold things, like renationalisation or buying back PFI; then they must be totally up front about how much it will cost and that we will all have to pay.

Labour deserve their moment in the sun, after years spent either gripped by the dead hand of Blairism or floundering in the wilderness, they suddenly look like a party with a purpose. Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for giving them a sense of direction and for being a conviction politician in a Parliament where many of his colleagues should just be convicted.

Charisma, particularly the fragile sort he has discovered of late, will only take Labour and its leader so far. Particularly if the Tories cling on for the next five years in the desperate hope that something, anything, will turn up.

Labour and the leader they never thought would take them so close to the prize should enjoy this unexpected lap of honour. Then get on with putting in the hard yards they need to if they want to win.





Sunday, 17 September 2017

‘Broken’ PIP assessment system isn’t working for people living with MS.

North Staffs Green Party today put its support behind a campaign by the Multiple Sclerosis Society calling for an improvement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments.

A report published by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) this week has shown that PIP is not working for people living with long term medical conditions and disabilities.

Since the introduction of PIP in October 2013 people living with MS have lost some £6million in benefits.

Figures obtained by the MS Society from the Department of Work and Pensions show that between the introduction of PIP in 2013 and October 2016, 2600 people previously on the highest mobility component of the old Disability Living Allowance have had their payments cut; 800 people claiming the highest care component on the old system have also lost out.

The report shows that over half the people who responded to a survey conducted by the DBC felt that DWP assessors didn’t properly understand their condition. Three quarters of respondents said that applying for PIP had caused them levels of anxiety that made their condition worse.

MS Society Director of External Affairs Genevieve Edwards said’ these staggering figures show how PIP is failing people with MS who need the highest level of support’.

She added that it ‘doesn’t make sense that people are losing money they once qualified for when they are living with a progressive condition’.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said, ‘this is another example of the government cutting support for vulnerable people for no good reason, the impact of PIP stress on the physical and mental health of claimants even if they are successful can be hugely damaging’.

The MS society are calling on the government to reform what they describe as a ‘broken’ system.

Adam Colclough said, ‘as a party we are fully behind the MS Society in this campaign and will be supporting them locally in any way we can’.

The campaign is set to last for six weeks.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Discussion paper highlights more roads are not the answer to city’s traffic problems.

Building more roads is not the answer to solving Stoke-on-Trent’s traffic problems says North Staffs Green Party Coordinator Jan Zablocki in a newly published discussion paper.

The paper highlights the local and global impact of traffic congestion and the air pollution it causes, citing World Health Organisation figures showing that globally air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths every year. In the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research described the air quality in London as ‘both lethal and illegal’, and linking it to 9000 premature deaths.

The report also highlights the rapid growth in the number of cars on Britain’s roads, up by 680,00 from 31.1 million in 2012 to 37.5 million today. This has caused congestion on A roads across the country with average speeds falling to less than 20mph, in Stoke-on-Trent they are as low as 18.5mph.

Locally traffic congestion has led to air quality levels in the city being in excess of UK and EU safe limits with particular hotspots in Meir, Basford, Weston Coyney and Bentilee. Author Jan Zablocki draws parallels between the health implications of traffic pollution and the levels of illness faced by generations living before the 1956 Clean Air Act.

In the second part of the paper he demonstrates how a fully integrated transport system, linking rails, bus and tram networks through a ‘hub’ on Festival Park along with improved facilities for walking and cycling could drive improvements in public health and strengthen the local economy.

Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough described the discussion paper as ‘an impressive analysis of the problems we have now that leads on to highly credible suggestions as to how we can turn things around’.

He added that ‘in the two parliamentary elections we fought this year sorting out the city’s transport system was a major issue. Only the Green Party has shown the imagination to suggest an alternative to building more roads, we have also, as this paper demonstrates, advanced a clear and workable alternative.’
At the 2017 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing to take the railways back into public ownership, improve regional rail networks and to improve the overall quality and accessibility of public transport. The Greens also pledged to invest in low traffic neighbourhoods, improving facilities for walking and cycling and to tackle air pollution.

Jan Zablocki will be taking part in a broadcast on Staffslive Radio presented by Adam Gratton on Wednesday 20th September at 11.30am during which he will be discussing his paper and the Green Party’s transport policy.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Cash ‘leaking’ from the NHS through cost of PFI

A report from the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI) published today highlights the huge cost of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes to the NHS.

PFI is a government backed scheme under which private companies provide money to build new hospitals paid back with interest by the NHS.

The report examined 107 PFI contracts in England and found that the companies involved have generated £831million over the past six years. This money, CHPI say would have been better spent on patient services.

In their report, they call for a cap on PFI costs and for the government to buy out contracts where private companies are making too much profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Speaking to the BBC CHPI chair Colin Leys said the report showed for the first time ‘the huge amount of taxpayer’s money leaking out of the NHS’ through PFI costs.

He added that given the ‘extreme austerity’ faced by NHS services the government needs to act urgently.

Commenting on the CHPI report British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said NHS providers and commissioners were ‘being pushed to breaking point’ by the cost of PFI.

He described the scheme as an ‘extortionate drain on the public purse’, and said that private companies were ‘gaining at the expense of tax-payers and patients’, something he said was ‘scandalous’.

Dr Nagpaul backed the call by CHPI for the government to either renegotiate or buy out PFI contracts.

Speaking to the BBC a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the NHS was recognised by the independent Commonwealth Fund as being ‘the most efficient healthcare system in the world’, and that PFI costs accounted for just 3% of its annual budget.

Despite the attempts to persuade patients and voters alike differently on the part of the Department of Health this report will have struck a chord with anyone who has used an NHS hospital over the twenty years since PFI was launched.

The buildings may have been transformed from institutional monoliths into the sort of slick architecture that wins prizes, this though, has come at a price.

Private finance has muscled its way into the once sacred turf of the NHS, either in the shape of PFI or retail outlets turning the foyers of hospitals into another place to shop or sip coffee.

There is a real risk this may pave the way for privatization by the back door, if Costa can sell you a coffee while you wait to have your ingrown toenail fixed, why can’t Virgin provide the chiropodist who sorts it out?

That is a question the founders of the NHS would have been shocked to hear asked, because they know that behind it lurks the much more troubling one of how do the people who can’t afford a skinny latte, let alone the cost of falling ill, pay for their healthcare in a system where the hospitals all look like hotels.



Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Breaking Point: Inequality is damaging our mental health.

Mental illness is something many people will experience over the course of their life in one form or another. It is something we are more comfortable talking about now than we were in the past, even so a worrying level of stigma still surrounds the issue.

This is deeply problematic because, as one leading charity has noted recently, the decline in our national mental wellbeing is a potential public health crisis. One that has its most damaging impact on the most vulnerable members of society and can be linked to the ‘austerity’ policies of the past decade.

The shocking reality is that behind the glitz and gleaming glass towers, the regenerated mill towns and the new tech based industries, if you are poor, unemployed or in a low paid job; then your physical and mental health will be worse and you are at risk of dying sooner.

In their ‘Surviving or Thriving’ report published earlier this year the Mental Health Foundation painted a bleak picture of the mental health of the UK in 2017. Out of the people they spoke to as part of their research 65% said they had experienced some type of mental health problem, amongst the respondents who were unemployed or in low paid work that rose to 85%.

The most common problems reported were depression, anxiety and panic attacks, all of which can be linked to the stresses associated with life in the ‘precariat’, as the new class of insecure workers have come to be known.

The report concludes that the mental health of the UK is deteriorating, with the young and members of the lowest socio-economic group suffering most. This is reflected in the number of people accessing mental health services, NHS Digital record this as 1,227,312 for the year to March, with 7843 people requiring treatment on acute wards and 5637 on general wards, 21.2% of the people who accessed mental health services over this period were aged under 19.

Is there a case for attributing this decline in our national mental wellbeing to inequality as the Mental Health Foundation claims? Another charity, The Equality Trust has highlighted some indicators that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK has grown alarmingly over the past decade.

These include concerns expressed by UNICEF about levels of child poverty, the Social Mobility Commission saying that twenty years of government policy initiatives have failed to ‘level the playing field’ for individuals and communities living in poverty; and research published by Oxford University suggesting the number of people using food banks is set to rise.

Over the past ten years the poorest tenth of the population has seen a huge fall in its collective income to just 1.3% of that for the nation, the richest tenth claims 31% (source: The Poverty Site). This has resulted in a situation where, as Christians Against Poverty put it the poorest and most vulnerable people are forced to walk a ‘financial tightrope’.

Faced with such a situation on a daily basis is it any wonder that it has a detrimental impact on people’s physical and mental health?

Health inequalities, both physical and mental, can be linked, among other factors, to the amount of control an individual’s socio-economic position gives them over their daily lives. Unemployment, poor housing, lack of security for those in low paid work can all aggravate health problems. The poor die younger and when people in that group have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, they die even younger still.

Mental health problems amongst people who are out of work can be linked to loss of status and a sense of purpose, along with grinding money worries and the relentless struggle to qualify and retain even the limited support on offer from the DWP. Even when people find a job working, if the job in question is low paid, insecure and repetitive can cause stress levels that are unhealthy.

City life is more stressful than rural living, particularly in disadvantaged communities where there is more vandalism, higher crime rates and more opportunities to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. People living in disadvantaged communities also tend to have weaker social support networks and members often lack the social and cultural capital necessary to seek help effectively.

For people living in such circumstances and experiencing mental health problems along with all the above problems there is the added difficulty of stigma making them into a separate minority existing on the edge of an already marginalized community.
The government defines tackling inequality as:

‘Addressing the causes and consequences of stigma, discrimination, social inequality and exclusion on service users, carers and mental health services’
(cited in Pilgrim, 2008: pp105)

The evidence shown so far demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary the current government, and many of its predecessors, has failed to do so in any meaningful way. There is, sadly, little chance that any government will so long as we as a country remain wedded to the economic and social policies of the past forty years.

There is a need for fresh and radical thinking of a sort the three mainstream political parties simply cannot provide. In this respect, as in so many others, the Green Party has a real alternative to offer.

In their manifesto at this year’s general election they said they would bring mental healthcare in line with physical health, making parity of esteem a reality not just an empty promise. They also pledged to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and to tackle the inequality that causes it by reforming the benefits system.

In their wider policy offer they called for the introduction of a four- day working week to help reduce workplace stress and make our economy more productive. They also said they would take steps to look into introducing a universal basic income to close forever the poverty trap and set people free to be more creative.

Theirs is a vison of a fairer Britain that really does work for all its people. A country where wealth and opportunity are shared for the good of all.

As a volunteer and trustee at two mental health charities I fully endorse the Green Party’s plans to tackle inequality and the health problems it creates.

Over the past century Britain has made huge strides in overcoming many of its public health problems, at the same time we have consigned once entrenched prejudices to the cultural dustbin. I believe that with the sort of fresh thinking provide by the Green Party we can do the same for mental illness and the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Council to spend £335,000 on cleaning up Hanley.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £335,000 on tackling anti-social behaviour in Hanley.

Under a proposed public spaces protection order begging and street drinking would be criminalized and the police would have new powers to move on rough sleepers.

Money from the pot will also be spent on funding three new PCSOs to patrol the town centre and £10,000 will be spent on using vinyl window stickers to smarten up empty shops.

The plan will see the creation of a new post for a city centre strategic coordinator with a salary of £50,000 to oversee the project.

Spending on pastoral support for street drinkers, rough sleepers and other people coping with chaotic lived will be set at £35,000.

Jonathan Bellamy chair of the City Centre Partnership welcomed the plan saying it would ‘see a return as people will feel safer and will therefore spend more time in the town centre.’

The council will also set up a City Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to raise money from local businesses ring fenced to be spent in the town centre.

Is this money well spent? Hanley certainly has its problems. Like all town centres it is a magnet for the troubled and the lost.

At a time when Stoke-on-Trent as a newly shortlisted runner to be the 2021 City of Culture needs to show its best face to the world. Look beyond the headline figure and something more problematic can be seen.

Make no mistake £335,000 is a serious chunk of cash, a large slice of which, £961,00 a week to be exact, will be paid to the new strategic coordinator.

Only £631,00 a week will be spent on pastoral care for people who, for the most part, have ended up on the streets through bad luck rather than personal failings. The money will be split between multiple charities and projects, reducing the figure even further.

This seems like a strange, but sadly not unfamiliar, set of priorities. Once again hiring a highly paid manager to oversee services has been put ahead of funding said services properly. Past experience has taught everyone outside the ivory tower inhabited by senior council officers that this doesn't work.

Setting up a BID may prove problematic too if the experience of people in nearby Newcastle is anything to go by. Some businesses there have complained of being strong armed into joining.

There is also the small matter of communities being made up of more than businesses, but under BID only business owners, many of whom might live out of the area, will have a say on how the money raised is spent. That is far from democratic and could cause a serious clash of interests.

There is also the perennial problem of how to spread the benefits out to the other five towns.

Hanley is on the up after years of decline, walk down Piccadilly and it almost seems cosmopolitan, slickly metropolitan certainly. That is a good thing, every city needs a centre, but you can't solve social problems just by moving them on to somewhere else.


Monday, 10 July 2017

Democracy dies in darkness.

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time, setting up an independent panel to scrutinize allowances paid to members of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Like many bold initiatives before it this one has hit the rocks of unforeseen problems. The announcement of who would sit on the panel was due to be made last Thursday and has now been delayed.

Elections monitoring officer Fiona Ledden told the Sentinel thus was due to ‘technical’ issues. Code, it would seem, for concerns having been expressed by Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez about the appointment of Alan Barrett to sit on the members remuneration panel.

Mr Barrett was a leading light in the March on Stoke campaign against the building of a new civic centre. In 2014, he launched a petition calling for a 30% cut in councillor’s allowances.

In the headline to an article published on Friday the Sentinel called the holding back of an announcement about the panel a ‘mystery’. You probably don't need Sherlock on speed dial to work out what's going on.

If you do and you happen to think politics is more than just a distraction, then you will have ample cause for concern.

What has happened is that the political establishment, represented here by our own dear council, has dipped a toe into the water of transparency, only to pull back at the last moment.

There is something distinctly farcical about the claim made by the Labour leader that Alan Barratt was too ‘political’ a figure to sit on the panel.

Having met him on several occasions I would agree that he is a man of strong opinions, not all of them relating to politics. He is also someone with a strong sense of public service and a demonstrable commitment to working to improve his community.

Those are, you might reasonably think, the sort of qualities you'd look for in a councillor. They certainly more than qualify him to scrutinize how councillors are paid.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been around the block as many times as Mr Pervez fails to realize how important effective scrutiny is to the political process. Particularly when the people doing it ask awkward questions; which is exactly what I'd expect Alan Barratt to do.

Why does all this matter? It's hardly something hipster types munching on artisan sandwiches in the Cultural Quarter are talking about between bites, never mind those who inhabit the corridors of power.

It matters because it reveals a wider malaise in the state of politics. We are rapidly reaching a state where two rival camps warily eye each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

On one side, we have an establishment cocooned within the Westminster bubble that increasingly fears and distrusts a public it feels are unpredictable. In the other corner stand we the public growing ever more sceptical and restive by the day.

Democracy is a fragile flower, it dies in darkness, particularly if its roots are doused in dishonesty. If we want it to thrive then we have to let in the light of transparency.

The bad old days when payments for special responsibilities were handed out like prizes at a school sports day with everyone sure of getting something, whether they deserved it or not, are long over. Today's councillors serving larger wards for the most part deliver value for money.

As the old saying goes if members of the council have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear.

By acting like they do and quibbling over an entirely suitable appointment, they are helping to fuel a distrust that will make their already difficult job even harder.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

We have to move beyond ‘them and us’ and recognize there is just ‘us’.

There was something tragically inevitable about waking up on Monday morning to hear there had been another ‘terrorist incident’ in London. This time the victims were worshippers leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park after evening prayers mown down by a van driven by Cardiff born Darren Osborne, different community; the misery and mayhem is the same.

The authorities were right to describe his actions as a terrorist attack instead of speculating about his mental state or falling back on describing him as a ‘loner’. Unfortunately that he was able to commit the crime at all shows how the already flawed PREVENT program ignores white extremism.

This is due to a number of factors coming together to make a combination of miscalculations with toxic consequences.

For years, experts have warned about the steady rise of right wing extremism, particularly in white working class communities that feel themselves to have been marginalized. The myopic focus of PREVENT on Islamic radicalization and its clumsy attempts to address the problem, most of which seem to have created more trouble than they solved, has pushed everything else to the sidelines.

Meanwhile in communities that feel they have been forgotten the insidious voice of extremism with its reassuring, though false, explanation that for every problem there’s a scapegoat has been quietly gaining ground.

Supporting Brexit does not automatically equate to endorsing right wing politics, let alone extremism, but how the leave campaign was run legitimized many of the tactics extremists use. It portrayed an image of plucky Britain being kept down by an expansionist EU, never mind the fact that we have gained more from Europe than it took form us, fear won the day.

The rhetoric that ‘they’ are out to get ‘us’, to turn our green and pleasant land into a client state of some larger empire can and is easily expropriated by extremists with an axe to grind and a desire for power without responsibility. There is a tragic irony that the concerns of the likes of Darren Osborne and the people they have been brainwashed into thinking are ‘other’ and therefore dangerous, lack of jobs and housing a gnawing feeling that they have no control over how and how fast the world around them is changing, are marked by their similarity.

The finger of blame must also point to what might be called the ‘metropolitan elite’, be they nominally on the left or right politically. They are profoundly uncomfortable with anyone from outside the, metaphorically, gated community they inhabit.

If they think about right wing extremists at all, they do so in terms of shaven headed stereotypes with tattooed knuckles and single figure reading ages. People like that might talk about fighting in the streets, but they lack the organizational ability to take action. It is a viewpoint similar in its complacency to that their great grandparents might have held regarding whether or not those funny little Japanese soldiers could capture Singapore; we all know how that ended.

The truth is that it is astonishingly easy to be an effective terrorist. All you really need is a van, some simplistic ideas about who is to blame for your misfortunes and a feeling that nothing you can do will ever put them right.

The one positive that can be drawn from the attacks in Manchester, London and elsewhere is that when the worst happened it brought out the best in ordinary Britons. Presented with a need to help others people filled whole warehouses with food and clothing donated for fire victims in a matter of hours, taxi drivers switched off their meters to take frightened teenagers home when a concert ended in bloodshed.

That sends a powerful message to the people, whatever cause they pretend to do so in the name of, who want to attain power by fostering division. As the late Jo Cox, herself a victim of extremism put it there is more that unites us than keeps us apart.

Whatever horrors we face, and there are likely to be more on the way however much money we spend on security, if we want to be safe we have to understand there is no ‘them and us’; there’s just us.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Security tops the agenda as voters meet the candidates in Stoke South.

“Stoke has always been Labour,” I’m sitting in the back row of Fenton’s Temple Street Methodist church as it starts to fill up ahead of the Stoke South election hustings. The man speaking to me is middle aged and makes his assertion with an innocence that is at once genuine and incongruous.

There are four candidates contesting the seat, Jack Brereton (Conservative), Rob Flello (Labour), Ian Wilkes (Liberal Democrat) and Jan Zablocki (Green Party). Rob Flello is the sitting MP and judging by the crowd he’s going to have home advantage tonight.

Almost everyone seems to know everyone else, most are middle aged or older, there are a few younger people, possibly Labour students from nearby Keele University and one man with a fussily trimmed beard wearing a t-shirt with Corbyn written on it in the style of an old fashioned Coca-Cola advert. I’m not sure he gets the irony implicit in the least spun politician in recent British political history having his name turned into a nifty piece of branding.

A broadly ‘old Labour’ crowd then, salt of the earth for sure, but inclined maybe to accepting the familiar because it does what they expect it to, a reasonable approach if experience has taught you that change is seldom kind, but it can and dose stifle originality.

In their opening statements the four candidates lay out their ‘vision’ for the next four years.

Jack Brereton trades on his record as a local councilor, particularly in bringing jobs to a city that has lost many of its traditional industries. He also takes a dig at Labour over the costly Smithfield development in the city centre, old news by now and rather a cheap shot. His vocal style is dull and he favours piling up the facts to turning on the passion tap, anyone playing b******t bingo would have been disappointed because the used the phrase ‘strong and stable’ in almost his first sentence.

Rob Flello, also plays on his track record, in parliament this time highlighting his work to defend Trentham High School from closure and in improving the city’s roads. He says that he is a campaigner who ‘never gives in’ and praises Jeremy Corbyn’s little red book as being ‘brilliant’. This gets him a round of applause from a home crowd who have, it seems, forgotten that his loyalty to the leadership hasn’t always been so clear, some might say there’s a touch of expediency about it now.

“How do you follow that”, says Lib Dem Ian Wilkes when the applause dies down. Not all that well it seems. Wilkes is the only candidate to admit he hasn’t got a chance of winning, but however slender his chances he makes a sensible point about the need to regenerate all six towns.

Jan Zablocki also recognizes the uphill task his party faces in shifting votes away from Labour, but says he represents ‘change’ and that that is something badly needed in local and national politics. He speaks of the Green’s opposition to the privatization by stealth of the NHS, cuts to school budgets and the need to talk openly about the direction our society is taking. This wins him some applause that is genuine rather than merely polite.

Given the events of the weekend just gone security issues are the main feature of questions from the floor. All four candidates give variations on the theme that terrorism can never be allowed to win, all well and good. It is when we get down to specifics that things get interesting.

Brereton promises more spooks for MI5 and MI6 to tackle terrorism, useful no doubt but what about the extra police on the streets needed to make the public feel safe. Labour and the Lib Dems back spending more on community policing, as do the Greens. Asked about how we tackle homegrown terrorism Jan Zablocki calls for the government’s flawed Prevent program to be replaced with something that builds community cohesion and that addresses the social divisions driving radicalization.

Asked about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes Brereton talks about the need to preserve jobs in the arms industry, seemingly at any cost, losing the crows at a stroke. He then finds a way to jam the other foot into his mouth too by attacking Jeremy’s Corbyn’s, allegedly friendly approach to terrorists in general, letting Flello get the biggest round of applause of the night by countering with the claim that he’s ‘a man of peace.’ Quite so, but not always one who picks his friends wisely.

Asked about the benefits system both Flello and Zablocki spoke with real passion about the work they had done to help people unfairly hit by sanctions as, respectively, an MP and a lifelong trade’s unionist. Brereton mumbled something rehearsed about more people being in work and the need to improve skills, before being taken to task by a heckler for not answering the question.

Judging the evening as a whole Rob Flello played well to a friendly crowd, speaking at times with real passion about helping local people. Jan Zablocki also spoke with real passion and making a connection with the audience that may not win him the seat but certainly raised the profile of his party. Ian Wilkes came across as a nice enough chap, I wouldn’t necessarily want him as my MP, but if I sat next to him on the bus I wouldn’t move or get off at the next stop however far away from home I was, and there aren’t many politicians about whom you can say that. Jack Brereton had a shocker of an evening, his contributions producing either awkward silences of howls of derision. In the space of a couple of hours he went from party golden boy to disappointing also ran; politics can be cruel like that.

My friend from the start of the meeting was right, Stoke South has always been Labour, they might have to count rather than weigh the votes these days, but on tonight’s showing that is still true. With the Greens making a strong showing and Labour, for all the sham loyalty of the parliamentary party to a surprisingly popular Jeremy Corbyn, still riven by divisions that might not always the case.



Monday, 5 June 2017

The public must challenge prospective MPs over their view on the hunting ban.


Tonight, like many people across the country as the general election enters its final furlong, I will be attending a local hustings. Unlike most I am in the position of also having over the past few weeks taken part as a candidate in similar events.

Sadly on no occasion was I asked about one of the most important issues, the promise made by Prime Minister Theresa May to hold a free vote on the repeal of the ban on fox hunting.

Since the introduction of the Hunting Act (2004) it has saved the lives of 10000 animals, had the act been properly enforced the figure since would be closer to 2.8 million. Sadly since the act came into force in 2005 there have been only 378 convictions, out of these just 24 were of people associated with official hunts, most of the others were for offences such as poaching.

Even more worrying the police have shown a marked reluctance to investigate possible hunting related offences, something they have been criticized for by animal rights charities including the League Against Cruel Sports on a number of occasions.

The Tories have form when it comes to trying to overturn the hunting ban, it was included as a promise in their 2010 and 2015 manifestos, only having to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats and winning with a small majority respectively stayed their hands.

In 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron was reported by the Daily Mail as saying he believed in people having the ‘freedom to hunt’ and that the ban had ‘done nothing for animal welfare.’ Hardly the sort of sentiments you’d associate with someone who hugs huskies and had a windmill on the roof of his London home.

The current incumbent of Downing Street hasn’t been backward in coming forward about her support for hunting either, in a speech given in Leeds and reported by the Daily Telegraph she said she had ‘always been in favour of fox hunting’.

Figures produced by the League Against Cruel Sports show that repealing the ban on fox hunting isn’t a populist vote winner, 84% of the people polled said they opposed fox hunting and would support candidates who felt the same way.

So why have the Tories decided that repealing the ban is a priority? Two reasons spring to mind.

The first is overwhelming arrogance, they believe that the concerns, founded on fact and compassion about the place of such a barbaric practice in a modern society to be irrelevant. Secondly they are making a naked play for the support of an establishment that still holds a disproportionate amount of power and wealth.

If asked the question I can state clearly that if elected I would vote against any attempt to repeal the ban on fox hunting and will support any lawful campaign to keep it in place.

The reason why was expressed in a quote from a spokesperson for the RSPCA, also used by the Daily Telegraph in the article where Mrs. May spoke of her support for hunting. He said ‘repealing the hunting act would not only mean a return to cruelty but it would fly in the face of the opinion of the majority of the general public.’

As a candidate I respect the opinions of the voting public on this important issue and expect others who seek election to do likewise.

Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central

Monday, 29 May 2017

The environment matters more than ever at this election, something only one party fully recognizes.



The 2017 general election campaign is now in its final stages and yet one of the most important issues has yet to make it into the foreground; the environment.

If no action is taken to preserve exiting environmental legislation after Brexit, let alone improve it, we could face some dire consequences. These include 200,000 premature deaths linked to air pollution and the loss of 18,300 hectares of green space by the next time the country goes to the polls in 2022.

Environmental charity Friends of the Earth scored all four main parties for their manifesto commitments on the environment.

The results, as published on their website, show the Liberal Democrats in second place with Labour also scoring highly in some areas, although they are criticized for their lack of a coherent policy on tackling waste.

The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, came fourth with just eleven points, Labour and the Lib Dems scored twenty seven and twenty eight respectively. They attract particular criticism for their support for fracking and the ‘undemocratic’ way central government has used its powers to over-rule local communities opposed to fracking by ‘rigging’ the planning system.

The Green Party manifesto came first with thirty points and was praised for containing ‘impressive and comprehensive’ policies to protect environmental legislation and tackle air pollution. This confirms their position as the only mainstream party to speak consistently about the need to treat environmental policy as a priority issue.

Friends of the Earth have also published their own election manifesto and have asked candidates from all parties who support their aims to endorse the following positions:

• Ensuring the UK keeps and improves on existing environmental legislation post Brexit
• That urgent action be taken to meet targets on climate change and renewable energy
• Ending illegal air pollution and phasing out diesel vehicles by 2025
• Banning pesticides that harm bees

As a Green Party member and parliamentary candidate I endorse the four policies put forward by Friends of the Earth. They are a more than achievable starting point in the long term turning around of the supertanker of human damage to the planet.

This isn’t a manifesto for tree hugging, back to the land, knit your own muesli utopian daydreaming, it is a call for practical common sense to take precedence over short term greed. We cannot go on as we are, pumping poison into the air, using ever more damaging methods to extract fossil fuels and clinging to the notion that being trapped inside a car is a ‘freedom’ worth defending without it ending in disaster, probably sooner rather than later.

We need to see protecting the environment not as an irksome responsibility to be carried out with long faces and wearing, hand woven of course, hair shirts. Instead it should be seen as a once in our existence opportunity to take a new and fairer direction for which our children and grandchildren will thank us.

I am happy to endorse the position taken by my own party, Friends of the Earth and any other group that operates ethically on climate change, air pollution, renewable energy and keeping the ban on hunting foxes. Not just at this election, but afterwards and until significant change has been achieved.

If we act now we could do something remarkable, this could be the point at which we stop fighting nature and start working with it, making in the process a fairer society and a more sustainable economy.




Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central

Friday, 19 May 2017

Mental illness is the elephant in the room we all have to talk about if we are to be a healthy society.

Green Party candidate for the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency Adam Colclough today announced his support for the five -point plan for improving the nation’s mental health put forward by the Mental Health Foundation.

A survey commissioned by the charity found that only 13% of Britons feel themselves to have good mental health, a situation chief executive Jenny Edwards CBE described as ‘really concerning’.

During Mental Health week earlier this month the Mental Health Foundation put forward a plan encouraging individuals and government to value mental and physical health equally.

The plan contains five elements:
• The setting up a National Thriving Mental Health Programme to spread public understanding about how to develop good mental health
• A Royal Commission to develop good practice and identify problem areas
• An annual report to track progress and identify areas requiring attention
• Support for people to improve their mental health
• Fair funding for mental health research.

Mr. Colclough said: ‘Mental illness and the impact it has on the lives of people living with it and their families is the elephant in the room we all have to talk about if we are to be a healthy society.’

He added that as a volunteer for two local mental health charities that he had ‘seen at first hand the challenges people face accessing adequate services’.

Improving mental health services features prominently in the Green Party manifesto for the 2017 general election. In a message to members deputy party leader Amelia Womack said:
We live in a society, which feels custom built to wreck people’s mental health, and it’s a crisis caused by the savage policies of the Tory party – debt piled onto the young, people living only one pay cheque from homelessness, and hundreds of thousands of us forced into the indignity of using food banks.

Adding that the party would, ‘tackle the root causes of mental health by shaping a different society. We’ll create a caring and confident country which improves mental health, rather than harms it.’

Included in the manifesto are policies to introduce empathy lessons in schools, improve access to psychological therapies and to give mental health parity of esteem with physical health.

Adam Colclough said: ‘ As a long-time activist for better mental health services I am proud that the party I represent has taken the lead in this important issue, doing so is entirely in keeping with our mission to work for the common good.’

Thursday, 18 May 2017

This election has to be about the people who have been forgotten.

“What else have I got?”

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and I’m in Stoke town centre canvassing outside a cafe that offers coffee in chipped mugs and chips with everything when the young man approaches me.

He’s in his twenties with the tired look of someone older who has been beaten down by life. His sister sits a little way off on some benches used by street drinkers; they are both holding cans of Polish lager.

The young man describes his day to me; he gets up, walks to the shop to buy a can for a pound then sits on the bench.

“Then I go to bed, get up and do the whole thing again”, he says.

He tells me that he has worked, but none of the jobs have ever lasted or been something he wanted to do. Asked what sort of work he would like to do he says, “What can I do?”

The inference is that in his experience every avenue leads to a dead end, so at some stage he stopped trying.

He tells me that he voted for Ukip in the February by-election, but probably won't vote at all this time.

He has about him the watchful bravado of someone who has grown up on the blind side of society. Like so many of his generation, he feels that for him the door marked opportunity has warped tight shut.

Once these were the people the Labour Party used to speak for, it's hard to imagine them even being on the radar of the three slickly metropolitan careerists holding the city's seats today, though they take their votes for granted.

To the Tories they represent a problem, an undisciplined rump to be harried by benefits sanctions and accused of not trying hard enough.

In person, despite the can he holds whilst talking to me, the young man is far from the threatening stereotype presented in the tabloids. Both he and his sister talk about how they play the guitar, asked if he's ever thought about trying to get gigs around local pubs he says no. Confidence and a sense of agency is one of the many things missing from his life.

This election has to be about how we change the lives of the people who have been forgotten. The old neo-liberal scramble for endless growth isn't working; too many people are being left behind.

We need a new approach to welfare, using a universal basic income to free people from poverty and allow them to fulfill their potential. To share wealth and opportunity fairly across the country, instead of concentrating it in a few favored locations. A shift of power away from the centre to give individuals and communities a real say in deciding their future.

What direction the country takes after June 8th, whether we have a hard Brexit benefiting the few, or a fairer future based on lifting everyone up together will answer the question the young man asked me.

“What if I’m still doing this in ten years’ time?”
Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central

Friday, 5 May 2017

Take action to improve mental health services in North Staffordshire.

Mental illness is something 1 in four people in the UK will experience over the course of a single year, yet it is a subject that is seldom spoken about.

The most common conditions people report struggling with are generalized anxiety disorder, post- traumatic stress disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Although the number of people living with mental health issues has not changed dramatically in recent years problems like unemployment, debt and family breakdown can make it harder for people to cope.

Currently 1 in 8 adults with a mental health condition are receiving treatment, accessing services can be a difficult, confusing and stressful experience in its own right.

North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group has, through its Patient’s Congress set up a citizen’s jury to look into access to adult mental health services in the area it serves.

The jury will produce a written report in the autumn and this will be used to improve local services. As part of their evidence gathering they have produced an online survey, a link to which is included below.

By setting up this initiative the CCG has taken a huge step towards bringing mental health out of the shadow of irrational stigma and provided an opportunity for service users, carers and family members to have a meaningful say on service delivery.

https://tinyurl.com/sot-citizens-jury-survey




Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Greens launch policy to give voters the final say on Brexit plans.

Today at the Space art studio in Hackney Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and Bristol parliamentary candidate and MEP Molly Scott Cato launch
ed a policy calling for a second referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU.

The Green Party would hold a second referendum on any Brexit deal agreed with the EU. Voters would have the option of sticking with the current arrangement or accepting the deal as offered.

Speaking to an audience of party activists Caroline Lucas said that “Whoever wins this election has a mandate to negotiate on behalf of the British people – but that does not mean that they have a right to impose a final deal. Instead we demand a ratification referendum which gives people the option to remain in the EU if they wish, or to vote to back the Government’s deal.

She added “A democracy worthy of the name must mean people having a real say over the major decisions that affect their lives. That’s why the Green Party has consistently said that the referendum should be the start, not the end, of the democratic process. And it’s why today we are announcing our intention to push for remaining in the EU to be an option in a ratification referendum.”

Molly Scott Cato, Green candidate for Bristol West and the party’s spokesperson in the European Parliament said “Take back control was the strap line which persuaded many to vote Leave in the referendum last year. It's now clear what that meant. A power grab by the Tory right so they can make a bonfire of regulations which protect our rights and environment. A ratification referendum must give back control. People must be given an opportunity to vote for the future on offer at the end of the article 50 process, or decide whether actually we are better off remaining a full member of the EU.”

Adding that “Our message is simple. For a final say, and for a chance to vote to stay in the EU, vote Green.”

At last year’s referendum Stoke-on-Trent voted by a huge majority to leave the EU, local party activist Adam Colclough said “ we respect the wish to leave the EU expressed by people at the ballot box last year, however since then the facts that have emerged about what a ‘hard Brexit’ could entail have caused many people to think again.’

He added that “Under the terms the government seem to want Brexit could damage our economy and public services could be seriously damaged, this policy gives all concerned an opportunity to reflect on what is a serious decision and, maybe, to change their minds.”

Concluding her speech Caroline Lucas said “There are some who say that this is a re-run of the referendum, but that simply isn’t the case. Instead this is giving people an informed say over our shared future. If the Government is so convinced that they’ll get a decent deal then there’s no reason that they wouldn’t trust people to have a final say.

Notes:
1. Event details:
Time: 10.30am
Date: Tuesday 2 May 2017
Place: The Space Studios, 129-131 Mare Street, London, E8 3RH

For more information contact: press@greenparty.org.uk / 0203 691 9401

Monday, 1 May 2017

Let the parties they usually silence show the sulking big two what a real debate sounds like.

If she won’t then neither will he, turn up for the televised debates ahead of the general election that is. Both Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn have decided to sit out one of the big set-pieces of the campaign.

The decision is disappointing, but not all that surprising, all politicians project the myth that they aren’t like the others, even though by experience, background and inclination they almost always are. This pair though seem to have internalized what was only ever intended to be a bit of sales talk.

Mrs. May truly believes herself to be a ‘doorstep campaigner’ and is even rumored to have been less than pleased when her team gave her only a few minutes to interact with the public during a trip to Scotland this week.

In these terrorism haunted days the security logistics of managing an interaction between the prime minister and random members of the public are complex to say the least, sufficiently so for it to be kept to a minimum. Anyway striking up spontaneous conversation with people on whom she hasn’t been briefed is hardly Mrs. May’s strong point, you could be forgiven for thinking that were she to have a chat with the Downing Street milkman it would involve an agenda and minutes taken by her private secretary.

Jeremy Corbyn thinks the fact that he can draw a crowd despite neither looking nor sounding like a professional politician means he can bypass a media that for the most part don’t like him much. That the crowd in question is largely composed of uber-trots from Momentum should give him pause for thought; no movement of consequence ever sustained itself by preaching to the converted and hoping that their cheering drowns out the muttering of the doubts even the truest of true believers secretly entertain.

Politics is and always has been more about performance than many of the participants like to admit. The most brilliant ideas go ignored if they are conveyed in the dull monotone of a ‘speak your weight’ machine that has given up on life.

Although they have only been a feature of our political life since 2010 the televised debates have become one of the figures a political performer must pull off if he or she is to succeed. The first time round they made Nick Clegg, unlikely though that now seems, into the most popular politician since Churchill, in 2015 they made a star out of Nicola Sturgeon.

By refusing to take part May and Corbyn aren’t being bravely individualistic; they’re perpetuating an institutional arrogance that sets voters teeth on edge. In the latter case a significant opportunity is being allowed go unclaimed.

It is easy to see why Mrs. May might not relish a televised debate, the campaign so far has shown her to have two rhetorical settings, a Thatcher style crossness and a scary habit of repeating soundbites as if she thinks doing so will hypnotize her audience. Strong and stable, you are getting very sleepy.

Jeremy Corbyn though has everything to gain from taking part in the debates, his performances at the dispatch box have improved mightily now over the past year or so. He also has the advantage of believing what he says, however muddled and with integrity being so rare a commodity in politics that is something to which the viewing public may well be inclined to warm.

They’re not going to do it though, the lady isn’t for turning and so the gentleman fells obliged to miss an open goal. Where do we go from here?

The obvious answer is for the debates to go ahead with the leaders of the, so called, ‘smaller’ parties taking centre stage. At first the fact that none of the participants is in with a shout of claiming the top prize might seem to be a turn off, in fact it is an advantage.

For a start Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas are both formidable debaters who seldom get the media coverage they deserve, when he can keep off the subject of sin Tim Farron can hit a few sweet shot too. More importantly without the keys to Downing Street dangling before their eyes the leaders taking part might (gasp) actually unburden themselves of a few honest opinions.

As for the Tory and Labour prima-donnas sulking on the sidelines the sight of the public responding to an honest, mature debate where people say what they mean rather than recite slogans engaging the public might just persuade them to change their minds and take part.


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Get on your bike to live longer.

Cycling to work can cut the risk of developing cancer or heart disease according to a study conducted by Glasgow University.

Researchers followed 205,000 UK commuters for five years and found that those who traveled regularly by bike were 41% less likely to die of any cause, with the risk of dying from cancer falling by 45% and of heart disease by 46%.

Commuters who walked to work also showed better health, but only if they walked over six miles a week.

Dr Jason Gill of Glasgow University told the BBC ‘this is really clear evidence that people who commute in an active way, particularly by cycling are at a lower risk’.

Also speaking to the BBC Clare Hyde of Cancer Research UK said the report helped to ‘highlight the potential benefits of building activity into your everyday life.’

Cycling is seen as being better exercise than walking because the exertion needed is more intense.

As the country faces a surprise general election health and transport are certain to be major issues for voters. This report brings the two together in one neat package, as a country we drive too much and walk too little; our health and environment suffer as a result.

In cities like Stoke-on-Trent where air quality is a serious problem having a transport system that makes it easy to get around and is more important than ever.

Local green Party activist Adam Colclough said ‘Stoke needs a fully integrated transport system that brings buses, cycle lanes and even trams together to end gridlock and boost both the environment and the local economy.

The Green Party is committed to creating a transport system that is not dependent on car use and that makes it easier for people to cycle and walk safely. In Green controlled Brighton journeys by cycle rose by 11% between 2009 and 2012, there have been fewer road casualties and harmful emissions have also been reduced.

Those benefits and more could be replicated in Stoke-on-Trent if the city chooses to change its political course and elect a Green Party MP on June 8th.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

We need a politics of hope and inclusion to give real meaning to this snap election.

You’re joking! Another one? Brenda from Bristol the OAP door-stepped by a journalist on the day Theresa May called a snap general election could have been speaking for the nation.

After last going to the polls in 2015, the upheaval of the EU referendum and, here win Stoke-on-Trent anyway, a hectic by-election earlier in the year the public are more than a little battle-weary when it comes to politics.

The Downing Street line on this latest election is that Mrs. May has called it to bring some much-needed unity to the nation’s political life as we head for the door marked Brexit. Look a little closer and what you really see is some nifty, if risky, footwork in the curious quadrille of party politics.

There seem, to this observer anyway, to be two motives behind the decision of this most cautious of prime ministers to stake it all on a throw of the dice.

The first is a desire to destroy, maybe permanently, the Labour Party as an effective opposition. She is relying on Jeremy Corbyn leading them to the sort of drubbing Michael Foot did in 1983, with the resulting internal strife putting them out of the game for at least a decade.

Fighting and, she hopes, winning an election now will provide enough of a majority to secure her position if, or more likely when, things get rocky over the Brexit negotiations and Tory backbenchers start looking round for someone to blame.

Like juggling hand grenades, it’s an impressive trick if it works; but if it goes wrong, it has the potential to do so messily.

What is there in all this cynical positioning for the British public? The answer is more opportunity than at first appears.

However often it has been repeated before this really is a chance to bring about lasting change. The upheavals of the past couple of years have proved that in politics nothing is ever certain, even more so at a time when the staus-quo is something voters are no longer prepared to accept.

We need a new type of politics based around hope and inclusion, not despair and division; a view of our national future built around the shared values that make us strong.

In Stoke-on-Trent that means talking about how this city deserves better. Better jobs, a better transport system and a better, stronger health service. These are all things the Green Party has campaigned for over the past four years, speaking up for local people when other, larger, parties either took them for granted or ignored them entirely.

The tired old politics of business as usual is no longer good enough; the time has come for a politics of hope and inclusion that will change this city and our country for the better.

Adam Colclough is the Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party, the opinions expressed here are his own

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Public misbehavior gives politicians a bad name

It is, to anyone who has been involved with politics in Stoke-on-Trent little surprise that Richard Broughan, councilor for Abbey Hulton and Townsend, has wound up in hot water, again. This time for an, alleged, incident at a community event, for which he has been reprimanded and sent for ‘further training’ by the council standards board.

I have met him in person just once and, suffice to say, the experience was not an inspiring one. It was at a hustings event in the run up to the general election and, to use the polite parliamentary euphemism, he had ‘lunched well’; very well. It was past six o’clock and he was still higher than the International Space Station.

This latest incident including, alleged, inappropriate remarks made to someone dressed as one of Santa’s elves has more than a touch of Benny Hill about it. That might encourage some people to laugh it off; I’m afraid I can’t join in.

Life isn’t a Carry On film, the sort of remark Sid James might have made in the sixties and got a laugh now, rightly, is seen as disrespectful of the person at whom it is aimed. It is also deeply disrespectful towards anyone, whatever their party, position or gender involved with politics.

It gives credence to the tired line that all politicians are either fools or chancers. Having been involved with local politics for almost two decades I know this is a long way from being true. Whatever differences we may have on policy political people in this city are united by a genuine desire to do their best for our city.

He may have an eccentric, to say the least, way of going about it, but I should think that at some level is true of Mr. Broughan too.

I don’t know what his ‘further training’ will consist of, if they let me near to the blackboard for a moment I’d suggest it comes down to one thing; the bond of trust between the public and their representatives.

The public outpouring of grief last year following the murder of Jo Cox showed how deep respect for an honorable politician can go. Few of the people who laid flowers for could have met Cox during her lifetime, what they responded to was her entirely genuine and unselfconscious belief that politicians have a duty to serve the interests of their constituents above all else.

I can think of notable local examples of the same ethos set by men like John Beech, Mick Williams and Graham Wallace. None of whom could be described as having been compliant party hacks or stony faced puritans, what they did all demonstrate though was a commitment to and connection with the people they served that was truly inspiring.

The public recoiled in disgust over the scandal of MPs expenses not because they had stopped believing in politics; but because they still believe it matters. What, rightly, enraged us all was that a handful of privileged practitioners within the charmed circle of Westminster so clearly didn’t.

Nobody would want to be led by paragons who are perfect in every respect. What we value in politicians is that they have the same flaws and frailties as we do, but have chosen to set them aside, as best they can, in the name of the common good.

Acting out in public isn’t comical it is sad for the person doing it and suggests a self -destructive impulse deserving of sympathy not indulgence. It also makes it all the harder for the majority of politicians who are just doing their best to get a fair hearing.


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Never mind a war with Spain, let's fight the battle for common sense.

The meeting between a former party leader and a microphone is seldom a happy one. If you don't believe me consider the case of Michael, now Lord, Howard.

On Sunday he told Sky News that, in his not at all humble opinion, Britain should go to war to keep hold of Gibraltar. Just to emphasize his point he drew compared the likelihood of the future of the rock and its monkeys with the Falklands war of 1982.

You don't need to be a psychologist to see where Lord Howard is coming from. He's reached the point in his political career where he has attained a certain level of prestige, but the power and purpose that made the job worth doing are a fast fading memory. What better way to grab a few moments in the limelight than by saying something controversial within earshot of a journalist?

So far, so predictable; the response though was as surprising as it was alarming.

You might have expected a little discreet eye rolling of the sort you get when an elderly relative says something inappropriate at a family gathering. Instead even though they didn't agree with him, publicly, the government didn't exactly slap him down either.

You could be forgiven for thinking that at some level Mrs. May and her cabinet like the idea of plucky little Britain squaring up to one of its oldest foes. Drake's drum is beating, the wind is full in the sails; let slip the dogs of distraction.

That, if we're honest is what this whole thing is, one big clumsy distraction. There is, of course, no likelihood of our going to war with Spain.

If the future of this historical and geographic anomaly enters into the Brexit negotiations it will be decided by just that, negotiation. Everyone's sword will stay sheathed and in all probability Gibraltar will stay British because that's what most people living there want.

Entertaining even for a moment an unlikely swashbuckling alternative serves as a wonderful distraction for a government that hasn't got a clue.

Last week Theresa May triggered Article 50 with indecent haste and nothing that resembles a plan. This is the biggest political event our country had faced since the war and the government are making things up as they go along. What could possibly go wrong; apart from everything?

If the UK is going to be a trading nation steering its own course through the world then we will need to make friends not enemies. Sadly that sort of common sense is missing from what passes for a large proportion of the government and media, not to mention the wider population.

Instead it is being drowned out by the din of patriotic music being played out of tune. People are being intentionally blinded with a rose tinted vision of a post Brexit Britain where all the passports are blue, the village clock is stuck at five to four and there is always honey for tea.

Behind it is a drive towards a hard Brexit led by the sort of right wing throwbacks who think the worst thing about zero hours contracts is that they're too generous. They will go to any length, even sabotaging whether we get a deal at all to further their interests.

Brexit is a reality, the people have spoken and their will expressed through the democratic process has to be respected. What we're going through has been likened to a divorce, unfortunately we seem to be being represented by a solicitor more used to doing a spot of conveyancing; who in turn has been landed with a fool for a client.

They say truth is the first casualty of war, it is starting to look like common sense is the first casualty of Brexit.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

It’s not algorithms that I fear so much as unimaginative managers.

Banking giant NatWest is to close branches in Stoke, Burslem, Trentham, Biddulph, Cheadle and Stone. Customers will be inconvenienced and the communities affected will be a little poorer; but hey, that's progress folks.

Speaking to the Sentinel on Friday a NatWest spokesman said they had ‘listened’ to feedback from communities and were aware that ‘not all of our customers are comfortable and familiar with online banking.’ The company has promised to put a ‘taskforce’ in place to help customers find alternative banking options.

Is there any problem these days that doesn't merit the setting up of a taskforce? It sounds good, but in practice means almost nothing.

As for listening to feedback from the community, I think NatWest are confusing that with hearing, which is not the same thing at all. You can hear something without paying it the least bit of attention.

NatWest, and all the other banks have been listening to communities in Stoke-on-Trent and countless other cities say they don't want their local bank to close, guess what happens next? They shut it anyway and the progress Juggernaut rolls on regardless.

George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm about sheep who like a ruminant chorus would bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad. They were a metaphor for the way a certain sort of communist would believe every diktat handed down by the party, however illogical or criminal it might be.

You can hear their echo whenever things like bank closures or the willful destruction of something else we the little people value is announced. It is the fanfare for a world view that sees humanity as only ever moving forward. The mere suggestion that a better route to the same destination might be the indirect one is classed as treason.

In an age when we are starting to become uneasy about automation and AI changing the world out of all recognition, what keeps me awake at night isn't algorithms with ideas above their station; its managers without a trace of imagination.

They are the sort of people who view the world through the screen of their laptop, in the way the rest of us do through a fairground mirror. The resulting distortions lead to them failing to understand some basic things about progress and human nature.

To them progress is a huge uncontrollable beast to which we can only cling helplessly as it stampedes to points unknown. The idea that in order to reach any destination someone has to take hold of the reins is lost on them.

As does the unavoidable truth that human beings often make their best journeys by following a roundabout route. Try to force change for ‘the good of all’, and you run the risk of getting mired in resistance or charging down endless blind alleys.

Just because we can do our banking and so many other things online, it doesn't necessarily mean that we want to, or that we should do so.

Change is inevitable, but continuity helps us to feel comfortable; machines have the power to make life easier, but human contact is what makes it worthwhile.

Balancing off those contradictions is going to become ever more important. Recognizing that change should never be an end in itself is a good place to start.


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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Labour’s entropy gathers momentum.

If it’s Monday, then it must be time for the Labour Party to tear itself apart, again.

Deputy leader Tom Watson took to the airwaves to mutter darkly about a ‘plot’ to destroy the party if, or when, things go belly up at the forthcoming local elections.

In the frame were far left group Momentum with trades union UNITE led by Len McCluskey lurking menacingly in the shadows. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, angry rebuttals and, by close of play a plea for party unity from Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

It would be laughable, if so many people didn't still place their trust in the Labour Party.

I don't know and don't much care if there really is a plot to destroy the Labour Party, as I see things its doing a pretty good job of destroying itself.

Momentum seem not too different to most other left wing groups. They have a ‘position’, a certain romanticized view of how politics work; but they're hardly agents of revolution.

Their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn is as touching as it is misguided. I retain the opinion of him I held when he won the Labour leadership against all the odds. He is a decent man motivated by principle, but he lacks the killer instinct necessary to win an election.

These days he looks worn out, far from wanting a praetorian guard to cement his grip on power, he probably longs to slip back into back bench obscurity.

Tom Watson’s claim that if McCluskey is re -elected as leader of UNITE the union will affiliate to Momentum and the fall of Rome follow shortly after seems less than credible.

Trades unions can and affiliate to all kinds of organizations, the influence this has on the voting intentions of their membership is minimal. To say otherwise is like putting two and two together and getting infinity.

The government is on the verge of leading Britain over the cliff into Brexit, austerity continues to bite and the NHS, Labour's greatest achievement is under threat like never before. Working people need a strong political voice, what the party many still turn to by default is providing instead is the din of a thousand private squabbles.

There are rumors that at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party MPs cheered Watson and booed Corbyn. A cynic might think the threat to King Jeremy comes from his deputy rather than than the Trots of Momentum; cynics are often right too.

There are, of course, alternatives to Labour, but the inadequacies of our voting system make it hard for them to gain traction. If this latest crisis is one more step towards the tar pit for the Labour dinosaur, though it may be sad for those people who are still loyal to a cause that stopped being loyal to them a long time ago, it could open the door for those parties who want to oppose the government; not engage in private feuds.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Is it time to bring back Sanity Fair?

In many ways, attitudes towards people living with mental illness have improved vastly in the past decade. Look beyond the surface though and a less pleasing picture emerges.

Lazy media stereotypes, deep-seated prejudices and the perennial struggle to access services, mean that people living with mental illness are still struggling for recognition of sometimes even the most basic rights. Popular culture also too often still presents them as a ‘problem’, rather than as members of one of the many communities making up our society.

Matters weren’t helped a couple of weeks ago by the comments made by Tory MP George Freeman that people with anxiety are just sitting at home popping pills and aren’t suffering from an illness that can be as limiting as any physical disability. Our sainted Prime Minister might talk about a ‘shared society’ where those living with mental illness are no longer excluded; it doesn’t seem like one of her pet policy advisors got the memo.

Individuals and charities do much to redress the balance, but there is a lot of needless duplication and when spoken by more than one voice at a time an otherwise strong message can end up being diluted.

What we need to do is celebrate in a positive way the possibility of living an empowered, productive life despite mental illness. One way of doing so could be to bring back Sanity Fair, the festival of all things relating to mental health held in the city up until a decade ago.

It could work rather in the way ‘Pride’ events have for the LGBT community, as a way for an unfairly marginalized community to say, ‘We’re here and We’re proud of who we are; get over it.’

The problem, of course, is how to pay for such an event. Council budgets are shrinking, so is that of the NHS.

The answer is to look to local employers, many of whom are slowly coming round to the idea that the mental health of their staff matters as much as their physical health and safety. Mental ill health in the workplace is a serious drain on productivity, profits and staff retention.

Concern for their bottom line, along with the slow realization that a good reputation is the best form of advertising should make business open to demonstrating social responsibility on such a major issue.

It is certainly an idea worth considering, if only because organizing a new Sanity Fair would bring the disparate mental health charities and support groups who do so much good work, often in isolation together to pull in the same direction.

It would also help to blow away with balloons, music and good spirits the clouds of stigma and suspicion that hold so many people back from reaching their full potential. Along the way, it would help to remind the wider world that Stoke-on-Trent is a modern and inclusive city, not the stereotype people locked within the embrace of the M25 like to think.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Greens send Ukip packing in Forest of Dean by election.


The Green party has won its second council seat in the space of a month, this time in the Forest of Dean.

This follows on from the party’s success in the contest held in Knowsley.

In the Forest of Dean, contest a campaign run by a team of Green Party member who only met for the first time six months ago increased the party’s vote by 30%.

The Ukip vote meanwhile collapsed, party Elections Coordinator Judy Maciejowska said this showed ‘the country is looking to the Greens as a force for good.’

She added that ‘with a determined organization the politics of hope can defeat the politics of hate. We can reach people without resorting to division and fear. We win when we come together, put in the work, and believe in our vision for a better future.’

Winning candidate Sid Phelps, speaking to the Independent, said, “We really, really worked hard. We spoke to a lot of people and had a very simple campaign message."

Party leader Caroline Lucas, also speaking to the Independent said, “This was a resounding victory for the Green Party and a major setback for Ukip.”

Adding, “When people vote Green they know they get representatives who work tirelessly for their communities and committed to protecting local services and the environment.”

As the by-elections in Stoke Central and Copeland enter their final phase this is win is a huge boost to their profile and shows the party is building a solid base of support around the country.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hypocrisy and hubris behind the shared society.

There is something deeply hypocritical about Prime Minister Theresa May’s sudden discovery of the crisis in mental health services.

In her speech to the Charity Commission this week, she pledged to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness and improve support for service users.

As a volunteer for two mental health charities part of me wanted to punch the air. Having our most senior politician speak about an issue that is so often side-lined has to be a good thing.

Then the cynic in me wakes up and smells the coffee in a world where nothing significant has changed.

The new money on offer isn’t all that new; it’s not all that much either. It has mostly been shuffled from elsewhere and won’t do more than plug a few holes in a fast sinking boat.

The rest is really just so many honeyed words, if you’ve been around long enough you’ll have heard most of them before.

Parity of esteem is a nice thing to talk about, it is a lot harder to achieve. Doing so requires joined up thinking and serious funding invested over the long term, neither of which are in anything other than short supply.

As for the ‘shared society’, this is a remix of a tune we’ve heard before.

I’m long enough in the tooth to remember John Major promising to create a ‘classless society’. That turned out well, didn't it?

Tony Blair and David Cameron both played variations on the same theme, with the same results. Their words warmed the air for a while; but there was little in the way of significant change

This is suggestive of a deep-seated hubris in the political elite. They believe all they have to do is touch a few tired bases and they can distract the public from the mounting problems in our society.

Those of who have seen into a darker reality know that something is going seriously wrong.

We see the lines forming at the food banks and the patients piling up in hospital corridors and know things are getting worse. Those with children see them saddled with debt and struggling to find somewhere to live and fear for the future.

The sugared sentiments and cynical positioning offered in response by Mrs May and her increasingly out of touch government are both irrelevant and insulting.

They are certainly no barrier against the rising tide of populism by which the political elite are both terrified and, bizarrely, still treat like a passing fad. The populists by contrast are not troubled by facts, common sense or decency; instead, they provide a parade of stereotypes and scapegoats.

People struggling with mental illness present a tempting target for bigots, letting them whip up threats that don't exist through amplifying difference into deviance.

If it were just a matter of the political class capering along the path to oblivion I’d treat Mrs May's posturing this week as just so much chaff thrown out to deflect criticism of the mess her party is making of the NHS.

Unfortunately they ignore the extent to which the policies of this government and the one before have made them complicit in excluding vulnerable people, worse yet they could lead to their being further marginalized; that is unforgivable.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Freedom is fragile; we shouldn’t let a scared political class put barriers in the way of our rights.

Two news stories reminded me recently that the franchise we all take for granted is less secure than we think.

Over Christmas, while the political circus was out of town the government slipped out the announcement that plans to trial requiring voters to produce ID at polling stations in eighteen areas at the next local elections.

This is, outwardly at least, a response to claims made in a report written by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that electoral fraud is a real and present threat to the legitimacy of our democracy.

In nearly twenty years active involvement with politics I have seen little evidence of this. Where there are infringements of the rules, it is more often due to a mix of innocence and incompetence than criminality.

Never mind, it gives the government a chance to make a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

Then a couple of days into the new year I opened the Daily Mirror to read a full page plea for readers to write to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to protest against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This nasty little piece of legislation will make newspapers liable for the full legal costs of any case taken out against them, even if the court finds in the papers favour. The only way papers can avoid potential bankruptcy is by joining state backed press regulator IMPRESS, a quango so sinister it might have given Stalin second thoughts.

A better way of muzzling the press and scaring owners and editors out of supporting investigative journalism is impossible to imagine.

Both these stories have a subtext that says something dark and worrying about the attitudes of the political establishment.

Asking voters to produce ID at polling stations isn’t about combating electoral fraud; it is a way of keeping anyone who might support something other than the neo-liberal economic consensus quiet. After all the biggest impact of this plan will be on the communities it has hit hardest, where people haven’t got passports because they often can’t afford to eat never mind go on foreign holidays.

The political class have never forgiven the press for exposing their not so little fiddles over their expenses. Remember the people who wanted you to pay for their duck houses are the same hypocrites who want benefits claimants sanctioned for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.


In Britain, we like to imagine that we are different to other countries that have written constitutions. It is a comforting myth based on imagined superiority; it is as dangerous as it is deluded.

If we allow the press to be muzzled by people with deep pockets and dark secrets and voting to become something they let us do only when we have proved who we are to some official it will be a symbolic snipping of the silken cords that hold up our democracy. There is a real risk of their being replaced by the steel cables of control and coercion.