Saturday, 3 April 2010

Inside Stoke Central's Selection Meeting

Thursday night's selection meeting was always going to be a fraught affair. While shenanigans are a feature of all the mainstream parties, especially where the last minute placement of candidates are concerned, in Stoke Central's case the stitched-up shortlist comes on top of the soured relations with the regional organisation and the National Executive Committee. It's a situation that has seen party members fall out, activists barred from standing for election, and the administrative suspension of the entire CLP. And so when I turned up at Equality House in Shelton for the meeting, the air was thick with ill-feeling and rebellion.

Eventually the 71 voting members plus the dozen or so ineligible members and assorted hangers on took their seats to hear what the hopefuls had to say.

First up was Tristram Hunt, who was always going to win thanks to the shortlist fix. Nevertheless he gave an excellent performance. He began by evoking the history of the Potteries and moved on to his role in securing funding for the
Wedgwood Museum and helping keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the West Midlands. His priority is education, which he believes can challenge long-term unemployment and the associated evils of poverty, ill-health and anti-social behaviour. He also pledged to use all of his connections to attract investment, including getting Stoke connected to the much-vaunted Glasgow-London high speed rail link.

But his politics proper came out in the questions from the floor. He criticised the recent court decisions against industrial action ballots as politically motivated, and he likened them to turning the clock back to the Taff Vale judgements. He said he was for the democratisation of regional regeneration quangos, which have only really been interested in inputs from business elites. Tristram was also critical of Academies, being especially worried about their large size. Finally on local internal politics, he said regional and national levels of the organisation only feel confident enough to intervene if a CLP is weak. While he was for the reconfiguring of the relationship between different parts of the party, the best way to resist such attempts in the future is to recruit and rebuild.

Saj Malik's pitch struck a rather different tone, which can be best summed as 'I'm working class, me'. He argued this background made him ideally suited to a proletarian constituency like Stoke, and made welcome noises about fighting the BNP and opening a proper constituency office. He said Labour had let working class people down, but the government still managed to do plenty of things to be proud of regards schools, hospitals and so on. Unlike Tristram's pitch however, Saj's accent was more on the need to "protect" working class people and doing things for them. His opponent was more of the school of helping people to help themselves.

In the questions, he thought court interference in industrial disputes was shameful, especially under Labour. He described Academies as a "mixed bag". Refreshingly, but perhaps unwisely, when confronted with a question he couldn't answer Saj often replied "I don't know". He appeared unfamiliar with local issues, but was clear that he'd need to learn a lot on the job. Saj did however receive the biggest laugh of the night. Asked how he would feel if the selection process foisted on Stoke had been imposed on his home constituency, he said "I'd be pissed off"!

Joe Ukemenam was by far the weakest candidate. To put it bluntly, his opening remarks were more suited to a panel at an academic conference than a selection meeting. He rattled off his record as a self-financed student from undergrad to PhD level, helped deliver "capacity-building" initiatives and policy development in Stratford and several African countries. He led the UN mission to Liberia in the early 90s and, rather immodestly, said he'd been described as "one of the unsung heroes of his generation".

But it was the questions that showed him up as a poor choice for a traditionally labourist constituency party. When the same question about the courts and the unions was put to him, he said he had no problem with their interventions (in fact, he said "why not?") On his specialist subject he didn't come across well either. Asked what he did about the use of Liberia as a
flag of convenience during his time there, he said his brief was about demobilising armed factions and organising an election. Of the issue itself he said there was need to look at the interaction between international organisations and the third world. On Academies, he said "there is a debate in the labour movement ... and I will continue to be involved in the debate" without once saying where he stood. But most damning of all, asked what he would like to see done about tax loopholes exploited by nondoms Joe replied "there's no point a soldier answering a general's question" - it was up to those who make the relevant decisions to make the decisions.

If proof was needed of the contrived nature of the shortlist, Joe provided it.

Due to some lacunae in the Labour party rule book, a motion had to be moved so the selection meeting could go to a vote (I may have heard wrong, but by doing so in this instance some sort of precedent has been set). The chair, Barry Stockley, was very clear that if the motion fell the CLP ran the risk of having a candidate imposed. It was fairly close - the move to the vote was passed only by 41 to 30, and as everyone knows Tristram went on to easily win it.

However, there are now two interrelated problems. While Tristram will no doubt be a very capable MP and one that will find favour among the city's elite, there is a big question mark hanging over the legitimacy of his selection. Everyone in the CLP knows this, not least Tristram himself. Second is the news that this legitimacy is already being publicly challenged by the party's secretary, Gary Elsby. Yesterday
he announced he will stand as an Independent Labour candidate. In other words, the election in Stoke Central has gone from being a dead cert for Labour to an open contest.


fendawg said...

Thanks for the details!

A motion to "move to ballot" is standard practice in any shortlisting or selection meeting, whether it be for council candidate or parliamentary - indeed Hartshill & Penkhull are still without a candidate (last I heard) because they voted against the motion to "move to ballot" at the selection meeting eight days ago.

Let's not get carried away please by splits within the CLP; Stoke Central has never been united in my 25 years of Party membership. Elsby is world famous in his own living room, and I note that and The Times give him a 8% chance of winning the seat - which is almost a dictionary definition of generous.

Elsby, like Ward, Maley (if she is actually standing) and Walker will do next to nothing - and indeed Elsby and Walker could well take votes from each other as, if they have a power-base, it's on Abbey Hulton.

The fact that Mark Fisher has so strongly endorsed Tristram (even claiming credit for persuading him to put his name forward) will help unite the rank-and-file CLP membership who are wondering who this Elsby guy is and why is he causing so many problems.

To liken Central to Blaenau Gwent, as so many have tried to do, misses three fundamental points: firstly, the objection in BG was to an all-women shortlist, not an issue in Stoke Central; secondly, Peter Laws as Assembly Member for the Constituency and Llew Smith's long-standing Agent had a high name recognition and job approval rating in the Constituency, something which Elsby cannot claim, and finally Laws had the backing of Llew Smith, who was a popular retiring MP who resigned from the Labour Party to campaign for Laws, again Elsby does not have the luxury of Mark Fisher's support.

This will be a safe Labour hold, with Norsheen Bhatti beating Elsby for second place.

As a final point, as a Labour Party volunteer member, I am delighted that the Party will now be rid of Elsby (and hopefully one or two others) who have failed to grasp that the Party in Stoke has been allowed to stagnate for far too long and are part of the problem not the solution.

Hopefully Tristram will be a committed Constituency MP, who will help rebuild the Party from the bottom-up, with the support of Regional Office, who in my many dealings with them have never been anything less than helpful not interfering, and Stoke Central can retake its rightful place as the beating heart of the Labour Party in the City.

Phil said...

I'm not so sure, it all depends how Gary plays his cards.

We all know there are a hell of a lot of aggrieved Labour voters in Stoke who've turned to the independents and, to a lesser extent, the BNP as a protest for the last eight or nine years. If Gary can come up with a policy platform, enlist a team of leafleters and door knockers, get the 'Labour shafted me' narrative across, and persuade other independents to back him, I think he could pick up significant votes. Remember, while there are small groups of people who follow the ins and outs of Potteries politics, Gary's already reached a large audience via his several front pages and TV reports establishing him as the wronged party. That could chime with existing Labour voters and those who would otherwise not bother turning out.

On another point (you'll probably agree), I'm fed up of hearing the BNP's chances talked up. The presence of Alby, UKIP and possibly the NF in the contest will ensure they get nowhere near winning. With any luck they'll lose their deposit.

I'll probably write more about candidates' chances at some point this week. At the moment I'm fed up of blogging about Stoke Central!

fendawg said...

Phil, there are a lot of very big "ifs" there, and I don't believe that Gary can build a campaign team, or a successful narrative in the time between now and the election; I think he has more chance of being elected to the City Council in 2011, representing the new Ward based on Abbey Hulton.

I think it kind of helps Labour to talk-up the threat of Simon Darby, simply because it will motivate people to say "we don't want the BNP representing us at Westminster". This might be slightly self-contradictory, but what we found canvassing for last year's Euros was people saying that they weren't going to vote Labour as a protest, but welcomed the presence of UKIP to give them an alternative recepticle for their protest to the BNP. I don't believe there has ever been a strong acceptance of the BNP and what they stand for, in fact I think Mark summed it up after the 2008 results when he said the BNP had been successful because they were good Ward councillors, and avoided getting their hands dirty in making the tough decisions that everyone else had to make.

As a final comment (I'm logging off very shortly, but will be back later) our doorstep response is very much we want a Labour MP, and we're going to vote Labour in the General Election, but local election preferences are all over the place. This I think will be true of Central, particularly if it continues to appear that Cameron is on the cusp of forming the next Government - people will realise that Gary alone can do nothing to prevent that, and will (maybe with their eyes closed and holding their noses) vote for Tristram to try and prevent a return to the Thatcherite policies that so devastated Stoke during the 1980's and early 1990's, and from which we still have not truly recovered.

james said...

The reckoning of political commentators is that Hunt's parachuting had more to do with any future leadership contest than Tristram's politics. I can't see that he's pleased by the process. Did you get to question / speak to him, Phil?

I'm seriously thinking of doing a proper write up of my "Workers Direct" policy, btw. I think there's a real potential in trade unions supporting collective equity stakes in start-up advanced manufacturing / green sector firms.

Anonymous said...

What is it about Stoke CLP and Old Etonians?

First Mark Fisher (a v decent chap, by the way) and now Tristram Hunt...

FX Man said...

So - help me out: where does Gene Hunt fit into all of this?

fendawg said...

@FX Man he's Tristram's rogue Uncle!

Brother S said...

According to Wikipedia, Tristram went to University College School not Eton.

Anonymous said...

I heard that Mark Fisher wanted Gary Elsby to be his successor and said so to his CLP the last time he attended. Is this true?
I'm also told that Stoke Central members have started to resign on friday to join Gary. Is this also true? I'm also told that the Chair and executive of Stoke central have told the Regional Office that they cannot use them to knock Gary. Is this true?
I'm also told that the ratio of 4:3 is not a resounding platform for Tristam Hunt.
The message given out was vote for one of the three (Tristram 1, 2 and 3) or have imposed, Smith, Heggie or Hill (anathema).
Tristram Hunt is an imposed candidate, nothing more and nothing less.
Fendawg, above (A Tory brutalised by his party) is wrong and underestimates the growing feeling of revulsion by Central members. Tristram Hunt is going to lose.
Now ask the question of Stoke Central members, Gary or Tristram?

Phil said...

No, Mark did not say he wished Gary was his successor. He did however condemn the exclusion of certain activists from taking part in the selection process - such as Gary - but urged members to vote according to the qualities of the candidates.

As for resignations, I don't know. I'll know more over the next few days.

Anonymous said...

Must have it wrong then.
My source certainly indicated that Mark Fisher wanted Barry Stockley, the current chairman,to have been his successor but Barry Stockley ruled himself out on the grounds of age.Mark Fisher then named Gary Elsby, the Secretary, as the person who he would have like to handed over to.
It's strange how two stories get twisted, isn't it.

fendawg said...

@Anonymous I'm afraid I have no idea what you mean by "a Tory brutalised by his Party", so I'll leave that alone.

Mark Fisher has been quoted publically as urging Tristram to submit his name for Stoke Central in the first place, and I have no reason to doubt that Mark is anything other than a man of his word, and given their similar backgrounds it wouldn't be the greatest surprise in the political world.

I also note a letter in The Sentinel on Saturday from a senior trade union official on the centre-left of the Party who is a member of Central criticising the selection process, but urging members to unite around Tristram.

However, whatever the impact on CLP membership it is not they who will ensure that Stoke Central remains in Labour hands, it is the ordinary voter in the street, who is either totally unaware of these so-called shenanigans, or is completely bemused by them, and will do whatever they can to keep David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street. I repeat my earlier comments that the traditional political environment for Independent success (as outlined by both Martin Bell and Dr Richard Taylor recently) does not exist in Stoke Central.

I also think that Tristram Hunt might prove to be a surprise to a lot of people; I am already pleasantly impressed by his denunciation of a Blairite flagship policy of Academy schools, and only wish that his two Stoke colleagues in North and South would follow suit, however I fear that that horse has now bolted and there's no getting it back in the stable.

I don't think it's a secret (in fact I think Phil mentioned it in his original blog) that Barry Stockley told the Hustings meeting that if they did not agree to the Motion to "Move to Ballot" they ran the risk of having a candidate imposed on them, particularly given the fact that the meeting took place seemingly five days before a General Election is called; however the NEC have reiterated last week (and I would refer you to Ann Black's website) that imposition is a course of last resort, and that wherever possible, even after a General Election is called, CLPs should have some role in the filling of any vacancies that arise.

Anonymous said...

Are you somewhat surprised that Mark Fisher is not promoting Tristram Hunt, one of his researchers?
Are you bemused that the vote went 4:3 to vote?
Are you baffled that Tristram then gets 50 votes( 10 didn't want him but then voted for him!)?
I want to know if it's true that Mark Seddon(former Tribune editor) backs Gary Elsby and Martin Bell is coming to Stoke to support him.
Love the bit that Tristram (God has sent us Elected Mayors)is openly knocking acadamies (oh my f***** God!)I can see the Stoke shirt coming on next!
I suggest that fendawg knows more than he lets on.

Phil said...

What are you talking about anonymous? Tristram was not Mark's researcher, but is endorsed by him.

No one was surprised the motion to move to the selection was as close as it was, nor was there anything particularly whiffy about the meeting going on to endorse Tristram by a wide margin.

You're seeing conspiracies and intrigue where none exists.

fendawg said...

Anonymous - or should that be Paranoid? - all I know is what I read on here, PitsnPots and in The Sentinel; I don't listen to Radio Stoke and I even missed the report on Central on Newsnight last week.

Add to that 24+ years Labour Party membership (never in Stoke Central) and being an election-obsessive who loves to study elections from around the world from an amateur's perspective and you've got me.

Anonymous said...

Phil, how did Tristram go from 40 to 50? Where did the other 10 come from?

Phil said...

You're getting your knickers in a twist, Anonymous. It's simple.

There were 71 voting members at the meeting - 66 individual and five proxies.

As you know, the vote to move to the selection was passed 41 to 30.

Now of that 30 who voted against, the majority obviously decided to go along with the process that had been accepted by the meeting. Which explains how Tristram got 50 votes.

It's not rocket science or anything murky. It's what happens when votes are reduced to limited options.

Anonymous said...

I see.
10 people who didn't want Tristram, then wanted him.
I now see why Labour Party members have resigned. A Blairite in a left wing Central Constituency who champions elected mayors and is promoted by the chief promoter of Blairism and the elcted mayoral system.
Tristram is the walking dead, isn't he.

fendawg said...

Anonymous, I'm afraid you're moving beyond sensible debate to crass stupidity.

It is obvious to anyone who is prepared to look at this without preconceived bias that 10 people registered a protest vote by voting against the move to ballot, but having registered that protest, they then accepted the decision of the majority, and voted for the person they considered to be the best candidate presented to them.

It's called democracy, and as someone who for 24+ years has volunteered my time and money in furthering the case of the Labour Party in progressing the development of the Labour Party in this City, I shed no tears at the departure of some individuals.

As to your "Blairite in a left-wing constituency" remark, whilst disputing the claim that Stoke Central is a particularly left-wing constituency, I would hazard a guess that the same might have been written had the internet existed when a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was selected as PPC for the Sedgefield constituency prior to the 1987 General Election; they would have been wrong then just as you are wrong now.

james said...

I've said in many comments on this subject that it's not helpful to categorise Hunt's politics using what is, pre-recession terminology for the Labour party.

Nigel said...

Doe's anyone else suspect that anonymous is Elsby himself?
Over on the Sentinal and pitsnpots I suspect he's created several sock puppet accounts to "big himself up".

He has a signature writing style all his own.
Egotistical, bizarre and paranoid ramblings. The riddler with out the riddles!

Budapestkick said...

'Allow me to offer Tristram and other would-be parachutists this piece of advice. Don't bother applying for Stoke Central. Your connections might see you placed on the shortlist, but ultimately you will lose out to a local. This leaves you two choices. Try and find another seat where you fancy your chances. Or do something radical like returning to your local CLP and doing the old fashioned local activism thing. If you're any good, you might get selected in a couple of elections' time when your MP steps down or carks it.'

I don't think Tristram was listening...

Anonymous said...

THis is what you said then: "Allow me to offer Tristram and other would-be parachutists this piece of advice. Don't bother applying for Stoke Central. Your connections might see you placed on the shortlist, but ultimately you will lose out to a local. This leaves you two choices. Try and find another seat where you fancy your chances. Or do something radical like returning to your local CLP and doing the old fashioned local activism thing."

This is what you say now: "Tristram will no doubt be a very capable MP".

How would you describe your political trajectory?


Phil said...

You'll notice that in my original comment that I don't cast any aspersions on Tristram's ability to be an MP. If I should be criticised for anything it would be excessive naivete - I was unprepared for how brazen the stitch up would be.

Politically I'm the same as I was when I started this blog. But what has changed are the political opportunites for left wing, socialist, and trade unionist politics, and the part Labour can play in realising them.