After the excitement of Saturday morning's protest, it was down to the dismal business of Labour party selections in the afternoon. Since I've been in the city, Stoke-on-Trent's council election cycle has been three years on, one year off with a third of the 60 seats up at any given time. Furthermore each of the 20 wards returned three councillors. However, the powers that be have been consumed by a lengthy boundary re-jigging exercise alongside an overhauling of local governance. The number of councillors are to be reduced to 45 and wards redrawn so the majority of them are single member. Gone is the rolling election, and in comes an all-out election every four years.
Stoke Labour, still weakened by the events of the last decade, have had a hard time finding enough candidates, so its doubtful any other party will find enough to contest every locality. Nevertheless there are selection battles for seats perceived to be safe, and I just so happen to be in one. My ward was contested by no less than four candidates, three of whom were sitting councillors for other parts of the city. And in the best Labour party traditions, the room filled out with members never before seen at CLP and branch meetings: it was clear a couple of candidates had been pressing the flesh and doing deals to get their support out. Despite that there was almost an upset.
Candidate A (everyone is anonymised in case those who missed out want to try selection elsewhere) began the selection proceedings. She set out her career as a public servant in special needs and elderly care. She stressed her Labour family background, her membership of the Co-op Party and activism with Unison. She talked a bit about her involvement with the local residents' association, her role as school governor in her present council seat on the other side of the city, and the skills she could bring to the ward.
Candidate B said he'd lived in Shelton for 48 years, bringing up seven kids and numerous grandkids. He was a bridge builder with a proven track record of getting on with local whites and Muslims, and has always beaten opponents in his existing ward with a healthy majority. He talked about his role as a trustee of the Islamic Centre in Shelton, as well as its full-time president and secretary. He also worked to secure the new Mosque site. Wider achievements to his name included helping local community projects, secured the go ahead for new footpaths, used money to develop the local park, and get CCTV installed in an anti-social behaviour black spot.
Candidate C began in a similar vein, saying he had lived in Stoke for 28 years and brought his kids up here. While he was part of the May intake, he has proven very active having consistently campaigned in Stoke North during the election. He has taken up every training opportunity offered by the council and the Labour group, and talked about his regular attendance at residential association and community centre meetings. He then said councillors need to be united but accountable, and thought Labour needed to talk more about what it has achieved in the city.
Lastly, Candidate D gave the most energetic speech. She began by saying the industrial revolution began in this ward and that today, because it takes in the central business district, a prosperous ward means a growing Stoke-on-Trent. She talked about her business and emotional ties to the area before moving on to talk about her values and experience. As a trained economist with experience working on other regeneration projects, she would be able to provide the critical scrutiny of the council's plans that have historically been lacking. She also emphasised her activist credentials, first as a former speedboat driver for Greenpeace and now as an active anti-fascist, campaigner to save the Wedgwood Museum, and a very active party volunteer.
As is customary the members had the opportunity to grill the candidates after their presentations. As tempting as it was to quiz them on the decision of Gerry Healy and the US SWP to split the Fourth International in 1953 and whether they thought it was based on sound principle or political opportunism, I asked all four this instead:
The new ward contains Hanley's wealth creating areas but also some of the worst deprivation in the city. What do you think about this wealth gap, and how would you go about addressing it?I got a mixed bag of answers. Candidate B gave the worst response, saying he would "meet people". Oh dear. Candidate A thought the ward had a lot going for it and was better off than some. While this is partly true, the northern end has some of the worst housing stock I've seen in Stoke. I'm not exaggerating when I say the council has demolished property that's in better nick. Candidate C answered that councillors need to work hard to attract more investment. But Candidate D gave the best answer by some distance. She said the same thing about business, but also that they need to be encouraged to provide more employment and discharge more responsibilities to the communities in which they sit. As the public sector shrinks they have to step in and promote the local 'soft' institutions that knit the area together.
None of them offered a programme bridging the gap between today's consciousness and the necessity of a workers' government, but it was clear to me who was the 'most Labour', dynamic, and capable of the candidates, so I duly wrote Candidate D's name on my ballot paper. Much to my surprise she got through to the second round of voting, winning over some of the supposed block vote that had turned out for candidate B. But unfortunately she was pipped to the post by Candidate C. So congratulations to him and commiserations to everyone else.
There is one thing about the process that didn't sit easy with me. The day saw selections also take place for the two other safest seats in the constituency, none of which were done under all-women shortlists. This has been reserved for two wards that will be more challenging for Labour to win. AWS is far from problematic and has been abused from time to time by cliques and bureaucrats to get placewomen in position, but for all that there remains a troubling gender gap in Labour representation. In my opinion AWS is an evil less worse than allowing it to go unaddressed. So why wasn't one of these seats designated as such?