Wednesday 28 April 2010

Stoke Central Hustings

The Public and Commercial Services union is one of the largest unions not affiliated to the Labour party. Instead of asking members to vote one way or the other, through its Make Your Vote Count campaign the PCS aims to facilitate political discussion by quizzing candidates about its policy priorities (in this election, it's the union's five public service pledges). To this end the PCS organised a Stoke Central hustings on Monday night that, despite a lack of publicity, attracted 29 people. This probably explains why only three of the eight eligible candidates turned up - Norsheen Bhatti for the Tories, Labour's Tristram Hunt, and Matt Wright from Stoke SP/TUSC (quite rightly, as a trade union it will not give a platform to fascists, which means our Nazi parachutist Simon Darby and "reformed character" Alby Walker).

The opening speeches of each candidate set the tone for what was to come. Norsheen basically regurgitated the Tory party manifesto, substituting 'Britain' for 'Stoke'. She was full of how Labour's let down "our families, city, and community". Voting for change (i.e. her party) will see action on debt, regeneration, work toward making Stoke Britain's most family-friendly city, etc. etc. Matt's opening dwelled on how the SP campaigns week in, week out and not just at election time. If elected, he planned to take only the average wage of a Stoke worker and that he, like any other TUSC candidate, would use parliament as a platform to fight against the attacks to come on the public sector. Tristram's introduction focused on regeneration. He argued that elsewhere regeneration has concentrated on infrastructure and pretty buildings, but real regeneration requires investment in people. The opening of Sure Start centres and new schools and colleges are a step in this direction because, ultimately, investment from outside will come if the work force is better educated.

I don't want to spend time on the nitty gritty of every question, so I'll stick with those that will be of most interest to readers. Like many towns and cities devastated by the hurricane of deindustrialisation a great deal of the local economy is dependent on the public sector. One comrade asked if cuts here in Stoke could derail the regeneration process, and ultimately benefit the BNP? Matt replied we needed more public sector jobs, not less. If cuts were to come the axe should come down on trident and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cuts would further fuel the racialisation of Stoke's problems. Tristram conceded the latter point, but added that no one would invest in a BNP city. This is a serious issue because, ultimately, the solution to Stoke's problems lies in more businesses and more employment. Pressed on Labour's records, he flagged up the coming 50p tax band and the possibility of global taxes on bank transactions. He said that, unfortunately, the City has the county over a barrel because of the proportion of GDP it provides. If taxes hit the finance sector any harder, he believed there was a danger of reducing overall receipts. Norsheen stuck with the Tory line on efficiency savings, but seemed to think cracking down on public sector fat cats (i.e. top earners) would save three billion!

On schools and academies, Brother I from the trades council asked if candidates thought schools should be democratically accountable as opposed to being at the beck and call of private sponsors. Looking at the record of academies he said 59% of them are currently in the 'challenged' category. He also asked if candidates would promise to vote against the "free schools" in Sweden that Cameron is threatening to introduce in this country. Bro I said these lay claim to 'parent power' but are in reality fronts for multinational companies. Completely oblivious to what he had just said, Norsheen thought free schools were a wonderful idea because it gives parents power. Matt said he was opposed to the creeping privatisation of schools - instead of winding down state schools and shoveling money into the academies' gaping maw why not redeploy that cash in more democratic, accountable schooling? Tristram thought there was nothing wrong in principle with outside groups getting involved in schooling, such as FE and HE institutions, but he would draw the line at evangelical and fundamentalist groups.

Brother A from the SP used his question to return to regeneration. He said he had a
Sentinel centre spread special on regeneration ... from 1983. Given that we're still talking about it 27 years on, the growing gap between rich and poor, and that a decade of economic growth has passed Stoke by, what hope for it? On the issue of cuts, he said whoever gets in after the election will be trying to make workers pay for the crisis. This means massive levels of struggle, much of it directed through the trade unions. So which candidates are for repealing the anti-trade union laws? Once again Norsheen must have misheard the question as she dwelt exclusively on encouraging new jobs and tackling the benefits culture. Tristram disputed A's claim on the wealth gap but conceded the government could have probably done more. However, he maintained a lot had been done considering the context of globalising capitalism. He said the decline of manufacturing has been a common feature among most Western countries and argued it wasn't the government's place to roll back the automotive processes that have made many jobs redundant. On unions Tristram thought labour laws had gone far enough, but wouldn't necessarily be positive about rolling them back. He did however criticise the recent court decisions against Unite and the RMT. Matt felt the boom contained the seeds of the bust in its lop-sided character, and while there has been a bit of trickle down and a raising of living standards, the rich have accelerated well in advance of the rest. He would like to see a massive rise in the minimum wage, on which he'd lived on most of his adult life.

Summing up, Tristram welcomed the PCS-sponsored hustings and thought the political ecology of the city could do with more meetings like it. But on the election, there is a choice on May 6th - and that's between the "repugnant figure" of the BNP. Even if they don't win, a significant vote will damage the Potteries. The only credible alternative to this is Labour. Norsheen said that the contest in Stoke was open, and that the Tories were the only united party focused on the city. Lastly, Matt said he was addressing the meeting as a fellow trade unionist. There were battles ahead and the labour movement need to be ready for them: a voice in parliament would greatly aid this process.

Overall the hustings was well worth it. It was a shame it hadn't attracted wider publicity or drawn in the other candidates, but nevertheless many thanks to the PCS comrades who organised it.

In front of a trade union audience a Tory can never expect an easy ride, so even though it's doubtful she won many (if any) votes at least Norsheen's presence was appreciated. I thought Tristram acquitted himself well. He didn't try and hide his position on cuts and the deficit, which would have been tempting in front of this left audience. Instead he spoke plainly. For this (at least from chatting with PCS activists afterwards) he went down well, even if it wasn't what the comrades wanted to hear. I think Matt turned in a good performance too - I can't remember another occasion where two representatives of the main parties had to respond seriously to socialist critiques and positions.

This hustings was very much a debate about policies, which itself is a refreshing change from the policy-lite farce of the general election campaign.


ModernityBlog said...

I forget, Phil, but who was the non-London candidate that Stoke LP members wanted before Hunt was parachuted in?

Phil said...

There wasn't just one candidate. Three locals made the long list - Sarah Hill (boss of Stoke's city party), Jane Heggie (manager of Stoke South constituency office), and Mervyn Smith (an ally of the former Labour mayor). Gary Elsby - who didn't make the longlist - was the favoured candidate of one section of Stoke Central CLP. He's now standing as an independent.

Anonymous said...

I didn't quite catch what Tristram had to say about being a promoter off the Elected Mayoral system or his belief in Academies.His views on the collapse of the strongest of the three CLPs, Stoke Central or his views on being silenced by Gordon Brown.

Phil said...

There was nothing stopping you from coming along and asking him.

As for the collapse of the CLP, you know this has been a long drawn out process stretching over many years. Why did it collapse from 700 to less than 200 before the recent selection fiasco? Who was responsible for managing this decline? Why was nothing done to try and overcome it?

new labour hater said...

Phil, I believe the question is, why has the Executive of Stoke Central ceased to exist. Is it because a parachute candiidate on behalf of Lord Mandelson was selected in a dodgy ballot?

Tribune article part 2 said...

Well, good luck to him, though I can’t help feeling that the good people of Stoke Central deserve better. That’s not a reflection on either Dr Tristram Hunt or his many doubtless estimable qualities; but it still seems a shame that New Labour, even in its death throes, can’t quite kick the habit of treating the membership of the Labour Party as non-speaking extras, just there to provide some vaguely believable background atmosphere. Then again, in retrospect the kind of internal, backstairs courtier politics of the kind that has, for now at any rate, benefitted TV’s Tristram Hunt, is the only kind of politics New Labour has ever been really interested in, or actually any good at. Remember, the much vaunted "tough decisions" which Tony Blair would tell us he was so uniquely capable of making almost always rebounded on the Labour Party, on the rare occasions when they weren’t aimed directly at it in a pathology of serial abuse, in order to strip it of its rules, its principles, its policies and its dignity.
That, of course, was all necessary to make Labour electable. We all know that, don’t we?
But as I’ve said over and over again, New Labour’s greatest sin was that it turned a tactic into a strategy, which then ossified into principle. And where has that combination of rigid discipline and complete timidity got us? Apart, that is, from that bloke off the telly splitting the Labour vote in Stoke and heralding in the possible election of a Nazi? I write this the day before we all presume the General Election will be called for May 6th, and my heart sinks at the prospect. That’s not just because of the real prospect of the Tories winning, but because I find it so hard to convince myself that Labour deserves to beat them. Even when you factor out all the authoritarianism and croneyism, once more an election will be fought across a tiny ideological arc, on the one side by smirking Thatcherite throw-backs, and on the other ("our" side, God help us) by neo-Thatcherites who had a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity fundamentally to change an economic system which had collapsed under the weight of its own repulsive contradictions, but instead saved it and then, yet again, grovelled at its feet.
Well, by the time you read my next column, it’ll all be over. Personally, I’d prefer it if everyone turned out to vote, and then spoiled their ballot papers; failing that, a hung parliament would do nicely, with the Tories winning badly, but well enough to screw things up for six months before another election consigns them to the political wilderness for another generation.
But who knows? Ooh look, here comes the hearse at last. Hey, shall we have a peek in the coffin to see who it is? My money’s on Tristram Hunt. No? No, you’re probably right. That would ruin the fun...

Tribune article part 1 said...

Seeing as how we’re stuck here kicking our heels in the crematorium car park until the hearse arrives, I might as well tell you a little story from the days when New Labour was in its pomp. It was at the 1997 Party Conference in Brighton, which for all the world was more like Versailles-sur-Mer for the duration of this week-long festival of Blairite self-congratulation. I was at some knees-up or other, in conversation with Tribune’s then editor Mark Seddon and my Tory chum, the journalist Peter Oborne, and we were, most likely, talking complete bollocks in the way you do when someone else is buying the drinks. Even so, we didn’t take too kindly to being interrupted by a tall, rather patrician youth who was gallumphing round the venue, repeatedly telling anyone who couldn’t make good their escape that, and I quote, albeit from memory, "Peter Mandelson is the most important fucking minister in this fucking government!"
Mandy was then Minister without Portfolio, so the youth’s assertions seemed slightly exaggerated, even though he was, we discovered, from the Young Fabians, then (and possibly still now, for all I know or care) a Mandelsonian glee club. Anyway, as he wouldn’t go away, and Seddon, Oborne and I had lost the thread of our conversation, I foolishly engaged with him, disputing his claims. What, I asked, about Gordon Brown? What, for that matter, about Derry Irvine? "Derry fucking Irvine?" he replied with contempt, waving his bottle of Mexican beer at me with what might, in different circumstances, have passed for menace. "Who the fuck’s Derry Irvine? And who the fuck are you anyway?" When I told him, the youth sneered "Martin fucking Rowson? So who the fuck’s Martin Rowson?"
By this stage Seddon had, I think, wandered off, but I was getting distinctly riled, so I gently took hold of the youth’s security pass hanging round his neck. Once I’d discovered his name, I’m afraid I played dirty. "Ah ha!" I exclaimed. "Tristram! Now there’s a name that rings down the annals of Labour History! A name to stand equal with Nye or Clem, eh?" At which point Dr Tristram Hunt, not yet a TV historian, sneered a final "fuck off!" at me and lurched away into the melee to annoy someone else.
And that would have been that, if a few minutes later he hadn’t returned, all smiles, to apologise. "Sorry! I didn’t realise who you were!" he said jovially, and thereby added being a creep to the already existing charge of being a drunken braggart and bully

Phil said...

Points about the way the leadership casually dumps on the membership aside, can you really get the measure of man by how he acted as a youth? Weren't we all a bit daft and full of our own importance at 23?

Anonymous said...

I still am.


Anonymous said...

You keep excusing him Phil and I wonder when you'll tire of doing so.

Phil said...

Care to elaborate?