I thought that this week, I would halve my blog. I’ll start off with some of the day to day council business, which will give you a glimpse of some of what’s involved in being a councillor….
On Wednesday, a warm and sunny evening I sat with a community spirited group discussing the Meir Christmas event… Christmas I hear you shriek, but it’s months away… but events need months of planning and working alongside the likes of Janet Bellis (Chair) we discussed how we wanted to make the Meir event bigger than previous events and how we intended to achieve it. So many possibilities, so many problems, but for every issue we found we came up with solutions and ideas.. The group also looked at how we could promote other initiatives to highlight our area.
The importance of volunteering was promoted heavily this week, and we should applaud anyone who freely gives their time. Sometimes we don’t give enough credit to those who volunteer. During my time working with Race Equality, we developed a mentoring programme where volunteers would be trained to mentor someone who had a mental health issue, we were overwhelmed at the response we got. We had people from all walks of life, those who worked, unemployed, those in education and training. From solicitors and university lecturers to those who wanted some experience to put on a CV.
We had a qualified trainer for the mentoring and I devised a programme to give our mentors a working knowledge in mental health issues, this included role play, open discussions, handouts and access to more indepth information if required. Once the training was complete we matched each mentor to an individual, we provided weekly support to each mentor, provided additional training if needed and supported them with achieving additional qualifications.
We paid for CRB checks and covered the cost of all the training and travel, but our volunteers gave their time so willingly, they were an amazing group of people and I know that some of the relationships we initiated continue todate.
I was more than happy this week to agree to give some time at the upcoming drive for supplies to the local FoodBank – come July I’ll be out collecting – if you see me, come and say hello ( and don’t be shy of handing me over some food!)
From volunteering to fundraising.
I had a conversation with one of the residents on my ward, Paul Hulme, who I’ve worked with for the past few years on a number of different things. Paul is passionate about getting the best for Meir but equally passionate about his family. Paul’s brother Martin, was left partially sighted and needing a wheelchair following an assault. The family want to raise £20,000 to pay for Martin to go abroad for stem cell therapy, they know that the stem cell therapy may not work, but see it as their only hope to get Martins right arm and leg moving again. I asked what was happening with the fundraising and have agreed to take part in at least one of the fundraising events. I’ll keep people updated on what’s happening and when the event is taking place.
The link to Martins fundraising is http://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/pound-20k-campaign-Martin-walking/story-26525396-detail/story.html
On Friday I spent some time at the YMCA in Hanley. They have just opened a Spar shop on site in a new initiative. This has been a direct response to the savage cuts to funding opportunities available to many charities, but this doesn’t just offset some of the financial pressure of those cuts, it’s a chance to provide training and employment opportunities. We should welcome and encourage our third sector partners to develop and grow, and the YMCA under the watchful eye of Danny Flynn will no doubt, grow and prosper. As the CEO, Danny has a huge amount of influence, but I’m always heartened to see that he has no issue in sharing ‘centre stage’ or delegating to one or other of his talented team, whether it’s David Williams, Nicola Twemlow, Simon, Toni or any one of the others in the team.
Which brings me on to more pertinent issues around local politics….
I was heartened by the many positive comments and conversations I’ve had since both myself and Alan Dutton voted for Councillor Conway as Council Leader and took a stand against the leader of the Labour Group. In the previous paragraph, I highlight what I see as an exemplar leader, Danny Flynn works with his team, he treats them equally, encourages them, allows them to lead in their own area and will step in when and where appropriate, but the important part is that he works ‘with’ his team.
Prior to the election within the labour group, we were all aware of the issues on the door, when we spoke to the electorate, when we spoke with business leaders and those in the wider labour family. I seriously thought that post election we would actually address the issues we knew had cost us control of the council. Would that have been too much to ask? Too much to expect? Too much for us to offer as a reply to our critics?
In all three Stoke constituencies we saw votes for our Labour MP’s that did not convert into votes for our labour council candidates, and that cost us massively in the council chamber. We have to assess what cost us that ‘balance of power’, what made people put a cross against a candidate for a Labour MP, but not against a candidate as a Labour councillor? Surely we owe it to the labour group, our labour members and our electorate to hold a moritorium as to the debacle that was the local elections in 2015 for Labour in Stoke-on-Trent?
People are increasingly aware that in my opinion Councillor Pervez should shoulder the brunt of what was a huge downturn in our votes. Losing a quarter of council seats is a major issue, and someone should hold their hands up and admit that ‘under their watch’ there was an issue that damaged the brand to an extent that since the previous election in 2011 we had lost a third of our cohort of councillors. Putting things into context, to lose a third of a group of say six may be argued on a number of issues, such as a general election, a poorly performing candidate, a popular opponent. In 2011 Labour had 34 councillors, in what can only be seen as a damning indictment of Labour locally in 2015 we returned 21 councillors. Someone, somewhere has to take responsibility for this. It wasn’t Ed Milibands fault, and it wasn’t the national downturn, it wasn’t UKIP, because if it hadn’t have been for UKIP standing in many wards, the City Independents would have taken more seats from Labour and we would possibly have had a handful of councillors instead of the 21 currently.
So what have labour done about discussing the root cause of the decimation at the election? Not enough, the labour group seem to want to ignore the cause and keep their fingers crossed that they will win a couple of by elections and take control of the council back. How naive and insulting to those residents who told us time and again that they would not vote for labour locally whilst the leader remained in place.
Ironically, Councillor Pervez has been hailed as ‘the greatest gift’ by our opposition members. Repeatedly they state that residents told them that they would vote for anyone if it meant that he would not be the leader of the council.
Is this a personal vendetta by myself against Pervez? Absolutely not. Had we have performed at the elections I would have accepted that change in the leadership and leadership style would have been unlikely. This is me being able to say “we did things wrong, we need to change, we need a new direction, we need to be humbled by our defeat”. I want a Labour run authority, but it has to be fit for purpose.
In many ways, I also failed. I’m big enough to accept that. I failed to engage with the group on terms that many of them operate on. I didn’t offer positions, I didn’t offer to keep the status quo. What I offered was the option of a brave choice – the option to change. I offered to address our issues, to be open with the public, to open up our voting system. Maybe it’s too soon for some to be able to look at ourselves critically and accept that how we have operated hasn’t worked. Or maybe I’m just aware of issues that some don’t want to accept.
Monday will see both Councillor Dutton and myself being interviewed for ‘a possible breach of Labour Party rules’. This will be interesting, and no doubt the results and impacts of these interviews will be played ou in various media outlets. We could ask if there is already some predetermination of the outcome, as one senior labour Councillor has already told Councillor Dutton that what we have done is deserving of ‘expulsion’. If that’s the case, then so be it.
The rumour mill is currently in overdrive, Stoke South CLP have not been able to put forward a motion of no confidence in the leader and yet Stoke Central CLP are looking to put forward a motion to have both myself and Alan removed from the group. Both rumours which will have some grounding. There is another rumour that says Alan and I will have our wrists slapped and a warning to ‘behave’, I have to say on this one ‘don’t insult me’
So, what next.
Alan and I will discuss where we think things are going after our interviews. Be under no illusion, neither of us will apologise for our actions. We have too much respect for those we have spoken to and for ourselves. If Labour decide that we are no longer fit to be party members, then that will be their loss, and people will need to see that neither Alan or I have left the Labour Party, but that the Labour Party will have left us. Alan and I are socialist’s through and through, core values that don’t leave you because they are ingrained. And those values don’t leave because people don’t like a bit of honesty and challenge.
There have been a number of questions that have been posed to us.
Why did we stand as Labour candidates if we want to take action now? We are both committed socialist’s and Labour is our natural base, but we aren’t going to hide from major issues. Issues need to be addressed and I think we both thought that the group would be willing to accept that we needed to change. Instead we find the group continues to bury it’s head in the sand.
Haven’t we defrauded the Labour Party by using their funds to pay for our election expenses? I would absolutely refute this, during the last 4 years all Labour group members have paid 5% of their allowances into a group fund. Of this, 20% has gone to pay our ALC costs with the remainder going towards campaigning. Over the four years, that equates to me paying in over £4,500, some of which went towards paying a local campaign coordinator (which is another area that a moritorium was due on), but I think all our candidate costs for this election would easily have been covered by what we have paid in. Each candidate was allocated up to £300 towards their election expenses from this fund, which begs a question of value from those who paid into the fund.
Aren’t we looking at ‘jumping ship’ because we aren’t getting a SRA paid positions? I did not apply for a paid position after AGM 1, and to clarify neither Alan nor myself will join any of the existing groups at Stoke-on-Trent council. Absolutely will not.
So, next week will be an interesting one all round I feel.