2016….. where to begin?

From a purely private and personal point, 2016 has been a hellish year, fraught with family issues that have impacted on all of us but have also shown how incredibly strong my family are, I continue to be awestruck at my wonderful children and their ability to focus and move forward. They are my inspiration and I will forever cherish their strength and integrity. As my children grow, I see them spreading their wings and preparing to fly… I’m very, very proud of them.

Throughout the year, I’ve been honoured to continue working alongside Chris Robinson, the councillor for Longton and Broadway East. Together we have continued to support the homeless and have worked together on a number of initiatives. Helping to create a free orchard at the Crescent Children’s Centre is one and we have been very lucky to work alongside the Parents Forum who are working really hard to create an end to end programme with the orchard- getting children involved in the whole process that starts with preparation of the land, planting, cultivating, picking and preparing and cooking… the Forum are a highly motivated team who we are proud to assist.

From a political point locally, I’ve been blessed with amazing support from a great team of socialists and unionist, including Chris Robinson, Chris Spence, Steve Jones, Tony Walley, Max Penkethman, Joe McClusky, Chris Wilson, Andrew Buttress, on a wider scale l’d like to thank those new friends and comrades who have had a massive impact on my thinking and working…. solidarity always. We’ve continued to work under the Red Labour banner, unapologetic in its left leaning belief and hugely supportive of Jeremy Corbyn. Last year we held the most democratic election within the Party. The result was overwhelming. In some ways, I could almost understand some of the MPs reactions…. They were now in a Party that was being led in a direction that was alien to the Party that they had been elected to under Miliband.

Rumblings and rumours started immediately and we were all aware that there were moves to undermine JC. At the precise time we had the ideal opportunity to attack the Tories, the attack turned on JC. It was a concerted effort, timed for maximum impact and damage. What the PLP didn’t expect was for the sterling jobs that the likes of Angela Rayner, Clive Lewis and Cat Smith did – they dug deep and held their own. Well done to them.

As expected, we were once again thrown into a Leadership campaign. One of the differences this year was the agreement to hold a rally in Stoke headed by Jeremy Corbyn, this was sheer determination from a group of us, with Chris Spence, Andy Buttress and myself being the main (but not only) driving force. We were thrilled to have confirmation late on a Friday evening of a bank holiday weekend! The event was to take place on the following Thursday afternoon (no pressure!).

The event went incredibly well, the sun shone, the crowds turned out (an estimated 2,000) and Stoke was blessed to hear a variety of articulate speakers from a variety of backgrounds, including my 17 year old daughter making her maiden public speech, other local speakers included Max Penkethman (CWU), Clare White (WEA) and James Fox-Hewitt (FBU) who were ably supported by Roger McKenzie of Unison. The reception that was given was truly moving, with all speakers being well received and JC given a rapturous welcome and thank you. Certainly a red letter day for politicos in Stoke-on-Trent.
Throughout the campaign this year, we saw some terrible behaviour, from both sides, and we saw some underhand tactics. These are inexcusable and in my opinion still need to be investigated and dealt with. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the governance within the Party, discipline needs to be addressed as does the way that membership has been suspended/refused/denied. The whole sorry ‘purge’ needs to be addressed and explained as a matter of urgency. The ‘power of the few over the many’ much of which is led by regional offices needs to be addressed and the power they have held needs to be put back to the grassroots members. The sovereignty of the Party needs to have control of choosing who it elects to stand as its officers, Councillors and MPs. At that point we will have true democracy.

As a family, Labour will continue to build and grow, we will train people to go forward and spread the word, to develop and bring the message that JC extols ‘let no one and no community be left behind’. The youth are the future of our Party, we’ve engaged them and need to continue that. We should be proud of the achievement in re-electing JC , once again we reached out and our Party responded, it’s given the direction it wants to take…. I also think we have listened to our members and are starting to defend the things many outside the party also hold dear, such as education and our beloved NHS. On this point, I’d point out that as a left winger, I have great faith in the ‘broad church’ of our Party, and am immensely proud of the friendship and support I get from Tony Walley (who is most definitely not a Corbynista!), you won’t get a more moderate socialist, and we may well differ on the political spectrum, but we always walk away as mates, not because we have to…… because we can. Tony is one of those people who believe that the choice made by the membership should be upheld, and will support Labour ‘for the greater good’ – proof that all factions of the Party can work together!

The Leadership election opened up opportunities for me to discuss my belief in the Corbyn ethos on both local and national media outlets, and I was pleased to be asked to do an interview regarding the Autumn Statement and the impact on Stoke to a Japanese newspaper with an audience of 7.2 million…

Following on from this we had the Brexit referendum and the fallout of that has been huge, including a rise in hate crimes which are totally unacceptable, when and who will initiate Article 50? We also had the farce that was the ‘election’ of the new PM, considering Labour held the most democratic elections in their Leadership challenge the Conservative membership must have felt well and truly miffed at having no choice whatsoever!!

Locally, we’ve campaigned on education, the NHS, the People’s Post and Chris Robinson and I put out leaflets from Hope not Hate with regards to Jo Cox and the #moreincommon initiative, especially important as we have seen some activity in Stoke-on-Trent from Albion First, a far right group hoping to create a divisive City.
There has been and continues to be a veritable glut of elections within our unions, and (as usual) I’ve pinned my flag to who I think best to head Unite, I seriously hope that Len McClusky is re-elected as the General Secretary and continues to build our union. As a GS, he reflects the ethos that we the labour grassroots members chose to take, a reflection of JC, someone proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with its members…

From a local point, we are now seeing the second budget put forward by the City Independent/ Tory coalition. Last year saw a massive raid on our reserves so as not to make unpopular decisions on cuts. This year…. not so easy. Areas that absolutely work well in helping our young and our most vulnerable families are being decimated.. Cuts to our Children’s Centres are unbelievable and will render the centres unviable within a short time, Chris Robinson and I spent a really productive afternoon with some of the parents and careers from Crescent Children’s Centre and also some from Blurton and Bentilee. We agreed on a petition going out and that one petition across the City would be far more productive than a number of smaller ones, unfortunately time is our greatest enemy, but we will let the coalition know that we will not allow some cuts without a fight. I’d also like to thank the wonderful Nicki Howarth for all her time and effort at getting the e-petition to help save our Children’s Centres up and running on Stoke Councils website – what a star ⭐️

When Labour led the council we put forward the idea of ‘Cooperative Working’, it was our flagship initiative into helping troubled families access services at the earliest possible moment, one of the effects would be long-term savings… sadly the coalition are looking at short-term savings and not the real effect that decimating this service will have. They accept that it’s been successful, but keep throwing the line out that ‘partners need to do their part…’ Can they not see that ‘partners’ have also had funding cuts?

In the run up to Christmas, I put out a call for help in providing sanitary products for ladies using the local FoodBanks and the homeless, the response was tremendous, and I’d like to offer special thanks to Linda Allbutt, Emma Johnson and Linda Mummy Ackley. I supported the @ABagForKatie initiative with this.

As Christmas fast approached I had a lovely message from Kay D Keen, once again offering a massive amount of Christmas presents from the wonderful Tracy Slack, words can’t express my gratitude… I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderfully generous people around who help in making life a little bit better for so many.

I suppose, in a nutshell, I’ve been really productive in Labour nationally but continue to be somewhat in the wilderness locally… maybe it’s time to tackle that thorny issue, let’s see!

Little left to say, other than a huge thanks to those wonderful people who have continued to be supportive of me in both my personal and political life. One saying I’ve taken to heart goes like this….

It’s funny how someone who was just a stranger last year,

                                                                     can mean so much to you now.

It’s terrible that someone who meant so much to you last year,

                                                                    can be just a stranger now.

It’s amazing what a year can do.

I think as we grow, we realise that we can let go and live… we don’t have a rehearsal to life, let’s make the best of it we can.

Past, present, future…. my history in local politics.

Past: Our City is full of wonderful memories, whether they are buildings, cemeteries or people. History is a wonderful arena, the link to our past. I had been the ‘teenager with a cause’ whilst at high school, and was an active campaigner for the Anti-Nazi League, animal rights and equality. I was extremely lucky to have had two fabulous history teachers who allowed me to question what I was taught, I will always be grateful to them for the opportunities they gave me. 

I struggled massively during the last year at school as my dear, dear father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a harrowingly dark time…….

Unable to cope with the loss, I eventually left home and initially moved to London then moved from area to area before coming back to Stoke. I settled down and had my family. Work was varied and it was only when I seperated from my husband that I managed to retake my maths GCSE and gain a place at university. Whilst raising 3 young and active boys I balanced my degree with part time work with a mental health charity, at the same time working on a number of regeneration projects across the country making use of SRB funding.

Between working in various positions I had a further 3 children and am incredibly proud of them all.

Funding for the post in mental health became increasingly difficult to retain and in 2009 I started working for the Race Equality Council in Burton on Trent, I was the lead officer for the Asian community and our role was to assist in getting the BME communities to access mainstream mental health services. It was a hard, but incredibly rewarding post. During this time there was an increase in activity by the BNP in Stoke-on-Trent and I started to have more input into what was happening in the local area.

I returned to a  more active role in the local political scene during 2008/9 a time when I was still raising a young family, balancing with work and new found interests. There is a school of thinking that in general an individual stands for local politics on one issue – for me it was the BNP – I feel that the best areas are those where different cultures live together, areas that thrive on differences. I certainly didn’t want my City to be the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the BNP.  I’d been an activist for Stoke South Labour, door knocking, leafleting helping to man stands, but I also campaigned vigorously against racism.

I was asked to stand as a candidate in the 2010 elections, which was a one year term as the City changed to a 4 yearly ‘all out’ election system, initially I said that I wanted to stand in Longton South, as it was the ward I lived in, but another candidate said if they didn’t get that ward, they wouldn’t stand. Rob Flello asked me to stand in Meir And Weston Coyney against the then Deputy of the BNP in Stoke, Anthony Simmonds. I agreed, especially as many of my close family still lived (and some still do) in the ward. I worked tirelessly and was overwhelmed by the support I had from groups like NorScarf and Hope not Hate, the hard work paid off and I was duly elected 

Shortly after the election I lost my mother, a dreadful shock to all the family, a loss that devastated us. 

I continued to balance my family with work and being a councillor, it was a learning curve that never stops, no two days are the same, demands are different from everyone that contacts you, but the reward of putting something back into your area is indescribable. 

In 2011, after some soul searching I agreed to stand in the Meir North ward, knowing that I would be standing against Michael Coleman who was the leader of Stoke BNP. Campaigning was intense, and we worked to eradicate our Ciy of the BNP, I have to single out David Braniff-Herbert for his utter commitment to raising awareness of Hope not Hate and the need to rid our City of the racists in the Chambers… I can never thank David enough for his efforts, his energy, his purpose. Our efforts paid off, and in 2011 Stoke-on-Trent City Council was BNP free, this meant that we could showcase our City as an inclusive, multicultural City, one that had no place for division.

I was offered a cabinet position, and happily took on the portfolio for Regeneration, if nothing else, the 4 yearly all out elections gave stability to the ruling administration and meant that taking contentious decisions would be easier to make. At the same time, I stopped working in Burton, as funding stopped for my position, but due to family issues, I decided to not look for additional work, giving a big portfolio the time it deserved. The following year I took on the additional areas of Transportation and Planning, a hefty area, but one that was intrinsically linked, so made sense. 

Present: As we started to prepare for the 2015 elections, a number of cracks started to show within the Labour group, we had lost a number of our councillors, and differences were more and more evident. I’d already had a year where the leader had not spoken to me as I’d refused to take the finance portfolio, one I had no interest in. Seeing different factions within the group develop was never discussed, and whilst I accept that socialism is a very broad church of thoughts, there seemed to be a decreasing link connecting the group. 

The division within the group led me to challenge for the leadership of the Labour Group at the 2014 AGM, Pervez was stunned that I had put papers in to challenge him, and the same night as papers were opened, I went door knocking in his ward with the new PPC Ruth Smeeth, for two hours solid he pretended I wasn’t there. Sticking your head above the proverbial parapet can be damaging in many ways, but enlightening and character building in other ways. Seeing what the election was going to do to the group, I lived in the hope that the group would see that it needed to change, that it would take some responsibility for the poor results and say ‘ lets do things differently’, but we haven’t, we ignore the cause and stay as we were.

To challenge was my democratic right, to be challenged should be seen as a way to look at different methods of leadership.

As a result of supporting my bid for the leadership both Alan Dutton and Janine Bridges lost their cabinet positions, a poor decision in my opinion. Duncan Walker and Neil Day both walked from the group citing issues with the leadership, and Janine Bridges left citing the issues in Rotherham. In my opinion, the biggest issue the group suffered was the total control the leader wanted to have, to the point where it was stifling. 

As a member of a group like Labour, I fully understand the ideal of ‘collective decision making’ but there has to be an agreeable way of allowing some to have a difference of opinion, rather than any differences being dismissed or some people deciding it’s alright to allow some audiences to know you didn’t agree with a decision. Even the established ‘old married couple’ analogy have differences of opinion. 

Future:  I had never seen being a councillor as a way of making friends in the chamber, and I always say, I became a councillor to put something back into my City. I have made friends, and there are some people who are still councillors and some who didn’t get re-elected that I’m proud to call friend. There are some members who I have very little in common with. Some I know I can have major disagreements with, walk out of the room and share a coffee with. And there are some that struggle to acknowledge I’m in the same room as them.
I was group secretary for a couple of years, and one thing I prided myself on was contact with any of our members who either suffered a loss or was ill. I would ensure that cards and or flowers were sent as appropriate. 

I was deeply upset that when my younger sister passed away earlier this year, I didn’t even receive a card of condolences off the group. I had more sympathy shown from opposition members than my own group, this I felt was a reflection of the groups lack of empathy.

After the election, as a group, we should be sitting round and holding very frank, open discussions about what went wrong, why we lost some well established councillors and failed to get some excellent candidates elected. With no meeting arranged, we can guarantee that the devestating losses will be swept under the carpet and there will be no examination of the root cause. It’s the elephant in the room… If we don’t discuss what the real issues are, they don’t really exist….. But they do. 

If the group continually fail to address the issue, 2019 will see more losses for Labour in Stoke-on-Trent. There is this sad belief by some that any by-election will be a winnable opportunity for Labour. Not in the current climate, currently Labour couldn’t win a three legged race with no opposition.

At the annual council meeting last week both Alan Dutton and myself took the decision to vote for the leader of the City Independent Group, whilst the group decision was to abstain. This will no doubt lead to a disciplinary hearing where Alan and I will have our integrity questioned. Labour will make a decision on a vote that two members made, but they won’t have a discussion about what cost them overall control of Stoke-on-Trent Council.

A number of people have commented that if Alan and I were going to vote against Labour we shouldn’t have stood for Labour at the election. The point is, we are both staunch socialists, we both have core labour beliefs, strong union links and a desire to see Labour succeed. We had tried to change from within, but it’s not been easy and we can’t see any change, that’s one reason we made a stand. Others need to help us change things, but the Labour group don’t appear ready to change. Some have queried whether we used labour party money falsely, as a labour councillor we have paid into a fund to cover the cost of the election over the past 4 years.

So, the future will be interesting, I won’t change my core beliefs, I won’t apologise for my action at annual council. And to clarify another point, there is no way I would agree to join any of the other groups at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Non of them. Point blank.