In the second of our exclusive articles aimed at getting the party voice back into our city, we have the words and thoughts of Blurton's very own Conservative Party Activist Shaun Bennett.
Shaun is, like Labour's Tom Reynolds, a young, driven and enthusiastic party member, who knows his parties policies better than most!
I have followed his posts both on the Sentinel and on pitsnpots for a long time now and his reasoned debate has nearly had me turning blue a few times! I would like to thank Shaun for submitting his blog and wish him well for the future. I think the people of Trentham & Hanford could do a lot worse than voting Shaun in at the expense of "you know who!" at the next elections, they would be assured of getting a real Tory!
"I would like to begin by joining Tom Reynolds in his praise of Tony and the team who have set up the site to get local people involved in local political issues and perhaps in time more national debates too. I'm sure we've all thought that the voices of North Staffordshire have been ignored for too long, and I for one am very pleased that an outlet now exists for as many of those voices as possible to be heard. I'm particularly pleased that Tony and the team have gone out of their way to get a range of political persuasions involved without bias - be they Tories like me, Labour, Liberal or BNP.
These are actually quite exciting times for Stoke-on-Trent. The decision we made last Thursday is going to determine how the city is governed for at least another decade, and hopefully far beyond it. As a psephologist - hopefully in touch with the thoughts of people of the city - I never really had any doubt that the YES campaign to abolish the mayor was going to be successful. The demographic and procedural factors alone (such as differential turnout, the wording of the question and the process of casting the vote in a polling station rather than by post) were I think biased towards a YES outcome. The fact that people's natural reaction to an unpopular administration is to support change and my view that the YES campaign totally demolished all the main arguments for the mayoral system,and then a positive result seemed largely secured.
But then with the Sentinel's piece on the BNP being favourite to win the Leadership of the city just a day before polling, I have to admit that I briefly had cause to think again. As it turned out of course, the YES vote won by something of a landslide - albeit on a very low turnout. Whilst I agree with Cllr Reynolds that a low turnout is never desirable, I would gently remind him that Labour imposed a National Assembly upon the people of Wales on a turnout not far greater than we had last Thursday, and by a far, far closer margin. I can't be sure, but I'm convinced that the votes of Stoke South in particular were crucial and I would be interested to see how the votes broke down by constituency and by ward.
So should we decry having lost our right to directly elect the person who leads the council? Well I think not actually. We will GET our chance to decide who leads the council when the time comes to elect our councillors, in exactly the same way as the leadership of almost every other local authority in the country is decided. If we don't like what the leadership is doing we can vote to change it, and unlike under the mayoral system our votes in local elections will now be decisive and will have meaning once more. Perhaps now that the result of local elections will actually matter to the governance of the city, local parties will once more take an interest in winning them, as I'm sure we've all noticed a significant slide in the visibility of the various campaigns over the last 6 years.
My hope is that we can now make savings on the mayor's salary, give power back to councillors - which after all is what they should be elected to do - reintroduce some degree of order and democratic accountability in our political system and perhaps get clearer and - though let's not get too hopeful - better governance as a result. If we can see Mayor Meredith and his colleagues on the dole queue at the same time, well that's all for the better! The city never really wanted to adopt a mayoral system in the first place; certainly those that are most interested in local politics didn't want it. We started off by choosing the wrong type of mayoral system (since abolished by the government) and then not really giving it much of a chance. With a return to a system that we really wanted to adopt in the first place, perhaps things will change for the better - and I hope that we resist getting bogged down in a pointless debate about changing the system back again in the years to come.
I do however have two real concerns about the immediate future: First, I am concerned about this "Transition Board" that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I don't remember any discussion of a transition board during the referendum campaign? I don't know how this panel of the great and the good have been put onto the board? They certainly haven't been elected. I don't know what powers or authority this board will have or even what the point is of them being there; surely we already know the way forward for the city in terms of the political system? On the other hand, if it is going to be available to 'hold the hands' of our local political leaders and to give them cause to think twice before doing anything stupid, then it can only be a good thing. The fact that it only seems to be in place for the next 6 months or so should probably ease our concerns about its being, since it is after all only temporary.
My second concern is however much more serious. It seems that now that we have voted YES to getting rid of the elected mayor's office, the sitting councillors will now start to discuss who is going to lead the city ahead of a big decision next May. In the short term at least, the people DON'T get any say over who that person is going to be. The democratic principle of the Leader and Cabinet system is that the electorate can still indirectly choose the leadership of the council by voting for councillors - the implication being that the party or group with most support delivered by the electorate as seats on the council will take the leadership. Unfortunately, the councillors who are there at present were elected under the old mayoral system. They were NOT elected to form an administration or to take the leadership of the authority. And yet it is this group of people who will now choose the Leader without any reference to the electorate.
In my view, there should be an all out council election next May or June so that people will be able to vote knowing that they are voting for a party or group to lead the council as well as an individual local councillor to represent them. At present we have expressed our preference for a local representative but not for who we want to lead the council. And if rumours that the next council election will not be held until ward boundaries change in 2011 are true, we could find ourselves in a situation in which whoever is chosen to lead the authority could do so without any test of public opinion for the next two and a half years!
An all out council election would not be extraordinary, given the circumstances. We have them whenever ward boundaries change - and so we will almost certainly be having one in 2011 anyway. In 1996 when the City Council became a Unitary Authority, a full council election was held then even though all that was changing was the extent of the powers of the authority. Are we really expected to accept that there will be no full election at a time when it is not just the powers of the authority that is changing but the entire executive leadership of the city? These councillors were not elected to lead us, they were elected to hold to account the person that led us; how can they get away with assuming power in their own right without an election? We may well find that the councillors who people thought suitable to represent them as a scrutineer will be different to those that they want to represent them now that the choice for a potential government. I can certainly name a couple of wards where a change of councillor will now be wanted by local people - and some of those changes may well affect the names in the frame to become Leader of the authority!
Nationally, the official Conservative position seems to be to support elected mayors. Of course, they would never attempt to enforce that opinion onto local parties that thought differently and that is what happened in the case of the local party in Stoke. Like all the main parties, except for the BNP, we were totally divided between the YES and NO options. Perhaps also like the other main parties - certainly Labour - the division goes much deeper than over the mayoralty alone. Issues of group leadership, support for the cross-party coalition and certain controversial policy decisions have all been tearing the main parties apart for a number of years now. Personally, I believe that the root cause of many of those problems have come from the demands of the political system under the elected mayor.
The YES vote last Thursday gives me great cause for hope and optimism for the future. The quality of our elected representatives may not improve dramatically under any system, and that will be in the hands of the people. To a large extent as voters we are the makers of our own fortunes,and we cannot really complain when we continue to elect the same people that we constantly condemn as being poor. In the short term we may well see a great era of instability as the smaller parties benefit from the 'cross party coalition' of Mayor Meredith. But in the long term I now can see the beginnings of reunification for both the Conservative and Labour parties. The City may never again return to the two party politics or even one and a half party politics that we have enjoyed for the past 30 years. In many ways that may even be a good thing, but I can at least see the Conservative and Labour parties starting to become competitive again if they really want to be and if they are prepared to cut off the dead wood and get back in touch with real voters. Only time will tell how this story unfolds..."
Shaun Bennett BA (Hons), MA Former Deputy Chairman, Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives.