A contributed opinion piece from Ruth Rosenau – Councillor for Meir North
If a day is a long time in politics….. A month can seem a lifetime.
The last few weeks have been interesting, hard work, eye-opening, thrilling, depressing and challenging. The short campaign, in the run up to the election saw many of us going out door-knocking on a daily basis, often doing 3 x 2 hour sessions a day – you knock on a lot of doors and hear a lot of
Ruth Rosenau – an insider’s view
people on that basis. We had good days, where the sessions were positive, or you managed to encourage someone to use their vote, or your arguments changed someone’s mind. There were bad days too… when either no one answered the doors, the resident said they weren’t interested in voting or they told you what they thought, and sometimes that was a hard lesson.
Being on the door leaves you open for a number of things, including the chance to hear what the real issues are – normally that’s the issue that comes up time and again in every ward. We can all stop and put our best argument forward, we can be persuasive but there comes a point when you know that that thing that keeps being raised is a real problem. Some of those issues can be dealt with on the doorstep, we heard the complaints about Smithfield, but stop and explain the rationale and by and large people get it, they understand – they also get it that you can borrow for building but you can’t borrow for care. It’s like having a mortgage for your house, but not being able to borrow the same amount to pay for a care package for a loved one. Chelsea Flower Show was another issue on the door, and when you explained that this was about putting us on a global stage to market the City, along with an apology that we sincerely expected to get sponsorship in, and we had failed on that, it was also important to highlight the fabulous talent we had with our in-house designers. There were misconceptions around, like Birminghams garden only cost £5k – we had had a prime spot at the show with a full size garden, Birmingham didn’t and they also have a thriving business quarter which is our aim.
On the doors was also the issue that officers and two councillors recently stayed in a top hotel following an awards ceremony – why weren’t rooms booked in a Premier Inn or a Travel Lodge.
I’ve skirted the biggest issue on the doors, the one that was raised in every ward I door-knocked (14 out of 15 in Stoke South) and that was the Labour Group leader. Time after time we would hear ” Labours got my vote nationally, but I ain’t voting for Labour locally while he’s in charge” If we look at Stoke South, 3,000 more people voted for Rob Flello than the local Labour candidate and that showed in the results at the count.
Were we prepared for the decimation at the count? I don’t think so, not as a group. Two weeks prior to the election, myself and some of my most trusted friends agreed to honestly go through the list of wards and candidates and say who we thought would be elected and where… Somewhat tellingly, we all came back with the same results – Labour with 19 or 20 elected members – okay I’ll put my hands up, we were all out by 1 or 2, but nowhere near as far out as the ridiculous numbers that some Labour Councillors were stating we would get. At the last Cabinet planning meeting we held one of the cabinet stated we would be back with between 31 and 36 councillors, I wasn’t sure which of us was delusional!! As another Cabinet member said (I think pointedly at myself) that there may be some losses around the table but if anyone thought that Pervez shouldn’t be the leader after the election they shouldn’t be round the table – I looked at the officers either side of me and said “I’ll get my coat now eh?”
A large number of councillors and candidates alike bought into the hype that “the General Election will pull us through” – I was deemed to be naive, pessimistic and repeatedly told “what do you know” What I did know was what people were already telling me, what they had been telling me for over 12 months, and it wasn’t just those who had supported me when I challenged Pervez last year, this was people who I went out to see for ward issues, this was people who stopped me as I shopped, this was members of our business community.
The short campaign was, if nothing else intense, and I will be forever grateful for friendships that were nurtured during that hectic time, friendships I feel will be lasting, wherever I end up. I also met some people who I knew in name only, Gary Elsby being one – an intelligent and warm man, one who I spoke to at length at an event – even when some of my Labour comrades looked on disapprovingly..
So, the 7th May duly arrived and the team in Stoke South could not have done more than we had, we had door-knocked, leafleted and telephoned where we could. The day was largely spent with the delightful David Williams and the unassuming but tough Chris Robinson – both top guys. As the polling stations closed, a number of us headed down to the Civic for the count. It didn’t take me long to see that there was an issue with what the ballot papers were showing. I’m pretty good at the count and am pretty accurate, as the boxes were being emptied and sorted into piles of 25 you try and get a feel for the numbers coming through. It didn’t take a mathmatician to know we were not in a good place. I moved between tables which housed the different wards in Stoke South, and each one told me the same story – we were taking a hiding. I spoke to a number of people, different political parties, people I didn’t know – they were all picking up the same thing – Labour were struggling.
Bagh Ali came up to me and asked what I thought ” we’re in trouble Bagh” was my simple response. Fifteen minutes later Bagh came back to me and Pervez was behind him. I was surprised that Pervez spoke to me “how’s it going?” he asked – I replied that in my opinion we “were being annihilated” his response was along the lines of “well you’ll be all right” was met with my “I’m not so sure” At this, Pervez turned and walked away from me. Had I not still been surprised by the volume of votes against Labour I may have registered shock that Pervez had voluntarily come and spoken to me….
Thursday night was largely spent counting and recounting the votes for the MP’s, and somewhat exhausted at around 7.00 am as they said they were going for a recount I left the Civic, heading home to get my children ready for school – I felt dejected and raw – but I knew that my predictions looked pretty much right.
After taking my children to school, with the promise that I’d text them as soon as I knew results, I prepared to return to the Civic, I picked up Chris Robinson and headed back. Everyone was somewhat subdued by this time and we all waited somewhat impatiently for the count for the local elections to start.
My ward was the first to be called, and I have to say there were times I doubted the win, I watched others around the room, the looks of hope, despair, shattered dreams… I overheard one Cabinet member constantly saying they had lost, the man counting with her said “I think you’ve got it – but you’ve got to address the reason why you’re in this situation” she replied “I think you’re right” – this was soon forgotten!
I went down to the Kings Hall to see how Stoke Central and Stoke North were doing – it was heartbreaking to see some as the realisation hit home – they weren’t getting re-elected. We lost three Cabinet members, Terry Crowe, Adrian Knapper and Gwen Hassall, we lost well established councillors who were fantastic ward members, Debra Gratton, Mark Meredith, Bagh, we also didn’t get some fabulous candidates elected – David Williams, who was fantastic, Nicola Howell, Arif Hussain, Shirley Kliment-Temple….the list goes on
So….. We spent a weekend licking our wounds, knowing that on the Monday night we had the group AGM 1 and the decision for who would lead the group for the next year… I spoke to some of our members who had not been re-elected, heard their disappointment that Pervez hadn’t even bothered to call them, I told them how important it was that they stayed within the loop, how important THEY were…
We knew we had no overall control, to take control there had to be a coalition….but who was going to take our group forward? Maybe I didn’t learn from last year, I still didn’t offer people paid positions on the chance I were to get the leadership, but I wanted to take the group down a different route – we needed to heal, to accept where we had gone wrong, learn from our mistakes, be humbled by the results, engage with the people of our City. We needed to be brave, to hold our hands up and say “we got things wrong, we will change, talk to us” – but it didn’t happen, status quo was kept, doing nothing seemed to be the order of the day.
For me the frustration wasn’t that I wasn’t chosen, it’s never been my aim in life to be the leader of Stoke Labour Group, but the inability to address the issues we have. If we don’t change, in 2019 we will get wiped out, Labour councillors will be a thing of the past…
So, what did I do post AGM 1? Pervez asked all members to email him some feedback on our members as he looked at who would get the Chairs of the committee’s we were eligible to. Members were also to email him if they wanted to be considered for a position. I have to say I was somewhat sickened by the behaviours of some members when it came to the process – to some not having a paid position was obviously unacceptable…. After much thought I emailed my feedback to Pervez and confirmed that I was not looking for a paid position, I gave my honest opinion (as I’ve always given) – including feedback on myself… I got a one line response saying maybe we could discuss a way forward…. I felt I’d taken part in too many pointless exercises to do anything other than email my thought’s back…..
Chairs were duly agreed, including, for me the surprise that Pervez had given himself a position – I’ve never known him sit on an Overview and Scrutiny committee, and said so in my feedback, but the proof will be in the pudding I suppose….
We heard the council grapevine saying that Dave Conway was nominating Mel Baddeley as Deputy Lord Mayor – this kicked off a Stoke-on-Trent hurricane of activity, how could the City have an ex BNP member in the civic role? NorScarf kicked into action and I made a number of statements and radio interviews – I also emailed every elected member asking that they voted with their conscience if the City Independents didn’t put forward a different candidate – thankfully Dave Conway saw sense and at the last moment Mel Baddeley was pulled from the position and Rita Dale went forward as Deputy Lord Mayor. I’d had a quick conversation with Jean Bowers the Tuesday before Annual Council, I was saddened to hear her thank both myself and Alan Dutton for speaking to her….. Other members of Labour were shunning her – I don’t feel that is appropriate behaviour for an elected member, and I told her as much.
Thursday was Annual Council, and we knew that Jean Bowers would be elected as Lord Mayor and that Rita would get the Deputy role. All plain sailing…. to there….
After much soul searching, Alan Dutton and myself decided that we had to make a stand in respect of all those residents we had spoken to, who raised the same issues. It wasn’t an easy choice for either of us, but let’s be very clear, we did NOT vote against the Labour leader – his name wasn’t put forward, we chose not to abstain, and so had no choice but to vote for Dave Conway as Leader of the Council. Reaction was varied, I heard Councillor Joy Garner saying “Well that’s interesting” – interesting to someone who previously walked the floor? Broad smiles and a thumbs up from Councillor Randy Conteh – along with a look of surprise, and a number of pleasantly surprised raised eyebrows from across the chamber. One person in the gallery said that you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.
A number of interviews later and Councillor Alan Dutton and I stood outside the Civic Centre discussing what we thought reaction was… Pervez walked out of the doors, saw us and went back inside – or maybe he had forgotten something.
So, Alan and I await our fate – the Labour group will decide, but I hope they all remember that if you live in a glass house – you really shouldn’t throw stones.