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Damaged Potteries

28 May 08 11:54 GMT
Nick Watson
Producer
Politics Show West Midlands

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The political system in one of the region's main cities is damaged and it shortchanges the people who live there, according to a damning new report.

The Stoke-on-Trent Governance Commission published its findings on 28 May 2008 and it pulled no punches in its criticism of local government there.

"We are dismayed at the extent to which the city's political system is damaged," said Professor Michael Clarke in launching his report.

"There is a deep-seated malaise in the city's politics. As a consequence, the people of Stoke-on-Trent have been short-changed," added the Birmingham University vice Principal.

Labour heartland

The Commission's findings have now been presented to the Minister for Local Government, John Healey and Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Anybody familiar with the recent history of local government in the Potteries will not be particularly surprised by the harsh comments.

Stoke is the only local authority in the Midlands to have a directly elected Mayor and some observers say this has been partly responsible for the breakdown identified by the Commission.

Once the city was a Labour heartland with all 60 of the city council's seats held by the party but things are very different now.

People's Front of Judea

Although the three city MPs are still Labour - as is the Elected Mayor Mark Meredith - the council is now made up of a baffling array of different groupings all seemingly at war with one another and united only in their opposition to the Mayor.

At the last count there were no less than nine groups listed by Stoke-on-Trent City Council's website as having councillors.

As well as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative and Independent group, there are representatives of the BNP, City Independents, Independents, Potteries Alliance, "Non-Aligned and Individuals" and a Liberal Democrat Libertarian.

The only group missing seem to be (with apologies to Monty Python) the People's Front of Judea - at least at the time of writing.

In fighting

Some of the now independent councillors used to be Labour members and it was Labour councillors who instrumental in creating the "Democracy 4 Stoke" campaign - which seeks the abolition of the elected Mayor.

Against this background of in-fighting, as well as general economic decline which has seen the city's once proud pottery industry decimated, Labour has seen its number of councillors plummet to just 16.

So does this report spell the end for the role of directly elected Mayor in Stoke?

The Commission is silent on the issue with Professor Clarke saying that question is less important than "the need to tackle serious underlying issues."

Mayoral elections

But the Commission does make a series of other recommendations, including having elections once every four years and cutting the number of councillors.

The Government has already ruled that Stoke must scrap its current Mayor plus Council Manager set-up - it was the only place in the country to adopt the system.

Whether or not it will be replaced by a Mayor and Cabinet system or the Mayor is abolished completely to be replaced by a Council Leader plus Cabinet will not be decided until later this year at the earliest.

The next Mayoral elections are due in Stoke next year, so the clock is ticking.

Our Political Editor Patrick Burns has been to Stoke to find out what now for this politically "damaged" city.

Also in the programme ...

How would you feel if you were told how to vote by your dad, your brother, your grandfather or an uncle?

That is exactly what is happening to Asian women who are being deprived of their right to vote, says Birmingham Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob.

"This is a huge issue that distorts the election result. Women tell me that they are experiencing emotional blackmail," says Cllr Yaqoob.

Postal voting

She now wants the Government to tighten up the laws surrounding postal voting so that they are only provided in exceptional circumstances.

Currently the system is being abused and male members in some families are effectively voting on behalf of their wives, often without any consultation.

Cllr Yaqoob has been appointed as an advisor to a Government taskforce which will be chaired by Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim woman in the House of Lords.

Taskforce

She wants an end to postal voting on demand so women in the community can reclaim their voting rights by going to polling stations themselves to cast a ballot.

"Thousands of Asian women have been denied secret ballots and thousands of ballots have been stolen," she said recently.

The taskforce has been created to look at ways of encouraging women to become local councillors and Cllr Yaqoob says encouraging women to vote is a good place to start.

Pioneer

It will investigate for the next 12 months before reporting its findings back to the Minister for Women and Equalities Harriet Harman.

"It's important not just to have Black and Asian councillors, but also to support them, because it's more difficult if you are a pioneer, in a minority," said Ms Harman.

Our reporter Susana Mendonça has been investigating how some Asian women are being denied the vote and what can be done to end the practice.

The Politics Show for the West Midlands, with Jon Sopel and Sarah Falkland on Sunday 01 June, at 1200 BST on BBC One

If you have an issue you would like us to follow up then please write to the producer of the show: Nick Watson, BBC Politics Show, The Mailbox, Birmingham, B1 1RF or email nicholas.watson@bbc.co.uk

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