The only feeling that I can take from today’s referendum process in Stoke is that nothing much has changed for our "damaged" system of governance.
The question resembles a camel with two legs: curious looking and, well, not very mobile. It has been put together by too many people with an eye on electoral law who forgot that democracy starts with clear language that actually makes sense. To be fair, of course, the council have already been through this process in two ways, getting two different answers.
So it has been left to the campaign groups - two different groups who chose the same name - and the local media to translate the question for the general public. Try as I might to feign an interest, my eyes went glassy the very second the No campaigners started talking of councillors trying to take away my right to choose who I wanted to lead the city.
Meanwhile, the Yes campaigners, apparently submitting to the commonly-held view that to interest people, you have to terrify them, have come up with a mock-up of The Sun showing the rioting and flames that would result should we keep our mayor. Their message is that the BNP are going to put up someone very charismatic and sexy to woo us all before May. Who this charmer is, is not clear, but if it seems a good enough reason to you to scrap the entire mayoral system, then be sure to vote Yes today.
What this has to do with unpicking the merits of governance systems before us is anyone’s guess, but the Sentinel have taken the same tack for a different result, with a confusing story based on an anonymous poll of councillors that informs us that if we vote Yes we will also get the BNP leading us next May. For BNP politicians and supporters, all that’s needed is to stay quiet and take the free publicity while all around them politicians sink under their own spin and squabbling.
The only thing that can give a convincing way forward is a large turnout today, and that's assuming we think everyone understands the question. My impression from conversations with those people who don’t take an active interest in city politics - the majority, and who can blame them - is that people neither understand nor care. People are widely referring to it as an election, meaning they will be confused when they find out they're not voting for people, but for a system. Translating the question outside the ballot box for people is fairly easy, but whether or not any of us will remember what the question means once we’re inside is unclear. You’re voting No if you want to have a mayor; Yes, if you want the councillors to choose a leader or you just want rid of the mayor. If you’re in the considerable camps of people who (a) think councillors should have more power or (b) would rather the councillors were all gone tomorrow, well then there are no options for you. I could go into the wider plans of the governance commission, which have been agreed but not acted upon by the council, but I suspect you lost interest a few lines ago.
The only reason to vote today is to contribute to the turnout, because we must use our votes when we get them. My own view hasn’t changed over the last six months: the system we have doesn’t particularly matter as long as we can have a city in which everybody can contribute and have their voices heard through different avenues of representation. In the last few weeks, far away from the political arena but sometimes involving the same people, I’ve seen some very encouraging signs that the grassroots organisations of Stoke could be enjoying something of a renaissance, inspired perhaps by the visit of Desmond Tutu back in July. Online, there are more Stoke people blogging than ever before – even if large swathes of our city are still without free internet access this is a sign that we could be entering a more healthy era of discussion and debate in which the people’s voices cannot be ignored. The day when even poor ignored Tunstall has a Facebook group dedicated to its charms is a good day for our city.
The campaigners for Trentham High School, who have been bravely standing up and dragging attention back to themselves even when all seemed lost, have in my view won the battle and should be given the prize they want. If walking to London to deliver a petition wasn’t convincing enough, the achievement of the students, teachers and parents in making their school the most improved in the city deserves our respect and more importantly that of the Building Schools for the Future architects. People are more important than buildings and our reliance on demolition and displacement needs to be put behind us. Our appearance on Question Time last week was a clear message to national government that the people of Stoke have, through bitter experience, learnt to articulate issues of deprivation, fear and unfairness as they affect our communities.
As Stoke-on-Trent creeps closer to its centenary year as a federated city of six proud towns, we could be about to enter very interesting times indeed.