Upholding strong socialist values and serving the Crewe community has featured prominently in Peter Kent’s life, as it did for his parents. He has represented the town in many capacities across several decades, and continues to fight for what he believes is best for its people. He would, however, like to silence the moaners!
“I’ve always considered myself to be a Crewe man, although my mum moved out to Gresty before I was born, to stay with her parents. It was only for a few weeks, as my dad didn’t want her to go into labour with the WW2 air raid sirens going off. After that, Newfield Drive was home for most of my early life. Mum and dad were very active in the local Labour Party, both became councillors and they went on to be mayors of the town. So it’s no surprise that I had similar beliefs and ambitions. I admired my parents for the work they did on the council, what they stood for and the things they taught me.”
His parents’ council duties and political beliefs would influence Peter to an extent, but an experience as a child would drive him to fight for people’s rights throughout his life. “There were things that I felt very strongly about, especially when they affected the lives of others. From an early age, I was keen to promote more community use of school facilities. After all, the people paid taxes to build these places. As a kid I’d play football on the fields and pitches behind our homes – what would later become Coppenhall School. Suddenly, without warning, Cheshire County Council decided to preserve these fields for the use of the school alone, so they erected a high fence to keep people out. That was open space, our play area as far as we were concerned, so it had a big impact on children in the area. A public facility, shut off to the public – that wasn’t right. So that was something that always stayed with me and encouraged me to stand up for people when the system and heavy-handed bureaucrats threatened to trample on them.”
Although a working life in various railway-related functions beckoned, a commitment to the Labour Party began at fifteen years of age. In fact, it was the start of a memorable period for the Crewe-based socialists. “With some encouragement from my parents, along with a few mates from school, I formed the Labour Party Young Socialists branch in Crewe. We were based on Heathfield Avenue at the Labour Party HQ, a place called Unity Hall. This was used as a meeting room for party branches, and suddenly there were about 150 young people – aged between 15 and 25 – with record players and table tennis tables causing mayhem. It was effectively a youth club, although there was a core group of people who were interested in serious politics. We used to get at least a dozen going to party conferences, and we made a real impact, flying the flag for Crewe. We were easily the most successful of the young socialist branches across the whole country. Unfortunately, some of the senior figures didn’t appreciate this, or the fact that our group had grown so quickly. So we moved to the COOP Hall by the Ritz, often retiring to the Masonic Arms opposite for post-meeting drinks!”
A councillor from 1971, doing the right thing for the people of Crewe has always been top priority, although the decisions taken have not always been popular. Sometimes, it would also mean standing up to the party. “The Labour-run council of the 1970s had a policy of slum clearance, so a lot of railway cottages disappeared. It wasn’t a case of wanting to destroy the town’s heritage, but you must realise that a lot of the older councillors had lived through a period when housing conditions were awful. The standard of those buildings was very poor and they wanted to improve the town. Similarly, in 1980, the West Street extension was another example of progress and improvement, but something that angered many local residents. Ultimately, widening the road meant that either the Chetwode Arms or St. Paul’s Church over the road had to be knocked down. I voted against destroying the pub, as did my mother who was also on the council then. We wanted to put the community wishes ahead of the establishment, so I went against the labour whip.”
Putting Crewe first has also been very important to Peter, who was the youngest mayor of Crewe & Nantwich Borough Council in 1986. Just four years later, he became the leader of the Labour council and was able to drive key projects forward. “The Wychwood Park development was a bold move as it was on greenbelt land. As a council we were sold on the idea because we genuinely believed that it would benefit Crewe and Nantwich. They talked about new roads, increased use of the station and high-profile golf tournaments. Not all of that happened! Then there was the new warehousing for Gallagher’s and their cigarette distribution business. I was against it, as an anti-smoker, but it meant jobs for Crewe. The toughest decision was probably the war memorial move. I had an old lady call me in a very distressed state. She really believed that the memorial contained graves. The hardest part was sticking to our guns, as it was the right decision for the town. The media had whipped up a storm, so it was a messy situation. That’s probably why I lost my seat, but the national trend was the reason we lost the council in 2006. On the night of the count I was shocked by the defeat, and yet I wasn’t devastated, as some had predicted. Perhaps it was time for me to move on, and that election brought things forward. Too often you have all your party members involved in front line campaigning, running wards or fighting for seats. So helping the local party with its administrative tasks suited me. I’ve got a lot of satisfaction from that.”
With two years taking a back seat, the unexpected death of Crewe and Nantwich MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, in April 2008, shook the Labour Party – locally, and on a national level. It was also a call to rejoin the campaign trail. “Losing Gwyneth was a huge blow, to me and the Labour group. She was godmother to my daughter, Natalie, and someone I considered to be a friend. She was an old-school politician, what I’d call a true parliamentarian. Her daughter, Tamsin (pictured, below), won the selection contest for the by-election on merit, as she turned in the best performance. However, she was on a hiding to nothing and I felt very sorry for her. I joined her door-to-door canvassing team and also witnessed the campaign around the town. She was let down by senior Labour officials who were not in touch with the town’s voters. There were strategic failings on the part of the professional party advisers who effectively ran the campaign, acting on behalf of London. They blew it from the start with the ludicrous ‘Tory Toff’ campaign. So we lost a seemingly safe Labour seat and, coupled with the decision to change the local government system in the wrong way by lumping us in with Macclesfield and Congleton, I believe that the Labour voice was weakened in this town.”
Whatever party flag flies above the constituency, Peter remains passionate about Crewe and improving it for future generations. “The new train station has to happen. It’s symbolic, something that is known across the world. Whatever some might think, it’s all about the image. Enhancing the look and feel of a town rubs off on its people. Hearts and minds are lifted. We don’t celebrate the town enough, and I think that people need to have more pride and not accept second best. No matter what happens I try to remain positive, and if there’s one thing I’d like to do it’s to string up all the whingers!”
Peter’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.