DUDLEY’S deputy leader has defended claims he hijacked the Black Country Festival for political gain.
Councillor Pete Lowe, a driving force behind the festival, has been accused by critics of using the celebratory event to boost his popularity among voters in the Stourbridge constituency which he is hoping to pry from the hands of Tory MP Margot James at next year’s general election.
Cllr Lowe, Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Stourbridge (and Cradley), says he wants to be the constituency’s first MP to have been born and bred in the area and that his support of the festival is entirely down to his pride in his Black Country roots.
He said: “I’m proud of my community and I’m proud our community has now got a flag.
"The Black Country Festival wasn’t chosen by myself – it was a day chosen by the Government themselves to celebrate the Black Country."
However - political commentators and opponents say the community event has proved a convenient campaign tool for the Lye and Wollescote councillor ahead of his bid for a seat in Westminster.
Bridge radio presenter Phil Tonks said on Facebook: "Councillor Pete Lowe has been making much of his local roots to fire his own campaign as Labour's candidate for Stourbridge in next year's General Election - and it's a canny marketing campaign.
"But the danger is also, longer-term, that Labour candidate Pete Lowe's association with this will align people's association to the flag with a political party. Yes, Labour may have have been born out of the working class - and the Black Country heritage is wedded to it - but we need the flag to be a permanent tribute to to us - and our heritage - without petty short-term political points scoring to damage it."
Cllr Lowe, who is deputy leader of Dudley Council and previously the authority's finance spokesman, branded the suggestion he'd hijacked the festival and its flag to bolster his political campaign as "preposterous".
He added: "That's a scandalous suggestion. I’m proud of the Black Country flag. I’ve got a Union Jack, St George’s flag and a Wolves flag – I fly all of them very proudly; it’s an absolute nonsense.
"The people saying that (UKIP) have got flags flying in Sedgley and Eric Pickles and George Osborne from the Conservatives were pictured draped in the Black Country flag."
However, high-profile Dudley Council UKIP councillor Dean Perks told the News the matter had been flagged up by Labour Party members.
He took to Facebook to say he'd come close to removing the Black Country flag from his house as he felt it had become too closely associated with the Labour Party and he added: "Pete face facts you've bled the BCFest for your campaign enough."
He later told the News: "The festival was fantastic. Pete put a lot of effort in and it was great to have our own flag.
"I just felt it was being related to a political party which I personally didn't feel comfortable with.
"I've spoken to Pete about it and he assures me that's not the case."
He added: "It was mentioned to me about the flag being used for political gain but that's politics. I don't like that part of politics.
"People will make their own mind up about it. If we want to use the flag in our campaign we can. I wouldn't do it personally. It's awkward.
"But Pete's a good councillor, a decent politician - and I don't mind him using it to raise his profile."
Similarly - the leader of Dudley's Conservative Group, Cllr Patrick Harley, said: "You could accuse him of overplaying his hand on the Black Country Festival and some people have been turned off by it – they think it’s being used as a political tool.
"But I don’t necessarily blame him. I'm sure we would be doing the same if the roles were reversed. Political parties do that and that's fair enough.
"But it's also fair game when they get criticised."
He said the Black Country Festival had been an event for "the people, not politicians" and added: "It shouldn't be our role to try and claim credit for it; it's for community spirited individuals."
Cllr Lowe's UKIP opponent James Carver, parliamentary candidate for Stourbridge, said: “I feel the Black Country flag doesn’t belong to any political party – it belongs to the people of the Black Country.
"I don’t have a problem with Pete wanting to fly the flag for the Black Country; I've had my photo taken with it - but it’s a bit of overkill.
"Black Country Day has been and gone, let's celebrate it at the appropriate time. If it becomes Black Country Year then Black Country Day doesn’t become so special."
While former Dudley Council leader Cllr Les Jones said: "Pete Lowe has literally wrapped himself in the Black Country flag – and he’s campaigning on being a local man with local roots. It’s dangerous ground, if you’re a politician, trying to make something your own. It was a private individual that started the ball rolling with the Black Country Festival."
MP Margot James said: "I think it's great mistake for a political parties to seek to take over something which is independent and belongs to the community at large.
"I can see why Pete is doing that. Personally I think it's always best for community groups to keep themselves slightly at a distance from political parties.
"The Black Country Festival was a great success and everything that's going to promote the Black Country I fully welcome, but the idea of political parties hijacking it is a mistake. I won't be doing anything like that."
Festival founder Garry Sawers, known as Black Country Gaz, said he was happy with the flag being used on the beer mats as it also promoted the Black Country.
But he added: “As long as they are just in his locals. If they were to turn up anywhere else then I would not like that idea.”