Thursday, July 26, 2007

Another poll blow for Sham Cam

In my drive to give maximum publicity to only self-serving polls, Channel 4 this lunchtime published a YouGov poll which showed that more than half of voters do not believe that Tory leader David Cameron is in control of his party.

Just 22 per cent of those questioned said Mr Cameron was in control of the Tories, compared to 52 per cent who said he was not.

In stark contrast, Gordon Brown was viewed by 62 per cent of voters as being in control of the Labour Party, while just 16 per cent said he was not. Almost half of those polled regarded the Prime Minister as "serious and trustworthy", but only 39 per cent could say the same about Mr Cameron.

There's a political truism that voters fix their impressions of political leaders early, and once they hacve done so, those early views are very difficult to shake off. Bad news for Sham Cam, I'm afraid. Defo time to pop down the bookies to put a fiver on an autumn snap poll, I think.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Labour 6% ahead

...in today's Guardian ICM poll. The Tories are now bumping along at the sort of support they had in the dying days of Michael Howard's leadership.

Whilst there's evidence that voters are warming to Gordon Brown's premiership, the opposite seems to be the case with the man they're calling"Sham Cam" (well, I picked it up at the NPF). The Guardian reports, "Among Conservative voters, 42% say they like the party, but dislike Mr Cameron. Only 3% answer the other way around."

A key Labour theme in the coming months will be that however much Cameron likes to claimed he's moved to the centre ground of British politics, fundamentally the Tory Party hasn't changed. Helpfully, splenetic posters at the Conservative Home blogsite make this point for me. Here's a typical comment from the reaction to the poll on the site;

Now that Cameron's poll lead has gone he has NOTHING to offer us. We were told to put up with all that "Modernisation" claptrap purely because it would deliver votes. It's failed, so it's back to Plan A. Cameron is now clearly seen to be dispensible. The only question is whether we dispose of him before or after the General Election. He has thoroughly contaminated this party with his nauseating PC gimmicks. There is going to have to be a massive purge when he is gone.

Music to my ears!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

SIX WEEKS!! What to do with the little darlings?..

...fortunately, help is at hand in the shape of DBC Youth Service's Summer Activity programme (aimed at the 11+). Here's a flavour of what's on offer in the North East of the town (covering Haughton, Harrowgate Hill and North Road).

25 July: (All day) Right Trax Motorbike Project in Middlesbrough *
PM: 1.00 – 5.00 Music and Media Workshop – Eastbourne Project Centre

26 July: (PM) Quiz Afternoon North Road/Harrowgate Hill*
Evening: 5.00-7.00 DJ and Media Workshops Eastbourne Project Centre

27 July: (Eve) 6.30-7.30 Whinfield MUGA.
7.30 – 8.30 Street Based Youth Work North Road/Harrowgate Hill

30 July: (Eve) 6.30-8.30 Redhall Youth Club 6.30-8.30 Northlands Youth Club

31 July: (PM) 12.00-4.00 Footy Competition (North Park)
(Eve) 5.00-7.00 DJ and Media Workshops Eastbourne Project Centre

1 August: (PM) 1.00- 4.00 Street Beats (Street Games) – Town Centre
1.00 – 5.00 Music and Media Workshop Eastbourne Project Centre

2 August: (PM) 12.00-2.00 Fun Day (climbing wall, buckin bronco,gladiator duel) North Park
(PM) Sports in the Park 2.00 –3.00 North Park 3.00-4.00 Redhall Park
(Eve) 6.30-8.30 Redhall Youth Club 6.30-8.30 Street Based Harrowgate Hill
(Eve) 5.00-7.00 DJ & Media Workshops Eastbourne Project Centre

3 August: (PM) Sunderland – Wall Climbing.*
(Eve) 6.30-7.30 Whinfield MUGA. 7.30 – 8.30 Street Based Youth Work North Road/Harrowgate Hill

6 August: (PM) 1.00 – 6.00 Girls Activity Day (Education Village)
(PM) Fishing trip.*
(Eve) 6.30-8.30 Redhall Youth Club 6.30-8.30 Northlands Youth Club

7 August: (PM) 12.00-4.00 Footy Competition (Tommy Crook’s Park)
(Eve) 5.00-7.00 DJ and Media Workshops Eastbourne Project Centre

8 August: (PM) 1.00-5.00 Media and Video Workshop Eastbourne Project Centre
(PM) Sports in the Park 1.00-2.00 North Park 2.00-3.00 Springfield Park 3.00-4.00 Red Hall

9 August: (PM) Sports in the Park 1.00-2.00 North Park 2.00-3.00 Springfield Park
3.00-4.00 Red Hall
(Eve) 6.30-8.30 Redhall Youth Club 6.30-8.30 Street based youth work in Harrowgate Hill.

10 August: Paintballing –Area Trip*
(PM) 6.30-7.30 Whinfield MUGA. 7.30 – 8.30 Street BasedYouthWork NorthRoad/Harrowgate Hill

For those activities marked with an *, contact one of youth workers - either Naomi Ryan on 362957 or Martin Newman on 363275. Alternatively you can email them (naomi.ryan@darlington.gov.uk or martin.newman@darlington.gov.uk) And no, I haven't lost my sense of geography - whilst some of the events above do fall ouside of our area (like the footy or the Media/DJ training) these are intended to be town-wide activities for all.

I'll blog again with more activities after the 10th August.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Out and about

Since May's local elections, the Labour Council has been debating ways in which it can make itself more accessible and transparent in its dealings.

There's a now an increased duty on Cabinet members to play a greater role in the community, for example, getting out of the Town Hall and listening to residents' questions and concerns.

Consequently I spent a happy Sunday afternoon licking stamps and sealing envelopes, writing to all the Community Partnerships and Parish Councils in the Borough, to see whether they would like me to attend a future meeting. At a time when I'm starting out on an entirely new portfolio, this initiative couldn't have come at a better time, helping me to learn from the concerns and questions that people all over the Borough have both about public health and the Council's leisure services.

I'll be writing out to more groups and organisations next week...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Musical chairs

As part of the overhaul of the Council's governance, the Cabinet portfolios were altered last night to help drive up improvements and ensure that we link more effectively with the community.

I got the call from the Leader this morning that my portfolio is to be Health and Leisure.

I'm leaving the Transport brief with mixed feelings. I would have liked to have seen through the completion of the Eastern Tranpsort Corridor, and the Sustainable Travel Town and Cycling Demonstration Town initiatives, which are beginning to transform transport in Darlington. I feel I have a good working relationship with transport providers and lobby groups such as GOLD and the Darlington Cycling Campaign.

At the same time, it probably is time for a change. I became Chair of the old Transport Committee in 1992, and seamlessly moved into the Highways and Transport portfolio holder when the Cabinet system began. Frankly, 15 years in one portfolio is quite long enough, and I'm sure the Council will benefit from having a fresh Cabinet Member looking after this key area of the town's operation.

My new portfolio covers public health, environmental health, trading standards, the Registrar's Office, leisure, culture and the museum. Leisure was previously a portfolio all to itself, and as Cllr. Heather Scott pointed out in Council last night, there is a huge agenda for the Council regarding the public health brief. Clearly I won't be short of work!

I've spent the morning making calls to staff I've worked with in the Highways and Transport brief thanking them for their hard work and support, and beginning to get to grips with my new job. Re-ordering my diary is the first task...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sedgefield by-election IV

Between work and Full Council this evening I was able to spend three hours "knocking out" in Newton Aycliffe, encouraging residents to back Phil Wilson. It was my impression that the Labour vote was holding up well. There was a feeling at HQ that Labour's effort has been aided by some curious targetting decisions by the LibDems, who seemed to downplay key 'independent' wards where they might have picked up votes.

There's food for thought at Tory Graham Robb's final by-election posting, where he rails against the FibDems' negative campaign and the sheer weight of leaflets distributed by them during the campaign. Certainly I found an emerging anger on the doorstep amongst residents about the volume of material through their letterboxes.

Be in no doubt that it's the LibDems who began this trend. The remorseless barrage of leaflets they routinely deploy at election time is meant, I guess, to counter the fact that in many seats, council and Parliamentary, residents will have heard nothing from the LibDems for a long, long time. It's astonishing that after a Focus blitz, people will assume they've been receiving regular communications from the LibDems for ages. Real policy is normally absent from these leaflets - instead they will ramp up people's fears about some key local issue, accompanied by wholly made-up opinion polls showing the LibDems "neck and neck" with the incumbent party.

Unfortunately, the two main parties have little option but to try and match the LibDems leaflet for leaflet. The result, as I found in Newton Aycliffe, is a lot of real resident anger at the sheer waste, which brings politicians of all hues into disrepute.

But what's to be done? You can't legislate the problem away, as that would be an incursion on free speech. Perhaps the answer lies with local parties reaching agreements in advance of polling day that, say, a maximum of 3 leaflets will be circulated over the period of the campaign by each. That would bring a sense of proportion to the campaign, and be good for the environment too.

It would be a brave Labour agent, however, who slept easily after shaking hands with the opposition on a deal like this...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sedgefield by-election III

My final visit to Sedgefield today before Polling Day to deliver what was the last bundle of leaflets at HQ. I took my iPod with me, and probably cut a strange figure tunelessly belting-out Simon and Garfunkle tracks around Alston Crescent...

There is an argument that Labour and the LibDems have spent perhaps too much time studying the other's campaigning tactics. So whilst I was delivering a leaflet in LibDem gold pronouncing "FibDems Exposed!" and highlighting their shameful voting record on crime, the LibDems were putting out a flyer in red and white, apeing Labour leaflets, and hilariously describing Phil Wilson (Labour's candidate) as a "London-based spin doctor."

This has been an off-the-peg LibDem campaign, albeit that they haven't had the time to get the scare stories going which have delivered seats in the past. Still, the final LibDem leaflet has all the usual components we've come to know and loathe - the cod "latest opinion poll figures", and the entirely made up pro-LibDem quote from an unamed local resident. By the way, when Greg Stone says he will "smash teen gangs!", I wonder what that means exactly in the context of Trimdon, Sedgefield and Chilton...

On a final note, I was really pleased that both Graham Robb from the Conservatives and Phil Wilson have made common cause against the BNP in this election. Graham has fought an honourable, if rather lonely, campaign and his daily postings on MySpace have been required reading. He hasn't got a prayer tomorrow, but still I wish him well (in losing to Phil Wilson, of course!)

Stumping up


On Tuesday I attended the first meeting of the Tees Valley Transport Board.


It brings together the 5 Tees Valley councils (Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveand and Hartlepool), represented by their respective Transport Cabinet Members, together with representatives from (amongst others) the Highways Agency, Teesport, Durham Tees Valley Airport, the Government Office of the North East and Network Rail.


This is part of the emerging Tees Valley City Region initiative. The role of the Board is to oversee joint projects, particularly the Tees Valley Connect project (£39 million of investment in bus infrastructure), improvements to the trunk road network, and the Tees Valley Metro project.


The latter is being led by Tees Valley Regeneration. I've blogged already on the Metro scheme - if the bid is successful, in 2012 there will be a regular 15 minute service between Darlington and Saltburn. As part of the plans, there will be the opportunity to properly connect Durham Tees Valley Airport with the wider rail network. Existing stations will be upgraded.


Most excitingly, the rolling stock will have the ability to use rail and road. So there could be the prospect that services could connect directly into Darlington town centre, for example.


That's some way off. And as you may have seen on the front page of this morning's Echo, the whole thing has to be paid for. Whilst existing rail subsidy will cover the greater part of the cost, as part of the City Region idea, it's being floated that a supplemental business rate could plug the gap.


At the meeting I said that a lot more effort has to be put into properly consulting the public about the scheme. Clearly this has to include the business community. The public have to be convinced if this ambitious project is to be taken forward.

Ealing Southall


Whilst I was down in London with the NPF, delegates were cordially "invited" to help out with the campaign effort in Southall. Of course most of us didn't need to be asked, and we sent 2 coachloads (about 70 in all I reckon) of battle-hardened activists to canvass and leaflet.


There was almost a carnival atmosphere on the streets (it was great to see some street cricket) and everyone was very welcoming. Based on the number of Labour posters in people's windows in the area I worked in, prospects look very good indeed.


Of course, the Tory candidate Tony Lit is a friend of Tony, having had his picture taken with the former PM at a bash recently. That he paid over four grand for his table is well-known now - what has attracted less attention is that Mr Lit also successfully bid for a trip for 2 to the US to listen to Hilary Clinton. According to the Sunday Telegraph, he hasn't paid up yet.


So Mr Lit faces the real prospect of getting stuffed by Labour tomorrow, and then having to pay another £4,000 to the party immediately afterwards. I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall when he writes the cheque....

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Snap poll?

After hearing from Gordon this morning, I rather think that an autumn election is becoming more rather than less likely.

The PM was on top form, and fizzing with ideas to improve the lot of working families..  Ensuring NHS services are properly accessible: more youth facilities in our communities; matching the 606k vacancies in the economy with young people who need work via better training; local communities to get the benefit of planning gain via a levy on housebuilders' landbanks (to name but a few).

He also hinted that tomorrow the Sunday papers' opinion polls look very favourable.

And what may be the clincher - the Tories patently don't want an election now.  After months of division over grammar schools, museum fees and now financially penalising single parents, incluing widows and widowers, the opposition have the scent of electoral death about them.

It may be time to dust off the rosettes again....




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New Faces

I'm in London this weekend in my guise as one of the 4 North East Constituency Labour Party reps on our National Policy Forum.

It's odd coming to terms with the new Government line-up.  I smiled vaguely at the woman sat in front of me, who returned the grin.  She seemed familiar somehow, perhaps unsurprisingly as Gordon later introduced her as the Home Secretary....




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Friday, July 13, 2007

"World-class facilities for a world -leading organisation"

Up to 200 jobs are coming to Morton Palms, Darlington at the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), the new body which will protect children and vulnerable adults through checks on those employed to work with them.

The Authority will operate out of Stephenson House from the autumn of 2008 in facilities that are rated excellent against independent standards for staff working conditions and environment.

Stephenson House is situated on the Morton Palms Business Park. It extends to 11.3 hectares (28 acres) and is a joint venture between Darlington Borough Council, One North East and the Developer City & Northern. It is among the first sites in the Tees Valley to offer Broadband connectivity.

I'm proud that as a result of the Labour Council's partnership working, 200 highly-skilled jobs are coming to the Borough. Attracting civil service posts away from their traditional base in London and the South East will also help boost the economy of the North East. To have Darlington talked about in these terms really raises our national image.

Incidentally, I'm fairly sure that Stephenson House is in the Sedgefield constituency. If so, this is an announcement which should help Phil Wilson's campaign as another example of a Labour local authority, working in partnership with government, bringing jobs and prosperity to the North East. (Thanks to Cllr. Mark Burton for the link).

Buzz Buzz

Sedgefield LibDems' campaign scored a spectacular own-goal when they turned up uninvited to a village event in Hurworth, according to the dear old D & S Times.

(As there's nothing so vulgar as hyperlinks to the paper's articles, I'll repeat the snippet from 'Spectator's Notes' in full).

The Sedgefield Liberal Democrats did themselves no favours by gate-crashing the Scouts strawberry fair on Hurworth village green last Friday evening.

Although the rain was never far away, villagers were enjoying the annual get-together which, as well as raising money for the scouts, is about the only time in the year when the whole village turns out for a social occasion.

The group of earnest yellow rosette-wearing politicos, including candidate Greg Stone, were about as welcome as a swarm of wasps at a summer picnic."

Of course, the LibDems adhere to a strategy which relies on massive, in-your-face exposure during a by-election. It's their desire to push many more forests of trees through letterboxes than the opposition (the politician's equivalent of willy-waving). Whilst this deluge cheeses a lot of people off, it's an essential strategy when most voters in a constituency like Sedgefield won't have heard from the party from one decade to the next...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bennite politics


Fetching and carrying this evening, transporting Hilary Benn MP, the new Environment Secretary from the station to join Phil Wilson and Hilary Armstrong MP canvassing in Newton Aycliffe.


I'd not met Hilary before - I'd read profiles which described him as 'the nicest guy in politics' which I was instinctively suspicious about, but sure enough, I found him charming and astute, and he went down a storm on the doorstep.


On the way back, he told a couple of nice anedotes about his dad (I was brought up in Tony Benn's former Bristol East constituency) and, back to the present, recounted how the opposition has been floored by Gordon Brown's new approach to Government. Hilary had a great seat from the Government benches to see how the Prime Minister's constitutional reform announcements left Cameron and the Tory leadership floundering as proposal after proposal was unveiled which had never crossed their minds.


After some more leafleting, I'll be back canvassing on Friday.


VIPB (Very Important Person's Blog)


The Mayor at Corporation Road Primary School


There's a new star in the local blogosphere this evening with the launch of the Mayor of Darlington's blog.


Strictly speaking, Cllr. Marian Swift's webpage isn't a blog in the accepted sense of the word, but she will be updating it regularly to give residents an idea of the work she and Mayoress Jenny Swift (her daughter) undertake around the Borough on a daily basis.


Overseen by staff in the Town Hall, the blog will stay strictly neutral on the subject of September's referendum on whether or not we should abandon our 140 year old ceremonial mayoralty. It will however, I'm sure provide a useful reference point for residents wanting to understand the strenuous duties undertaken by this Mayor, and her predecessors down the years.


Check it out for yourself. I've also provided a link on the right (in the 'Non-Aligned' section as Darlington ceremonial Mayor is of course non-political). Do scroll down the page when you get there - for some reason the DBC website pushes down text whenever there is an accompanying photograph.

Erratum


Thanks to Aeres for pointing out that my original post here was slightly wide of the mark. I've taken it down whilst leaving the graphic - it's good to see that dead bird again...

Pot caught in "black" kettle jibe

Driving over to Cumbria yesterday morning was considerably enlivened by John Humpreys' interview with Alistair Campbell.

I know he can be a foul-mouthed bully, but I've always admired Campbell for the revolution he and Peter Mandelson wrought in the way Labour was treated by the media. As Campbell (vainly) tried to remind Humphreys, when he became Tony Blair's press secretary , the media was almost universally hostile to the party. It took a single minded effort of herculean proportions to get the traditionally rightwing tabloid press to report Labour and its leader at all favourably. Nick Jones' excellent Soundbites and Spin Doctors lays bare how both parties have tried to manipulate the media (and vice versa).

Of course, there's plenty of "previous" between Humphreys and Campbell over the Hutton report, which I needn't repeat here as I know I have a universally knowledgable audience...

Humphreys central charge was that Campbell, almost single-handedly, has brought politics to its knees through spinning, which has in turn created a climate of cynicism amongst the public. As a result, no-one believes what any politician says any more.

There was plenty of harrumphing in my car at that - IMHO Humphreys has done more to create the climate of sneering negativity in politics than any other individual. His snide questioning of politicians invariably takes the line that "we all know that you, minister x, are little more than a lying lickspittle, and your policies are a disaster." He then affects pantomime horror when an embattled interviee suggests that he, Humphreys, is allowing his own anti-Labour hostility to seep into the questioning.

He is the single biggest reason why for the most part I listen to the news on Radio 5, where there is a refreshing lack of overweening personalities presenting the news.

News management probably did go too far in the first couple of years of the Blair government, as Campbell himself conceded (not that Humphreys noticed). Nonetheless, yesterday Campbell gave as good as he got for a full half an hour. Great stuff.

Sedgefield by-election II


Up to Newton Aycliffe yesterday with two car loads of Darlington Party members to help with the canvassing effort.


It was a gorgeous sunny evening, and we found loads of people in. We're an efficient lot in Darlington, and soon finished the boards allocated to us, which covered Cobblers Hall, a newer housing estate to the east of the town centre.


So it was a case of back to HQ to collect some more work, this time in a more established residential area to immediately to the south of the shopping centre.


Of course anything I or a hack from any other party writes about the by-election will be taken with a huge pinch of salt, but I was genuinely impressed with the reception we received. You know you're onto a winner when residents open the door, see the red rosette and smile automatically, and I got that response at house after house, particularly in Cobblers Hall.


I see the Echo are quoting the bookmakers odds on a Phil Wilson win at 1/200 on. The bookies aren't mugs, and if the rest of the constituency is anything like what we saw last night, in two very different communities, I think they're about right.

Monday, July 09, 2007

New Darlington Bloggers

Welcome to Gill and Mike Cartwright, the Tory councillors for Harrowgate Hill, who began blogging recently. I've added links right. There doesn't seem to be anywhere to leave comments.

Touchingly, Mike's just discovered that the LibDems' infamous "It's a two-horse race" slogan, which has turned up in the Sedgefield by-election literature, has been run by the LibDems once or twice before the Harrowgate Hill ward election in May. He asks, "Surely the Lib Dems wouldn’t be lazy and use the same unsuccessful strategy which they employed in Harrowgate Hill during the recent local elections? Surely they wouldn’t take the voters for granted and print the same twaddle in two different elections?"

You'll begin to understand the irritation of more seasoned opponents of the LibDems, Tory and Labour Mike, when I tell you that they've been using that graphic (and others) for 25 BLOODY YEARS! Ahem, time for a fruit tea and a lie down.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Tour de Fulham


Kerron Cross has pointed me towards this (mildly) addictive online game, which recreates the thrills and spills of France's national sport. Just try and stay off the amphetamines....

Sedgefield by-election I


Mean, moody and magnificent - Phil Wilson's "Faverdale Crue" (James and his mate Tom) prepare to leaflet the estate...


For every party member able to experience the joy of heckling David Cameron's broken-down car for a full 5 minutes, whilst the toff sits grinning inanely inside, there's another ten slogging round with the leaflets.


So eschewing the glamour, with colleagues, today I leafleted parts of the Sedgefield constituency which fall into Darlington Borough - in my case Faverdale and Hurworth. I also got cars organised for canvassers for next week.


I went up to campaign HQ in Beveridge Way yesterday - it was good to see a steady stream of people coming in to sign Phil Wilson's petition on improving Newton Aycliffe town centre. Whilst initial redevelopment plans have stalled, there's no doubt that Phil, who's lived in the constituency all his life, is best place to get things kick-started again.


Meanwhile, Don at the Town Liar points out that a website linked to Greg Stone, the LibDem candidate, has suddenly and mysteriously become inaccessible. This is LabourWatch, and a possible reason is given by LibDem Suzanne Lamido's blog here.
Having worked in the Hartlepool by-election, I know how damaging careless internet postings can be to an opposition election campaign. I wonder if Greg has had his "Jody" moment already...
And has there been a sadder, lonlier campaign launch than Tory Graham Robb's, in a car park, with a smattering of activists? Check the pictures out - I'll let you decide.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Where Darlington leads...

Thursday's Guardian has a piece about plans to introduce "direct democracy" into local council service provision. Town meetings and ballots will determine how the spending of some local cash is prioritised.

We've been ahead of the game on this idea in Darlington, where our "Let's Get Cracking" initiative allowed local people to determine the spending of £2.1 million on highways repairs.

A word of caution, however - the pilot cities (which will apparently include Newcastle) will have to think through how the so-called "hard-to-reach" residents will be heard. Despite our efforts to publicise LGC, it was clear that middle class residents were best able to articulate their grievances and potentially steer funding their way. There were some fairly significant gaps in the map of the Borough where no responses were received from local people, despite real need in these areas.

Employing a "champion" who liaised with local communities about LGC helped tackle this, and similiarly-imaginative ideas will be necessary if spending isn't to be sucked out of the most deprived communities.

Our own correspondent

I'm pleased to be able to take down the Alan Johnston banner in good circumstances today following his release.

It's common currency that journalists are right down in the gutter with politicians and estate agents in the public's estimation. Brave operators like Alan, however, who plies his craft in some of the most dangerous hot-spots in the world modestly and without any self-serving fanfare, should challenge that perception.

I download From our own Correspondent on Radio 4 each week and listen to it at least twice - for me it exemplifies what's best about the BBC, true to its Reithian tradition of educating and explaining whilst entertaining too. Alan Johnston's ordeal over these past months, however, highlights that these unique insights can come at a significant cost.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Starter's Orders

Congratulations to Phil Wilson, selected as Labour's candidate for the Sedgefield by-election tonight. Phil, with his strong local connections and long association with the outgoing MP, was always a shoe-in for me. He'll make a formidable MP.

I see the LibDems have selected too - Greg Stone, a Newcastle city councillor. The LibDems' campaign website, with plenty of knockabout stuff regarding the Tories, already has a feel that the interesting scrap will actually be for second place.

I hope all the mainstream parties will maintain a united front against the BNP. They've selected failed fuel-lobbyist, failed UKIP member Andrew Spence to fly their sordid colours. There's some interesting background on Spence here.

For a true appreciation of the psychology of these people, there's a revealing piece reporting an ongoing trial of a former BNP candidate in the 2006 local elections on today's BBC website. Mr Cottage stockpiled explosives and ammunition for a "war" against Asians. According to his wife, Cottage and his co-defendant were, "solid" friends who met regularly outside BNP meetings to discuss politics, the party and Hitler. Nice.

I can't help thinking that in the current climate, the media seem disinclined to expose the threat to our democracy posed by characters like these - had Cottage and his chum been Asian and/or Muslim, this trial probably would have made the national press...

A flying start

The polls are going from bad to worse for David Cameron, as Britain gets used to Gordon Brown as PM, and rather likes what it sees.

A Populus poll in the Times today has Labour up 4% and the Tories down 2%. Labour leads the Tories now by 3 clear points.

The Times found "the number of voters regarding Mr Brown as strong has jumped by 14 points to 77 per cent over the past month. This compares with 43 per cent seeing Mr Cameron as strong, up by six points since early June.

The proportion saying that Mr Brown has what it takes to be a good Prime Minister has risen by 16 points to 57 per cent, compared with 37 per cent for Mr Cameron (up four points). Only 31 per cent say that they would rather have Mr Cameron as prime minister than Mr Brown, and 52 per cent disagree."

For all the mud-slinging at the Government's record we're likely to hear in the Sedgefield by-election over the next three weeks, I think the poll will instead become a test of the shaky leaderships of Messrs Cameron and Campbell. Neither the Tories nor the LibDems can afford to come third. According to Sunday's Telegraph, a group of LibDem peers are already sharpening the knives for their hapless chief...

Monday, July 02, 2007

Looking to a bright future

An excellent leader column in today's Echo, and well worth repeating here...

THESE are exciting times for Darlington. Only last week £200m redevelopment plans for a 70-acre site between Haughton Road and Yarm Road were revealed.
Work is also proceeding on a major £100m shopping and entertainment complex in the town centre.
And the UK's largest eco-village is due to be built on a former paint factory at the Lingfield Point Business Park.
Before all these we have had the Pedestrian Heart.
The £7m town centre redevelopment project has been dogged by criticism and bad luck ever since it was given the go-ahead two years ago.
Critics said the plan to create a shopping environment fit for the 21st Century would only do so at the expense of the old split level town centre's character.
In January last year, workers struck a 100-year-old gas main which had to be re-routed delaying the project and adding substantially to the cost. Further delays followed.
All was forgotten at the weekend when the new-look town centre was officially declared open. And what a town centre.
With its cascading waterfall, sensory lights, wide open spaces and smart wooden benches the Pedestrian Heart Darlington looks like a town that means business.
Of course, some people still won't like it. Whatever you think, it is pointless looking back - we must move forward towards a brighter future.
Darlington has to compete regionally and sub-regionally as a modern shopping destination. Now, thanks to the Pedestrian Heart, it stands favourable comparison with any rival. The town truly has a spring in its step once more - and one not merely consisting of the Pedestrian Heart's water feature.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Notes from the Royal Mile

Whilst in Scotland, we happened to be in Edinburgh for the opening of the Scottish Parliament. We all enjoyed the "riding" as representatives from local community groups, performers, and more pipe bands than you could shake a sporran at, made their way down the hill.

It was a display of a confident, outward-looking community - the parade included a group with a Chinese dragon, a Hindi band and ethnic Turks or Romanians, all proudly waving their flags of St Andrew.

It got me thinking again about the North East's own missed opportunity in 2004. I was an unashamed campaigner for the regional assembly, leafleting fruitlessly in Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough (where I was thrown off the railway station as it wasn't "public property", but that's another story).

Of course, the failure had its roots in the timid powers proposed by Westminster, and the lacklustre 'Yes' campaign which thought that a fuzzy sense of North East identity would seemlesly transfer into votes for the assembly.

The killer blow was exacted however by the "No" campaign with its brilliantly-conceived inflatable white elephant, which knowingly tapped into and exploited voters' cynicism about politicians in general.

As the Sedgefield by-election approaches, remember that it was the Consercatives and their fellow-travellers on the extreme Europhobic right convinced that the North East Assembly was part of some vast Brussels plot, who scuppered the plan. An initiative that would have brought some democratic accountability to the workings of central government in the North East was thus torpedoed.

I mention this now too, of course, because one of the prime movers behind the No campaign, Graham Robb, is now the Tories' candidate in the by-election. In 2004 he told us all politicians are the same sleazy bunch, and the assembly was simply a case of "jobs for the boys". Now he will be trying to convince Sedgefield voters that in fact politicains are white knights who can make a real differerence to the local community.

Graham is a brilliant PR businessman, (and a blogger to boot) but he will need all his skills and more if he is to pull that one off.

Runners and Riders

Whilst I was away in Scotland, Tony had the temerity to stand down and trigger the by-election in Sedgefield.

Spreculation in Thursday's Northern Echo has it about right. Firstly, there's a real thirst in the constituency party for a candidate with genuine local roots. The Echo pinpointed Pat McCourt, Phil Wilson and Dr Simon Henig as the favourites at this stage.

Pat is the son of the late Warren McCourt, who was a long-standing and respected local Councillor. I spent several happy days campaigning for Warren when I first moved to Darlington and he was standing in a council by-election in Ferryhill Station. (It was also the first time I met Tony, who was then Shadow Home Secretary, resplendant in a powder blue suit outside the Surtees Arms). Anyway, the media is keen to paint Pat as the "left-wing" candidate, but that may not be so apparent to local members - Pat seems to have judged the local mood well when he said after Tony resigned, "What Sedgefield needs now is somebody whose first, second and third priority is Sedgefield."

Phil Wilson is the rightly the bookies' favourite and closely associated with Tony and John Burton. The 'dark horse' is Cllr. Simon Henig, deputy leader of Chester-le-Street Council and a respected political academic. Both Simon and Phil and their private armies have been working quietly (and not-so-quietly) amongst local party members for the past 18 months.

Barring the sort of "accident" that catapulted Alan B'stard into Parliament, expect the Labour nominee, and the next MP for Sedgefield to come from one of these three.