Tuesday, March 30, 2010


After a gruelling day, it was great this evening to get along to Darlington Fire Station for the culmination of the latest Firebreak scheme.

Regular readers will know that I'm a Board member of County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, and I try and support their events whenever I can. This evening, 11 young people who had completed the demanding Firebreak scheme gave a disciplined, professional display to their proud families, and then were awarded certficates by a senior fire officer.

Firebreak has been running in our area since 2000. It targets young people who are perhaps disaffected or on the verge of getting into serious bother - in this case from Hummerknott School and St Aidans Academy. The young people, if they choose to come onto the scheme (and there is no compulsion) then complete a 13-week course on disciplines which include team building, fire prevention, first aid, and practicaly tackling fire. Anyone watching their flawless display this evening in the yard, confidently using the kit and tools of fire fighters, could be in no doubt about how much they had gained from the course.

At the end of the course, they also received a portfolio record of the courses they had completed - valuable achievements they could show to potential employers in the future for example. The Firebreak scheme is a great example of how the fire service now isn't simply reactive - responding to fire callouts - but proactive, and playing an important community role. Both the young people passing out, and their trainers, should feel very proud this evening.

Easter Rising

I had hoped to get along to Trimdon today to hear Tony speak - alas mountainous work (and ward) commitments got in the way.

It's a shame, because I was going to take my Flip video along and record some of the proceedings. I'd even mentally sketched out an accompanying blog post, based around an Easter/Crucifixion/Resurrection theme. Believe me, it wouldn't have been in the least cliched (ahem).

It's doubly a pity because regular correspondent to this blog Paul Cain from across the pond challenges me in the previous thread on what I think about our former PM entering the race. Paul is in truth not Tony's biggest fan, and I was slightly surpised that he stopped at describing him as Lord Voldemort - surely He Who Can't Be Named is a mere toddler in wickedness compared to our former PM?

In truth, it's instructive that much of the right-wing blogosphere has got a fit of the vapours over this modest intervention. Watching the ridiculous Eric Pickles and slimy Chris Huhne on Newsnight tonight bluster and weave, you can see that Tony is still a potent force for Labour amongst the public.

Tony remains (until Gordon beats the record in 2024) Labour's most successful leader, with 3 election victories. Much more importantly, for this campaign, he can articulate key principles and dividing lines between ourselves and the Tories like no other British politician. I saw him do it countless times in speeches here in the North East and at Conference. It must be making Tory election planners break into a cold sweat - a pithy couple of lines from our ex-PM trumps any number of negative poster lorries they send round the country.

So expect the attacks and smears on Tony in the likes of the Mail and the Murdoch press to continue - they've invested heavily in Cameron winning (lietrally in the case of the Murdoch press). What Labour strategists know is that Tony Blair will play a small but significant part in winning the argument for Labour as we approach election day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The boys are back in town

Great news from Graham Robb, my old political sparring partner, that Northern Decision Makers is going to be resurrected during the General Election Campaign.

Regular readers will remember that it has been the only North East politics-based programme on the internet. Previous guests included MP's Phil Wilson, Nick Brown, Alan Milburn, Helen Goodman, William Hague and the late Ashok Kumar.

The format will be tweaked slightly, and will take the form of a panel discussion featuring Graham (for the Tories), myself and a Liberal Democrat. The Northern Echo's respected Deputy Editor Chris Lloyd will host the show and try and keep order.

The first programme should be recorded on 16th April 2010, the day after the initial televised Leaders' Debate, and will run weekly until the end of the campaign.

I hope we can capture a sense of the key issues affecting voters here in the North East, rather than the tiresome Westminster perspective, as well as news from the key battleground seats up here. It should be good fun.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dazed and Confused

If you are in the slightest bit concerned with the calibre of the person who will lead this country for the next 4 - 5 years, I urge you to take a glance at this Channel 4 News piece. It's film of David Cameron's interview with a Gay Times journalist, and went out yesterday. I had to watch the middle section between my fingers. Truly - car crash TV.

And as the report makes clear, it vindicates everything Labour has been saying about Cameron and his brand of Conservatism - apparently modern and responsive, but in fact nothing more than a thin veneer. The homophobic (and racist) allies the Tories choose to comport with in the European Parliament give the lie to that.

I simply can't imagine any recent British Prime Minister floundering over his core beliefs in the way Cameron does here. As I shall blog later, their campaign is beginning to fall apart.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blogging Central

An only somewhat belated welcome to my Labour Group colleague on the Council Ian Haszeldine, who launched his Lingfield Matters blog last week.

That takes the list of frequent bloggers with a take on local politics up to 4 (Mike Barker, Gill Cartwright, myself and now Ian - 6 if you include Mike Cartwright and Wilted Rose, which had a fresh post at the weekend.

I try and keep an eye on the regional blogging scene - I think Darlington has a more robust and livier political blogging community than anywhere else. Unless you know otherwise?

Jenny Chapman makes the Case for Children's Centres

After some campaigning in Springfield last Thursday, Labour's PPC here in Darlington Jenny Chapman came down with us to look at the site of the proposed Children's Centre.

Fortunately, unlike (ahem) one of her competitors, Jenny doesn't need a script or a film crew to speak about issues that matter to her - she gave her thoughts directly to me via my Flip camera.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nissan - the Regional Dimension

Pete Barron, the respected editor of the Northern Echo, can be relied upon to choose his words with care. He knows his opinion, and that of his paper, matter in the North East. He is capable of dismaying politicians of all parties with his trenchent comment.

So his blog piece today on Nissan was particularly telling. Pete makes the point that without the robust support of Regional Development Agency One North East, it is difficult to imagine the investment from Nissan having been secured with such speed. The only alternative to an RDA is a myriad of local authorities pulling in their own directions.

The Tories, of course have a long-standing antipathy towards the RDAs - not because they are not effective - patently they are - but because of their own obsession with regionalism and the European Union. It's a classic example of a party's internal dogma working against what is in the best interests of the people it professes to care about.

Don't expect the Tories to change their spots anytime soon on the RDA's - hatred of anything regional is seared into the party's rassroots' political DNA. Maybe the Nissan development will help reinforce to North East voters, however, that the Tories have nothing to offer them at the General Election.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ashok Kumar MP

There was devastating news for Labour Party supporters across the North East, and for people living in the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency in particular, with the news of the untimely death of local MP Ashok Kumar.

I came across Ashok several times over the years, but got to know him well during my stint as one of Labour's 3 European candidates last year. When you met him for the first time, he presented as a modest and courteous man - not everyone's model of a self-promoting MP at all. That belied his passion for representing the people of his constituency and their interests, however - a combination of the 2 factors explains how he turned his highly marginal seat into a safe one for Labour.

Being third on a list of three, as I was for the European elections, does not make you a high priority when it comes to election time - realistically, the push was on to win the second seat for Labour. Ashok went out of his way, however, to show me personal kindness, and gave me a speaking slot at his annual dinner to bang the party drum for the European poll. He also agreed to take time out of his schedule and join Graham and I on the sofa for our last Northern Decision Makers.

I spent a lot of my time in his constituency during the run-up to the European polls. As you will recall, it was a time when MP expenses were on everyone's lips, and members of the public were in a lynching mood. Yet in the scattered communities across his constituency, never once did I hear any personal criticism of Ashok from a resident - his work rate and character seemed to set him apart in the minds of the public from "that lot down in Westminster".

Ashok inspired loyalty, and had a close-knit team of campaigners and helpers which gave working for the Party there a wonderful "family" feel - my thoughts are with them now and in the difficult days ahead.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Morning Smile

Amidst all this (fairly) heavy politics, time to start the week with a smile. So here's Rufus Hound's landmark portrayal of Cheryl Cole's Fight for this Love on Saturday's Sports Relief.

It may not have had the lithe eroticism of Robert Webb's Jenifer Beals, but as Sian commented on BBC Breakfast, "he certainly went for it".

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Graham Drops In

My old Northern Decision Makers sparring partner and co-owner of the Recognition company Graham Robb has stopped by via the comments thread to the previous piece.

Graham is of course one of the leading Tory Party members in the North East and (to spare his blushes he should look away now) a PR genius. I'm not sure I can ever forgive him for the campaign he masterminded against the Regional Assembly proposals back in 2004.

His current brief, however, would tax the combined talents of Alistair Cambell, Peter Mandelson and both the Saatchis - how to make our old chum Edward Legard look electable to the people of Darlington? Graham's company has shot a video which you can see here - needless to say, it makes the best of some very unpromising material.

Graham's a master at this sort of film - lots of jerky camera work give the impression of a homespun video for the YouTube generation, but of course the production values are very high. I suspect that Edward's script (and the message behind it) owes a great deal to Graham - it's pared down, and the references Edward used to make about being a local councillor (sic) have been sensibly expunged. In a field dominated by strong (genuinely) local councillors, why try and compete?

(In addition, as I pointed out in my speech to Council during February's budget debate, if I were Edward I'd keep quiet about his role as a Ryedale councillor - he's responsible for the budget there, where residents pay on average £80 more than Band D counterparts here in Darlington. And Ryedale has an inferior Audit Commission rating compared to Darlington. Under Edward and his Tory pals in Ryedale, you pay more for less).

Anyway, my bemusement is only how long it took the Tories to get Graham on board - a Svengali figure who really could have rattled the Labour and LibDem camps. But for month after month, especially when Labour were preoccupied with the selection process of their own candidate, Edward chose to sit it out and do nothing in Malton.

As one of the commenters noted in the previous thread, when Edward claims to have been working hard around the town for the past 2 years, the most likely response he'll get is a snort of derision. The people of Darlington aren't daft. Despite Graham's efforts, Darlington Tories have left it far, far too late.

Friday, March 12, 2010

There's Edward! (2)

Diamond Giza!

More compelling evidence sent to my inbox of Edward Legard "working hard" around the town.

This time the snap shows, I think, Edward on the Number 4 to Minors Crescent earlier today. He really is a busy boy!

Wierd Science

Any excuse to put up a picture of Kelly LeBrock...

Firstly, congratulations to Mike Barker and his fellow Darlington LibDems on coaxing former local councillor Brian Jefferson to defect from the Tories. Mike's revelation comes on the same evening that his national party has announced that respected Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott is crossing the floor to join them.

All political parties are coalitions, of course, but McMillan-Scott's departure brings to centre-stage the fundamental split in Tory ranks, between a dwindling band of decent pro-Europeans, and the slavering horde of europhobes who constitute a significant minority of the Party. Those who think David Cameron might be able to provide leadership in Europe, as Labour under first Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have done, will have been disabused by the Tory leader's consistent pandering to his right wing.

Disastrously, Cameron dragged the Tories out of the centre-right block in the European Parliament in the wake of last year's European elections, leaving them bereft of influence. The pandering the party has now had to engage in with some of the more "exotic" far right groups in the European Parliament is why McMillan-Scott has had enough and left. It reminds us that Cameron's stitched-together coalition here in the UK is far flakier than is often appreciated.

Anyway, I started this blogpost off on Mike and the local LibDems because one of their leaflets has fluttered onto my desk (thanks Michael!) In it, Mike produces one of those bar graphs for which his party is justly infamous. It purports to show the results of the local elections here in Darlington, and has Labour on 37%, the Tories on 33% and the LibDems on 24%. Mike is a true scholar of the 'Tony Greaves School of Statistical Manipulation' when he places a downward arrow on the Labour icon and an upward arrow on the LibDems, creating the illusion of equality - and hey presto, we have a "3-horse race"! Wahay!

Mike's only mistake in all of this has been to let us in on the calculations behind the bar chart. Apparently, the model is based on recording the vote of the highest placed candidate in each ward in the constituency in 2007 for the 3 main parties. What could be fairer than that, you say?

Except, except. Mike's analysis is fundamentally flawed, and he knows it. Take my ward in Haughton West. There are around 4,100 voters, and 3 seats. Turnout was 38%, which means roughly 1558 people voted. The 3 leading candidates from the main parties polled 741 (Labour), 552 (Conservative) and 489 (Liberal Democrat). That makes, er, 1782. That can't be right?

In fact, in a number of wards across the Borough, whilst Labour stood a candidate for every seat available, the Tories and LibDems could only muster a fraction - so in Haughton West there were 3 Labour, 2 Tory and 1 LibDem candidates. Voting in multi-seat elections is often all over the place, with some residents plumping for a single candidate for example. But in Darlington, with the 2 main opposition parties fielding fewer candidates than Labour, inevitably the Tory and the LibDem vote was at least partially conjoined.

So Mike's graph is predictably dodgy - it overstates the Tory and LibDem share of the vote. Something to think about next time you hear Darlington is a "3-horse race".

Thursday, March 11, 2010

There's Edward!

Thanks to everyone who responded to my earlier post about spotting our old friend Colonel Legard around town - he has apparently been seen in some fairly lurid circumstances, according to the comments. But no pictures of him. Until now...

This snap shows Edward in what can only be Nevada Gardens in my own patch of Haughton West, albeit a picture taken from a very unfamiliar angle. Good to see that the canvassers pictured with him are a good deal younger than your average Tory.

Election Law for Slow Learners

I see that the outcry over the Tories' recent leaflet has made it to the Echo today, together with confirmation that the authorities have been alerted.

In his comments, Tory election supremo Charles Johnson does what any good agent should do, and loyally tries to protect his candidate. So we learn that both Charles and Edward checked the copy that was sent to the printers, and the imprint was there. A pesky computer was apparently to blame for its subsequent non-appearance on the leaflet.

Apparently, the Tories now have introduced another stage for checking proofs before they are despatched.

History, alas, has repeated itself in the wrap-around puff for Captain Legwarmer which accompanied this week's Advertiser. No imprint once more. Neither was there any complete address identifying who promoted the material.

The Tories are now giving every impression of a bunch of amateurs who are delighting in flicking the V's at the bodies who oversee elections. I can confirm that a complaint from Labour was emailed yesterday.

This nonsense from the Tories has to stop.

Class War

I've been away for a couple of days, attending the Local Government Association Fire Confernce in Manchester.

To be honest, I rarely go to conferences these days - justifying the time away in a very hectic schedule is difficult, but more pertinently, I'm not convinced that many represent good value for money. In the current economic climate, I certainly couldn't agree to anything resembling a "junket" stay.

I attended the LGA Fire Conference last year as a delegate from the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Authority, and learnt more in a few hours than I had done from months worth of agenda and policy papers back home. I was pleased to be asked to go again, and found this conference equally informative.

The burning issue (ahem) which dominated the discussion was the delayed FiReControl scheme, under which local control rooms are being merged into regional centres country-wide. As is often the case in the public and private sectors, however, software problems have dogged the process, leading to delays. Listening to the pompous, garrulous Tories who increasingly dominate local government at all levels these days, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a uniquely scandalous state of affairs.

Refreshingly, the civil servant who came to respond to the criticism dealt with it in the only way possible (if he was going to escape without being lynched) - he was brutally honest, whilst challenging some of the Tories more outragous claims. It was a master class in political acumen, prompting the Chair of one Fire Authority, tongue ever-so-slightly-in-cheek, to offer him a position if he ever decided to cross the floor into politics.

One exchange which stuck in my mind, however, took place in the Q&A session following the speech to conference by the Shadow Fire Minister Stewart Jackson, MP. During his (incredibly lightweight) speech, Mr Jackson had taken a gratuitous swipe at Harriet Harman's Equalities Bill. In a passage that would have made a Daily Mail sub-editor swell with pride, Mr Jackson railed against Labour's "class warfare" pledging that middle class areas should not have to suffer to provide additional resources for poorer communities.

An opposing point was made, courteously but directly, by the Chief (not a politician, mind) of a Fire and Rescue Authority. If we know, he said, that someone from the poorest section of society is 14 times more likely to die as a result from fire than a more affluent person, are we not justified in targetting our spending in preventing fire deaths where they are most likely to occur?

The dismissive reply he received - platitudes about education but nothing more- made it very clear that the Shadow Minister's priorities lay with his voter base in Middle England rather than the most vulnerable in society. It was a chilling reminder, just weeks away from a General Election, that the Tories - the self-styled Nasty Party - haven't changed one bit..

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Where's Edward?

The 2010 General Election Campaign is shaping up to be a classic - the first true e-campaign, with both the Labour and LibDem candidates cleverly using the internet to get their message across and marshall their forces.

Notably, the Tory campaign, even at this early stage, is leaking like a sieve. So in one sense, I wasn't surprised to learn from 2 separate but reliable sources that our Tory PPC and old chum Brigadier Legard is "far too busy" to campaign in Darlington over the next two weeks.

That can't be right, surely? So today I'm launching an appeal to the good voters of Darlington - if you do happen to see Edward out-and-about around the town, take a snap of him and send it to me. ('Though not next to his flash Audi with the personalised number plate, he's a bit touchy about that).

In the best traditions of this site, I will of course publish the best received. Get snapping!

Children's Centre for Springfield

As you will read in tomorrow's (today's?) Northern Echo, the next stage in the DBC plans to convert the old children's home on Salters Lane South (opposite the Education Village) into a Children's Centre has been reached.

This is great news for our community, and especially for parents - Children's Centres are intended to be used by everyone who has a child under the age of 5. They provide a one-stop shop for local families, bringing health and Children's Services under one roof.

Services are to include family support including outreach; support for childminders; family health services, employment support to help parents get back to work; and information services as well as play and early learning opportunities. There will also be a play area for 20 children.

Before the conversion can take place, the planning processes need to be followed, and the Council has now submitted an application - the main building will remain, but there will be a single story extension to the front, and a canopy erected to the rear. David, Andy and I are in the process of putting out a special letter in the area to let residents know, and how they can comment on the plans. If you would like to comment, or to see the plans, then you should contact Adrian Hobbs at the Town Hall on 388083. The reference for the application is 10/00087/DC.

We have been monitoring progress of the scheme, and officers have told us that the planning application is likely to be heard in April. If approved, work will start on site in May, and the centre ready to open in November 2010.

One of the key elements for us has been the securing of funding for the scheme - it will cost £526,000. We are delighted to say this has been confirmed - delighted because if the Tories are elected, they've pledged to slash the budget for Children's Centres, and want to restrict them only to the most disadvantaged communities. Labour disagrees - we believe every community should benefit from these excellent facilities for families. Just one more important dividing line between the 2 serious contenders for Government in the run-up to the General Election.

Friday, March 05, 2010

I 'ad that John Denham in the cab once...

Spear carriers. Written off as the smallest of the bit parts in Shakespeare. But where would the history of great men (and women) be without them?

So on Thursday lunchtime, it was pleasure to drive the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government John Denham MP round Darlington, as he visited the town. The Northern Echo has already covered John's review of the town centre shops initiative here.

I hadn't met John before - he's an engaging bloke, and was genuinely interested in events here in the town. I took him from the Town Hall up to Branksome Science College, where he met the headteacher and our PPC Jenny Chapman, who of course represents the Cockerton West ward where the school is sited.

Branksome is of course one of the school which will be benefitting shortly from the Buidling Schools for the Future initiative. The school also has an enviable record in promoting sustainability, which John was able to review.

It was good, though, just to chat to John as we zipped (at 28mph, of course) around Darlington heading for appointments. As the MP for Southampton Itchen, John has a strong record in local campaigns (it was a seat he prised off the Tories in 1992 after a couple of unsuccessful attempts), and we swapped experiences of various campaigning techniques. One in particular that John recommended will be unleashed on the people of Darlington in the not too distant future...

Arses & Elbows

Normally, I wouldn't bother myself simply repeating what another blogger has posted, but in the case of this blog's old friend Capt. Legiron and the latest Tory leaflet, I shall have to make an exception.

As Echo editor Pete Barron has revealed via Twitter, the hapless Tory has been doggedly pushing his material through letterboxes in Hurworth. Hurworth of course, is miles outside the Darlington constituency boundary - if Labour and the LibDems wanted to create a story that underlined that Edward is from out-of-town and is out-of-touch, we couldn't have done a better job.

(Ironically, I seem to recall when working on Alan Milburn's campaign in 1997 that the Tory candidate for Darlington managed a similar cock-up. Like Edward, he was a scion of a bunch of North Yorkshire aristos with a curiously pronounced name - what is about Darlington Tories that they repeatedly select these characters?)

Much more seriously, over on his blog, Mike Barker comments on the fact that the leaflet also manages to break electoral law by not having an imprint. Let me do Tory campaign maestro Charles Johnson a favour, here - Charles, stop putting out material in another constituency, in fact stop putting them out at all - without an imprint, it's illegal.

No doubt a referral to the police will follow - the Tories simply can't be allowed to flout electoral rules in this way.