Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Prerogative of the Harlot

I have to say I'm not surprised to learn of David Laws' resignation this evening - though emphatically I'm not celebrating. As soon as David Cameron pledged higher standards for MP's in the Coalition, the die was cast for anyone who fell short. The unfortunate truth for Mr Laws is that his transgression would have cost him a Cabinet job in the last Government, so it certainly did for him now.

The whole episode raises some important questions about the press in Britain today. In the last few weeks we've has the News of the Screws 'Fake Sheikh' doing over poor Fergie, and immediately after the election the Mail on Sunday holed England's World Cup bid below the waterline with its sting on Lord Triesman.

Now the Daily Telepgraph, bastion of the old Right in the Tory Party, has nailed its colours to the mast by finishing the career of easily the most talented LibDem to sit in Cameron's cabinet. Anyone who thinks this was purely an act of investigative journalism needs to take a reality check. The Telegraph has been trawling round MP's expenses for over a year now. It beggars belief that this information has only come to them now. Instead, they've waited until Laws was nicely esconced into his role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury before running a story that has done a lot of damage to the Government's short-term credibility. If I were a Parliamentary LibDem right now, especially in Government, with a secret I'd rather not let my constituents (or family) know about, I'd be getting worried.

What should the response of the public be to this thoroughly unpleasant development in our jornalism. Over on his blog, Pete Barron addresses the issue via Newcastle United's response to the Triesman debacle. Newcastle have banned the Mail stable from its matches. Pete says he has doubts about the wisdom of the Mail's story, but thinks Newcastle's action is folly. he compares it with George Reynolds barring the Echo from Darlington's games in the past.

This is a fraught issue. Of course meglomaniacs like Reynolds had to be challenged when they responded to even minor criticism in that way. But the Mail On Sunday wilfully destroyed the career of a decent public servant and did untold damage to England's bid on the basis of a private conversation that was never meant to be repeated.

Politicians, of course are in a no-win situation when it comes to the operation of the press, and the national print media knows it. Quite rightly, the British public would react violently against anything which smacks of muzzling the press. Even the relatively-moderate idea of a statutory Press Commission, with real teeth to punish transgressions, has never got off the ground.

So the question back to Pete has to be - if you are aggrieved by a partisan or destructive piece of journalism in a particular paper, how should you respond? I don't know how many Liberal Democrats buy the Daily Telegraph, (not many, I guess) but my sense from the comment thread on Conservative Home tonight is that quite a few moderate Tories will be considering whether to renew their subscriptions.

In the 1980's, when it was at the height of its baying right wing ascendancy, the Sun ran a notorious piece blaming Liverpool fans for the tragedy at Hillsborough. The city of Liverpool responded, almost to a man and a woman, by boycotting the paper. It was a supreme act of collective action. Ever since, the Sun has trodden on eggshells when the issue has been raised.

It seems that in today's journalism, the one language proprietors understand isn't right or reason, but the bottom line. If Newcastle United feel strongly enough to start a commercial war with the Mail stable, then good on them I say. They (and we) have precious few other ways to let our disgust be known.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gobsmacked

Unfortunately, I had to give my apologies for Council last Thursday. It was doubly unfortunate, however, as according to my blogging colleague Gill Cartwright, I missed

"the group hug between us [and] the Lib Dems before we went into the chamber and rumours of joint group meetings!"

From her experience of the NHS, Gill can't see what the problem is with the ConDem tie up at national and presumably now at local level. Maybe I'm showing my naievity here, but I'm staggered that the 2 parties here are contemplating a formal arrangement in advance of the next local elections.

Particularly for the LibDems, closing off options by formalising a relationship with the Tories at this early stage seems very brave. Mike Barker has spent a deal of time and effort establishing his party as a distinctive third voice in local politics. He will appreciate what his smaller party has to lose from being irrecoverably linked with the town's right wing group.

I guess local LibDem and Tory parties will respond differently to the coalition around the country - it seems here in Darlington they may effectively work as a single entity. Quite how the electorate respond is anyone's guess.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Radio Silence


Well, it's been over a week now since the election, and three days since Dave n' Nick's gooey tryst in the Downing Street garden.

With their parties now finally wielding power after 13 long years in the wilderness (65 in the case of the LibDems) you might have thought that their various representatives here in Darlington would be fizzing with excitement about the new Government.

Alas, not. I guess we can forgive Mike Barker, who must be recovering from the strains of the campaign (as well as the jaw-dropping deal his party has done with the Tories). And Mike has found time to make some ultra-loyal comments on one comment thread here about his party selling-out its principles for a few Cabinet seats. Nothing yet on the Darlington LibDem website, though.

Meanwhile, the 'Feedback' section of the Darlington Future website is if anything going into reverse, having deleted the most recent (pre-polling day) entry. I see that Edward's own site has used my election night Facebook clip of the declaration (which is absolutely fine, by the way) and a nice brief goodbye note from the man himself.

From the silence, you might have thought that Darlington's Tories and LibDems were embarrassed and/or confused about what to say or think about their new chums in Government. They might want to turm their minds to what on earth they are going to say to local voters next time they meet.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Big Trouble in Littlebeck Drive


Darlington MP Jenny Chapman interview after door-knocking in Hau

Cllr. Nick Wallis | MySpace Video


We had our first door-knocking and street surgery sessions today since the General Election.

It was great that our new Labour MP Jenny Chapman was able to join us as we chatted to residents in Inglewood Close and Martindale Road. We targetted these streets (together with Littlebeck Drive) after receiving fresh complaints about the operation of the waste disposal facility in the factory opposite Rockwell Pastures on Albert Hill. Resident after resident told us about the factory operating outside the permitted times, and about the wood dust it spews into the atmosphere. Understandably, residents who have children with lung complaints were particularly anxious.

As I write this, a series of emails are on their way to officers in the Environmental Health and Planning Enforcement teams. Jenny's on the case too, and we'll all be looking for speedy action to deal with this rogue operator.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regional Roundup

With David Cameron now having been photographed smirking on the steps of Downing Street, that finally brings to an end the post-election horsetrading. Before the moment completely passes by, time just to reflect on the election results here in the North East.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am a huge fan of Dari Taylor, the defeated MP for Stockton South. She was and is a genuine grassroots campaigner, who was an inspiration to ordinary members of the party like me. Ashcroft money, the national swing and some backwash from Corus did for her on Thuirsday, however - the people of Stockton have lost someone special. She can be proud of her record as an MP, however.

The shock of the evening was in Redcar, where Vera Baird lost her seat to a LibDem. They had been swarming all over the constituency for a while, notching up several local by-election wins, but in the end it was Corus that cost her the seat - desperately unfairly, given that together with Dari and the late Ashok Kumar, Vera worked tirelessly to try and save the works and the thousands of jobs that went with them. We were in office, however, and the easiest thing for residents to do was give Labour a kicking.

Senior LibDems in the region must have breathed a sigh of relief at the Redcar result, because it distracted attention away from a miserable night for them elsewhere. Roberta Blackman-Woods' victory in Durham defied many of the pundits, and owed everything to good old-fashioned street campaigning. The LibDems were incredibly confident about taking Durham City - hence Clegg's photocall there before polling. Given the very negative, personal campaign the LibDems in Durham ran against Roberta, I doubt whether victory tasted sweeter anywhere else in the country.

It was a similar story on Tyneside, where Labour more than held on. Those of you who saw the second Northern Decision Makers will recall that my fellow "legend", LibDem Durham County councillor David Stoker "called" Newcastle North for his party a whole 2 weeks before votes were actually cast, such was his confidence that the LibDems had it in the bag. In Tynemouth, Alan Campbell comfortably saw off the Tories in a seat that was Cameron's number one North East target. Revenge for the untimely defeat of our excellent Mayoral candidate John Harrison in North Tyneside last year.

A word too about the local council results - polling for these was held on the same day in Tyne and Wear and Hartlepool. Labour made impressive gains against the LibDems in Newcastle and against the Tories in North Tyneside. Coupled with the parliamentary results in Newcastle, Blaydon and Durham City, there is a real sense that Labour has begun to learn how to match and turn around LibDem campaigning tactics, at least in those areas.

For a while, the momentum seemed to be with the LibDems in places like Durham, Newcastle and Gateshead. Labour was licking its wounds. Coming to terms with local election losses is never easy - I always liken it to the bereavement process. Denial, anger, depression all can set in. Without getting all social work-y on you, there's no guarantee that you move seamlessly from one stage to another before finally reaching acceptance. The process can take months or years.

I mention this because I get the sense now that Labour across Tyneside and in Durham has now dealt with its setbacks, and is ready and willing to take the fight back to the LibDems. Results like those of Roberta were just the inspiration Labour needed. It might be an uncomfortable few years for North East LibDems now they've shacked up with Cameron's Tories.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Levers of Power

So farewell, then, Gordon. In truth, you were a brilliant Chancellor but an ill-starred PM. Your double act with Tony Blair defined the political landscape from the mid-90's, and left the opposition struggling to catch up. But whereas Tony was always sprinkled with a bit of stardust, your feet were firmly on the floor.

I've always thought that Gordon's greatest crime was not to be a media player - he never came to terms with the limelight that 24/7 news politics now seems to entail. The simplest devices we councillors use to communicate with residents seemed sometimes to escape him. His mix of high principles and a driven personality were better suited to the politics of the 1840's rather than the early 21st century. He is a good man, too good perhaps for the TV age.

Matters seem very finely balanced tonight, after Gordon fell on his sword in the interests of his party and his country. On one level, it's cliffhanging stuff, reminiscent of an episode of the West Wing. The Tories are very publicly wooing Nick Clegg and the LibDems with the offer of a referendum on the AV voting system. Some in my party are saying we should let them get on with it, and what Labour needs is a spell in opposition. I think they're crackers. So, presumably does Gordon, which is why he brought forward his resignation announcement to today.

In truth, whilst there is a chance that Labour can retain power with the LibDems and the Nats, we should take it with open arms. There is too much at stake. It was on that basis that we fought the election - that the Tories would not only imperil the economy, but inexorably turn the clock back, robbing some of the most vulnerable in our society of hard-won gains. Opposition is impotence. However imperfect a coalition would be - and believe me, the idea of cosying up to Alex Salmond fills me with dread - it would be 100 times more preferable to watching the Tories unravel the reforms we have spent 13 years bringing about.

Do I think a grand coalition is possible? Yes I do. Is it likely? Probably not. Nick Clegg is from the economic liberal wing of his party, and instinctively would want to deal with Cameron rather than Labour and a coalition of the left. Still, scroll forward 48 hours, imagine George Osbourne rather than Alistair Darling loose in the Treasury, and appreciate what's at stake.

Friday, May 07, 2010

All shall have prizes

I've managed to grab a few hours sleep. It's been a remarkable 24 hours, with the ramifications of the poll result country-wide still being played out in Westminster. But what about here in Darlington? As Chris Lloyd notes on his excellent Echo blog, all three candidates from the major parties seemed positive after the result last night. And here's why.

Labour

There were some grim predictions from colleagues about the size of Jenny's likely majority - I had a £1 on 2,780 in Tom Nutt's sweepstake, and wasn't a million miles away.

10 days ago, I was even gloomier (though I always tend to see "the glass half-full" at election time), but in the last few days there were tangible signs of the Labour vote firming up appreciably. In football-speak, a win's a win, but in this election, with a new candidate and a very difficult national backdrop, a majority of over 3,000 is a good result in what has always been a marginal seat.

Moreover, Jenny was an extremely strong campaigner, and I was genuinely surprised just how many people she had helped who I came across in my own patch, given her relative youth and short time on the Council. It made campaigning for Labour so much easier - for all the sneering from some opposition circles that Labour overplayed the "local" nature of our candidate, in fact it really did make a difference on the doorstep.

Finally, we can be confident that Jenny's impressive start will continue as she gets to work, which will help continue to re-energise Labour in the town. It was a very happy post-count party afterwards for Labour supporters.

Tories

I spent quite a bit of the last couple of years mocking the Tories and their candidate on this blog for the torpor of their campaign. And in truth they squandered the advantage they had with a candidate in the field, especially in the hiatus for Labour after Alan Milburn stood down. I also wonder whether had they not selected so early (for example after rather than before the expenses scandal broke) they might have looked harder for someone local to contest the seat. Up against 2 councillors with impeccable Darlington credentials, Edward was always at a disadvantage and that told on the doorstep.

There was ample evidence in the last few weeks, however, that the Conservatives and their candidate Edward Legard got into their stride. Edward is to be commended for finally pushing the local Tories out of their West End "comfort zone" and into Labour's territory, perhaps for the first time in 15 years. From what I hear, they were pleasantly surprised by the reception they received.

Until February, I wondered whether any Tory constituency organisation would look at Edward again, given the hopelessly complacent nature of the Tory effort to date. Having seen him now at the Darlington Churches Debate and after the Declaration, I think he's grwon appreciably as an aspiring politician. Whether he sticks around to fight Darlington again (as Tory activists were speculating afterwards) remains to be seen - somehow I doubt it.

LibDems

Mike Barker fought a typically feisty, insurrectionist campaign which played to his and his party's strengths. The LibDem vote wasn't squeezed as happened elsewhere in the North East, despite the clear evidence that Darlington is returning to its traditional role as a key Labour/Tory marginal. He is easily the most impressive thinker and campaigner in the local LibDem ranks - without him they'd return to being an irrelevance hereabouts.

It was a shame then that Mike spoilt the positive aura he'd built-up (in my opinion anyway) by bunking off to Durham City on polling day. For me, if you tell voters that your party has a real chance of victory, and that voting LibDem is not a "wasted vote", you have to spend the rest of the campaign behaving if that's true, even if the majority of your local supporters (understandably) are ordered away to the likes of Durham City. I thought Mike let down those people who believed him and did vote LibDem on the day. If they'd been aware that in fact the LibDems knew they never had a prayer here (as I and others pointed out) the LibDem vote would have been far smaller.

BNP

A brief mention for the BNP, if only because they were completely marginalised here. Unlike the European elections, almost nobody mentioned them on the doorstep to me - I don't think I saw a single BNP activist at the count for the first time ever. After the catastrophic result in Barking for Griffin (where they also lost all 15 of their council seats too - a great result), and beset by factional strife, they are truly on the way out. Fantastic news about the ugliest party of my generation.

UPDATE

Mike has come on to comment that he was only in Durham for the last couple of hours of polling day apparently. I'm happy to clear that one up.

Darlington 2010 - the Declaration



I'll be blogging on some thoughts on the campaign, here in Darlington and more woidely around the region, presently.

01.00

Labour 16,000
Tories 13,000
Libdems 10,000

(Approx)

Jenny Chapman is elected!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

12.30

Parties' sources suggest that voting between Labour and the Tories looks much closer now. Declaration in 15 minutes.

23.50

Provisional turnout figure 63% - I have to say that's lower than I expected.

23.45

About 60 DBC staff are busy counting the votes around the sports hall in the Dolphin Centre. Its been announced that turnout for postal voters was 86.7%.

Several sources from different parties have been speculating that the Tories and LibDems are neck and neck for second place - still very early days.

Tick Tock

Half-an-hour til polls close, my friends - so if you have just come in from work, please do go and vote.

I've spent the day taking numbers and chatting to residents on the polling station at St Bede's Primary School in my ward, when I haven't been out knocking on doors reminding people to vote for Jenny.

My overriding impression from the day has been - it's been bloody cold!. Still it was great 'knocking out' the vote, especially when Jenny joined us this afternoon.

It's almost suicidally dangerous making predictions this close to the count, but my strong sense is that Labour's vote firmed up appreciably in the last few days before polling, and that Jenny should be our new MP.

I'm off to the count now though, and will be blogging from there (within the Electoral Registration Officer's guidelines, of course) so do stay tuned for early impressions of what the various parties are saying.

I'll be taking my Flip video with me, and hope to have some exclusive film from proceedings which I'll put up tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wise words from Bill

A good start

David, Andy and I gave our sore feet a rest last night and went along to the Springfield PACT meeting.

It was probably the best meeting to date - I counted around 35 residents there. The meeting was dominated by talk about anti-social behaviour in various locations, including Hambleton Grove/Springfield Road, which I'll blog on specifically later. The police reported on some success they've had with their motorbike team visiting the area. Speeding remains an issue, and residents were encouraged to take part in the initiative. There will be Community Speed Watch session on Wylam Avenue and Thompson Street East this Friday.

I guess a few people came along too for the first meeting of the reformed Springfield STAR, which followed the PACT. There was a lot of enthusiasm amongst people who remembered how the previous residents' association had worked to get it going again, and a number of local residents signed up to help with the enterprise.

We're solidly behind the STAR, and will give it our full support. More news here as it happens.

Monday, May 03, 2010

PACT Meeting tomorrow

In the midst of the General Election campaign, usual ward business continues as normal.

Tomorrow evening at 6pm, the lastest Springfield PACT is being held. The venue is the new Salvation Army building on Thompson Street East. Again, it's a chance for the police to report back on the local priorities set by residents at the last meeting - they include anti-social behaviour, illegal motorbike riding and speeding at various locations around Springfield.

If you have an issue that you want raised, please do come along. Alternatively, email me and I will ensure that the matter is considered at the meeting.

After the PACT has concluded, there will be the first meeting of the reconvened Springfield STAR. This was the residents' and tenants association which lost momentum several years ago. Now Executive Committee member Alan Robinson, together with several other local residents, is keen to get it going again. It would be great to have an active residents' association in the southern part of the ward again.

So if you live in Springfield and want to have your say, please do come along tomorrow evening.