Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Interview from the car

A few minutes ago I finished writing my diary on my blackberry, which I then put into my pocket. We are currently on the road to London with David driving. As I put my blackberry away, it rang. It was the Evening Chronicle. They wanted to do an interview about flooding on the Derwent. So above the roar of the car engine, the meowing of Freda our cat and Classic FM playing on the radio, I talked about the need for greater flood defences along the river. We had a number of flooding incidents in September and I made a video about the flooding in Blackhall Mill, which I included with the eFocus sent out last night. Seems as though doing these videos works after all!
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The Wednesday morning blog - all aboard

We have just loaded up the car, one of those rare times when we drive to London rather than take the train. Dad is looking after the house whilst we spend xmas at the other place. We are avoiding the Metrocentre traffic by heading south out of Sunniside, via Stanley. Freda our cat is coming with us as well. We even have a journey's worth of oldie music. Roxie Music is playing at the moment!

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Something nice to say about National Express

I got to Kings Cross tonight in time to pick up my ticket from the machine and catch the 9pm train (made easier by its late departure). It was only when I found my seat reservation did not tally with what was on my ticket that I realised I have caught completely the wrong train. My ticket was for the 7.30pm, not the 9pm. The latter was what was in my diary. Somehow I had managed to book the earlier train (rarely done as seats on it are like gold dust) but made the wrong note in my diary. I decided to go off in search of a train guard and explain the situation. The result was that I was allowed to continue without being charged anything extra, even though the mistake was mine.

As I said in the Journal earlier this week, the staff of National Express are reasonable and understanding. And they have just proved to me again that description is quite accurate.

Meanwhile the latest twist in my cat story. This will mean nothing to readers of this blog but Facebook friends may know what I am on about. Our London cat, Jess, went missing on Wednesday. She had never been missing before, ever since we got the flat 9 years ago when she adopted us and moved in to take advantage of our hospitality.

So her disappearance was of some concern to us. Richard decided to produce a leaflet for the neighbourhood and deliver it this morning. It worked. To cut a long story short, she was located trapped in a flat in the neighbouring block to ours where the occupants had gone away for the xmas period. Jess had been heard by the people in the next flag crying and trying to get out. The RSPCA had even been called. Anyway, she was suitably rescued. Jess is back in our flat and we can relax again.

Anyway, I am now finished work for the year though tomorrow I have a photo op with Fiona Hall MEP and I have to finish the email newsletters. So much for trying to get them finished today. A mixture of too much to do and a number of new issues to write up. I hope to finish them this weekend but don't hold your breath.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Love food, hate waste

Given my well know interest in growing food and avoiding food waste, the following issue was bound to catch my attention. Gateshead Council is running a competition as part of a programme to raise awareness of waste issues. The competition is to write the. most interesting recipes using food that would otherwise be thrown out. The prize for the best is a meal for two at the Southern Indian Cuisine Restaurant. Anyone wanting to enter can email their recipes to Closing date is 5th January. I would enter myself is I wasn't a councillor! All entries could be published and the 20 best will win a copy of "Eat Well, Waste Less" by Bish Muir.

So, it you have any good recipes or tips, send them in.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Working on email newsletters

I left Cowley St less than an hour ago, having spent the evening working on my next email newsletter for constituents. Actually, I am working on all 3 editions, one for the Whickham area, one for central Gateshead and one for western Gateshead. Rather ambitiously, I am hoping to get them all done by Friday. And just as I was about to leave the office, the draft Newcastle email newsletter arrived for me to check. I'll do that tomorrow as I had to leave to go out for dinner.

Meanwhile, if you are a Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate, check your in box. Parliamentary Campaigner was sent out this evening.

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Facepacks and Father Ted

There is something rather irritating about having to sit next to someone on the train who is busy putting their makeup on. Elbows and arms flying because they didn't get round to doing these things before they left the house. Whatever next? Perhaps people end up having a wash or getting dressed on the train!

Rant over, especially since I have just moved seats.

I was amused this morning by one of the performances on GMTV. 3 priests had formed a group. I think they called themselves "The Priests" but can't be sure of that. But the whole thing struck me as being like something from Father Ted and I was reminded of the edition when Ted and Dougal were in the competition be become the Irish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest!

Anyway, good luck to The Priests though I think it unlikely I will be buying their cd.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why part privatisation is right for Royal Mail

So the Hooper Report has been published. There are no great surprises. Royal Mail is in sharp decline. Doing nothing to address the problems would mean leaving Royal Mail to a lingering death.

When I was involved with writing the policy proposals on Royal Mail for the Lib Dems 3 years ago, the problems then were very much the same. Declining business, antiquated equipment, a hiuge pension fund deficit. Royal Mail, by no stretch of the imagination, can be said to have prospered in the state sector

In the good years, the company was milked for cash by its owners, the government, very little of which was ploughed back as capital investment. At the same time, the government as owners were not prepared to put in the capital that was needed to modernise the business. And as a fully state owned business, it simply could not go to the financial markets to raise capital. At the start of 2006, the mail market was fully liberalised. Competitors with access to capital moved in on the contracts to sort mail for big businesses. Royal Mail's manual sorting of mail is finding it difficult to compete with these largely mechanised mail sorting companies.

Putting Royal Mail into the private sector but with the state holding a significant shareholding means the company has access to the private capital currently not available to it. Such a move will create a level playing field, putting all competitors on the same footing.

I watched Labour MPs lining up today to attack the proposal for private sector involvement. Their claim is that events have moved in a different direction recently, with the state stepping in to save the private sector. Yet stop and think for a moment. The structure of most of the bailed out banks (admittedly not the fully nationalised ones) is not going to be that much different to what is likely to emerge for Royal Mail in which the the state has a substantial shareholding in a private sector business. If it's good enough for the banks, it's good enough for Royal Mail.

There is of course one significant difference between what is likely to emerge for RM and what we proposed three years ago. Our model had a significant role for employee shareownership and management. We took as our model the John Lewis Partnership, though we proposed a quarter of the shares be placed into a trust for emplyees, rather than all which is the case for John Lewis. The bailouts of banks and possibly of large businesses should however create the opportunity to introduce employee shareownership, once the financial and economic crisis has passed.

Royal Mail currently has the structure of a monolithic corporation designed to run a state monopoly. The world has moved on however and Royal Mail will die if it doesn't move on as well. Staying where it is will not be a stay of execution. A do nothing approach, advocated by many Labour MPs, will be a disaster.

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Part privatisation of the Royal Mail

I haven't seen the details of what is proposed for the Royal Mail but if what I have seen of the broad thrust is accurate (it was reported on GMTV so let's see) then it has an uncanny resemblence to what the Lib Dems proposed 3 years ago. And since I was very closely involved in writing the policy of part privatisation, then we are looking at something we could support. Whether or not the Labour party has the political will to go ahead with the proposals is another matter. That should be interesting to see.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

The weekend round up

As I sit here in the waiting room at Newcastle Central Station for my delayed train to London, I thought I would use the opportunity to catch up with my own events of the weekend.

It is not unusual for people to be given a job to do when they do not turn up for a Lib Dem meeting. Giving me a job to do when I did turn up for a meeting seems to be taking things to an extreme! I went to the Blaydon constituency AGM on Saturday and ended up being elected to the executive.

Also, not happening on Saturday was the Journal article about National Express for which I wrote one of the contributions. Perhaps the vast hours (well about 10 minutes actually) I spent writing down my thoughts on National Express East Coast services will be rewarded with the article appearig shortly and, more spectacularly, fewer cancellations. (BTW my train has still not arrived.)

And so to Sunday, delivering my Focus leaflet on my home patch (literally) only to find I was 6 short (7 if you count my house.) I'll be doing a hunt around for spares.

And last night, I watched the repeat of the Peter Kay spoof on these "reality" tv contests. I had seen clips of it on YouTube after Richard recommended watching it. I'm still laughing!

And finally, I am heading to London armed with a large apple crumble. David made it last night but we decided not to eat it on the grounds the dinner was big enough. So colleagues in Cowley St will have to feast on it instead. There was no room for it in the freezer as we had just put into it 6 pheasants and 2 ducks. In our bid to become self sufficient, we traded jam for game but we overlooked the need for freezer space!

Anyway, it's now 7.30 and stil no sign of the train due 10 minutes ago.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Pizza in Cowley St and other interesting incidents of the day

I was sitting in Cowley St this evening, putting the finishing touches to the North East Democrat, when my colleague Jake offered to go to a local pizza shop. Did I want anything? I thought to myself: pizza or an M&S sandwich for dinner. The pizza won. After I ate it, I felt a twinge of healthy eating guilt. Perhaps I should go to M&S at Kings Cross Station to get some fruit for the journey back to Newcastle? Fruit in Marksies comes in large quantities. Indeed, buy one sack of clementines (okay a sack is a bit of an exaggeration) and get one free. So I clambered aboard my train weighed down with clementines, enough for a marmalade factory. I suspect that's what some of them will be used for. (Watch out for recipes using surplus to requirement clementines and peel on my self-sufficiency blog.)

I mentioned last night that I had been asked to write a small bit for the Journal about National Express. I sent it off this afternoon. I hope it will be published but I have this abiding memory of proudly announcing recently that I had been interviewed by BBC Panorama only to find they had cut my bit at the last minute. So here's to hoping. Anyway, what I forgot to mention last night was that the Journal also did an interview with me about plans by National Express to install ticket barriers at Newcastle Central Station. The interview was carried this morning. The result was that there was a phone call to my house early this morning from Radio Newcastle. David took the call and then phoned me at the flat down in London. And this resulted in a four minute slot on the Mike Parr show this morning, right when I was in the middle of a meeting in which I was leading a discussion on how to improve how we do interesting things to political opponents!

Ultimately I can say all this coverage is down to this blog, read not just by Lib Dems, constituents and political opponents, but by journalists as well. My experiences of National Express are certainly getting noticed!

I have now got through 4 clementines. Only 18 more to go. At current rate of progress, I should have finished them by the time I get home. And by then I guess I'll look like that orange creature on the Tango adverts.

Meanwhile, I shall endure the National Express train journey back to Newcastle. The passenger in front of me is singing along to his ipod in a monotone, the couple behind me are talking loudly about the inheritance they are going to get "now that granny has gone" and the man across the aisle hasn't yet learnt to blow his nose but has got making disgusting noises with the contents of his nose and throat down to a fine art. Only two and a half hours more of this and I'll be in Newcastle. If anyone is thinking of a Christmas present for me, ear plugs would be a good idea!
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Another mad dash and other things

I really need to stop living life as a mad dash from one event or office to the next. Tonight I was working on Parliamentary Campaigner - it is published this weekend - but also agreed to go out for dinner at 9.30pm in Crystal Palace. I left Cowley St at 8.35pm, having just sent the latest (incomplete) Campaigner by email for checking. That meant getting to Victoria Stn before 8.52pm to catch the train. This time I made it with 6 minutes to spare. Having had the mad dash, I now feel I have burnt off the calories I am likely to gain from the meal.

I am pleased to say that the train is now leaving the station, with me on it. Talking of trains, I got a phone call from The Journal today. Would I like to write something as a regular passenger of National Express to mark their 1st anniversary of running trains on the East Coast? How could I refuse!? 150 words will be on their way tomorrow!

Good sign of the day: it is always a good sign when a constituent sends me notification of change of email address. It shows they like getting our email newsletter. Had another this evening and one yesterday. Keep them coming!

Good news on a small project I was working on in Blaydon constituency. It's going national. Can't say any more about it for a while but I'm rather pleased with it!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cowley St Xmas Party - exclusive photos!

The Cowley St Xmas Party was held yesterday. Santa was there but as the event was held in the Lords, he needed a temporary pass to get in!

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Monday morning blog: does this MP live in a parallel universe?

Labour MP for Blaydon, David Anderson, has an occasional column in the Journal, our regional morning newspaper. I am, as you know, often eager to experience the wit and wisdom of political opponents, so I read his article with interest on Saturday.

I was particularly intersted to read his claim that once the National Insurance increases are introduced, "no one earning less than £40,000 a year will lose out. To put this into perspective, only 10% of the workforce earns above £40,000 and half earn less than £23,000."

This must come as great news to the entire nation. Even the Chancellor said in his Pre-Budget speech that only those earning less than £20,000 would be worse off.

Mr Anderson also came up with an entirely new set of figures for the new top rate. Instead of applying to incomes over £150,000, he claimed, "Increasing the top rate from 40% to 45% for those earning over £100,000 raises valuable monies."

Unless I have missed something, the claims made by Mr Anderson are somewhat different to those made by the Chancellor. Or is it just that Mr Anderson lives in a parallel universe where things are a bit different?
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Latest National Express news: 77 is the new 67

I arrived at Newcastle Central to catch the 7.52am to London, clutching my seat reservation for coach D, seat 67. Try as I might, I could not find seat 67. All the other passengers helped and we were defeated. No seat 67 existed, and all other seats were booked. So I went to the next coach and no seat 67 existed there either. So I went in search of a train guard, found one and brought him to the coach. He eventually found my reservation on seat 77. It was, he explained, due to a "set swap" (train industry speak for changing the train at the last minute). It does strike me as rather bizarre that seat 67 (and 68) do not exist on Intercity 225 trains. So, 77 is the new 67 with National Express. Just add 10 to your seat reservation!

It's a bit like buying a ticket from National Express. Try to book the £10 single fayre but all you find available are the fares that cost considerably more. All you have to do is add to the original amount!

Anyway, as you can now see, I am on the train to London. I am armed with a bag of food for colleagues. All home made, though the cake I have was not made in my home. It came from one of the 4 fayres I went to on Saturday in Blaydon constituency (Whickham, Swalwell, Ryton and Winlaton Mill).

The apple slices I have were made by me late on Saturday night. I have long threatened my Cowley St food guinea pigs with products made from acorn flour. These slices also contain apples we picked wild. They will be tested later today. More details will be on my self-sufficiency blog shortly.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Photos from the Vince Cable dinner

You can see a full collection of the photos taken at the Vince Cable dinner in Newcastle yesterday on my Flickr site:
Yes, that is me in the last one. David took it of me interviewing Vince for the video newsletter.

Vince Cable MP interviewed in Newcastle December 2008

Vince Cable was in Newcastle last night so I interviewed him about tax and the economy for my constituents' video newsletter.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

At the Vince Cable dinner

I am at the Falcons Rugby Club in Newcastle, packed out with Lib Dems, for the Vince Cable dinner. There are double the number of people here that normally attend the North East Region AGM. So, here's my suggestion for the agenda for the next AGM: charge more and put on dinner with Vince! Quite a crowd puller.
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Heading home for an evening with Vince Cable

I am not in Cowley St today. Instead, I have just struggled across London on the rush hour Tube to get to Kings Cross. I rarely travel on the Tube in rush hour and I had forgotten how bad it is. I pity those who have to do it everyday. Anyway, I am on the train to Newcastle now, just waiting to leave KX. I am heading home early as Vince Cable is speaking tonight at the Newcastle local party dinner. All 180 tickets have been sold but I will be there, doing photos as well as eating dinner. The added interest is that I am interviewing Vince for the regional video newsletter I occasionally produce. This will have a slight difference however as it will be used with constituent email newsletters as well.

Doors of train have just closed. I'm now on the way home.
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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jack Straw may regret his comment on the Lib Dems

I was digging around the Parliamentary website yesterday (someone has to!) and came across this comment from Jack Straw, made in May 2007. “It is utterly irresponsible!” he exclaimed about the Lib Dem administration that had just taken over Hull City Council.

The issue at stake was the Council's 31% stake in Kingston Communications PLC. The Lib Dem administration decided that it was time to cash in the shares and bank the money instead. Apparently, such a move was regarded by the new Lib Dem council leadership as safer than playing the stockmarket with council taxpayers' cash.

Hull Labour MP Diana Johnson, however, seemed to think the sale was a bit of a bad idea. Nevertheless, the sell off by the Lib Dems netted the authority a cool £100 million.

The shares in the company were trading at around 80p when the sale went through last year. Now they are less than 10p.

Under Labour, the investment would now be worth about £12-13 million. I bet the residents of Hull are sighing with relief that the Council decided to follow the "utterly irresponsible" policy of protecting their investment. Apparently, the money from the sale last year could now buy the company twice over!

Interestingly, when the fuss first blew up, Blaydon MP Dave Anderson came rushing in with an EDM attacking the sale of the shares. Were he to lose his seat and need to get a new job, can I suggest that becoming a financial adviser may be an occupation he would wish to avoid!?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Just when Shadow Cabinets thought it was safe to go out...

Along comes another rumour to send them running back to the trenches. And this time, it's David Cameron expressing unhappiness with his band of merry wanderers. According to the Whip in The Sun:

Now senior Tories are aghast at rumours that David Cameron was rubbishing them during a private dinner recently. He is said to have told a pal: “I’ve got six or seven people in the Shadow Cabinet capable of working in the government. The rest are useless.”

You can enjoy the fun at The Spectator

Monday, December 01, 2008

Well, I'm not on Panorama

Got an email from BBC Panorama this morning. Unfortunately, my section of the programme has been axed. Oh well, at least I got a good photo of my being interviewed! The thing was, I had forgotten about the programme until the email arrived! I guess I'll have to stick to appearing in my own YouTube videos - one of which has had nearly 100,000 viewings!
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It's cold outside...

It has been some time since I last experienced temperatures this cold in the UK. Yesterday we had to defrost the car before going to Corbridge. It took about 10 minutes before we could leave the drive. And we had to make another stop on the way to clear the windscreen again. So we planned to leave the house a bit earlier today to give us time to clear the car of ice. It was done a lot quicker than expected, helped by my taking the car down to the office in Whickham last night. I ended up with a much longer wait for my blessedly non-cancelled train at Newcastle Central. I hid away in the waiting room, trying to keep warm whilst I waited.

I am now on the train to London. It will be a short week in the capital. Vince Cable is coming up for a dinner in Newcastle on Thursday and I'll be back for that. Apparently all 180 tickets for it sold out in record time. Watch out for the exclusive photos on Friday!

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The Monday morning blog: Green light for repressive tactics

Government ministers were not made aware of, or involved in, the arrest of Damien Green MP, the Tories shadow immigration minister, claims Jacqui Smith. I believe her. But that is not the point. The use of anti-terror powers in non-terror issues, the clampdown on legitimate protest, the requirement to register your personal details with the government and face fines for failing to do so, the plans for records to be kept of all phone calls and emails, the bullying of the media: these are all part of the culture of government Labour has created. Ministers do not have to be involved in the decision to be complicit. They simply have to express a desire to be rid of a turbulent problem or civil servant, and the structure they have created goes into action. Ministers did not order the arrest of Green. They didn't need to. They simply let the repression of their own system of government kick in.

Labour is a party in a democracy. Too often they exhibit a one party state mentality in which other parties and alternative points of view are regarded at best as an extreme irritation, and at worst a form of insubordination and insurresction which the system needs to destroy. I have seen this for years in the North East where Labour believe their birthright is to rule unhindered. Now, with a Prime Minister whose only guiding motive is staying in power, we are enduring the same style of government across the whole of our nation.

Labour's guiding principle of staying in power at any cost leaves the people of the country to pick up the bill. And it ain't cheap.
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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Labour Mayor defects to Lib Dems

Just back from my sister's house in Newcastle from a family get together. I pick up my work emails and find a message from Penny Reid, our Leader on Blyth Valley District Council in Northumberland. I'll let Penny explain:

As some of you may have already heard, last year's Mayor of Blyth Valley, Councillor Cilla Isles, has resigned from the Labour Party and has joined the Liberal Democrats. Cilla is a hard-working, community councillor and we are very pleased to have her in the party and in the Lib Dem council group. Labour continue to show their darker and more devious side as the end of their reign in the south-east approaches and whilst Cilla is the first to see them for what they are, I hear she may not be the last.

My weekend video shoot

I had an unexpected trip to Corbridge in the Tyne Valley, Northumberland, today, to take David to a magistrates reception. The house where the reception was held was just along the road from the Corbridge Roman site. So I dropped off David and went along to Corstopitum, armed with cameras.

I have filmed videos in all sorts of places throughout the Roman Empire. And at some point I am going to pull them together onto one dvd. But that requires shooting lots of footage on Roman sites in the North East. It is, after all, Rome's northern frontiier. So watch out soon for my video appearing on YouTube.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Plucking pheasants and other forthcoming weekend stories

We have traded some homemade jams and chutneys for some pheasants. This will make for an interesting weekend of pheasant plucking! Now that we are part of the self-sufficient fraternity (or rather, we are attempting to be - the plan is to be largely self-sufficient in food by 2010) we can expect more plucking weekends engaged in food preparation of this nature!

And when I am not plucking, I will be writing and printing Focus leaflets. I had to spend tonight changing a village focus from an A4 to A3. We had a load more news come in we needed to report to constituents. And when I'm not writing Focuses, I'll be printing them! The interlude amongst this will be spent at a local fayre. I seem to have donated a fair chunk of the tombola prizes for our stall - a supply of jams and chutneys!

We will however have a family get together on Sunday, at my sister's house. Andrew, older brother is up from Leicester.

I am now on the train heading home. As we are not yet at full self-sufficiency level, I am eating an M&S sandwich. At least this time I have avoided buying a bagette from Upper Crust. I'm not touching them again.

Irritatingly, National Express have lengthened this journey by 20 minutes (at the same time as they were telling people at from the end of next year they wil be introducing shorter journey times.)

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Neil Trafford RIP

It was announced today that Neil Trafford died on Sunday following a road accident. Neil was the campaigns officer for the North West region. I have known him for some years and saw him last week when he came into Cowley St. He was a first class campaigner and had made a significant contribution to the party, especially in the North West.

It is a great tragedy that such a young and talented person has been taken from us. I worked with Neil on the Sedgefield by-election. He was on the literature team. He was usually amongst the first to get the photos I had been sent out to gather in.

A great guy. Neil, you will be greatly missed.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

What the 45p rate will buy

So, 45p income tax on the super rich in 2011. The government estimates it will raise £670 million a year. For the super rich community, that is the equivalent of 10 yachts or two football clubs. Hardly going to be noticed by them.

Meanwhile, Darling plans to sting the lower and middle income people for a National Insurance rise that will raise considerably more than the 45p rate.

Perhaps this is not New Old Labour after all.

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45 today

Well, it's my birthday. 45 today. Only 5 years to go before I can go on a Saga holiday. Theoretically I could retire in 5 years' time. Well there's a thought, but I am not the retiring type. I am on the train now heading to London, armed with two large cakes so that Cowley Street can join in the celebration of my advancing years!

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The Monday morning blog: tax cuts, tax rises and tax spin

New Labour is dead. Long live New Old Labour. Well not quite but we could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, this is a government that continues to spin like there's no tomorrow (and borrow like there's no tomorrow as well). And spin is what we are getting as the major feature of the Pre-Budget Report. We are, I saw from the BBC last night, to have an additional higher rate of income tax for the highest earners. It will not, however, come in until after the general election. The talk is of a 45p rate on incomes above £150K.

I guess the first thing I will do when I get to the office is to dust down all those Labour leaflets from the last general election predicting the end of the world, death, destruction, pestilence plague and a variety of other improbables were the Lib Dem policy of a 50p rate to be introduced. If I remember correctly, Labour claimed that the level of revenue from this tax would be far smaller than we claimed. It is relatively easy to avoid but, so Labour claimed, would drive business people abroad thus reducing the tax take. Now Labour are set to announce a slimmed down version which will raise very little relative to the enormous black hole in the government's finances. But it does mean that Labour will go to the country in 2010 claiming that the super rich will carry the extra burden of tax to pay for the recession. Watch out for Labour spending the extra revenue predicted from this new tax many times over. It will be a bit like their claims on the Lib Dems' 1p on income tax for education in 2001. They claimed it was "magical" because, so they claimed, we spent the same money many times over. (The claim was rubbish but it never stopped them from lying.)

And so we come to VAT. Labour are set to make a temporary reduction of two and a half percent. This will not do a great deal to help those nearest the breadline. For starters, bread, like some food, is zero rated. Gas and electricity pay VAT at the lowest allowable rate of 5%. That rate therefore will remain unchanged. Public transport ticket prices have gone up above inflation and are zero rated for VAT The people who have suffered the most from inflation over the past year are those on low and lowish incomes, and fixed incomes (typically pensioners). .A much larger proportion of their income is spent on VAT free or minimal VAT goods and services. A VAT cut will only help them at the margins. The big gainers will be the people buying large household goods. It looks like it will soon be time to buy that plasma screen tv you have always wanted. It's just a pity that it is likely to be imported but it is nice of the British government to be so supportive of foreign based manufacturers!

You also need to add into the equation the impact of interest rate cuts. Whilst it was right to cut interest rates to reduce the costs on business and mortgage holders, those, particularly the elderly, who have built up savings by careful financial management and a commendable desire to be self-supporting, are now faced with a sharp reduction in income. Whatever package of support is put together must take that into account. The pension credit and benefits system works against such people. That's why a significant increase in the basic pension is what is needed. Means testing works against those who try to support themselves. Means testing needs to be reduced.

So, the proposal Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have put forward to restructure permanently the tax system is also the most redistributive. But it is also the one that will help to get us out of the recession more quickly. Whether we like it or not, people are spending less because too many of them are fearful of the personal debt they have accumulated. They are desperate to pay it off and many won't start spending back at previous levels until their debt has at least been reduced to managable proportions. Even price cuts will not be sufficiently enticing to bring them back into the shops in significant numbers. They look at the state of the economy, worry about jobs, worry they may lose their home and therefore try to reduce the millstone of debt.

Once the debt level is reduced, they will start to spend. Putting money into the pockets of these people will lead to many of them reducing their debts earlier. And they then start spending again earlier. Like it or not, the people who have driven consumption to record levels have been those with the debts on the credit cards which were accumulated when they thought future prospects could easily pay off what they owe. We now need them at least with a lower debt burden for the economy to recover. Stopping the taxman from taking more of their income in the first place will he a significant help.

You only have to look back at the recession of the early 1990s. People then were worried about jobs and prospects but had built up considerable personal debts. The length of the recession was increased because people were paying off debts rather than spending. We are likely to be entering a similar period now. Getting the debts cleared as quickly as possible is now the key to getting us through the recession

Anyway, watch for lots of spin from Labour today as they project their favourite image of hyperactivity to tackle the recession. We have seen New Labour legislate by the bucket load on tackling crime (often with few results and often with the legislation repealed even before it is implemented.) New Old Labour will do the same on the economy whilst trying to portray the Tories as wanting to let the recession "take its course."

Well, it has taken me al the way from Newcastle to York on the train to write this post. Time for some shut eye (after writing my next post!)

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

My post office picture

I wanted to post up this picture to illustrate a small victory over Labour in my village of Sunniside. Labour declared that putting a cash machine into the village post office would lead to the end of the world, plague, pestilence and so on as an explanation for refusing planning permission for the machine. Well, here is the machine, suitably installed, despite the best efforts of the Labour party to prevent it happening. The Council lost the appeal, Labour managed to avoid forcing the closure of the village post office and the machine has now been installed, to the general pleasure of the village who can now have 24 hour, free to use access to their cash for the first time. The fact the world financial system came close to collapse during the installation of the cash machine is, I understand, just a coincidence!
We held this ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the installation of the machine. Pictured above are me, Paul Mein, (Sunniside Post Master cutting the ribbon)) and Councillors John McClurey, Marilynn Ord and Peter Maughan.
Peter is our Blaydon Parliamentary Candidate. After this ribbon cutting ceremony (it happened last weekend) we headed off to the village of Lamesley for the church fair. We were seen and plenty chatted to us. Somehow Peter managed to win 2 raffle prizes. I won nothing.

23 years

Yesterday marked 23 years David and I have been together. And as I am 45 tomorrow, that means we've been joined up for over half my life. Shockingly, we have now been together longer than some of the interns in our office at Cowley St have been alive. That must make me seen exceptionally old to them!

I am in Rowlands Gill now, having just finished a couple of leaflet patches. David is back home making a couple of cakes for me to take to work tomorrow for all those young people to have to celebrate the fact I am only 5 years away from being able to go on a Saga holiday!

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Paying more for the privilege of having my train cancelled

One of the countless emails into my inbox today was from the party's transport adviser Alice Douglas, all about the inflation busting fare rises planned for the trains. As of January, regulated fares go up 6% in nearly all cases, and on National Express East Coast, the unregulated fares go up 7.4%. All that extra to pay so I can enjoy the privilege of having my train to London cancelled.

Talking of which, I notice that Adrian Pearson of the Journal has taken up the issue of National Express and the constantly cancelled trains from my regular blog posts written in despair on Monday mornings when I turn up at the Central Station to witness my train being cancelled. The power of blogs! Keep up the good work on this Adrian!

Sticking with the National Express theme, I read in the Journal recently that National Express are to introduce a shake up of their timetable from December 2009. All sorts of promises are made about additional services with journey times typically being cut by 17 minutes to London. Good news if this comes about. And much better than my experience of National Express who have been in the habit of adding 35 minutes to my journey times.

I will believe the promises when they happen however. And I would remind National Express that they appear to have changed the current timetable by adding 20 minutes to the journey time for the 9pm service out of Kings Cross to Newcastle (I am on it now) whilst the 10 pm service appears to have been replaced with a.n 11.30pm service that does not get in until 7am the next day, at least according to their website where I order my tickets.
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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Whisky Galore

It's been a bit of a whisky week. Let me explain. A few months ago, I set some blackberry whisky brewing. To make it, you get some blackberries and stick them in a storage jar then pour in a bottle of cheap whisky. Then add some sugar, close the jar and leave to stand for 3 months at which point strain off the liquid and bottle it.

This did of course leave me with a large quantity of whisky soaked blackberries. Rather than throw them out, I made them into a pie and took it into Cowley St. The third floor was throwing a party for Kate Webb, who was leaving the Communications Team to move on to pastiures new. Any excuse for a party! The pie was demolished in fifteen minutes. Estimates suggested people would exceed the breathiliser limit at 3 mouthfuls of the pie.

Interesting rumours have now circulated around Cowley St about the pies served up on the third floor. I guess for good reason! The blackberry whisky itself is being severely rationed. I made three bottles and they have to last a few months. Each of us in the flat is allowed one small glass once a week. The same policy of strict limitation will apply to the cherry vodka, raspberry gin and sloe gin that is ready to be bottled at home in Gateshead.

Anyway, step forward Dave Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon. No, for once I won't be taking up my sword against him, well not in this blog post. We bumped into each other on the train to Victoria yesterday morning. We chatted about various thing and I learnt his favourite novel is Whisky Galore. Alas, duties of political life prevent his reading as much as he would like, a situation with which I totally sympathise. Train journeys and the time spent in the bath on a Saturday evening are the only times I get to read nowadays. (I am currently reading David Faber's "Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis")

Anyway, I am now arriving at my station. Time to finish this blog and get some dinner (and having spent the journey writing this post, I got no reading done!)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

3 million unemployed?

The CBI yesterday predicted that unemployment could reach 3 million by the end of next year. Not only would that be a disaster to the people concerned and to the country, it does open up the prospect of revising my estimate that the general election will be in 2010.

Quite how a Labour government would be able to explain away such economic competence would be interesting to see. But with the spectre of 3 million unemployed haunting Labour, Brown may be tempted to go a year early if Labour's poll ratings are close to the Tories' position (which at least for the moment seems to be happening - a feature of the Tories' inability to present a coherent, set of policies on the economy). This would of course be very risky for Labour. They would, after all, be putting up for grabs a very fragile majority (30 seats lost by Labour under the new boundaries and they are in no-overall-control situation).

My feeling is that Brown will still hold out to 2010 but the chances of a 2009 election have probably increased.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Monday morning blog: Labour MP and the obesity crisis

There can be no doubt about it. Britain is facing an obesity crisis. The North East has some of the highest obesity levels, affecting all age groups. The Government, in response, launched Change4Life last week in Newcastle. The North East is going to begin the fight back against fat.

The focus of the scheme is the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables from corner shops. In effect, the government is aiming to make the purchase of healthy food much easier by subsidising local shops to sell it. I hope this works though some questions remain about whether this scheme will reach many people.

Firstly, not that many people shop at the corner shop. Too many get into their cars (a cause of obesity in the first place) and head off to giant out of town centres, like the Metrocentre, to do their shopping. I don't think it appropriate to subsidize Asda and Morrisons and so on to sell what they already sell.

But even if fresh fruit and vegetables are available, that does not mean people will buy and use them. As the old addage goes, you can take a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink. The only way this scheme will be successful is if both parents and children are educated about the need for a healthy diet and exercise. Children in particular need to learn in school that cooking a meal is more than just opening a packet and slinging it in the microwave.

So were I running the scheme, I would ensure cookery lessons are taught to all in school. And how about doctors prescribing fresh fruit and veg for obese patients?

Anyway, step forward the gaffe-prone Labour MP for Gateshead East and Washington West, Sharon Hodgson. Sharon has three claims to fame: she notoriously wrote an early day motion praising herself, she was dumped by the Gateshead Labour party after only two years as an MP and she campaigned for cheap junk food for children. It is the latter claim to fame that stands so uncomfortably with her most recent pronouncements on the need to tackle obesity.

Don't get me wrong. I welcome her support for tackling obesity. But stating she is "proud" that the North East has been chosen to launch the government's project suggests her rush to get her soundbite into the press is somewhat misplaced. The North East was chosen to launch the scheme because of the very high levels of obesity. That, Sharon, is not something of which to be proud.

Hopefully, this scheme is a success and obesity levels do come down. But it needs to be more than just making healthy food available. To have healthy hearts, we need to change minds as well.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A few photos from our Amsterdam trip

A few photos from our trip to Amsterdam earlier this month.
Me trying out my new shoes.

Bridge over the River Amstel

The canal lock right outside our hotel


Another canal lock

Me caught blogging on the blackberry.
More photos from the trip are on my Flickr site:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Upper Crust and the complete lack of environmental concern

I am going to have one of my occasional rants about companies from which I buy goods and services. No, I'm not going to put the boot in on National Express. Tonight, it's Upper Crust, the sandwich chain.

I arrived at Kings Cross to catch the 9pm train having had no meal this evening. Regular readers will know that for environmental reasons I do not eat meat or fish thrugh the week. I also try to cut down on cheese and diary products as cattle raising is quite a damaging environmental activity. Furthermore, the human body did not evolve to eat such large quantities of meat and fats that are typically consumed in over weight Britain.

Until a few months ago at KX there was a Boots branch which sold sandwiches at a reasonable price and always had vegan options. Alas, that store has closed. The alternatives are Marks and Spencer or Upper Crust. M and S have a better range and frankly are cheaper than Upper Crust. But tonight the M and S range amointed to empty shelves. So I was left with Upper Crust.

I knew it was a waste of time asking Upper Crust if they had a vegan option. I know they don't. If you want veggie, you have to have cheese. I confess I also went against one of my guidelines and bought a packet of crisps. Apparently the manufacture of crisps produces more carbon that they weigh. However, I very nearly didn't buy them. At 99p, I thought they were a bit of a rip off.

Anyway, there was my sandwich and crisps on the counter and suddenly a bottle of still water was put next to them. "I didn't ask for water," I said. "If you get the water, the whole of what you buy will be cheaper."

I repeated again that I did not want water. Bottled still water is one of my pet hates. Environmentally they are appalling. The waste involved in shipping water around the planet and then bottling and packaging it up when we have some of the world's best tap water (produced from local sources) literally on tap is an environmental scandal.

Bizarrely the staff began to insist that I take the water. I refused. The staff looked at me as if I had just attempted to shoplift the place. It felt like they were about to cal for security. Again, I insisted I did not want water, but I did ask if they could give me a cup of tea as an alternative. The staff looked at each other, muttered something between themselves and then turned down my request.

So Upper Crust, crap customer service combined with an appalling lack of awareness of the damage you are doing to the environment. In future, if I get to KX without having eaten, and you are the only people supplying food, I prefer to starve.

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A few Remembrance Day photos

Slightly late but here are a few of the photos from the Whickham Remembrance Day parade on Sunday in Whickham. A full set of photos is available at

Putting out leaflets brings the election process "into disrepute" - Labour

I spotted this little nugget and can't resist the temptation to share it with the world. The Lib Dems comfortably held the North Road ward by-election in Darlington yesterday, taking 51% of the vote.

Labour however seem to have been a bit upset by the quantity of Lib Dem literature. Labour Councillor Nick Wallis, who is also Labour Euro candidate for the North East, on the day before the election, was muttering about how terrible it was that such a tonnage of information was being delivered through people's doors. On his blog he wrote:

The North Road by-election ends tomorrow - any kind of debate between the parties has been drowned out by the usual LibDem Sturm und Drang. Frankly, this number of leaflets from one party brings the whole process into disprepute [sic]. Still, we'll see the result on Thursday night.

Seems that Nick believes that in an election, debate should only be between the parties and he resists the idea that voters should be told what the candidates and parties believe in and want to do for an area.

"We shall see" he said. Well, we did see (and the people saw the Focuses) and Labour lost, taking less than half the votes of the Lib Dems.

Frankly though, the idea that putting out information to voters in an election brings the democratic process into disrepute is mindbogglingly ludicrous.

Perhaps there is an explanation for Nick's thoughts. Maybe he is simply basing his comments on people's responses to Labour leaflets. In my patch, when Labour used to put out leaflets, their vote went down. Now they have given up putting out leaflets, except for the odd one (normally very odd) that appears during an election.

Anyway, Nick's comments can be read here:

We are, of course, looking forward to Nick's Euro campaign next year. The non-appearance of any leaflets from the Labour campaign will be most welcome!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Next email newsletter done

Just finished the latest edition of eFocus, my email newsletter for constituents, and emailed it out to about 900 addresses. It is a little later than I wanted but I've had loads on recently. However, it does act as a good prompt to residents of my village of Sunniside for an event I am running on Saturday. We are cutting a ribbon to launch the cash machine installed in the village post office. We had a battle to get it installed. Labour councillors threw out the planning application and then justified it with all sorts of end-of-the-world claims if the application had been installed. Well, the application went ahead because there was a successful appeal.

So, with the machine now in place (boosting the vitality of the Post Office and the village centre) we will have a celebration to promote it. 11.30am Saturday morning, outside Sunniside Post Office.

We are wondering if the local Labour party will turn up to demand the machine's removal. From what I hear my constituents say about it, they will be demanding Labour's removal!

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Monday morning blog: National Excess at it again

I arrived at Newcastle Central Station a few minutes ago to catch the 7.40am fast service to London only to find the damn thing is cancelled again. I should be thankful for small mercies. After all, it has been a few weeks since National Express last pulled that trick.

In the space of five minutes however we have had two different excuses. The information desk tells me the cancellation is due to engineering works. The train announcer however tells us it is due to a "fault on the train."

Perhaps the real reason is that National Excess couldn't run a Hornby trainset, never mind a real rail service. I have just boarded the slow service which arrived at Newcastle as the fast service I was originally supposed to get. That just makes this whole National Excess screw up all the more annoying.

Cancellation rather than finding trains to run scheduled services appears to be the policy of this company. It is the lazy option for a company that has a near monopoly on the East Coast It allows them to claim they are running a full service without actually putting on a full service. It's time this bunch had some competition on this rail route to give them a kick them up the backside.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Another low carbon day

The last day of our break and we were determined to keep it as low carbon as possible. So we headed to Tynemouth on bus and Metro to go to the Blue Reef Aquarium Centre. Then back to Newcastle for lunch at a restaurant called Pan Haggerty. They make their own chutneys so I was keen to find out what they produced. We are now waiting for the bus to go back home to Sunniside. No car used. Carbon count kept low.

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Glenrothes and election timing

Great predictions of our time and this one came true. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Brown's visit to Glenrothes and suggested Labour were confident about winning as they would never have risked sending him into a losing battle. The Labour hold last night was therefore not unsurprising even if the majority and share of the vote were.

Don't however get carried away with the belief that Labour are back in election winning form. The real story from Glenrothes is that playing the anti-incumbency card can prove to be very effective. Labour mercilessly targeted the SNP candidate who happened to be the leader of Fife Council. Labour's challenge to the SNP focused on charges being introduced for services for the elderly. They ignored the fact that many of their own authorities have similar charges. And they hammered away at the same issue, attacking both the SNP led council and the SNP Scottish government. In other words, they used incumbency against the SNP despite being incumbents themselves. A very clever move that worked. There are clear lessons for us all in by-election campaigns: nail your opponents on their record.

Some of what happened in Glenrothes is a reflection of what is happening across Scotland generally. The SNP can now be held to account for their decisions and I also suspect there was a reaction to their arrogance.

The Glenrothes scenario however does not translate well over to the UK wide political agenda. There is no equivalent English dimension in England and in Wales, the Labour party (supported by the Welsh Nats) are the incumbents. Come a general election, attacking the Tories on their record in office over a decade ago may have some sway over voters, but not a great deal. The Tories' incoherent and rudderless approach to the financial crisis will have some sway as well. But the Labour government will not be able to use anti-incumbency. They are, after all, the government and there is no English government led by another party which can conveniently be blamed for unpopular political decisions.

Labour will therefore have to fight the next election, amongst other things, on their record. And that's why I feel there will be no election next year. Unemployment is set to exceed 2 million by next year, repossessions will be up, bankruptcies up, business collapses up. The recovery is more likely to happen in 2010 and Brown will need that to start kicking in before he risks an election.

Parallels are often drawn with the 1992 election where people opted for devil-you-know by voting back in the Tories despite their having been in office during the recession. But the Tories were defending a very comfortable majority of 100. They went on to win in 1992 but with a majority cut heavily to less than 30. And they didn't have millions of pounds of bad debt hanging around their necks, unlike the current Labour party (no doubt built up during what Brown calls the "Age of Irresponsibility". Labour's local organisation in large parts of the country has been shot to bits. It's not just in the marginals in the south where Labour's grassroots have rotted away. In their heartlands as well, they have organisations that are thin on the ground. I hear on the grapevine that Labour were canvassing in Glenrothes in the by-election without any previous canvass having been done in large parts of the constituency. The constituency was dependent on the national party to swing in to action to run the election campaign. Whilst Labour may not be troubled too much by weaknesses in their organisation in safe seats, in those where other parties are fighting them hard, Labour may not yet be able to sustain sufficient local activity to ensure the seat is held at the general election.

Organisation on the ground is one of the keys to winning a particular seat. Labour do not yet have either the grassroots organisation or the money to fight an election in 2009. The only scenario that would see an election next year is one in which Labour builds up a very large lead and sustains it for long enough through the summer for Brown to risk going in the autumn. And I cannot see circumstances which would create such circumstances.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Back on Tyneside

We have just arrived back on Tyneside after our visit to Amsterdam. We were welcomed by the rain. We are on our way home now in the car. I have a council meeting this afternoon to attend. So it's back to work straight away!

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama wins, and other stories from Amsterdam

I wasn't able to stay awake for long last night. Shortly after 1am I saw the projection for a McCain win in Kentucky and an Obama win in Vermont. Neither was a surprise and I decided to switch off the tv rather than attempt to stay awake. I woke this morning to the news of an electoral college landslide, if not a vote landslide.

Back in the UK, both Brown and Cameron appear to be reading diametrically opposite meanings into the result. Cameron argues that people voted for change. Brown argues that the Americans voted for substance. What Cameron disregards is that the change people looked for in USA may not be the change they are after in the UK. And what Brown overlooks is that you don't have experience to have substance.

We don't know whether or not any of this will translate over to the UK. People may well be looking for a change here but may not regard Cameron as much of a change. Others may prefer devil-you-know.

I have a suspicion that uppermost in the minds of American voters was a desire to see change and to sweep out of office that they regarded as responsible for the present economic crisis. Labour take note.

And now for an Amsterdam update.

We had a canal trip this morning to get to the Anne Frank Museum. This was one of the main sites I wanted to see on this trip. We had lunch near the Victoria Hotel and we're now on the coach heading back to the ferry port. We should be back there in half an hour. I am pleased to say that the mist had cleared before we left the hotel this morning and so I was able to take a few photos (about 120) and a few minutes of video.
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In Amsterdam

We are in Amsterdam on a mini-holiday and the following is my diary for today:

It's 9.35am and we have just arrived in the port of Ijmuiden and we can barely see a thing. The mist is thick here. The ferry is in the process of mooring and once that is done we will be off on the bus to Amsterdam.

10.15am: just through passport control. The officer thumbed through my passport. "You travel a lot," he said. I certainly do. Pity that next year I need to get a new passport. There are only 4 pages left in my current one but they won't be used up before the passport is due for renewal.

We are now on the bus waiting to leave the port of Ijmuiden.

2.30pm. It was a 45 min bus ride into Amsterdam. We got to our hotel, the Bridge, to find it sitting next to an interesting loch on one of the canals. Unfortunately, due to the mist, I am avoiding taking photos and video today.

Our first visit was to the Resistance Museum where we spent longer than expected. We left about half an hour ago and are now in a bar having some lunch, on our way to the Van Gogh Museum.

8.30pm Very pleased we did the Van Gogh museum. Learnt quite a bit about him in the process. Afterwards we stopped off for a coffee in a bar on the way back to our hotel. We are now in a Javan restaurant. We came out looking for a Dutch restaurant, found only one and it was fully booked, so went for the next best thing - Dutch colonial.

11.15pm Back at the hotel now. If I stay awake I will watch some of the early election results from America. Failing that, I'll sleep. In the meantime, I've been getting emails about how to get the wreath for this Sunday's Remembrance Day ceremony in Whickham.

Next report tomorrow, probably from the ferry.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

My low carbon mini-holiday

This was meant to be a low carbon, low budget holiday. We are currently on the ferry crossing from Tyneside to Holland for a short stay in Amsterdam. I reckon I have used up my ration of flights for the year hence the ferry instead.

The low carbon attempt had a slight knock at the start. We had planned to get the bus in to Newcastle and then get the DFDS bus to the ferry port. And then I booked myself in for a meeting at 2pm with the leader of the council and chief exec. So we had to bring the car just to get to the ferry in time.

And then the budget bit took a knock when we got to the terminal and were offered a cabin upgrade at check in which we decided to take. The result is we have moved from the bowels of the ship to a cabin with sea view. Cost an extra £10 each.

We then went up to the top deck to watch as we sailed past Tynemoth and the piers. Ice Age strength breeze cooled us considerably. Seemed like an excuse to go to the bar to warm up. Cocktails here are priced in Euros. The budget has taken another battering.

Meanwhile Mam is looking after our house and cat.

Back on the ferry we are not walking about in shorts and t-shirts as we were the last time we went on a boat trip (Indian Ocean December last year between Kenya and Madagascar). Time to ge something warming in me again!

The last time I crossed the North Sea on a ferry was to Norway in 2003. We were both horribly sea sick (so was most of the passengers - that happens when you cross the sea in a storm). So we have taken the seasickness pills this time. Fingers crossed they will work.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Back to Chopwell again

We were out again in Chopwell again today. 6 of us were there to deliver a few hundred more Focuses. All part of our move into the Labour areas in Blaydon constituency. We have plans ready for launching for other activities in other parts of the constituency as well. I will say more about them once we have carried them out.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Campaigning in Little Moscow

There is a village in Blaydon constituency called Chopwell which is nicknamed "Little Moscow" because of its previous socialist inclinations. It has streets such as Marx Terrace and Lenin Terrace. Chopwell is still something of a Labour stronghold, though we are not deterred by that and are looking to make in roads there.

So 7 of us, including myself and Peter Maughan, our PPC for Blaydon, headed up there today to deliver a Focus, which also covered the neighbouring village of Blackhall Mill. We delivered about 900 and will complete the rest of the village shortly.

Given that Moscow has turned capitalist and socialism collapsed there nearly a generation ago, I'm not sure whether the tag of "Little Moscow" is appropriate any more. But there again, calling it a Labour stronghold is not the same as calling it a socialist stronghold. After all, under Blair and Brown, Labour and socialism are hardly the same thing!

Peter Maughan and I, and my two ward colleagues Marilynn and John, also paid a visit to the Methodist Chapel autumn charity fayre in my village of Sunniside this morning. I stocked up on cakes and peas pudding (the people on the stall loved my story about taking peas pudding to London for people down there to try it out!) and David stocked up with more plants for the garden.

Now I'm writing more Focuses. A Glen Miller track is playing on the pc and the cooking smells of dinner are wafting up the stairs from the kitchen to my office. How wonderfully civilised!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Lord Falconer, Mr Anderson and an interesting Early Day Motion

I was rooting around old Early Day Motions today and stumbled across the following EDM which first appeared in May 2005, less than 3 weeks after the general election:

That his house is gravely disappointed to learn in this the 20th year since the end of the year long 1984-85 Miners' Strike that it was Lord Falconer, in a previous role, who advised Sir Ian MacGregor, the then Chairman of British Coal, how to get round the collective agreements signed over the previous 40 years between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board/British Coal, resulting in the Board's withdrawal from the all-important Coal Industry Conciliation Scheme and thereby circumventing agreements established by democratic industrial procedures to pave the way for the recognition by British Coal of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers and leading to a worsening of the terms and conditions of all UK coalminers; and calls on Lord Falconer to make a statement.

Co-sponsor was a certain Mr David Anderson, MP for Blaydon. Indeed, it was the first EDM he co-sponsored (he was first elected in May 2005) and joint first EDM he signed.

Quite what Mr Anderson hoped to achieve by demanding a statement from Lord Falconer 20 years after the miners' strike was over is not clear. All I can see is that such a demand would have reminded everyone about how badly led the miners were and how they were on a suicide mission that accelerated the closure of pits. But that is not the point of this post.

Instead it is to wonder aloud about what Mr Anderson must be thinking of the appointment earlier this year of Lord Falconer to head up the Newcastle Gateshead Development Company. Party to the appointment were his own Labour colleagues on Gateshead Council. May be they were unaware of Mr Anderson's thoughts on Lord Falconer. May be they took no account whatsoever of Mr Anderson or maybe Mr Anderson has changed his view or has let bygones be bygones. Perhaps Mr Anderson, you would care to enlighten us.

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An update on our injured colleagues

I blogged yesterday about two councillors in Gateshead who had been injured recently though one I didn't name as I had not received any official confirmation. Councillor Dave Bollands was taken ill last week. I can now report that the second councillor was Gary Haley. By coincidence, both are Labour councillors representing the same ward. And by a futher coincidence, both ended up at the same high dependency ward at the general hospital. Their injuries however were received in completely different circumstances. I understand both are making good progress and I wish both well and a speedy recovery.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?

More particularly, how many does it take to change one in my flat in London? We had the slightly frustrating experience of a busted light switch and broken neon tube in the bathroom in the summer. Try as we did, we could not remove the light cover. David tried as well, as did Dad when he stayed. There just seemed to be no logical way to move it short of taking a hammer to it, hardly the preferred option. And if you think Lib Dems couldn't fix it, neither could Labour member and fellow resident of my flat, Richard.

Light in the bathroom was not too much of a problem in the summer when the days were long. Trying to use the bathroom now that the clocks had gone back turned out to be a challenging experience! So I decided to get the electrician to fix the busted switch and, yes I admit it, change the light bulb.

There is now light in the bathroom, and a bill for £75 waiting to be paid!

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Best wishes

When I boarded the train to London on Monday, I received an email sent to all councillors in Gateshead telling us that Councillor David Bollands had been taken seriously ill over the weekend.

And yesterday, I had a call from Cllr Chris Ord in my own group telling me that another councillor had been involved in a serious road accident. At this point I have not received official confirmation about the second member though it is expected soon.

I want to use this opportunity to wish both members a speedy recovery and to say that my thoughts are with the families of both.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The Monday morning blog: Brown in Glenrothes, Miliband in China

Maybe the international community is fed up with Gordon Brown lecturing them on what to do in the financial crisis (part or wholly nationalise the banks having spent 6 months resisting such moves for Northern Rock) but the non-appearance of Brown at the emergency international meeting in China over the weekend was very obvious. I was beginning to think that no one from the UK was present until I saw a photo in the weekend press of David Miliband at the conference. I certainly saw Merkel and Sarkozy making their mark.

Brown however was in Glenrothes, with a cameo role on the by-election stage. This is a major change from the practice that Prime Ministers do not get involved in by-election campaigns. I can think of only two other recent examples: in 1997 in Uxbridge, just after the general election, when Blair turned up and Labour arrogantly thought they could win everything (they lost the by-election), and in 1963 when Alec Douglas-Home spent a significant proportion of his first weeks as PM in a Scottish by-election (but that was understandable as he was the candidate having just renounced his peerage and seat in the Lords!)

It strikes me that Labour must be much more confident about holding Glenrothes. I find it difficult to believe they would be foolish enough to send their chief onto a ship if they believed it was certain to sink. He avoided Glasgow East like the plague, knowing Labour's case there was a dead cause. But now there is a new dynamic at least in Scotland, that was not there previously. The financial crisis has laid bare the claims that any nation can be truely independent and insulated from the rest of the world. In the global financial system, Iceland has brought home the fact that a country with a small population and relatively small economy can go bankrupt. Had Scotland been independent, the Scottish people would have paid an astronomical price to bail out RBS, HBOS and so on. Fortunately for the Scots, they are still part of the UK and therefore had the rest of the UK to support their banking system.

That may well take the gloss off the SNP's appeal. This may be one of the key reasons for the rise in Labour's confidence. That, plus the apparent movement of support towards Brown during the crisis, has given Labour the confidence to take the risk of putting Brown into the by-election firing line. The dangers of a Labour rebellion if the seat is lost is much reduced at the moment anyway. Brown, whatever his fault (and there are plenty of them) has ruthlessley used the financial crisis as an avalanche to bury his internal critics.

Brown however is not free of serious misjudgements. He allowed speculation to run riot about a general election last year and I was convinced there would be one as I did not believe that the Labour leadership would be so stupid to let everyone think there was going to be an election and then have to back down. How wrong I was on that!

Labour are however still well behind the Tories. And as the recession bites further, people lose their jobs and times get even harder, the Labour rebels may start to be heard a bit more. The discontent in the Labour party may be buried at the moment, but it won't stay like that for long.

Meanwhile, I am now on the train to London. It is running late and left behind the slower service that is scheduled to leave 12 minutes after my train. The danger is we'll be stuck behind that one all the way to London. And I do recall that a study over the weekend highlighted the failure of Labour's transport policies.

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A flight of geese

I am on the way to Newcastle, having just left Sunniside and soaring over us is a flight of geese in V formation. Must have been up to 30 birds in the flight. Ages since I have seen anything like that around here.
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Our new super dooper printing machine

Our new riso printer has arrived in our office in Blaydon constituency. And today we have a bit of training with the man from the company that provided the machine. The print room in our office is not large, as you can see in the photo above, but 10 of us squeezed in to have our first lesson on how to use the machine. Since most of us used the old machine, we were already well grounded in what to do.

This super dooper new machine prints two colours at the same time. So I'm adding a spot colour to everything I am now writing! I wrote the members' newsletter through the week and we ran that as our first test of the machine. That's what's churning off the machine in the photo which was taken by my ward colleague John McClurey.

We're both back in the office tomorrow doing our first Focus on the machine. Life doesn't get more exciting than this!

Friday, October 24, 2008

My BBC Panorama Interview - the exclusive photo!

I did the interview with BBC Panorama this afternoon about the impact of opencast mining on my constituents were it to be allowed in my ward. I drafted in Mam to give me a lift to the site and to take a photo of the interview. This photo will be appearing in all good Focuses shortly!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Labour lie revisited

An article in our regional newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, caught my attention recently. "Residents browned off over their missing bins" claimed the headline. The story was about a street of houses in Lib Dem run Newcastle which had not received recycling bins for garden waste. It turns out that these houses had gardens that were far too small to qualify for the garden waste bins. (The garden waste is taken away to be composted.)

Labour Councillor Stephen Lambert, as ever ready with a quote, was "staggered". But at least it was interesting to see that Labour were keen on the scheme. This however, has not always been the case as the Labour party has a bit of a history on this very scheme.

It goes back a year and your have to cross over to Labour run Gateshead to get the full picture. Labour in Gateshead put out a leaflet which claimed the following about the Newcastle recycling scheme that the city was introducing: "In a classic case of putting the (waste) cart before the horse, LibDems in Newcastle rushed through a policy which they have had to reverse after committing huge resources and wasting millions."

Labour had simply made up this story. There was not a shred of truth in it. It was purely and simply a Gateshead Labour lie. The reality was that the Lib Dem run Newcastle council was investing in a greatly expanded recycling scheme. That same scheme has raised Newcastle to being one of the top performing councils on recycling in the region, recycling 35% of household waste. Gateshead's figure is 25% and is bottom of the league.

Far from being an abandoned scheme on which millions of pounds were wasted, the Newcastle scheme is a green beacon that massively outshines the performance of the Gateshead Labour party who so blatantly attempted to mislead about what was happening.

Now we have a Newcastle Labour councillor suggesting that the whole scheme is so great that he wants more of it.

We did write to the Labour party last year to ask them either to offer some proof for their absurd allegation or to withdraw it. I did get a reply but it offered none of these - instead the person responding simply denied any responsibility for the contents of the leaflet (he was the "editor"!) and fingered another Labour member instead. In the end, no one in the Labour party had the decency even to withdraw the allegation.

And now, having condemned the scheme as a collapsed waste of money, Labour are demanding more of it. What an interesting turn around (to put it politely).

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Heading home for a Panorama interview

I am heading home to Gateshead a day earlier than usual. I am being interviewed tomorrow afternoon by the BBC for Panorama. The interview is about coal mining, or more specifically, opencast mining.

There was an application three years ago for an opencast scheme in my ward. I led the campaign against on the Gateshead side of the border (Derwentside was affected as well). We won the battle at Gateshead's planning committee. The applicant then lodged an appeal but shortly before the inquiry was due to start, they withdrew. They did however state that they were likely to return with a new application at some point in the future.

The interview itself will take place near the site. Not sure when the programme will be broadcast.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I don't believe it

I am in Crystal Palace. I don't believe it. The Christmas decorations are up already!

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The joy of North Eastern delicacies

I went to one of the Parliamentary cafes last week with colleagues and one of them tried a smal bit of peas pudding. She wrinkled her nose up after trying a small amount. She had not tried peas pudding before and found it so unpleasant that she decided to leave it. Not wanting to see it wasted, I offered to eat it. I instantly discovered why she couldn't eat any more. It was vile.

This great Northern delicacy was clearly not made in the way it should be. I couldn't finish it either but I did offer to bring down the real thing from Gateshead. So on Monday, I brought 2 tubs of proper peas pudding to Cowley St. There are some in the office who aren't able to eat ham products for religious reasons or simply because they don't like them. But others tried the peas pudding and it seemed to go down well.

The problem comes in November. There is to be a week of Northern food in the cafeteria in Millbank. Let's hope that the food to be served then beats the peas pudding conjured up last week!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Now, what was it Cameron said about Russians spending their money?

Given the loud protestations of slightly contorted innocence spilling forth from George Pip Squeak Osborne about his dealings with super rich Russians, I was reminded of the posturing by the Tories this summer when Russia invaded Georgia.

What was it Cameron said should be taken as sanctions against the Russians? Oh yes, I remember. 'Russian armies can't march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.'

Yes, Cameron's call was to stop the Russian bear making a bee line for the deli counter and the Harrods toy department to make it clear just how unacceptable the invasion of another country was.

At the same time, Pip Squeak Osborne was living it up on the yacht of a billionaire Russian whose country was busy invading Georgia. Little Mr Osborne claims it was all innocent. Perhaps he was delivering the groceries, given Cameron's edict of no Russians to set foot in the food court in London.

Cameron, after he had finished his photo op in August on his low carbon, "I'm poor like the rest of you" Cornish holiday, slipped off on an expensive cruise off the coast of Turkey (following a detour to Georgia where he presumably told the Georgian government his was having no truck with the Ruskies.) It would be interesting to know who he met whilst cruising around the Greek islands on that expensive yacht.

The cost of train tickets

On Saturday evening I booked a ferry trip to Amsterdam for the two of us. A return journey with inside cabin with shower and WC cost (with insurance) less than £90 each. Immediately afterwards, I booked a return train ticket to London. Cost was over £100. I know that there are some cheap tickets on the trains to London though they are harder and harder to book. But it has turned out to be cheaper for me to go to Amsterdam than London.
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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Monday morning blog - home-spun repossession

Evette Cooper's demand that the banks should use repossession of homes as a last resort caught my attention yesterday. It was almost a repeat, word for word, of what Vince Cable has been saying for some time. So the pressure on the banks avoid repossession of homes is welcome.

But let's face it, what Ms Cooper was doing was making a well spun statement. She wasn't actually announcing any new powers to tackle the problem. After the announcement that the state owned Northern Rock turned out to be the worst offender for repossessing homes, Labour needed to make it look as if they are tackling the issue, without actually doing anything about it. Hence the Cooper call on the banks.

The call of course completely contradicts the claim by the Chancellor when announcing the bank bailout that the "government is not in the business of managing banks" - in other words, the banks will be free to get on with managing their own affairs unhindered by minsiters.

So, whatever you think about Labour, they continue to be experts at spin (well, at least the people running their party nationally are - my view of the Labour spinners in Gateshead is somewhat different!)

Anyway, I am now on the train to London. You can tell the autumn is well upon us as we drove to the station in the dark. I am having a short week in London. I'll explain why I will be home sooner than usual later in the week but it's something to do with coal and tv!

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

The award photo

This is the photo taken yesterday of the award I got from the regional party for my email newsletter to constituents. Andrew Stunell MP presented it.

The newsletter goes directly to about 1500 households but plenty more receive it as people tend to forward it to family and friends.

PCA photos on Flickr

I have finished uploading the photos I took at Monday's Parliamentary Candidates Association reception at the. National Liberal Club. If you attended and you want copies of the photos, go to

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Out campaigning

Just finished delivering 400 copies of the cost of living survey in Blaydon constituency. I now need to get back home as my brother Andrew is due over soon to look at the allotment.

We shall return this evening to collect the replies.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

I have just won an award!

I am still at the regional conference and I am pleased to say I have just won an award for innovative use of the internet in campaigning (it includes email and video). Inevitably I was on hand with the camera to take photos of the awards, which left me in a slight problem for my own photos. Fortunately, Lucy Towers, regional media coordinator, came to the rescue. Photos will be posted soon!

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It's not me!

I am at the North East Liberal Democrat conference in Gateshead and a few people have said to me that they rather like the letter in the Independent yesterday in the name of Jonathan Wallace from Newcastle.

Alas, I don't know who Jonathan Wallace from Newcastle is and though people rather like the letter, I did not write it (nor have I even read it). I have a namesake in Newcastle. It's not the first time this namesake has written to the press. But to the Labour record keeper who monitors me for what I say and write, you'll just have to delete the letter from your records!

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Friday, October 17, 2008

If lending at last year's level was the problem, why is it now a condition of government support?

The announcement that government support to the banks is to be dependent on their lending to other banks, and to business and retail and mortgage customers at the level it was in 2007 struck me as an odd requirement when it was first announced. Whilst lending to businesses needs to be maintained (much lending is simply short term to allow for cash flow) the need to lend at last year's level on mortgages and personal lending to individuals suggests that the government actually wants a return to the problems that led to the financial meltdown in the first place.

Lending was previously unsustainable. Loans were made using assets as security that were massively overvalued. And much of the over valuation was itself caused by the easy supply of credit. 100% (or more) mortgages at five times personal income simply drove house prices higher and higher. Their true value however did not increase. And then there was all the unsecured lending at high interest rates for consumption (effectively a few hundred billion pounds of credit card debt for consumption). And then there was the secured lending on the inflated value of homes, in which people were cashing in on the increased value of their homes to pay for consumption that they would not otherwise have engaged in.

The common theme throughout this is that the vast majority of non-mortgage lending to individuals was based on rising house values and an assumption that any debt incurred would at least be covered by the rise in the value of the homes people owned. And if it wasn't based on that, much of it was based on an assumption that at some undefined point in the future, it could be repaid on the back of a prosperity level that was assumed could service past debts. In other words, buy now and hope you can pay later.

I past decades, such a situation would have led to runaway consumer inflation. We escaped that this time, but at the expense of other areas of the economy. All the excess captial converted to consumption was soaked up in a tsunami of cheap imported goods and cheap oil. Without access to all those cheap goods from abroad, our surplus income would have been eaten up either by inflation (which is what happened in much of the post war decades) or by putting the money into savings (the less likely outcome). We ended up with a huge deficit on our international trade. The reliance on cheap oil meant we were highly inefficient in the way we used it and were hit badly when demand rose sharply from countries such as China and India.

The rise in the cost of basics immediately made the servicing of debt a big problem. Forecasts of future growth had to be rewritten downwards. This was the outcome of 2007. The first to feel the heat was Northern Rock. It had provided too many mortgages at a level higher than the property was worth. The bank had assumed that putting people into a negative equity position on the first day of their holding a mortgage would only be a short term problem. The inflating property value would soon wipe our the negative equity. In 2007 that was no longer happening. The system was simply running out of money to lend, property prices could not continue to increase beyond the ability of the financial system to lend the money to pay for them, and confidence in the system was needed to maintain and increase prices - confidence which had reached its limit.

So it is easy for the government to say that banks are required to return to 2007 levels of lending, but as far as mortgage and personal lending is concerned, this is just not going to happen. Nor would it be sensible for it to do so. Lending for consumption simply increases the trade imbalance or causes inflation. Lending to buy a capital asset, provided the borrower has the future capacity to repay the loan, is perfectly reasonable provided the asset bought is not over valued.

Where the asset bought has a real value less that the amount paid for it, and more importantly, the purchaser does not have the future capacity to pay off the debt and the interest, you are in a sub-prime situation. House prices are now dropping fast so lending against them now almost certainly means negative equity in the very near future. Buyers are waiting til the market bottoms out. The banks may now have the money to offer as loans but the buyers aren't there.

So what the government was claiming was pure spin. We cannot return to sub prime lending as this is what has started the collapse in the financial services in America. Ministers knew there will be no return to the lending levels of last year. The only return is to the spin level.

The big problem now is not the level of lending to individuals but the lending to businesses instead. With a recession almost certainly now with us, the lenders will not have the confidence that business borrowers will be able to repay loans. Interbank lending is not the problem. Bank to business lending is. Perhaps the government should have looked at guaranteeing some of that lending instead of guaranteeing lending between financial institutions. It could only be for a short while and should require a risk by any business person taking such a loan. And it should not become a permanent feature of the economy. These are crisis times and sometimes crisis solutions are required that would not be contemplated in ordinary times.

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