Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The sky high bills of high flying David Clelland MP

Before I start, let me just make clear that I have no problem with an MP employing a spouse in his or her office, provided they are on the same terms and conditions as anyone else who would otherwise be considered for the post.

Okay, so, now that that is done, let's take a look at the high flying partnership of David Clelland, Labour MP for Tyne Bridge, and his wife, Brenda, also his secretary. Does the taxpayer really need to pick up the bill of £5298 for Mrs Clelland to make 29 journeys to London in a single year? And if that travel is necessary (as his secretary I appreciate there will be times when some of it is) does the taxpayer really need to fork out an overage of £183 each time she travels down to London?

Mr Clelland himself does not come cheaply. Whilst he tells others to be green, Mr Clelland prefers to jump onto the plane to wing it down to London. You and I picked up a bill of £9301 for his air tickets. He lives closer to Newcastle Central Station than Newcastle Airport so convenience can hardly be an explanation for Mr Clellands enjoyment of heaving his head in the clouds and his feet not on the ground.

Mr Clelland is not entirely engrossed with flying. He does at least sometimes let the train take the strain, notching up a bill for £6797 in a single year. And then there is the car mileage of £2303.

The grand cost of Mr and Mrs Clelland's travelling is an eye watering £23,699 a year. Or put it another way, that's more than the vast majority of his constituents earn in a year. (And his incompetent government is doing its best to relieve many of them of that earned income.)

To keep all this in balance, look at the MP in Blaydon, none other than Mr David Anderson, with whom I have had a number of run ins, as well as intelligence conversations on the train and tube when we bump into each other in London.

Mr Clelland can claim to have cheaper mileage than Mr Anderson. There again, Mr Anderson's constituency is far far larger than the compact, inner city Tyne Bridge seat of Mr Clelland whose mileage was only £54 cheaper.

Mr Clelland can also claim he is much cheaper on train fares. Mr Anderson notched up a bill of £9845. Big Dave however can easily claim to have greener credentials than Little Dave. Mr Anderson did slightly let the side down with air fares though, notching up a whopping bill of only £424.

Mrs Anderson herself made 3 trips to London, at a cost to the taxpayer over the year of £218. That's only £73 a journey (and cheaper than many of the train fares I often have to pay to get to London!) How come Mrs Anderson is so economical when Mrs Clelland comes at such a price?

The overall cost to the taxpayer of Mr and Mrs Anderson's travel is £12,844, just over half the cost of Mr and Mrs Clelland, which I think is reasonable financially and environmentally.

High flying Mr Clelland however at least needs to get his feet back on the ground and take the train a bit more. I also suggest he gets some how-to-travel-more-economically tips from his constituency neighbour.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Not having a good train day

I am not having a good train day. This morning National Excess cancelled my train. Tonight, I left the office relatively early for the first time in ages. Now I am stuck at Victoria with all my trains cancelled and no explanation as to what the problem is. I should have just stayed at my desk and done some work.
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Weekend round up - freezing car parks and sewage works

There are proposals by Gateshead Council to introduce parking charges in Whickham village centre. So on Saturday morning, in the rain, wind and cold, I was in the car park behind Whickham Library, carrying out a survey of residents about the plans. One hour of being frozen right through but a useful exercise nonetheless. It was nice to find that every constituent I spoke to recognised me! And quite a few mentioned our eFocus email newsletter. Glad to see it is as popular as ever.

I warmed myself up afterwards at the Blaydon constituency coffee morning (we had a stall selling jams) and the constituency exec meeting. With the weather brightening up in the afternoon, I headed out into local woodland to forage for wild food. It was there that I discovered a huge set of foundations of a derelict building. Next to an historic waggonway, I wondered if it had anything to do with that now defunct route. But the bricks and the structured seemed too recent. I was curious to know more. As an historian, I had not come across any previous discussion of houses or indeed any buildings at this particular location.

A search on the internet that evening eventually produced an answer. We found it on old ordnance survey maps from the 1920s. Turns out this was the location for the Chester le Street Urban District Council's sewage works. None of the local history sites makes any mention of this, despite its size and the historical importance of having the main waterway in the local villages cleaned of sewage. I have a feeling I'll be back to the site soon with tape measure, notebook and cameras!

Did you turn your lights off for Earth Hour on Saturday evening? We did. We had the front room lit by 8 t-lights.

Sunday was spent mainly on the allotment. I planted a tear-jerking quantity of onions - about 350. Meanwhile, in the greenhouse I was able to check out my carbon sink. Two weeks about I planted 21 acorns I gathered last year. It looks like they are starting to grow. Hopefully in a few years' time we will be looking for homes for a forest of oak trees (plus 40 sycamores growing in our garden in London.) The idea is that the trees will absorb our past carbon emissions.

And finally, there was the inevitable focus delivery, last night. 200 done in less than an hour.

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The Monday Morning Blog no. 2 - the Jacqui Smith blue movie cock up!

You couldn't make this stuff up! According to the Home Secretary, it was all just a terrible mistake, just one big cock up. Perhaps Jacquie Smith thought blue movies were Tory party political broadcasts. And let's face it, you have to be a bit of a sado-masocists to enjoy such televisual delights!. Mr Smith however has been subjected to humiliation and forced to make a submissive apology by his dominant partner. It's clear who has the whip hand in that relationship. And she is in charge of the police as well. Just think of the uniforms!

Putting aside the individual viewing habits of the Smith family for a moment, serious questions have to be asked about what the additional cost allowance can pay for. The house in Redditch is clearly the family home of the Smith family. "Two Homes" Secretary Mrs Smith claims her main home is her sister's house in London. Conveniently, that allows her to claim the running costs of her Redditch home on her allowance. And that means the taxpayer is footing the bill for her husband. Why the taxpayer should pick up his costs is beyond me. The Smiths may say that they are paying back the costs of his pay-to-view porn, but why the hell should the taxpayer pick up the cost of any of his tv viewing, blue or not?

I accept that there are additional costs incurred when someone is elected for a constituency outside London. There needs to be some reflection of this in how MPs are paid and recompensed, though MPs are already well paid. (And as a minister whose husband is her constituency secretary, the Smith household is on a significant 6 figure income.) Perhaps the solution is to scrap the allowance and make a change to the pay of MPs.

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The Monday Morning Blog no. 1 - National Express ghost trains

National Express have, yet again cancelled my train to London. They are of course, experts in providing timetables for train services to London without providing the trains to go with them. And as usual, my train did turn up on time at Newcastle Central. It was meant to be the 7.40am fast service to London. On arrival from Edinburgh at Newcastle, it is cancelled and converted to the 7.52am slow service. The excuse as usual is that there is a "set shortage at the depot". That's National Excess technobabble for not having enough trains. And as this regularly happens, it strikes me that there is a systematic failure of management in this company. They take the easy route to solving a problem: cancel a service rather than solve the shortage of trains that they clearly have. And if that basic point is beyond them, they could try redrawing the timetable to take into account their ability to deliver it with the trains they have, rather than running the ghost service they operate now.

I asked at the National Excess "information desk" why the 7.40am is so regularly cancelled but was given the usual opaque technobabble. However, I could "fill in a complaints form" if I felt strongly enough. "Yes please," I replied. When I read the form I was given, it was billed as a "Comments and Compliment" form. Clearly, "complaints" is a word unknown to National Excess! And frankly, I am only prepared to make compliments to train operators who actually bother to provide train services I have paid for.

But get this. The form states: "At National Express we try hard to provide an excellent level of service for our customers at all times. We are continually looking at ways to improve and welcome any feedback and suggestions you may have." My suggestion is simple: try running a train service rather than a cancellation service. I for one am fed up with your ghost train service.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Nearly missing the train home/what's coming up

The Victoria Line was in a mess tonight. It took 30 min to get from Victoria to Kings Cross. I nearly missed the train. Fortunately I had built in enough time (just) to catch the train - I'm on it now,heading back to the North East.

Tomorrow I managed to double book myself. We have a fair in Crawcrook in the morning where I am running the jam stall (yes it really is a case of jam tomorrow!) But at the same time I am supposed to be doing a survey with constituents. So I will drop off David at Crawcrook, leave him to sell jam, then go off to do the survey, then go back to Crawcrook, then do the Blaydon constituency meeting, then head back home and spend the afternoon on the allotment. I've also got a video to make as well on cooking with wild foods - more wild garlic but possible nettle, dandilion and hawthorn.

And a weekend wouldn't go by without writing a Focus.

Talking of food as I was a moment ago, as I was late to Kings Cross, I didn't have time to get an M&S overpriced sandwich. I'll have to get one of National Express's overpriced ones instead. However, the trolley on the train has no veggie sandwiches. Seems as though I'll have to make a trip to the buffet car instead. Either that or break my environmental rule about not eating meat except on special occasions.
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Did you see Eric in a Pickle?

I didn't get back to the flat last night until 11.15 pm and then I broke a rule by watching politics on tv - I get enough through the day so I try to avoid it in the evening. But somehow I managed to catch the last few minutes of Question Time and the remarkable grave digging demonstration by Eric Pickles. For someone touted by the Tories as the "Great Organiser", his performance seemed to fall well short of what would be expected of one normally used to Conservative adoration. He argued that somehow the situation had degenerated into "hang an MP week." With Eric Pickles I think it was a case of give him enough rope and he'll hang himself.

The defence so far offered by the likes of Pickles, Smith and McNulty is rather Nurembergesque - "I was only following the rules."

Hopefully the review will do something to tighten up all of this, especially when the tax payer is currently subsidising what is the home of relatives of MPs. But I guess we had better not hold our breathe on that. The last time there were demands for reform, led by Nick Clegg, the proposals were torpedoed.

And finally, speaking as someone who has to live in two different places because of my job - Gateshead and London - I can speak from experience on running two homes (and I don't get a taxpayers' subsidy either!). I find the idea of monthly housing costs running at £2000, the maximum that can be claimed, rather challenging. Whilst there are clearly extra costs in the early years of owning a house (and a second one), £24000 a year seems way in excess of anything that is reasonable. If the additional cost allowance is to continue, perhaps there is a need for it to be tappered. London may be expensive, but it is certainly not that expensive.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Contacted by not-previously-known relatives

The Wallaces have quite a history in the Whickham/Sunniside/Ravensworth area I represent on Gateshead Council. It goes back over one hundred and fifty years and one day I shall explain some of it on this blog. But a brief summary is needed here.

Mr great grandfather Henry Wallace was land agent to Lord Ravensworth in the later Victorian period. He had 3 sons and 4 daughters. The eldest son was Atholl, followed by John, my grandfather. I wasn't sure if Atholl had any descendents. Well, now I do know. His grand daughter, Cheryl Wallace, now Klein, got in touch with me today via the Gateshead Council website. She explained on her email who her grandfather was and asked if we are related. Turns out that Atholl emigrated to Canada 100 years ago. I feel a visit to Canada is coming on!

The Council website has been very useful for long lost wings of the Wallace family to track me and Dad down. A few years ago, part of the family I thought had not survived the war (they were trapped in Holland when the Nazis invaded) managed to locate us via Gateshead Council website. The result was Dad, then 72 years old, met his sister Margaret, then 89, for the first time. It's an amazing story and as I said earlier, one of these days I will tell it, and show the video of when they first met.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taking a day off

I have taken today off to sort my garden in London. Basically, the garden has been a poor relative of our allotment and garden in Gateshead but we have set ourselves the task of bringing it into use for food production. We have made some half hearted attempts in the past to get it into use so there is already a variety of herbs and fruit plants. But a large area is derelict and that's where the hen house is going! There will be updates on my allotment blog: www.self-sufficientinsuburbia.blogspot.com.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Making sure of a good stuffing

The first wild crops of the year are now available and amongst them is wild garlic. I picked a bag full from one of the local woods on Saturday. First on my list of recipes was wild garlic pesto. We had it with home made pasta on Saturday. This was the first outing for our pasta machine. All worked very well.

Our newish environmental regime means meat is eaten on only special occasions. So celebrating the end of winter and the start of spring was, to us, a suitable occasion. This event may have little or no meaning to the vast majority of people who rely on the supermarket for their food supply but for those of us who are aiming to be self-sufficient, such days have much more relevance and importance.

So, this was a meat weekend. And out of the freezer came three pheasants which we had previously swapped for jars of jam. Having previously plucked them, now was the time to stuff them. I made a stuffing which included wild garlic and some of our home grown herbs. It was a bit expeimental, but it worked well.

Inevitably, I will be producing a video shortly on cooking with wild garlic. And if you want to follow our attempts to become self-sufficient, go to my other blog www.self-sufficientinsuburbia.blogspot.com.
It is not yet updated for the weekend's activities but it will be soon.
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The Monday morning blog - the re-appearance of Gordon Brown

Mark Pack at Lib Dem Voice posted on Friday a copy of a Labour recruitment leaflet that contained no mention of Gordon Brown. The only photo it contained was of Barrack Obama, not only leader of another party, but leader of another country! Clearly Labour seemed to believe that Gordon is a disincentive to people to join.

I was able to have a look at the leaflet (Mark is after all based at the next desk to mine). It led me to think I should write a post along similar lines. And then last night, in a meeting with fellow councillors from Whickham, Chris Ord gave me a copy of a Labour leaflet he had managed to recover from North Tyneside. And in it was a photo of Gordon Brown and a letter from him. Perhaps Labour in North Tyneside are not so ashamed of their Leader as the rest of their party seems to be. Or possibly, Labour in North Tyneside are on a suicide mission and know it!

North Tyneside has an elected mayor. The borough first elected a Tory mayor (and subsequently stayed Tory in a byelection). But the last mayoral election was held on the day of the 2005 general election. This was almost certainly the cause of Labour's gain of the mayoralty - all those extra Labour voters coming out to vote who would otherwise not have voted in a simple local election gave Labour enough of an advantage to seize the first prize.

Now Labour are staring into the abyss in North Tyneside. With no general election expected, the extra turnout they need to hold on is going to be difficult to motivate to get out. Nevertheless, Labour are putting in the resources. The leaflet I was given was a personally addressed survey card which was mailed out. Not cheap! With Labour close to bankruptcy (both financially and politically) they have clearly made a decision to put what few resources they have into the battle for North Tyneside.

For the Tories however this is quite a prize. North Tyneside is the only place in the whole of Tyneside where they are strong. Tynemouth constituency is one of their top targets (it was formerly a long term Tory seat until it went Labour in 1997). The Tories will trumpet a gain in North Tyneside as evidence of a recovery in the North - though the reality is that it is simply a recovery in North Tyneside, not the North East generally.

So, North Tyneside mayoral race is an interesting one to watch.

Meanwhile, I am on the shockingly early 7.20am train from Newcastle heading to London. That meant getting up at 6.20am. And even then the sun was up. We have of course passed the spring equinox this weekend. But that didn't make getting up so early any more enjoyable!
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Red kite at night Jonathan' delight

I am currently delivering Focus leaflets in the Derwent Valley. The sun has gone down but there is still some daylight. And swooping above me are two red kites. These birds of prey have been reintroduced into the area after an absence of 200 years. It's great to see them back. I've also seen them hovering over the allotment in Sunniside recently but I haven't seen then this close to houses before.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

How does the Tory poll lead really compare with the 1990s

There seems to be a debate taking place on Lib Dem Voice (http://www.libdemvoice.org/david-laws-was-right-and-mike-smithson-12647.html) and various other blogs about the true state of the Tory lead in the polls. The issue was kicked off by David Laws MP on BBC on Wednesday who pointed out that whilst the Tory poll lead is in the region of 12%, this is far less than that enjoyed by Labour in the dying days of the Major government in the 1990s.

Whilst some argue that the current polling methods attempt to take into account a respondent's likelihood of voting, it cannot explain why the Conservatives are clocking up shares in the low 40s whilst in the 1990s, Labour's share was usually in excess of 50%. Others are arguing that the Conservatives are performing well.

Maybe the explanation is simply that Cameron's Conservatives do not have the reach that Labour had in the 1990s (which has since disappeared). There are after all whole swathes of teh country, particularly northern metropolitan areas, where the Conservatives' local performance is at best patchy and at worst they are the 4th party behind the BNP.

I feel no burning urge for a Cameron government amongst the electorate whereas in the 1990s, there was a feeling of goodwill and support for a change from the Tories to the Blairite New Labour model (how times have changed!)

The Conservatives have an electoral mountain to climb. To secure a working majority they need a swing at least as large as that achieved by Labour in 1997. That gave Blair a landslide majority. The Conservatives will simply scrape in with barely a majority on the same swing. And that assumes the uniform swing will engulf Lib Dem held constituencies as well. The Tories know not to count on that. They also know they need to win 130 seats to get a minimal majority.

The task before them is not impossible but it is hugely challenging and the polls show they are still some way off achieving that.

Meanwhile, Labour, with their backs to the wall, have not yet given up the will to govern as the Tories had in the 1990s. They will come out fighting and they will attempt to pull rabbits out of the hat. The next election is by no means an certainty as it was in 1997. A great deal can still happen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I need a copy of Private Eye

On the train tonight, I got a call telling me I need to get a copy of Private Eye. All I know is that a certain North East MP is featured and it will make interesting reading! Something to do with the unions. I'll get a copy tomorrow.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another bit of self-praise by this MP

Sharon Hodgson is the Labour MP for Gateshead East and Washington West (though Labour have enforced a speedy goodbye to her by selecting a much older man as the candidate for the new Gateshead constituency). She is not widely known for anything special in Parliament, other than a rather interesting early day motion that praised her a couple of years ago. It was interesting as she was the one who wrote and sponsored it!

So I guess it should come as no surprise that dearest Sharon should write a news release describing a speech she had made in Parliament as "well received". Well, I suppose someone has to say something nice about her so it might as well be Sharon herself. You can read all about her "well received" speech at:

10,000 Flickr viewings

Some stat porn, this time from my Flickr site. I've only had a Flickr account for a few months but I am pleased to announce I have now hit 10,000 viewings. If you've nothing better to do, here's the link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathanwallace/

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Monday Morning blog: spring is in the air

I know winter is more or less behind us when I get up on a Monday morning at 6.40am to catch the 7.40am train to London and it is day light outside. And so it was this morning, not that that made me want to get up. I only got at bed at 1am, having spent an age looking for a set of video clips on my pc, only to realise that I hadn't uploaded them from the video tape! They are of the Port of Tyne in North Shields, and include footage of the huge Nissan car park, full of new Nissan cars waiting to go for export. It was filmed back in November. Not so many head that way now.

Anyway, as I am now on the train to London, I am pleased to announce that today, National Express have failed to cancel the service! We are leaving Gateshead now.

So having had a weekend of digging up the allotment, helping people campaign against opencast mining applications, editing my conference video and meeting one of the candidates applying for Blaydon, I am heading off for a week in London of doing unspeakable things to opponents which, if you are on the Lib Dem Communications circulation list, you should have in your in box by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, I am going to catch up on my sleep. See you in London.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

What's coming up this weekend

It's me, I'm on the train. Yes, it's Friday evening and as you would expect, I am heading home to Gateshead for a weekend of rest. I wish! David is off to a magistrates training weekend in Durham so I have to give him a lift there early tomorrow morning. I could have prescribed a train journey but that would probably mean I wouldn't have the car this weekend! And it is a one off journey so for once I'll overlook the carbon footprint of the journey. I'll also use the journey back to check out wild food sources along the way.

David has kindly drawn up a list of things I need to do on the allotment over the weekend in his absence. I'll be there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And a shopping list has been drawn up for me to take to the allotment garden centre in Hexham. I'm heading out to a tiny village on the Northumberland/Cumbria border called Halton Lea Gate. The area is proposed for opencast mining and I am now involved in a group that helps residents fight proposals. We are having our next meeting in the village tomorrow afternoon. I'll do the garden centre on the way back. And a bit of wild food foraging as well. I may even try and call in at one of the Roman Wall sites as well.

When I got on the train tonight, I got an email from my group leader Noel Rippeth, telling me that he had kindly arranged for 800 focus leaflets to be dropped off at my house. Fortunately they are not all for me. Some are for one of the five people wanting to be selected for Blaydon constituency. It's amazing how many leaflets I can pass on to keen candidates when a selection for a winnable seat is on the horizon. The candidate in question is coming to my house to chat about the constituency on Sunday evening. This is not meant to indicate my support for any particular candidate and any others who also want to talk to me about the constituency are welcome to call in. However, bring a bag. You will need something to carry the focus leaflets away with you!

And finally, I will be editing my next blockbuster video. Watch out for "Harrogate Conference" (rated PG). A definite oscar winner (not).

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The details of Royal Mail plan - not so good after all

I have had a chance to look at some of the details of the Royal Mail plans of the government. I am on record as being a supporter of bringing private finance into RM but the details of what is proposed are nowhere near as attractive as was first claimed.

The basic case for a change in ownership of RM is the freedom it gives to the company to raise the badly needed capital required to modernise what is an antiquated set up. Without that investment, the company will be unable to compete with the new arrivals in the market place. The government is currently the only shareholder in the company and therefore is the only body that can agree to new investment. This has not been forthcoming either under the Conservatives or Labour. Both governments have been prepared to take out the dividend, but not put in the investment. In effect, Royal Mail has been used as a cashcow but is now overmilked and underfed. Had this been a real cow, the owner would be in court for neglect and cruelty. No wonder RM is in such a mess

My hope was that the new ownership model proposed by Mandelson following the Hooper review would change all that. Sadly, having considered the details, it does nothing of the sort. Two crucial areas will leave the company hamstrung. Firstly, it will not be able to go to the financial markets to borrow or raise new share capital. The company will therefore still be dependent on the government for additional investment. Okay, so the new minority private sector shareholder will be putting in the region of £800 million into the company in the form of new share capital. But that money only goes so far and assuming it modernises the business, where then for RM. It needs to be dynamic and look to grow into new areas. But the model as proposed by Labour will leave the company to stagnate yet again once the initial investment has been completed. In effect, after the initial investment, RM will be left with the disadvantages of state ownership without any of the advantages.

The second worrying point is the Royal Mail will be restricted to business activities in the UK. This is all the more ironic given that the new investors in RM are foreign mail providers who do have the option to branch out into foreign markets and earn valuable profits to send back home. Royal Mail won't be allowed to branch out abroad and earn euros and dollars.

The Lib Dems have a proposal on the table for a shared ownership scheme which gives the companies the freedoms it needs to be a success. Okay, I am biased. I was very closely involved with writng the policy. Our model would have created a Royal Mail that was free to borrow and raise capital, had a significant minority stake for the state and another significant minority stake for the staff which would have been held in trust for their benefit. As with the John Lewis model, staff would have been partners in the business. The shareholding of he staff and the state together would have been just over 50%, the rest would have been sold.

A further significant difference is that under our model, Post Office Ltd would have been split off from RM and remain wholly in the public sector. This would free branches to develop new business, especially with other parcel amd mail delivery companies. At the moment they are barred from doing that. Under Labour's proposal, Post Office Ltd remains a full part of RM. And that means in effect Labour are part privatising the Post Office but not giving the branches the freedom they need to develop new business income.

So, having given some consideration to the proposals, I have come to the conclusion that they are timid step that fails to address the long term issues and leaves the company without the freedoms it needs to be a successful national and international competitor.

And let me just correct anyone who thinks I'm jumping into bed with all those rotten Old Labour dinosaurs on this issue. I'm not. I think they are even worse than their own government. At least ministers have proposed a way forward, even though it is very far from perfect. The dinosaurs on the other had have made a few Jurrasic roars about how dreadful they think it all is, but they have not put forward a single, workable alternative suggestion. It seems they are happy to leave RM as it is and let it whither on the vine and eventually die. That is certainly not something I would support.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Round up

This is my first round up for a while so here goes. I have to keep it short as well. My blackberry is just about of juice! Sunday I came down to London. Rest of week I've been sorting conference photos. Anyone at the photo ops should now have their pics. Today I met my new big boss. And I've nearly finished the North East Democrat. So there we go, keeping it short. Off out for dinner now. Probably the Yak and Yeti again.
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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Photos from the rally at Harrogate

Just a few photos from the rally held on Saturday evening at the Harrogate Lib Dem conference.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Leaving Harrogate on a very small train

A successful conference. I have spoken to lots of people who read my blog, taken bucket loads of photos and ran 5 photo ops though this time I took the photos at only 2 of them.

The most surreal moment for me over the weekend was at dinner last night. I was out with a group of about 12 and the person sitting next to me, Stephen from Scotland, who I hadn't met before, had the same interests as me in terms of home grown food and world travel.. So, whilst everyone else around us was discussing how to save the world, we were swapping stories about growing courgettes, picking blackberries and going on cruises on the Medditerranean!

We are now on the train heading to Leeds. I'm not heading home, but instead I'm heading down to London. This is a 2 carriage train. Fortunately I was able to get a seat when I insisted that someone remove a bag from it so I could sit down. Most others on this train are standing, sardine style.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Leaving behind the wheelbarrow puncture repairs to go to Harrogate

I am on the traiin heading south to York where I change for the local service to Harrogate. Surprisingly, given the time of day, the service is packed out. The overhead racks are full and I have half my luggage, and my homemade sandwiches on my lap. I would have tried to read the self-sufficiency handbook I brought along for the journey but frankly, I'm going to have a battle to retrieve it from my bag.

Meanwhile, I've left David at home with a puncture repair kit, mending the tyres on both our wheelbarrows! (Yes we are a 2 wheelbarrow household!) And as this is a conference weekend, I will be missing my time on the allotment. Still, I paid it a brief visit yesterday after council and looked lovingly on my new greenhouse and fruitcage.

Meanwhile, stashed away in my luggage are some rhubarb plants which are surplus to requirements in Sunniside and will be planted instead in our garden in London. I wonder if they will go with the green custard which was showered on Peter Mandelson this morning.

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Throwing custard is not the way to make your case

There are far better ways to make a case for your beliefs than assaulting cabinet members. Throwing green custard over Peter Mandelson may bring a degree of amusement to some, but whatever your cause, this sort of activity is completely unacceptable. I don't say this just because I have a degree of respect for Peter Mandelson (a point that probably does not endear me to many Labour members!) I say it because so-called direct action damages democracy and often puts back the cause in question.

The self-righteous twit who perpetrated this morning's custard throwing spectacle (she postures as an environmentalist but uses a highly processed and unsustainable food source!) claimed she was doing so because democracy had failed. Peter Mandelson, she claimed, was not elected. Quite who elected her is not clear. She claimed that direct action had worked in the past. She gave the miners' strike and suffragettes as examples. Given that the miners' strike was an unmitigated disaster, was led by donkeys posing as lions and actually accelerated pit closures, this seems to be an odd comparison. And with my historian's hat on, there is an historical argument that says that the campaign of violent damage to property actually delayed female suffrage. Having read private papers and cabinet documents of the late Edwardian and pre First World War period, there was great frustration with the more extreme "direct action" wing amongst those cabinet members who supported equalising the franchise. They did not want to appear to buckle to undemocratic forces of violence.

I am all for peaceful demonstration. The right to protest is a fundamental part of democracy and Labour's attacks on that right have been unforgivable. But there are some attention seekers who go too far. I suggest today's culprit does something practical to support the green cause such as living a genuinely greener lifestyle and showing others how to do it, rather than bringing the cause she claims to support into disrepute.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Harriet Harman, fingernails and blackboards

My ears are still recovering from Deputy Leader's Question Time. The more the Lady Harriet got wound up, the more shrill was her tone. There were times when I thought she was simply going to explode and MPs were going to get showered by her aristocratic blue blood. Alas, it was bad news for the Labour Party - she survived to live another day, and, of course, mount a leadership bid if Labour loses the election. Nevertheless, having sounded like Margaret Thatcher in best hectoring and shrill mode, she did manage to mount a minor comeback part way through PMQs. Perhaps we should call it a Harriet Bounce.

Listening to her screaching away left like listening to someone scratching fingernails down a blackboard. Let's just hope she wins any leadership bid. She really would scare the horses!

I'm on the train heading back home now to Gateshead, having spent the day making photo op props. We had an extra volunteer in the office today so I made full use of the extra labour. I have 5 photo ops this weekend at Lib Dem conference with Nick Clegg, Lorely Burt, Vince Cable,Chris Huhne and David Laws.

Tomorrow we have full council (last week's meeting was for setting the budget.) And on Friday I'm off to Harrogate for the conference. So no chance for me to hide away down on the allotment.
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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Whose idea was the weather - and other round up stories

I have just left Cowley St in the rain and gale and discovered that my shoes are leaking. My toes are paddling in their very own pool of water at the moment. I need to make a trip to the cobblers! Mind you, the last time I did that, it was almost as cheap to buy new shoes. Anyway the weather is vile. I don't want to dwell too long on Britain's favourite item of polite conversation, but it is just plain awful. And I hear other parts of the country are getting snow.

Quite a contrast to Sunday when I was down on the allotment in the sun. Anyway, a brief roundup from the last few days.

Firstly, for all you Parliamentary Candidates out there, I have written and produced the pre-conference edition of Parliamentary Campaigner. It should be in your inboxes shortly. The final revision to it was done this evening.

Secondly, having built the fruitcage last week down on the allotment, I had a merry time on Friday planting raspberries. Cowley St is expecting a big increase to the jam supply this summer. The jam addicts need their fix! And just to set the pulse of the new communications media racing, I have posted onto YouTube the video of building our greenhouse and fruitcage. But just as you thought it was safe to come out, I'm working on my next allotment oscar winning blockbuster, "Winter on the allotment". Watch out for the shocking scenes of the arrival of 5 tonnes of manure! I made the mistake of letting a colleague have a photo of me shovelling the stuff. He said he wanted to use it in a training session on how to take good photos. I suspect it will be used in other ways, probably with interesting captions added!

And finally, I have been creating police officers (cardboard ones)! It's for a photo op at conference this weekend with Chris Huhne. I needed to come up with an idea for the event and it had to have a crime and policing angle to it. So watch this space. Tomorrow I have to create a giant cheque, a poster about increased spending on schools and a giant version of the small business survey, all for the other photo ops I am running. Should be fun!
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Monday, March 02, 2009

The Monday morning blog: the politics of pensions

The sight of Labour's aspiring potential Leader of the Opposition, the Lady Harriet, beating the drum for the confiscation of Fred The Shred's pension, is one of those classic moments of political spin. And whilst the unbelievably generous arrangements for this particular pension are staggering in the degree to whichthey have rewarded failure, the reality is that Labour are culpable in the arrangements.

Lord Myners, the City minister, has admitted he knew of the arrangement last October when Fred the Shred took early retirement from RBS. Myners defended himself by claiming he was not made aware that the decision was a discretionary one for the board of the company. This claim sits uncomfortably alongside Myners's previous role as a city financier. He is one of Labour's friends in the City, the sort of rich financier to whom Labour have sucked up for over a decade. If anyone knows how city boardrooms operate, Myners is the person.

Back to the Lady Harriet. As a leading member of the government, she shares responsibility for the pensions fiasco that includes making the benefit system vastly complicated with the result that too many pensioners do not claim their entitlement; taking away benefits from those who have saved and spinning that they are going to restore the state pension link to the increase in earnings whilst never actually introducing the reforms.

The reality of the situation is that Labour approved the pension deal for Fred the Shred and are now trying to wriggle free now that there has been a storm of public indignation about the arrangement. And the people making the loudest noise, such as Harriet Harman, will be the beneficiary of the most generous state pension going, the one set up for MPs and ministers. All this raises the interesting prospect of stripping failed ministers of their pensions. After all, we wouldn't want to reward failure, would we?

Equally nauseating is the babbling of George Pipsqueak Osborne. Having spent years defending financiers' rewards, and having seen his own leader last September, on the eve of the RBS pension decision, backing executive pay and conditions, we are now all expected to believe that the Conservatives want an end to such excesses.

Anyway, I'm off to London for two days. No National Express cancellations. Talking of failure, I wonder what their executive pension arrangements are liike.

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