Thursday, July 30, 2009

On my way to Wales - and time to rant again about train companies

I am about to leave London and head to North Wales for a few days. I have just had to spectacle of being stuck in a queue in Victoria for half an hour trying to cancel my London travel card. When eventually I did get served the cashier walked off with my pass and then eventually returned to tell me that because of some obscure "warranty" ithey were not going to refund it and I had to go instead to some obscure office in Cannon Street. I am sure the system is designed simply to make it impossible to get a refund. A sort of full money back guarantee as long as you know the way to get round the complex barriers and hurdles. I'm fuming! But I aint giving up.

Anyway I should be at Euston soon and on the train to Wales. And I aint going to let basket case rail companies spoil my holiday!
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Doing tourist type things

I went into Cowley St this afternoon to sort out some photo issues. Now I am at the theatre about to watch Avenue Q. I'm doing tourist type things. I haven't done that in my years of travelling to London but now I can! Tomorrow however I am not being a tourist. I need to sort my garden in London instead.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hitting Labour where it really hurts - in the motions

This is a classic example of Labour's "don't do as I say and certainly don't say as I do" approach to politics in Gateshead. A little bit of background at this point is necessary.

Gateshead has a relatively high number of people who suffer and die early from smoking related illnesses. Gateshead Labour MP David Clelland is the leading critic of his own Government's attempts to end smoking in public places (he wanted private clubs excluded) and end tobacco point of sale displays in shops. Mr Clelland also has very strong links with the Tobacco Retailers Alliance which is leading the campaign against the ban on retail displays. His step daughter is the boss of the organisation, a fact Mr Clelland failed to declare until he was outed by the Observer a few weeks ago.

This has not made him popular with Labour councillors in Gateshead who quite rightly are very concerned about the appalling effects of smoking to the residents of the borough. The apparent concern of Mr Clelland for the demands of the smoking lobby over the health needs of his own constituents do not seem to win the backing of Gateshead Labour councillors.

Mr Clelland argues he is being "tolerant" and has further argued he does not believe a point of sale display ban would work. Many other people are indeed less tolerant - of illness and premature death caused by smoking. Given the much higher incidence of smoking related health problems of his constituents, Mr Clelland's "tolerant" views are all the more disappointing.

So, come the last full council meeting and Labour has a motion calling on the borough's MPs to support the government's proposed ban on point of sale tobacco displays. The motion was very ably moved by Labour's deputy leader Ian Mearns (I can't help feeling Labour would be in a much better position if he rather than Mick Henry led them on the council.)

I then moved an amendment which simply added to the call on MPs to support the proposal by asking them also to speak in favour of the plans in the Commons. The hysteria from Labour was - well you had to be there it believe it. Council Leader Mick Henry spent most of the debate attacking me personally. By the end of the debate it was difficult to believe that all that was being asked of Labour was that they were being asked to ask their own MPs to speak in favour of their own policy.

This of course was far too much for Labour, "led" by Mick Henry to contemplate. He claimed that MPs could not be asked to speak for something. He gave the scenario of the Council calling on all councillors in Gateshead to speak in favour of council policy.

Interestingly the previous month, "Leader" Mick had made precisely that demand of the Lib Dem group! At the end of a debate on National Express plans to introduce a charge for seat reservations (a debate on the back of a motion I wrote!) Taking-The-Mick Henry alluded to the cross party agreement on the issue and then demanded that the Lib Dems should speak positively about the council more often and include more in support of Labour decisions in our Focus leaflets!

So it's okay for Labour to demand the Lib Dems speak in favour of Labour policy but it certainly is not okay for Labour MPs to be asked to speak in favour of Labour policy!

What a bunch of jokers Labour are turning into in Gateshead. That reminds me, there was another motion at the July Council meeting, moved by Labour Councillor John McElroy. This one was about the media industry in the region and the need to support it. But it was carelessly worded with the result it could be read as offering to give tv license fee money to Sky TV! I moved an amendment which attempted to remove the worst and most careless feature.

I could see, whilst I was speaking, that the penny had dropped with Labour cllrs as they realised precisely what their motion was calling for. They could not of course vote for our amendment. Once their motions are written, they do not accept amendments, no matter how sensible. So they had to come up with another ruse. Standing orders were suspended so that they could reword the motion to rewrite the bits that were clearly going to cause them trouble.

With a bit of luck, whoever wrote the sloppy original motion will be drafted in to write Labour's national manifesto. It would mean a manifesto that truely reflects the nature of Gordon Brown's government - sloppy and falling apart the moment anyone examines it.
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Fiona Hall's celebration party

I went to Fional Hall's celebration party this afternoon in the Biscuit Factory (it's an art gallery, not a production centre for dunking materials) in Newcastle. Fiona was re-elected as MEP for the North East last month so we were all in good spirits, especially as the region got the highest Lib Dem share of the vote in the UK. The biggest subject of conversation raised with me by people was the Good Life and how we are coping with self-sufficiency.

Talking of which, I went down to Beggarswood at Lobley Hill this morning to check out the supply of wild cherries. It's not in my ward but I was recognised by some LH residents and ended up getting some casework to do!

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Would you believe it - I'm heading down to London

I haven't quite escaped from London it seems. I am now at Newcastle Central waiting for my (delayed) National Excess train to Kings Cross. The trip is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I need to check my flat there is in good health. Secondly, I am continuing to run the photo ops for candidates at conference and I need to sort out some issues regarding that. Thirdly, I need to take jam into Cowley St. Apparently there is a jam famine there and the troops are ready to rebel if their marmalade and jam demands are not met! And finally I need to sort out my garden in London.

I am there til Thursday when I go up to North Wales for a short break (which also includes taking photos and video of historic landmarks for a project on which I am working.)

I will be back home a week tomorrow. David as usual is holding the fort in my absence.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Another byelection gain from Labour in Redcar

The Dormanstown byelection in Redcar was held yesterday and the count was this morning. Another gain from Labour. Well done to all our people there.

The ward, previously safely Labour, had a byelection in April which resulted in our first gain from Labour. All we had to do was repeat the result. We did just that but the other parties saw their votes fall.

By the way, another North East result with the Conservatives in 4th place. The biggest losers in votes however appears to be the BNP.

Lib Dems 805
Lab 515
bnp 145
Con 73
Turnout 29.8%

April 2009:
LibDem 809
Lab 667
BNP 305
Con 125

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Monday, July 20, 2009

The Monday Morning Blog: hello, it's me, I'm on the train

I thought I had left early Monday morning train journeys behind me. How wrong I was! Here I am, on the 6.54am train from Newcastle to Carlisle, surrounded by people with backpacks and bikes. As for me, I'm in my suit!

It didn't take long for the party to catch on to the fact I am back full time in the North East. Since I returned, I have had a steady stream of requests to go to meetings, take photos and shoot video. Today, I am off to Kendal, admittedly outside the North East, to help run a meeting of the Lib Dem county group, suitably enlarged following the local elections last month. It was ALDC who put my name forward.

So, I get to see the Lake District and get home this afternoon, in time to go to the allotment and do other self-sufficiency things.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

At the Pink Picnic in the Park

I was asked by Newcastle Lib Dems to help run the stand at the Pink Picnic in the Park in Leazes Park. So here I am on the stand surrounded by muddy paths and squelching ground. Just like being on the allotment! Fortunately the rain is holding off for now.

Greg Stone, our candidate for Newcastle East and hopefully slayer of the ineffectual Nick Brown at the general election, has had to leave suddenly as someone has broken into his car and let off the hand brake. So his car started to head down the bank! Given the stands here at the Picnic are on a bit of a slope, and the ground is rather wet, I also feel we are slipping down the slope. Leazes Lake is getting that bit closer!

Meanwhile, the signatures on Fiona Hall MEP's petition on recognising same sex partnerships across Europe is gathering quite a few signatures. Greg should be back soon to take over the stand, hopefully before we end up in the lake!

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MP to be smoked out by party members

Labour MP for Tyne Bridge, Mr David Clelland, is not having a good year. There is open speculation in the North East press about his future following his interesting use of the expenses system to give his then partner Brenda an equity release of £45,000 from his taxpayer funded London home. (Shortly afterwards Brenda became Mrs Clelland.) To add to his troubles, it was revealed that Mr Clelland had bought a rather attractive "oriental rug" and tried to get the taxpayer to pick up the bill for it.

Mr Clelland has also been one of the leading critics of the government's policy on smoking. He led the unsuccessful attempt to have private members' clubs excluded from the ban on smoking in public places. More recently he has been trying to incinerate government plans to ban tobacco displays in shops. The Observer recently attacked him for not declaring an interest in the issue. It turns out his step-daughter is head of a pro-smoking lobby group that is financed by the tobacco industry to fight the retail display ban.

Now Mr Clelland's troubles are a bit closer to home. Gateshead Council's Labour group will tomorrow move and debate a motion at full council highlighting the deaths and ill health caused by smoking in Gateshead - pointing out that the smoking-related health situation in the borough is amongst the worst in the country.

Interestingly, the motion goes on to demand that the MPs of the borough support a ban on point of sale promotions of tobacco in shops. Most Labour councillors in Gateshead come from the new Gateshead constituency for which Mr Clelland was narrowly selected to fight the next general election. His Tyne Bridge constituency is being scrapped.

So on the big, high profile issue on which Mr Clelland is battling, his own troops appear not only to be failing to back him, they are demanding he abandons the line he is taking. Is this the opening shot is a Gateshead Labour plot to rid themselves of this MP? Are there ambitious people in the Labour group with their sights set on his seat? Is Mr Clelland about to be smoked out?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bumping into a "former socialist"

I was in Gateshead Civic Centre this morning to attend Cabinet and bumped into a senior member of the Gateshead Labour party. To spare him his blushes, I will not mention his name! He was talking about his villas in Spain. "How interesting it is to see a socialist engaging in the world of the multiple home owning democracy, even if the homes are abroad!" I joked.

"Former socialist," he corrected me!

I'm sure the company he keeps in the Labour Party is of like mind!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Monday morning blog - no train journey today

For the first time in nearly a decade (other than holidays and times when I worked from home) I am not spending a Monday morning on the train to London. Bliss! Not that it's very relaxing here. Okay, I didn't have to get up at 6.40am, but I have had to make a trip to the allotment and now I am back home, surrounded by papers I need to read for meetings tonight and tomorrow. Meanwhile an email has arrived asking me to facilitate a meeting next Monday in Cumbria of the county council group.

So I am rapidly back into the swing of things (not that I was ever really out of them.)

Yesterday I paid a visit to Newcastle North constituency, a key battleground in the North East. The news from there is that Little Big McHenderson, the Labour MP (and a definite vote winner - for the Lib Dems) has announced his retirement at the general election. Whether or not this is to spend more time with his burgers (he's on McDonald's payroll as an "adviser") is not clear.

I was also out collecting petition signatures against Labour's cuts to flower beds in Whickham (Labour call them "efficiency savings"). We got about 70 signatures.

I'm off to bake bread now!
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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Three quarters of a million YouTube viewings

Another milestone in my bid to conquer the known universe - whilst I was on holiday my YouTube videos reached three quater of a million viewings. Sadly, for the rest of the world hoping desperately that I would get a life, I have over 2 hours of video shot in Paris, Norway, Faroe Islands, Iceland and the Orkney Islands over the past 3 weeks which will all be edited and uploaded to YouTube.

If anyone is short of something constructive to do, feel free to boost my viewing figures further at

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National Express resigns as the Fat Controller

It seems everything happened whilst I was away. Michael Jackson died (we had previously tried to get tickets for the O2 concerts when they were first announced but found they were sold out). Britain had a heatwave (we were getting worried as we sailed around the North Atlantic that all our crops would be frazzled by the time we got back - fortunately they are all doing well.). Cowley St suffered a flood on floor three right next to my old desk. (I always miss the exciting stuff!)

But the big news in my absence was that National Express decided to hand back the keys to the East Coast railway line. Seems as though National Excess couldn't afford the fare. Quite when they will hand over the service is not known but it is rather ironic that just as I stop using the service as a regular traveller, they decide they want to hand over the service to people who know how to run trains.

It is doubly ironic that I should find myself writing this post on the National Express train heading to Newcastle. At least however I am heading home.

I feel sorry for the staff running the rail service. Not only do they have to put up with passengers upset by management decisions to cancel trains, they are about to have their third employer in two years.

The question now is what happens to the franchise. I have seen suggestions that the government wants to offload it as quickly as possible. There are some who want it fully nationalised. There are times when putting a company into public ownership is the right thing to do. There are other times when public ownership is inappropriate or just plain damaging. I certainly don't support public ownership simply for the sake of it. I'll leave that to the Labour dinosaurs. The railways themselves did not do well under state ownership. Remember Beeching was a government appointee with a government remit to hack down large parts of the rail network. In effect British Rail was neglected as governments were not committed to investment and making it a success. There are plenty of faults with the current private franchising operation, but outside Network Rail, the private operators are at least committed to making running trains a success (even if like National Express they make a hash of it.)

I can't imagine for a moment that a Tory government would look on a publicly-owned rail system favourably despite their protestations of support, which we all know is drivel. A rail network fully owned by the public would not fare well under the Tories.

Perhaps what we need to do is work out what the final shape and purpose of a rail system should be and then decide the ownership on the basis of how best to deliver that vision.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

The Monday Morning Blog -Back in the UK

We arrived at Harwich at 8am today and we are now on the coach heading to Victoria. A very pleasant holiday and we are thinking of returning to Iceland to see the country in more detail. The trouble with doing a cruise is the rather fleeting glimpses gained of places visited. Iceland has too much interesting geology and history to do on three one day visits. We need much longer there. Whilst I think it unlikely we will get back to the Faroes, we are likely to return to Norway. It is, after all, only a ferry ride away from Tyneside.

I wouldn't mind returning to the Orkneys, though it would be as a stepping stone to visit the Shetlands. Incidentally, the amusing incident of the holiday was in the Orkneys. The local MP, Alisdair Carmichael, had picked up from Facebook that I had arrived in Kirkwall and sent me a message suggesting we meet up. Alas, we didn't have time to do so as we were only there for half a day. But we did speak on the phone. Facebook, internet, mobile phones. There's no escaping them!

Apparently there has been a heatwave in the UK whilst I was away. And the first thing that happens when we set foot again back here? - it rains. Welcome back! Mind you, I guess the allotment could do with a heavy downpour.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

In the Orkneys

We have just arrived in Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, having spent a day and a half sailing across the North Atlantic from Iceland. So we've done volcanoes, whale watching, geysers and waterfalls. Today we go to Skara Brae and then it's back to Harwich for the end of this holiday.

Given the poor signal at sea, I turned on the blackberry as we arrived this morning in Kirkwall and got a bucketful of emails.
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MP's staff car travel claim and the Sedgefield By-election

Do you remember the Sedgefield by-election? I do! I went to do the photos and video for the Lib Dem campaign (and managed to write off one video camera in the process when I got caught in one of those massive downpours.)

I wasn't the only councillor from Gateshead to be involved with the by-election. Paul Foy, Labour councillor for Birtley and office assistant for Blaydon MP David Anderson, was there as well. The reason I knew that is down to Councillor Peter Mole, a Labour council cabinet member. At full council on 19th July 2007, on the same day as the by-election, he announced that Cllr Foy was down in Sedgefield helping Labour in the by-election. As is so often the case, Cllr Mole is a useful font of wisdom when it comes to what's happening in the local Labour party!

I was therefore intrigued by the following claim for "staff car travel" made by Mr Anderson on 28th July 2007, just 9 days after the by-election. The amount was for £214.80. That seems an awful lot for one month's car use by a member of staff and, unless I have missed it, I can find no other similar claim anywhere in Mr Anderson's accounts. In other words this claim seems to be a one off.

Now, we all know that an MP's office budget cannot be used for party political purposes. Paying staff expenses to help Labour in a by-election is certainly not a permitted use of taxpayer funded office allowances. Quite what the claim in Mr Anderson's allowance was for, and which member of staff it covered, are not clear from the published accounts. All but the actual amount has been covered up.

So, could Mr Anderson enlighten us with the details as to what the purpose of the "car travel" claim of his staff member was for?

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