Friday, 29 May 2015

Should Labour take heed of the right wing press?


‘Liz Kendall…the Labour leadership candidate with the ‘mo’’ is the seemingly unlikely headline I tweeted out earlier today from The Telegraph website.
The article which talks up Ms Kendall’s potential as a candidate with serious leadership credentials is just one of a string being published by commentators in what traditionally has been called in Labour circles the ‘right wing media’.
Last week The Sunday Times ran a glowing profile of Liz not just opining about her willingness to take Labour out of its comfort zone and telling tale of her ferocious competitiveness in her local pub quiz, perhaps creating an image of how she may take on vested interests as leader?
Even The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman has weighed in writing that Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Ms Kendall’s leadership rivals, have a ‘hard act to follow’ after her infamous lunch with members of the Westminster media village.
But all of these plaudits should make us ask a more serious point suggested to me this morning by a Twitter follower which is this:
Liz Kendall has ‘clearly got the support of the Tory press. Trouble is I’m not sure they have best interests of Labour at heart’.
So should we take note of what those right wing establishment figures say is best for Labour? Should we expect anything other than them to have our worst interests at heart?
My answer is unequivocal. Of course we should listen.
With one or two exceptions the Tory press doesn’t hate Labour.
Yes, they may see us as a joke. Yes, they will often ridicule our political correctness. Yes, they see us as a party who can’t manage the economy. But hate us? No.
The right wing press are much much more interested in strong nation which improves the lives of their readers and their owners. They are first and foremost interest in making sure their companies are profitable. Who can blame them? Isn’t that what all entrepreneurs want?
We need to be clear ‘the right wing press’ have no inherent obligation to support the Conservatives. They will support the party that offers the best choice for their proprietors and just as importantly their subscribers.
The media are not lifetime supporters of one party or another. When the offer is right they will support Labour, but not until. They did in 1997 and 2001, didn’t they?
The difficulty is we have just spent 5 years castigating them. We all saw Ed taking on the power of Rupert Murdoch, didn’t we?
I don’t recall Ed being quite as forceful with Mirror Group though when they became involved in phone hacking. Maybe my mind is playing tricks?
The generation of Labour leadership that has just passed spent no time trying to work with whole sections of the media, why would we expect them to be friendly to us?
Ultimately, especially at this time in the election cycle, we should be listening to the views of The Times, The Telegraph, even the The Daily Mail for one reason. Their readers can and will, if the offer is right, vote for us.
It certainly doesn’t benefit the establishment media to have a weak Labour party because they want the option of a choice.
It’s clear that their mind is already made up about Mr Burnham and probably Yvette Cooper.It is persuasive however, if nothing else, that they are willing to show an interest in Liz.
I have said before that I am decidedly undecided whether I want to see any of the current slate of candidates as leader, ultimately I want to see our party in power and I simply don’t know if any of the declared runners can achieve that.
I keep hearing that only 24% of the population elected the Tories but I have news that 24% are politically active and a lot more of them voted for them than voted for us. We would be mad to ignore the media they read and the opinion formers who influence them.

 

Left or right: leadership election leaves Labour at the crossroads - My Catholic Universe column


I am not normally one drawn to hyperbole but every so often it is a remarkably useful device and so, on this one occasion, I will resort to using it. I am sure you will see why later.
The Labour Party is on the brink of civil war.
Now obviously I’m not talking about a ‘pick up thy musket’ pikes and staffs civil war which will lead to significant bloodshed. I am however talking about an ideological conflict for the heart of the party which, without a great deal of craftsmanship and diplomacy, could either lead to the departure of thousands of members and potentially a whole trade union movement or it could see Labour languishing as no more than an opposition for a generation, maybe more.
There is little doubt that the general election result that millions of viewers watched roll in on their television screens on May 9th was epochal for Labour. Let us make no bones about it a Conservative majority should have been out of the question long, long before that day.
Evidence on the doorstep, in the polls and even simply in conversations in the pub, at work or even at church suggested all Labour had to do was take a comparatively small number of votes off a highly unpopular incumbent government.
Whilst it is true that the economy has started to improve many people said they didn’t feel better off or more secure in their jobs. To vast numbers Mr Cameron may have been thought competent, but certainly not likeable. The Conservatives had failed clearly if not spectacularly on their key promises, including but certainly not limited to deficit reduction and immigration. The Conservatives should have been there for the taking.
But Labour failed.
We didn’t miss out narrowly, we failed miserably.
To see just how much we failed look no further than the constituency of North Warwickshire, Labour’s number one target seat. Labour lost North Warwickshire in 2010 to the Tories by just 54 votes. Literally all Labour had to do was convert a coach load of Conservative voters.
The reality in 2015 was that Dan Byles, the one term Conservative MP, stood down. Labour didn’t even have an incumbency factor to tackle.
Yet on 8th May, on a virtually identical turnout to 2010 Labour lost nearly two thousand votes and the Conservatives increased their majority to just short of three thousand.
Labour has some serious questions to ask of itself.
Of course in the face of such a drubbing Ed Miliband was right to resign straight away and leave the post mortem for other voices, and that is where Labour’s problems are only just starting.
Whilst Labour are still trying to figure out what went wrong a leadership circus is, for the next 4 months, setting up camp seeking to give soundbite answers to a membership base who in some quarters are not willing to accept the reality of such a defeat.
Many quarters of the Labour Party, particularly on line, feel that the reason Ed Miliband lost was that Labour didn’t go far enough. They feel that a full on anti-austerity party is what the electorate are crying out for, there should be more nationalisation and taxing of the rich. That is what, in some quarters, Labour party activists believe. Some Labour Party members honestly believe that there was nothing wrong with Ed Miliband’s offer and that we were defeated by Rupert Murdoch and ‘the right wing press’.
I have written more than once in these pages about the horrible negative campaigning used by elements of the Conservative Party but ultimately this wasn’t an election which was stolen from Labour but one which we lost fair and square at the will of the British people.
As I have spoken with people since the election it is clear Labour failed to connect. Labour has long espoused that it is the party of working people and yet time and time again I have been told by ordinary folk with ordinary jobs that Labour ‘said nothing to me’.
Whilst Labour were (rightly) defending the weakest in society from the bedroom tax and (wrongly) punishing the richest with higher tax rates and ill-thought through property levies the Conservatives were talking to families who go out every day to work to provide themselves with a better life.
I spoke with one lady a couple of days after the election who said to me ‘I wanted to vote for compassion, I had to vote for capability’.
Now we have to decide which route Labour will take. Do we want a leader who will follow a more pronounced route of establishment bashing potentially working at the behest of one or two trade union barons? Or do we want a leader more attuned to the centrist, middle-way view once taken by the likes of Tony Blair?
It is fair to say both options have significant numbers of detractors in the party and both options will in all likelihood leave their fair share of casualties.
At the time of me writing this column there are 4 potential candidates for leadership of the Labour Party; Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh. It is absolutely possible, if rumours are to be believed, that by the time you read this Ms Creagh will have dropped out of the race due to a lack of support from MP’s.
As an aside, and regardless of my views as to suitability for leadership, it is great to see that both Mr Burnham and Ms Creagh are both products of Catholic state schools.
Every candidate to a greater or lesser extent is now talking of the need to connect with ‘aspirational’ voters and ‘wealth-creators’, those important parts of the electorate who want a fair safety net for the poorest in our society but who just as importantly want security and opportunity for their families too. Arguably, the same type of people who voted for ‘New Labour’ back in 1997, arguably the new ‘working class’.
Alarm bells are ringing in the more left wing corners of the party that such an ideologically impure approach will signal the return of ‘Blairism’ and prophesying doom for our traditional socialist, trade unionist history.
Labour party members are going to have a very difficult choice in the coming months, a choice of left or centrist, a choice of candidates who have previously held ministerial office and are therefore tarnished by them against those with less experience.
For me at least as someone from the third way tradition of the Labour Party I am deeply concerned about a lack of choice and a lack of quality in the candidates coming forward. I want to see more debate and, yes, more candidates.
I am yet to be fully convinced but right now I cannot see Labour’s next election winning Prime Minister in this line-up of potential leaders.
I very much hope I am wrong but short of someone taking over in a caretaker capacity to allow other potential leaders to come through I very much fear many more columns like this will be written in May of 2020.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Grass verges in context

Over the past few weeks I have received  lot of complaints about the state of grass verges in Whitwick and Thringstone. I know other councillors around the county are getting similar calls and emails.

It would be terribly easy to blame Leicestershire County Council and the Conservative administration who run it. Whilst County Hall does have some degree of culpability it is only right to put the situation in context in order that local residents can be better informed.

I shall try to do just that as part of this blog post, but it isn't a short story!

In the summer of 2013 Leicestershire County Council was becoming increasingly aware of a looming financial crisis.

Due to the way local government is funded your council tax has historically made up less than half of all the money the council spends, the rest comes from fees and income and from central government grants.

As a result of cuts to the central government grant funding, itself directly resulting from the government's austerity agenda, it became clear that over the next few years the County Council had to save around one third of all of the money it spends, well over £100 million pounds a year.

Accordingly the County Council conducted a large scale consultation exercise to ask you, the residents of Leicestershire, where you thought money could be saved.

7150 people responded to the consultation and overall budget reductions in grass verge cutting were amongst the top 5 areas thought acceptable by the general public.

There is no doubt that this has informed the County Council's spending plans.

Last year the County Council decided to reduce the number of cuts to grass verges from 8/9 a year to just 5.

The County Council asked parish and district councils if they would be prepared to take over mowing of grass verges. If the parish or district chose to do so they would be reimbursed by the County for 5 cuts and, of course, the parish could add further cuts in if they were able to provide funding.

In the case of Whitwick, after preliminary investigations, it became apparent that due to the economies of scale available to county the rate being offered would not be sufficient to meet the 5 cuts a year stipulation without top up funding from the parish. Clearly additional cuts would incur additional charge to the taxpayer.

As a result Whitwick Parish Council turned down Leicestershire County Council's offer.

This year the County Council commenced grass cutting around 1 April. By now Whitwick and Thringstone should have had 2 cuts. The County Council are currently behind schedule and have only carried out 1 cut although it is expected a further one will be carried out shortly. 

Last year I attended a meeting of County and Parishes at the offices of North West Leicestershire District Council. I asked officers what was the legal minimum number of cuts that the County Council had to make to grass verges. I was informed that the minimum would be 3 cuts per year and there could be no guarantee that the County Council would not move to this arrangement in future years.

Leader of Leicestershire District Council Nick Rushton regularly tells all County Councillors that 'there is no more money'.

Nick is right. The government's austerity programme is here to stay and as has recently been validated by the general election result as being the will of the people.

Albeit there are some minor delays Leicestershire County Council's grass cutting arrangement is the new normal, if not a better version of something that will become the norm.

Should you wish to make a complaint about grass cutting I would very much urge local residents to make their complaints known to Leicestershire County Council at customerservices@leics.gov.uk

In future years it may be possible to increase the number of cuts at a parish level. This however would in all likelihood mean spending more of your council tax in this area with resulting cuts elsewhere or council tax increases.

If you would like to see the Parish Council undertaking more cuts then please contact me in order that I can make representations. It won't happen unless Whitwick residents say clearly this is what they want.

In addition to the above information there is an important ideological point to be considered.

Much of the money the County Council spends is around the area of targeted services, i.e. to elderly residents for care needs or vulnerable children, less and less is being spent on universal services we all access, such as museums or indeed verge cutting.

It is undoubtedly true as our council tax goes up most people are seeing less for their money, in many cases around £2,000 a year.

There will inevitably come a point when taxpayers become entirely disillusioned by the whole system.

It would be good to hear your views as to whether that point has arrived, or are we still some way off?

Community defibrillator for Whitwick

Over the past few months there has been a number of calls for the installation of a 24 hours, fully accessible, community defibrillator for Whitwick.

A community defibrillator, or to give it its proper name an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), is a portable device that can save lives from those suffering from sudden cardiac events (in layman's terms Heart Attacks). Statistics show that in the event of a sudden cardiac arrest survival rates are about 5% if CPR alone is used, this raises to 50% with defibrillation.

The new Co-op in Whitwick Market Place have graciously agreed to allow a defibrillator cabinet to be sited outside their new store and all we need to do now is fundraise to pay for one!

I have agreed with members of Whitwick Parish Council to help lead the fundraising, we need to raise about £2,000 to pay for the first one although it would be great to continue and provide more defibrillators elsewhere in the village as funds allow.

We are still in the process of setting up a way of holding money securely whilst fundraising is ongoing, and of course we will have to think about how we go about securing donations from both individuals and companies!

In the meantime if you have any ideas how funds could be raised please don't hesitate to contact me.

Many thanks

Leon Spence
County Councillor (Whitwick Division) 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Time to take a fresh look at the way we pay for the BBC - my 22 May Catholic Universe column


I remember vividly planning for the birth of our first child. We were going to be the perfect parents.
He or she, knowing the gender was completely unacceptable, was going to be breast fed for his first few months before transitioning on to a purely organic diet. We would have a routine and he, or she, would take part in only stimulating, educational play and would sleep uninterrupted through the night. Most of all on the very few occasions he, or she, would be allowed to watch television they would definitely only be allowed to watch the BBC.
Of course when our son was born our very well meaning plans lasted for about five minutes, except for the BBC one.
For as long as I can remember I have been a huge fan of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I honestly believe that it is a shining jewel in the accomplishments of our nation right up there with the NHS.
You may well remember a sketch on the ground-breaking 1980’s comedy ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ in which a young Griff Rhys Jones plays a parody of Barry Took presenting his ‘Points of View’ show in which all of the correspondents advocate that the then £32.00 licence fee was ‘far too low’ and that one viewer would ‘willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC’.
Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as placing my home on the market I can honestly say my own views have never been too far from those thirty year old fictions. For me at least the BBC is worth every single penny that I pay for my licence fee.
The BBC is responsible for world class news reporting and maintaining a regional radio and television presence in a nation where countless other local media outlets are disappearing. The BBC produces innovative and informative documentaries on nature, science, history, the arts and religion. Its variety and quality of output goes on and on and on and just when you think you have listed everything you realise you haven’t even scratched the surface. What about the BBC’s website which is consistently amongst the top 100 visited sites in the whole world? What about the wonderful iPlayer which allows us to catch up on programmes we have missed? What about the vast catalogue of classic comedy and drama which shaped most of our childhoods?
I could quite easily spend the whole of this column espousing the brilliance of the BBC and get nowhere close to doing it justice.
Perhaps one can go no further than quoting Aung San Suu Kyi who once said ‘When I was under house arrest, it was the BBC that spoke to me – I listened’.
You may well have judged from what I have written that there is a huge ‘but’ on the horizon, and indeed there is.
The BBC was formed in October 1922 under the watchful eye of John, later Lord, Reith and from its very earliest days had a clear aim which still nearly one hundred years later forms part of the organisations mission statement. The BBC’s job was to inform, educate and entertain.
In order to deliver on that aim a Royal Charter was issued in 1927 by George V which conferred upon the corporation authorisation to ‘receive all funds which may be granted annually or otherwise by the Legislature in furtherance of the purposes of this Our Charter’.
The payment of a 10 shilling ‘broadcast receiving’ licence followed with the television licence being introduced in 1946. To this day failure to pay the licence fee is still a criminal offence.
But the world has changed. The BBC once had a monopoly and its charter meant that it fulfilled its aims, for the most part, splendidly.
The corporation is still exemplary at informing and educating, but entertaining I’m not so sure. Have you ever seen Mrs Browns Boys?
Where once the BBC had the field to itself there is now a plethora of outstanding commercial broadcasters, using a variety of technological platforms, who are having to compete with their hands effectively tied behind their backs against the corporation’s inbuilt advantage of being paid for through taxation.
Last week the Prime Minister made MP John Whittingdale the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Mr Whittingdale, who has long been a critic of the BBC, said last year that the licence fee was ‘worse than poll tax’ and that it is ‘unsustainable’ in the long term.
Obviously as a Labour Party councillor I am almost programmed to disagree with a Tory Cabinet Minister but on this there is a serious point to consider.
I recently had a heated conversation with a friend about the how marvellous the BBC is. I went about making all the points I have made in this column and in the end he turned round to me and said ‘Leon, I agree the BBC has been great but I just don’t watch it. There is other stuff out there for me now’.
After a great deal of consideration I think my friend, and Mr Whittingdale, are probably right and that the current funding arrangements are not fit for purpose and certainly not equitable.
I very much hope that as the BBC goes through its ten yearly charter renewal process for 2017 a way is found to protect all of those non-commercial niche areas, like local radio and obscure arts documentaries, that the corporation is so good at. However the BBC must start to stand on its feet fairly against commercial broadcasters without the need to fall back on taxation and the potential criminalisation of people who don’t use the service.
This column isn’t just about the BBC though. It is about how we view our wider public services.
It is clear that all of the main political parties, to a greater or lesser extent, have subscribed to the concept of balancing the books and austerity. An important part of that concept has to be us asking ourselves what do we expect the government to provide for us?
Do we expect a state owned broadcaster? Do we expect our grass verges to be cut or our litter to be picked?
It is absolutely clear that as the public purse gets effectively smaller and government obligations to top priorities, such as social care for the elderly, get significantly bigger then we as a nation will have to decide what we can do without or look at other providers to fill the gap.
My friend said to me in a mature market he could choose to watch television with adverts, or he could pay to watch a subscription service. Why should he be forced to pay for something he didn’t ever use and probably never would?
As a lifelong advocate of the BBC I have to admit he has one hell of a point. We must start to think afresh and start to ask ourselves the difficult questions, not just about broadcasting.
All I know is that if Auntie does ever become a subscription service I will be at the front of the queue to sign up.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Voting intention poll

If you've clicked on my voting intention poll but want to anonymously add anything further please feel free to use the comment box below.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

For Labour the next five years need to be about hope not scaremongering


A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Progress website in which I argued significant parts of our party were taking an approach of opposing everything the coalition government did as a matter of principle rather than being selective in our opposition.

I made the case that the ‘Digital Bennites’ who took up the former approach were out of touch with the electorate and that the ‘principled’ opposition of the 1980’s would lead to an inevitable result.

It’s fair to say that the comments on my original article were not the most complimentary that I have ever received.

It gives me no pleasure to write that two years on we did see a Labour party hurtle towards the general election, with Ed as a modern day Michael Foot, out of touch with huge swathes of the population who failed to connect with a message most activists had difficulty in enunciating.

Let us be clear it wasn’t Ed that failed last Thursday. We all did.

We expected voters up and down the country to share our disdain for an uncaring Tory government whilst we failed to recognise the evidence of a gradually improving economy. We ignored the stark fact that to many people feeling a little better off had more credibility than being told we had 24 hours to save an NHS which for millions is still working just fine.

What did we expect? We spent 5 years telling people the sky was falling in and then acted surprised when they didn’t believe us because for millions of voters it hasn’t.

We are entering a leadership debate which will frame the future of our party for a generation. The outcome of that debate must be about providing not only a safety net to the most vulnerable in our society but just as importantly a clear hope for anyone who has ambition to improve their lives.

Now that we have a majority Tory government there will be a huge clamour for the digital bennites to come out in force. It is a clamour that must be restrained because it is one which simply doesn't resonate with most voters.

Yes, five years of Tory rule will be unsettling to us but not everything they do will be wrong.

Our opposition must be smart because we must be under no misapprehension the Tories narrative of building economic growth and encouraging entrepreneurialism will be.

More than ever the case needs to be made that our opposition should be constructive. How will we ever hope to reach out to ambitious and aspirational voters with five more years of scaremongering?

Saturday, 9 May 2015

He's no media darling, but Ed can deliver a better society - my 1st May Catholic Universe column


At last, we’re nearly there. The 2015 General Election is upon us.

In less than a week the polls will be closed and barring an unexpected majority for one party or another we will be into a protracted period of political parties trying to arrive at some workable arrangement for the next five years.

For anyone interested in the process of how these type of machinations work I would strongly recommend taking a look at Andrew Adonis’ excellent book ‘Five Days in May’ which focusses on Labour’s ultimately fruitless attempts to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats following the 2010 General Election.

For those of you not spending your time engrossed in political page turners there are just a few more days to go and time to pass on to you just a few more thoughts.

In the weeks and months that followed the 2010 General Election the Labour Party threw itself into a process which seemed to go on forever to elect a new leader following the resignation of Gordon Brown.

Five aspirant leaders put their names into the hat, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband and the rank outsider from the far(ish) left of the party Diane Abbott.

I must confess here and now Ed Miliband wasn’t my choice for leader, to be blunt, it was only the far left rhetoric of Diane Abbott that allowed him to scrape into my top four.

To me Ed was a wonk, someone whose entire life had been lived in politics, someone who had never experienced what it was like to struggle to pay the mortgage or to really know what it was like to have job insecurity and have nothing to fall back on.

What made it worse was that not only was Ed a wonk but a wonk who lacked the charisma and presentational skills of a consummate politician such as Tony Blair who, if media stories are to be believed, even Mr Cameron calls ‘the master’.

Looking back on my assessment of Ed in 2010 I still think I was spot on.

I also think I was massively wrong.

There is little doubt that Ed Miliband has never experienced what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet, to have to choose heating or eating, but then again how many of our political class have? Ed is certainly no more out of touch with life on the edge than virtually every other senior politician. Can we honestly believe for one minute that George Osborne or William Hague have had to seriously consider using a food bank?

The real question is can Mr Miliband truly empathise with those who are in that position? Despite my own initial misgivings I believe Ed has proved that he can. His initiatives on energy prices, on private sector rent controls and on the bedroom tax, issues which really matter to those on the margins, give clear evidence that that is the case.

I look back at my initial view that Ed was awkward in front of the television cameras and I think how right I was. In media handling terms Mr Miliband isn’t just bad in comparison to the likes of Mr Blair, he’s bad in comparison to virtually anyone.

Even Ed’s recent appearances on the television debates have been a little awkward. His answer of ‘Hell Yeah, I’m tough enough’ when asked by Jeremy Paxman had a little too much of Neil Kinnock’s 1992 ‘Well, Alright’ about it. His constant looking straight into the camera was more than a little off putting. 

Labour party members will often retort that anyone would look bad with a right wing media constantly looking for fault but the fact is it is Ed that has proffered the ammunition. It wasn’t the right wing media who had a bacon sandwich moment, it wasn’t the right wing media who had no idea about the cost of their weekly groceries on Good Morning Britain and it wasn’t the right wing media that forgot a key passage on the economy from his annual conference speech.

But ultimately all of these things are trivial. Even his conference omission was more about trying to remember a one hour speech from memory rather a lack of taking the economy seriously.

What I missed back in 2010 was that Ed is a man of substance.

At the height of the phone hacking scandal Ed was the only leader to publicly, openly and most important rightly castigate the Murdoch media empire for their role in that story. Despite the fact that he knew Mr Murdoch would come after him, and indeed he did, Ed Miliband did not back down.

As the banking sector has worked its way back to a relatively healthy state it is only Ed Miliband that has had the courage to take on the powerful vested interests of bankers to make sure that in the future the multi-millionaires in that industry are properly regulated and pay their fair share.

Indeed, of those who can be Prime Minister, it is only Ed who has turned up to the job interview that are the television debates.

I have never been Mr Miliband’s biggest fan. The pressures of a 24 hour news cycle have meant that he is both under constant scrutiny but also constantly pressured to change his narrative.

In 2012 Ed’s excellent conference speech contained a passage describing how the Labour Party truly aspired to be the political party to represent everyone, if you will, the One Nation Party.

In the years that have followed the terminology may have changed but the principle has remained the same. Ed believes that Labour is the party of fairness, the party who will look after the very wealthiest but who will provide a safety net for those living life on the edge.

For those of us in between Ed has set out a vision that will that will lead to stable economic growth whilst protecting the vital public services, such as education and health, upon which we rely.

Ed Miliband wasn’t my choice for Labour leader but he is a man of principle who has grown into the role and deserves his chance to become Prime Minister.

Over the past few weeks, as I have predicted on a number of occasions, the Conservative Party’s nasty campaign has tried to turn our attentions back to that 2010 leadership campaign. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused Ed of being a ‘backstabber’ for running against his brother in that campaign.

It was an issue many people were uncomfortable with and indeed Ed has gone on record to explain that his relationship with David Miliband hasn’t been easy since.

On Friday David Miliband, who has since left front line politics to become President and CEO of the powerful NGO International Rescue Committee, tweeted a photograph of the envelope containing his postal vote along for the General Election alongside a very few words. He wrote ‘Proud to have voted #Labour. #Ed4PM.’

In those 6 characters #Ed4PM David Miliband is making clear no matter what the relationship has become between he and his sibling Ed is the right choice for Prime Minister. If setting aside ‘backstabbing’ is good enough for David then its good enough for me.

It’s time for Ed Miliband to step up.

Clegg deserves our respect for anchoring the Coalition in the centre ground of politics - My Catholic Universe column


Being a columnist for this historic newspaper is a great honour.

One is conscious of the many wonderful writers that have gone before during the more than one hundred and fifty year history of this publication and one constantly tries to aspire to the high standards that are set by my colleagues.

Without a doubt, however, the biggest challenge in maintaining those standards are deadlines.

As I sit here a couple of days out from the general election I know that you, dear reader, will in all likelihood know the result before you read this column (unless you read the excellent electronic version published on a Thursday morning – in which case ‘go out and vote Labour’).

So I have a huge challenge this week. I must try and remain current by commenting on an election, of which I do not know the outcome and of which no one can accurately predict, whilst at the same time not being drawn down the path of getting my piece drastically wrong. It’s not easy.

So rather than write about the result of the general election I shall comment about one of its main protagonists, a man who for the past five years has been ridiculed and vilified by some but who come Friday morning I very much hope is still in a job and having some part to play in the future of our country. Nick Clegg.

As a Labour politician it is spectacularly easy to take shots at Mr Clegg and receive widespread public agreement, very much like a boxer landing a scoring punch with every blow.

After five years every one of us are aware that Nick Clegg ‘lied’ on university tuition fees.

Prior to the 2010 election Mr Clegg signed a pledge being circulated by the National Union of Students which clearly and explicitly read ‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative’.

We all know what happened next. Not only did Nick Clegg not abide by that pledge he and 26 other Liberal Democrat MP’s actually voted to allow tuition fees to rise to £9,000 per year.

Nick Clegg in particular has been pilloried ever since and whilst some of that criticism is fair many, many people are failing to consider the good work that Mr Clegg and his colleagues have done over the past five years.

When I was growing up I wanted to be a professional footballer, singer, priest and long distance coach driver. As adult life progressed I realised other things, particularly my wife and young family, were more important to me and subconsciously I reviewed and refreshed those childhood ambitions to ones which were relevant to my more mature life and priorities.

In one or two cases my ambitions had to be set aside as unattainable and in others I had to compromise, although secretly I haven’t entirely given up on the idea of coach driving.

Dealing with reality and compromising is what each and every one of us does constantly as adults, as politicans and voters, and as Christians.

That is exactly what Nick Clegg and his colleagues did in 2010.

Despite his popularity during the 2010 leadership debates Nick Clegg was never going to become Prime Minister, he was always going to be at best leader of the third party in British politics.

In an attempt to ensure that as a nation we had a stable government Mr Clegg realised that some of his priorities, but not all, would have to give way to allow the largest party in government the chance to deliver their agenda as well. If you like, true partnership working. That is exactly what Nick Clegg helped to deliver.

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats looked at their own manifesto and stipulated what was most important to them and what they were prepared to forego.

If I take off my party political hat for a moment I must say that the Liberal Democrats should be proud of some of their achievements in office. Let us not forget for one moment that it was the Liberal Democrats that championed free school meals for infant classes, pupil premium for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and increasingly the starting point of income tax for workers.

A Labour government would have been proud to deliver those three initiatives and in compromising on his agenda so should Mr Clegg be.

In actual fact, however, the Liberal Democrats have been more than just a party with a few token policies being thrown into a legislative program. They have been an anchor.

We should be very clear that had a Conservative majority government taken up residence of Downing Street on May 3rd 2010 our country would look very different now. An agenda of swingeing cuts to the public sector that would have been far more severe than those we have seen in the past five years.

In that sense the Liberal Democrats have been very much an anchor to a centrist political approach for which, I would suggest, we should all be grateful.

Mr Clegg has admitted he got it wrong on tuition fees. He did and he has rightly been criticised. Those of us who criticise however have a duty to acknowledge him for what he has achieved.

I have often said in these pages that politics is not easy, it is vastly complicated. This election campaign has not been a classic and much of the responsibility for that is down to political parties seeking to simplify a message in a belief that it appeases an electorate who cannot deal with complexity.

The way that Nick Clegg has been vilified in much of the mainstream media, and exemplified by the frankly awful audience behaviour on the recent BBC Election Leader’s Special Question Time, sadly has shown there is an element of truth to the picture the parties have drawn which at least contributes to the baying for politicians blood.

Just as it is in our faith each and every one of us are far more than one decision. I’m sure that when we meet our maker all of us would hope to be judged on the sum of what we did right and not simply on ‘the one’ mistake.

I very much hope that no matter what happens to Mr Clegg in the early hours of Friday morning his political legacy is judged on the whole contribution he has made to our country.