Thursday, 10 November 2016

The future of British democracy is in the hands of our MP's - my Catholic Universe column


I’m sure that like the vast majority of middle aged fathers that I bore my children. Just like countless generations that have gone before, I’m sure I was no different, I see them sat around me at the dinner table or in the car pontificating on the past.

I know all too well that I am turning into my own mother when it comes telling in particular my eldest son, he’s at exactly the right age for peak cynicism, how things used to be.

I talk about the little things, you know the sort, “You don’t know what it was like before mobile phones / the internet” (in retrospect, bliss) or “GCSEs were much tougher in my day” (objectively they were).

But I also talk about big news stories; the Ethiopian famine followed by Band Aid, the unprecedented outpouring of public grief after the death of Princess Diana, the world changing events that took place on September 11th 2001.

I like to think that secretly young people are interested in those ‘where were you moments that so many of us lived through’.

It is entirely possible that waking up on the morning of Friday 24th June 2016 and hearing the results of the previous days EU referendum may well become one of those moments we all end up talking to our children and grandchildren about.

Let me be clear. In and of itself the result of the EU referendum was a significant news story. I’m not sure many commentators, even on the side of Leave, really believed Brexit was going to happen but in the event the British people decided they wanted to withdraw from the European Union and that after all is democracy in action.

But where the story of Brexit becomes iconic may well be what happens in its aftermath.

Let’s go back to the start.

The referendum campaign on both the side of Remain and Leave was a horrible one. Quite aside from the fear mongering of some on the side of staying and the patently racist overtones from some on the side of exit there was no shortage of personal name calling or abuse either.

Both sides of the argument without hesitation lied. No matter what those in favour of leaving now say promises were made about extra funds for the NHS but at the same time Remain told tales of emergency budgets and financial meltdown.

The immediate aftermath has shown the truth is, in all likelihood, going to be somewhere in the middle. The scare stories for the most part haven’t materialised neither have the promises of new found riches.

But, and this is the crucial part, the British public are not stupid and we all knew that the reality was unlikely to be one extreme or the other.

No, the British Public considered all of the evidence and propaganda that was being put before them and decided that on balance Britain was best off out of the EU.

I might not have liked the decision. It certainly wasn’t how I voted. But that is democracy for you. Every adult had the opportunity to have their say and the clear unequivocal majority decided.

The question of course is just what did they decide? For me at least the answer is easy.

Some voters voted because of a lack of sovereignty for our parliament, they didn’t like the idea of rules being made by ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels’. Others voted because they were concerned about immigration. Others still wanted to leave for greater say on how our money was spent.

But ultimately every single one voted to leave the European Union and the clear, well publicised, way to achieve that is by declaring Article 50. In some senses that is the one certainty that comes out of the EU referendum and if we believe in democracy it is the one certainty that must be delivered.

Of course it is also the one thing which many on the side of remain, including many MPs, want to avoid and the one thing which many will seek to take any avenue to obfuscate.

This week judges in the High Court decided, although their verdict will be appealed, that the Prime Minister and her Government does not have the executive power by themselves to declare Article 50 withdrawal. The court, to cut a long story very short, says that Mrs May must consult with Parliament.

Of course the prospect of doing so means that both the hugely pro-Remain majority of MPs and Lords may seek to water down or even stop the process of Leave.

Unlike much of the right wing media I have absolutely no problem with learned judges interpreting what is clearly obscure constitutional law. Similarly I have no problem with their decision being appealed to the Supreme Court for a final decision. It is the job of our judiciary to weigh the import and persuasiveness of convention and precedence and come to difficult, and by their very nature, conflict fuelling decisions.

Where the problem lies and where there is a capacity for a large story to become very, very big indeed is in the actions that Parliament now takes.

I’m not particularly a betting man but I would wager that what the vast majority of those who voted Leave expect to see now is Parliament to swiftly approve the formal declaration of Article 50.

What they and I’m sure many who voted Remain too, do not expect is for MPs and unelected peers to seek to undermine democracy. But if parliamentarians start adding clauses or demanding a lesser form of Leave that is exactly what they will be perceived to be doing.

No one would argue that parliament has not got a major role in the aftermath of Brexit, where we go to next, but morally right now they have very little right to stop Britain starting that journey.

Britain doesn’t have a particularly long history of the type of direct democracy we see through referendums. It’s said by some that populist solutions to complex problems are dangerous.

But the point is we did have a referendum, arguably the most pure of democratic processes, and the decision was clear. Delivering anything less than what the people demanded, and let’s be honest what they demanded is clear too, will be seen by a great many as a gross disregard for democracy.

The outcome of the EU referendum is a big story but it has the capacity to be much bigger.

It’s quite conceivable that being seen to ignore a democratic process will finally break the tenuous trust we have in our politicians to deliver. Given that possibility who is to say what might happen? Civil disobedience? The widespread rise of a far right willing to take matters into their own hands? Neither possibility is beyond comprehension.

I have a real fear that Parliament is now at a turning point. This is bigger than staying in or leaving the European Union this potentially is about whether people can ever put their faith in politicians again.  

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Junior Doctors are in danger of permanently ruining their reputation

On Monday I submitted my weekly Catholic Universe newspaper column, this time on the subject of the anticipated Doctors Strike, but by early afternoon the story had moved on and the column had rightly be spiked. For the purposes of completeness, here it is.

Thirteen years ago my father was entering the final stages of his long battle against bowel cancer. As is usually the case when you don’t find a malignant tumour early enough we, his family, had known that it was a battle he was never going to win. Just like the stories we hear of sieges from earlier times my father knew that the fight wasn’t about holding on for a possible but infinitesimally unlikely victory, it was about staying with his family for as long as he possibly could with a decent quality of life.

By the time the first weekend of May had come in 2003 he was faltering, nearing the end, and his GP had arranged for him to go away for two weeks ‘respite’ for my mother, a respite we knew would in all likelihood really never be needed. On the way to the cottage hospital where he would be cared for for the next fourteen days Dad experienced a seizure and the ambulance carrying him was redirected to the nearest general hospital.

When I arrived at the hospital with him in the ambulance I was told that with it being a Saturday, and especially a Bank Holiday weekend there was only the barest of oncology staff on site and that it might be possible to transfer Dad to a hospital where Saturday and Sunday's were better facilitated, of course I was warned he may not survive the transfer. My family’s other choice was to see him admitted to a spare bed in one of the orthopaedic wards where he would be provided for as best as the hospital were able.

In the end the staff that looked after him for the last two days of his life, as the vast majority of our NHS staff are, were amazing although a little bewildered, one nurse memorably telling me ‘we don’t have patients die on our ward’. But I often wonder what the outcome would have been if the NHS had been a real seven day a week service.

Would my father have survived longer? Would his last days have been more comfortable? Would he have been free of the pain that he was so obviously in? The answers to all of those questions may well have been no but precisely because there is a significant gap between NHS weekday and weekend operation his family never had the chance to find out.

There is very little doubt that significant portions of our health service are no longer fit for the way we live our lives today. People have never only got sick on days Monday through Friday but work and family commitments for countless millions now don’t stick to the nine to five routine which may well have been commonplace twenty or thirty years ago.

I would venture to suggest that you would not find one person who will wholeheartedly agree that the NHS hasn’t kept pace with the demands facing a modern Britain. The vast majority of us believe that we need a seven day a week service, but we also believe there should be more joined up care for the elderly and improved mental health services.

The simple fact however is that all of those things cost significant amounts of money and with a population seeing an increasingly large proportion of elder people, calls on reducing the numbers of contributing economic migrants and a rising cost of living all are significantly more difficult to deliver.

So, the government made a decision that in order to deliver a manifesto pledge of a true seven day a week NHS it would be necessary to renegotiate the contracts of thousands of junior doctors and that, many would argue, is where a dispute promising to cause significant damage to one of our greatest institutions originated.

In Britain the medical profession is, absolutely correctly, hugely respected. Doctors train for many years to do a job where on occasion a mistake can literally mean the difference between life and death. Time and time again in surveys we see Doctors topping polls of ‘most trusted profession’ with around 90% of us saying that we believe what they say, in comparison politicians usually poll way, way below even hairdressers. At the same time our medics, as they progress through their careers are paid handsomely for the work they do, I think very few of us begrudge it.

So far, so good. Being a card carrying member of the Labour Party I am predisposed to support my comrades who decide they are being unfairly treated by their employer, especially when that employer happens to be an ‘uncaring, incompetent’ Tory government and the people taking the draconian action of a rolling program of five day strikes are some of the finest public servants that there are.

I know I am supposed to be four square behind them, but I have a real problem. The five day walkout which junior doctors plan to commence this coming Monday just seems wrong, let me explain.

I know very little about the minutiae of the proposed junior doctors, why would I? But what I do know is that when the government put forward their plans to the medical profession it sufficiently incensed them to take unprecedented strike action. I completely support them for what they did.

But then the representatives from the Government and the doctor’s Union, the BMA, got round the table and discussed how a new contract could be improved, and indeed a significantly improved  offer was made by the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt. I know this because Dr Johann Malawana, then Chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors committee, described the contract offer as “a good deal despite unbelievable odds.”

Dr Ellen McCourt, the medic who replaced Malawana following his resignation after the contract was rejected in a ballot of members, had previously described the offer as “safe” and “fair” during an interview on Radio 4.

It really is difficult to see how the rejection of a contract offer which had been recommended by the representatives of doctors themselves as being acceptable can now warrant an unprecedented program of five day strikes which will see thousands upon thousands of operations and appointments cancelled and potentially lives being lost.

It seems that junior doctors and their representatives, who we are told were split 16 to 14 on the nature of industrial action to be taken, have committed to strikes completely disproportionate from the nature of their grievance and the potential severity of their actions.

We know that there is significant concern from within the medical profession about the proportionality of the planned action by junior doctors. Last week the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges issued a statement saying “We know there are genuine concerns about the contract and working arrangements but we do not consider the proposed strikes are proportionate. Five days of strike action, particularly at such short notice, will cause real problems for patients, the service and the profession.”

Dr Sarah Wollaston, the highly independent ex GP, Tory MP and Chair of the Health Select Committee, wrote to The Times asking “Given that the BMA recommended acceptance of the deal that they themselves negotiated, they need to explain why have they decided on a series of five day walkouts…”

As a layperson there is a real concern that junior doctors are being poorly lead. I am sure that for many their concerns are very real but there is undoubtedly a growing concern that at least in part their dispute and the proportionality of the actions they plan to take is increasingly about political activism.

We have a huge trust in the medical profession but junior doctors are very much running the risk that that respect we have for them will be diminished if not to the level of politicians then much closer to that of our hairdressers. If they carry on with their actions who knows how long, if ever, it will take to rebuild?






 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

In the future McDonnell will be grateful Labour used 'a grubby little device'

I can guarantee you that there is no one who wants to see Jeremy Corbyn lose the Labour Party leadership more than me.

Mr Corbyn may well be a decent guy, although I have some reservations, but I strongly believe that sadly he is not only incompetent but wrong on a great many issues.

As a lifelong, centre left, Labour voter there is nothing I want more than to see the party return to its more moderate ways. I have a feeling that this leadership election will determine whether I continue to support the Labour Party or not in the future.

For me it's vitally important that in a few weeks time Owen Smith becomes the next leader of our party.

But I also have, I hope, an inbuilt compass for fairness.

When the rules for the Labour Leadership election were published I sort of felt that, especially given the fact we now had a registered supporters scheme all party members, no matter how long it was since they had joined up, should have had a vote.

The fact that the Labour Party implied that new members would, via their website, in my mind validated my view.

But on the day of that interminably long National Executive Committee meeting, when the main question was whether Jeremy would or would not be allowed on the ballot, the NEC with precedence decided to set a six month freeze date.

I kind of think the NEC was wrong, even though the decision probably favours the candidate I support.

But crucially the NEC, the final arbiters of party organisation in Labour, decided that that is what would happen.

So as has happened time and time again over the years, in a democratic party with a democratic structure, I accepted it.

I don't believe for one second that if you are a member of an established political party with long established procedures that if you happen to disagree with one you go running off to the courts.

Yet that is exactly what 5 new members, allegedly backed financially by a major trade union did.

At the start of the week those new members had their case heard and upheld. They were to be allowed to vote and their registered supporter fee was to be returned to them.

Although I thought the result was, on balance, right I was fearful for the future of Labour and all political parties that the courts had intervened in party structures. It was a dangerous precedent and I was pleased leave to appeal was granted.

So yesterday when the appeal was determined I was delighted that the higher court had recognised that, indeed, the NEC should be the final arbiter of procedures in the party.

For me the five new members of Labour who had brought this action were both incredibly foolish and ignorant of the history of our party. I am perfectly comfortable, in fact completely agree as a deterrent from more vexatious actions, that they were ordered to pay costs.

But there is an important point here, a point which we should all be mindful of.

The Labour NEC election results have been announced this week and undoubtedly the party has swung, massively, leftwards.

Anyone who has ever been to a Labour Party meeting will know there is nothing that party members love more than process. I'm told new members are even more procedurally pedantic. Labour Party members love motions, recorded votes  and points of order.

Can you imagine if the NEC doesn't protect its final decision making body just how many times in the future their decisions will become challenged in court?

There is a real possibility that every substantial decision they make would end up in our legal system.

Labour would not run Labour. Factions and judges would. Anyone with the funds to bring an action.

When John McDonnell criticises the Labour Party from defending the supremacy of its decision making as a 'grubby little device' he should perhaps be mindful, given the propensity of the left to use every possible device to appeal, that in the future he may be grateful that they did.


Monday, 8 August 2016

Did Jeremy Corbyn pull his weight during the EU Referendum campaign?

One of the biggest criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn by those Labour Party members who believe that there should be a new Leader to our party is that his efforts during the EU Referendum campaign were, how shall we put it, a tad half-hearted.

Time and time again I have seen Corbyn supporters refute this claim on the basis that he travelled 2,768 miles on the campaign trail in the 22 days before 23 June.

It got me wondering.

Is 2,768 a high number or is it low? I just don’t know.

So I thought I would check out how many miles Mr Corbyn has covered during his leadership campaign.

I want to be fair so I thought the fairest way I could do such a check was using his own Twitter account ( @jeremycorbyn) and Google maps to check mileage.

Obviously Mr Corbyn doesn’t tell us where he is travelling so I have made a few assumption which I am more than happy to be challenged.

I have only used Mr Corbyn’s mass rallies as the basis for calculating mileage (no London events, I haven’t included the recent hustings held in Cardiff, I haven’y included informal visits such as Falmouth Carnival).

I have assumed that where Mr Corbyn has held rallies geographically close to each other (for example Hull and Leeds) he has probably attended them without returning to his Islington home. For other rallies I have assumed a return journey to north London.

I have used 21st July as the start date for Mr Corbyn’s campaign, not quite 3 weeks ago, but the date Jeremy himself tweeted ‘This morning I launched my Labour leadership campaign’.

This is what I have found.

23 July: Rally in Manchester – return journey 396 miles

29 July: Rally in York – Islington to York 207 miles

30 July: Rally in Hull – York to Hull 47 miles

30 July: Rally in Leeds – Hull to Leeds 61 miles, Leeds to Islington 193 miles

2 August: Rally in Liverpool – return journey 420 miles

3 August: Rally in Brighton – return journey 156 miles

5 August: Rally in Merthyr Tidfil – Islington to Merthyr Tidfil 173 miles

6 August: Rally in Swansea – Merthyr to Swansea 45 Miles

6 August: Rally in Redruth – Swansea to Redruth 239 miles, Redruth to Islington 294 miles

So in summary in the 18 days between 21st of July when Mr Corbyn started his campaign he has covered an absolute minimum of 2,170 miles.

Of course Mr Corbyn’s longer trips tend to happen at weekends and partially when Parliament was sitting, which was not the case with the EU referendum campaign.

Similarly, if the pattern of recent weeks continues, Mr Corbyn is likely to stack on the campaign miles again this weekend.

So what does it all prove? Not a huge amount other than when it comes down to miles overall Jeremy’s EU campaigning is roughly commensurate with his Leadership campaign.

When it comes down to number of campaign stops (123 during the referendum campaign but on the basis that I’ve outlined far, far fewer during the Leadership one) it seems on the surface at least Mr Corbyn is much more willing to up his average distance travelled to make sure he wins in a few weeks time.

All very interesting I’m sure but when it comes down to it it’s nothing more than a bit of useful ammunition to use, depending on how you interpret it, to prove your argument on whether Jeremy pulled his weight during the referendum campaign or not.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

UPDATE - Are schools using public money to influence the referendum outcome?

I am genuinely confused.

Anyone who has ever worked in the civil service or local government knows without hesitation that during election periods rules come into force that are commonly known as 'purdah', a period when public bodies must go above and beyond the responsibilities of any ordinary person to make sure they are not biased towards one outcome or the other, to make sure they are not seen to be influencing anyone who may be yet to vote.

The rules are quite clear, they are set out in an act of Parliament called the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A copy of the relevant section is even shown below.






Section 125 says no 'body whose expenses are defrayed wholly or mainly out of public funds' shall publish material which 'provides general information about a referendum, deals with any of the issues raised by (the referendum question), puts any arguments (about the question) or is designed to encourage voting at such a referendum'.

It's one of the areas of law that is really clear, it even goes on to explain what publishing means... 'make available to the public at large, or any section of the public in whatever form and by whatever means'.

Straightforward right? 'Publish' includes leaflets, websites and even social media.

The civil service and local government have long understood that, but there is one area of the public sector who seems to have no idea.

Schools.

Again and again on this referendum day  up and down the country schools seem to have a complete lack of awareness on their responsibilities not to influence.

Here are some examples. They range from the questionable to the very clear...
Can you see prominence for just one side?




The original photo contains a Remain t-shirt but, more importantly has been retweeted by the school

Is one side more eye catching than the other?





Reporting a school referendum result during election day?


It's very clear that schools are not intentionally breaking election law, but nevertheless it appears there is a strong case that they are doing so.

It is also noticeable that, and I need to stress that I am a Remain supporter, that all of these 'breeches' favour one side.

There is a question to be asked as to how much schools, possibly academies with their autonomous status, ever consider wider legislation.

There is a question that as the day goes on how many more schools will inadvertently break election law? Just search twitter using the term 'school referendum' and you will see plenty more examples.

But there is little doubt that whoever loses the referendum tomorrow the opposing side will be searching for reasons and as with other types of elections plenty of questions will be asked about how the establishment skewed the result.

Of course it is absolutely right that schools teach pupils about participation in the democratic process. That also has to include making sure that the legal process is followed too.

UPDATE

As the day has gone on more and more schools have been declaring their mock referendum results. The question remains not just whether an act of parliament, designed to ensure fairness in the public sector, has been infringed but whether the results have materially altered anyone's vote.


In this one staff are also giving their views...




Perhaps the most concerning of the day is this video from Worle School. Is the teacher being balanced? What do you think?




Of course it could be argued that all of this doesn't have an effect on outcomes, but here's just one twitter user using a school's tweet to try and influence.

Maybe one for the electoral commission to decide upon?


Friday, 13 May 2016

Loughborough Road, Thringstone - traffic calming consultation

As your local Councillor I have been contacted by officers from the County Council's Highways team to advise me that they will shortly be holding a neighbour consultation relating to modifications to existing traffic calming on Loughborough Road, Thringstone.

The consultation specifically concerns the area around the entrance to Springfield and the nearby new Bellway housing development and involves the construction of a speed table at the entrance to the new development whilst removing the much complained about build outs closer to the A512.

Although letters will only be sent to residents in the immediate area please feel free to contact me directly if you have any concerns about the proposals and I will make sure they are considered in the final decision.

Proposals

Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Fairy Tale of Brexit - The village of Albionia and the path of no return

I would like, if I may, to ask you for a minute or two to imagine.

Imagine living in a faraway land of witches and werewolves and wizards.

In that land you are not a hero or a villain, you are one of the ordinary villagers that are seen milling around the village square as you buy provisions at the market.

In that magical faraway land your village, let’s call it Albionia, is a nice place to live. It’s so nice most people in the whole Kingdom would say it’s one of the best villages to live in.

There’s always supplies at the market. No one has had to really fear ogres or giants for years and years and most of the villagers are happy. But not all of them.

Some of the villagers are worried that folk from other villages want to move to Albionia. Some villagers are upset that the lord of the manor no longer makes all of the laws, some of them are made in a far flung part of the Kingdom.

Can you see where I’m going yet? Subtlety is not a speciality.

So, anyway, one day the lord of the manor says to all of the villagers that they can move to a new, possibly even better village. Although on the other hand the village might not be any better than the one where they live now.

To get to the new village all that they have to do is walk down a path, but there is a problem, every villager should take the path or none at all.

The villagers that aren’t happy say moving to a better village is what everyone should do.

They say “The new village will definitely, almost certainly, possibly be better” even though they live in a nice village right now.

What would you do?

One sunny day a few weeks before all of the villagers are due to hold a vote to make their decision, the Lord of the Manor makes a new announcement.

“My dear villagers. When I told you about the path to what might become our new village I forgot to mention something to you.” He said.

“Once you decide to leave our village, once you start along that path, there is absolutely no turning back. You will have made your decision.”

What would you do now?

A few days later a group of very experienced woodsmen ride into your village to stay for a night. They are woodsmen who know about science and politics and business and a whole host of other important things. One of the woodsmen even happens to be the King of the most powerful land in the whole of your enchanted planet.


The woodsmen rise almost as one and say “Although your new village may or may not be better than this lovely one the path you will have to take is treacherous.

“There may well be dangers along the path, dangers which even with all of our experience are impossible to predict.”

“All we know is that if you have started on the path, no matter what, you can’t turn back and return to this very nice village.”

What would you do now?

Now if you were a gung ho type of fellow you might say “WTF, let’s take the path”
But most of us are not.

It’s not a fairy story to worry about walking into the unknown with no option of turning back.

It’s not even Project Fear.

It’s called being sensible.

Seriously, when you are faced with a decision which is full of uncertainty and a point of no return, surely is plain old common sense to say “actually, my village right now is pretty splendid, why would I want to step into the unknown for something which isn’t guaranteed to be any better than I already have?”

In our far off land there are many, many types of people.

Maybe you could be like a little pig who builds his house out of straw?

You could but most villagers are a lot more sensible than that.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Labour and NUS must take tough stance against anti-Semitism: my Catholic Universe column


This column was published on 28 April 2016 but written on 25 April 2016. The Naz Shah anti-Semitism allegations broke in the intervening period.


I would venture that I am on fairly safe ground when I write that most of us are exceptionally grateful for and very proud of our National Health Service. A great many of those reading this newspaper today will see its founder, Aneurin Bevan, as a visionary, one of Britain’s greatest men, who delivered to us the institution we are perhaps most passionate about.

Bevan was indeed a great, great man. He was also, to my mind at least, deeply flawed. Bevan was a politician of division, perhaps why he hasn’t been given the plaudits in death that others who are arguably less important to the history of our nation have.

You cannot see Bevan’s divisive politics anywhere clearer than in his speech at the Bellevue Hotel on 3 July 1948 where he announced of the Tory Party ‘So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.’ I deeply believe that Bevan on that day was extremely wrong.

The first time I had anything to do with the formal body that is the modern Conservative Party was when I was first elected to my local council in 2011. Up until that point I had my own grandad’s oft quoted comment in my mind that the ‘only good Tory is a dead one’. I quickly found out that he was wrong to.

I discovered almost immediately that I liked some of my opponents who to be fair held views not too far away from my own very much, others were  to be very blunt revolting. I realised that the Conservatives are indeed a very broad church in terms of views and personalities.

The same goes for any political party or formal political grouping. There is absolutely no way that in any political meeting, let alone a whole party, that you will hear consensus on any topic you care to mention.

Some political activists are passionate about education and have radical ideas, others the environment, others still foreign affairs. It’s vital that members of political parties coalesce around a broad agenda that they can all agree on in order to gain power and hopefully change the things that they are passionate about.


For some, and there is a blurred line here, their passions may not be about doing something positive but being against something else. There are many on the left who would vehemently agree with Bevan or my grandad, there are those who are against fracking whilst others are against organised religion.


The list of reasons people become politically active is probably almost as long as the list of those that are politically active in the first place.


Historically parties have been relatively good at balancing up the whole gamut of interests in order to put forward a unifying agenda, those that don’t tend to suffer splits and acrimony which very rarely turn out particularly well: look no further than the Labour Party in the 1980’s.

The problem is, as I wrote last week, that politics around the world is getting increasingly extreme and it’s making cohesion much more difficult to maintain.

Right now there is a perfect example of this playing out on the left of politics in Britain and that is the increasing, for want of a better word, acceptance of anti-Semitism.

Last week the National Union of Students elected Malia Bouattia as their first black Muslim woman to serve as president of the organisation. The difficulty for Ms Bouttia is that a great many of her own members feel that her politics are highly inappropriate to hold for anyone leading their organisation.

It is reported that Ms Bouattia authored a blog whilst a student at the University of Birmingham claiming that university to be ‘something of a Zionist outpost’, she went on ‘it also has the largest Jewish Society in the country, whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.’ Ms Bouattia went on, it is claimed, whilst serving on the NUS’ executive to block a motion condemning militant group ISIS on the basis of ‘islamophobia’ - though she has since rejected this claim, saying it was the wording of the original motion she contested, rather than the principles behind it.

Whether her comments were anti-Semitic or not is ultimately down how they are perceived and one would imagine her opponents are particularly aggrieved so much so that a number of students unions around the country are now considering disaffiliating from the NUS.

The difficulty is that such comments are in no way unusual in today’s left wing politics.

In recent weeks newspapers have been populated, usually somewhere on their inner pages, with incidents reporting anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Alex Chalmers, Co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned after claiming that members had ‘some kind of problem with Jews’.

Gerry Downing, in the views of many a ‘9/11 sympathiser’ and a political activist who had been expelled from the party but subsequently readmitted (before being expelled once more after the Prime Minister had raised the issue in the Commons) made a somewhat rambling appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics show during which he tried to defend his views on ‘the Jewish question’ repeatedly making anti-Zionist comments which there would be no ambiguity over their meaning if he had switched just one word.

Elsewhere Luton Labour Councillor Aysegul Gurbuz was suspended from the party after newspapers reported tweets she had written prior to her election that ‘Ed Miliband is Jewish. He will never become prime minister of Britain.’, ‘LOOOOL IRAN ARE GOING TO HAVE THEIR OWN NUCLEAR WEAPON AND ARE GOING TO WIPE ISRAEL OFF THE MAP #TEAMAHMADINEJAD’ and perhaps most chillingly ‘Adolf Hitler = greatest man in history’.

The real problem is that every political movement has people with distinctly unsavoury views, and there is a catalogue of similar incidents which I could have mentioned, it is how they are dealt with that really matters.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Michael Foster, a major Jewish donor to Labour wrote that ‘at its top levels, appears by its inaction to tolerate anti-Semitic speech and behaviour.’

Elsewhere ex director of BBC television Danny Cohen somewhat more directly claimed that ‘Jews voting Corbyn’ was ‘like Muslims voting Trump’.

Whilst there are those in the Labour Party, not least moderate internal pressure group Progress, rightly calling on the leadership to take action against anti-Semitism there is a much wider problem. Tolerance for all faiths.

During the Labour leadership campaign last summer I interviewed Andy Burnham who at that time was favourite to take the top job. Mr Burnham was fulsome in his praise of faith schools particularly as you might expect Catholic schools. The mainstream Labour Party has always believed in the good that faith schools can do, that they are indeed a fundamental part of our education system.

Last week I wrote an article for another publication which provoked something of a response from political activists on the left, or arguably the new mainstream, of the Labour Party. I was struck when one commenter started writing quite openly that from his humanist viewpoint faith schools should be banned.

Now I shall be quite honest there has always been those inside Labour who have held such views. I have heard the argument many times before questioning ‘why should taxes pay for indoctrination?’ and I’ve always put up a robust defence.

My question though has to be that in these strange new times when to a significant number of activists faith is a dirty word how long will it be before religion becomes the target of the far left?  

Friday, 18 March 2016

Staying in is a gut feeling, it's best for our children and grandchildren

My speech to Leicestershire County Council

A few days ago I was contacted by a resident living in my division.

‘What’ she asked ‘is the overall cost of Britain being a member of the European Union and what would be the cost if, on 23rd June, we as a nation choose to withdraw?’

I spent an hour or so looking at websites. I looked at government websites, I looked at Labour websites, I looked at pro-EU websites and those which advocate Brexit.

And it struck me.

No one knows.

I’m not saying that no one thinks they know, there are plenty of so called experts who will give you their view, but no one really knows.

We can figure out how much Britain gives to the EU, but then what?

We can make a damn good guess about how much tax revenue is contributed by EU migrants, but that’s about as far as it goes.

We don’t really know how many British jobs are dependent on French and German and Polish people living here.

We can only estimate the true effect they have had on our economy.

And we certainly don’t know what the real impacts of a ‘no’ vote will be.

No one knows for certain how many jobs will be lost in Melton Mowbray or Market Harborough or Coalville because of trade tariffs, or the falling value of the pound.

We don’t know how much will be wiped off savings and investments as our stock market is affected.

We don’t know what the cost to social care will be of retired ex-pats returning to Britain from holiday homes in Spain.

We don’t know what we will have to pay to defend the freedom of Gibraltar, a warning issued only yesterday by that territories First Minister.

We don’t know the cost of maintaining migrant camps across the South coast.

We just don’t know.

Of course, we also don’t know, for certain what the potential benefits will be.

We don’t know if trade across the rest of the world will boom.

We don’t know how we will truly control borders.

We don’t know if we will become an even greater centre of innovation or whether we will see a brain drain like never before.

We just don’t know.

And that’s the point.

On the 23 June not one of us will be voting because we know, we will be voting because we have a gut feeling.

Of course it’s right that we listen to voices that we respect. Voices like the countless politicians, scientists, businessmen and worlds leaders who have already had their say.

But when it comes down to it, when we go into that polling booth we will be faced with a simple binary decision.

In or out.

And we will be faced with a decision that has massive implications for our children. Huge repercussions for our grandchildren and even more generations down the line.

We will be faced with a decision of being proud to be British or being proud to be British AND European.

We will be faced with a decision of being a major player on the world stage or an inward looking nation forever in search of that epithet ‘Great’.

We will be faced with a decision of staying with the imperfection of what we know, or stepping into the abyss.

When it comes down to it’s what our hearts say so much more than our head.

I am so proud to be British, a nation which has lead the world, which has innovated and which has never been scared to put everything on the line for peace.

But I am a proud European too. I’m proud that it is Europe that have taken on a huge responsibility for those fleeing from persecution and death.

I am proud that my children are free to be educated and work in this whole great continent.

I am proud of the peace that the European Union has had a major role in establishing this past 60 or so years.

So, when it comes down to that binary decision on the 23 June I have no hesitation in saying I will vote to remain.

I hope very much today that this council can add another reasonable voice, in essence falling in behind our esteemed leader, reminding the people of this county of the benefits membership of the European Union brings.

We have a duty to help the residents of Leicestershire make the right choice when in comes to making that binary decision that risks so much.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Councillor claims cuts to 'tell us once' insensitive and false economy


A local councillor is expressing concerns about proposed cuts which will hit the recently bereaved.
Leicestershire County Council is planning to save £20,000 by removing their register office based ‘tell us once’ service in favour of an additional telephone service.
Tell us once allows those who have lost loved ones to report a death at the register office and have details passed on to a range of other agencies, including DVLA, passport office and housing and council tax benefit.
County Councillor for Whitwick, Leon Spence, said ‘Losing a loved one is often the worst time in someone’s life and reporting a death can be particularly distressing experience, it’s not something you want to do again and again .
‘The County Council’s plans to save a relatively small amount of money by moving to an additional telephone service will mean more stress for the bereaved at an awful time. People who are often elderly will be forced to go through a distressing process at least twice, in reality many are likely to forget and as a result some will end up getting more and more calls and paperwork from partner agencies.
‘It seems to me that not only is cutting the ‘tell us once’ service insensitive there is a very real chance it will be a false economy.’
‘Tell us once’ was launched in 2011 by then Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services, Byron Rhodes, who said at the time We are delighted to be able to offer this service. In the past residents have had to contact each agency individually following the death of a loved one, which may have added additional stress to what was already a difficult and sensitive time in their lives.’

Monday, 18 January 2016

It wasn't that Marr was unfair, it's that Corbyn wasn't up to the job

Yesterday Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn went on the Andrew Marr show to give an in depth interview presumably about his suggestions for promoting fairness in the workplace, ideas he had outlined to the Fabian’s annual conference the day before on stopping companies paying dividends to shareholders where they did not pay the living wage and the possibility of introducing legislation to enforce pay differentials.

It’s fair to say the Marr Show didn’t go well for Jeremy.

In the absence of anything substantial to talk  about  Marr took Mr Corbyn down a path of hypothetical questions on issues as varied as sympathy strikes (apparently they should be legal), Trident (we’ll get rid of the weapons but keep the boats) and the Falkland Islands (on the face of it the views of islanders don’t count for much).

Twitter went mad not least with former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, loudly espousing ‘Marr’s Corbyn interview was a disgrace’, that the interview was not so much ‘Deutschland ‘83’ but ‘Marr ‘82’ and that ‘journalist should recognise that the public wants to here (sic) what Labour’s policies are for today’.

The problem for Mr Prescott, and even more so for Mr Corbyn, is that Andrew Marr was doing his job – nothing more, nothing less.

There was no way that any journalist worth his salt, let alone one as highly regarded as Andrew Marr,  was going to let a politician appear on their show for a twelve minute interview and only discuss a set of policy suggestions which appear to have been drawn up on the back of the proverbial fag packet (when pressed Mr Corbyn had no idea of what his preferred pay differentials, for example, would be)

There was no way that any journalist having given due credence to a set of flaky suggestions would then give a politician a free platform to highlight the weaknesses of their opponent.

That isn’t a journalists job, scrutinising the politician in front of them is.

When armed with quotes from the Shadow Chancellor that in future Labour would ‘automatically’ support all strikes of course pressing the Labour Leader on his position is a valid road to go down.

When Labour politicians, including the Leadership, are speaking openly about a defence review with the possibility of unilateral nuclear disarmament at it’s heart Mr Corbyn’s views are a logical line of questioning, although in his wildest dreams Mr Marr couldn’t have expected the Labour leader suggesting having nuclear submarines without the warheads.

As the old saying goes there is no point in shooting the messenger. If the message isn’t strong enough the sort of interview that Mr Corbyn was subject to yesterday will become the norm.

I’ve always been told that any politician should know the answers they are prepared to give before the question has been asked.

Either Mr Corbyn had prepared answers for questions he was likely to face before the interview or he was ill prepared.

The Labour leader and, just as importantly, his team should be savvy enough to know that whatever the reason was for his answers performances like he gave yesterday were simply not good enough..


Friday, 1 January 2016

2016 - the year of 'but'?

Did you have a good New Years Eve?

I did. My family and I were invited to a rather decent party by friends who hold an event to see the year out every 31st December. Our friends party is always excellent, the food and drink is always free flowing, the conversations always diverse and interesting.

Last night, as middle aged parents usually do, we spoke about schools and holidays, interesting books and latest kitchen gadgets. As always as the night progressed the discussions became deeper and as they often do, particularly when new acquaintances become aware of my role as a Councillor, the subject comes round to politics.

A number of times last night I was asked the same question: 'So, what do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?'

Each time I was faced with trying to give a balanced answer I decided to try something a little different with my response: 'Well, what do you think of him'?

There was as an odd symmetry in the views I received back.

'Well, he seems a nice guy but I'm not sure about his views on defence.'

'He seems really principled but I can't see him going into a room with the US President or German Chancellor.'

'I like him but he's a bit incompetent isn't he?'

Its fair to say that these responses came from people who my experience on the doorstep wouldn't have me pegging them as regular Labour voters but each person in turn told me that they had voted for us in the past, perhaps more importantly each one had a general antipathy towards the Tories.

It seems to me at least that I hear that word 'BUT' far more often than I should.

How many people like Mr Corbyn, very much me included, BUT there is always a reason they wouldn't consider voting for him?

I don't usually do political predictions but I am going to make one for 2016. This year for Labour will be the year of 'BUT'.

In Jeremy Corbyn Labour has a leader that is genuinely likeable.

If the party can eradicate enough of those 'BUT's there is a real chance that Jeremy will become Prime Minister, if they can't there is a real chance that Labour's days as an electoral force are over.