Monday, 22 May 2017

Cyber threat highlights why public sector must work with private firms - my Catholic Universe column

Fifteen years ago I was working for a local authority in the north of England. I managed that council’s Council Tax and Business Rates department and at the time our computer system was on the verge of becoming obsolete.

It transpired that prior to my arrival at the council our then suppliers had contacted the authority to give them contractual notice that at a certain date they would no longer be supporting the software and that either they could continue using it without support, and more importantly a lack of updates following legislative changes, or they could buy a new and in all likelihood far more expensive system.

To all intents and purposes upon my arrival the council had been sitting on this information for a number of months and I had no choice but to recommend that we go to the market to buy new software as a matter of urgency.

We soon discovered that there were three or four suppliers of this type of system in the market and that, for a district council, the packages were inordinately expensive running over a few years into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Nevertheless with changes to legislation on their way we had to have one.

After a short procurement period we chose our supplier and awaited our new system.

During the period of time between ordering our system and the go live date a strange thing happened to me. A representative of the computer supplier said to me one day “we really like the way you operate, why don’t you come and work for us?” With an attractive package on offer I found it very difficult to say “no”, so I didn’t.

After working my notice period a few months later I started work at the IT suppliers. I worked in the ‘services’ department and within a very short period of time I was told that my role was two fold. I had to help our customers, the council's that we worked with, to get their computer systems up and running. My second task was to sell “services”.

You might ask what “services” are, I certainly did, and the answer was very, very simple. Anything that wasn’t in the contract that the council had signed.

Local authorities, I was told, commonly would sign what they thought were comprehensive agreements when in actual fact everything that they received was very clearly stipulated in the legal contract.

I was a little shocked at this at first. Was this profiteering? Was this why, as I kept being told, the private sector should have no place in public services?

I asked a senior manager who made what must have been an oft-repeated argument to me: ‘Our customers get everything, everything their contract stipulates. It is not the responsibility of this company to handhold local councils nor is it our problem that as a whole the are tremendously awful at contract management.’ Of course that last quote isn’t a direct one but it is very much along the lines of what was said.

And, of course, that Executive was absolutely right. There are some things public bodies are outstandingly good at; looking after sick and vulnerable people, teaching our children, processing benefits to name but a few; but there are others where they, not to put too finer point on it, are inept.

After having some experience in the field I wouldn’t trust many public bodies with negotiating a contract, or managing a project, or running an IT system.

Simply put too many public sector administrators do all of those things in addition to their day jobs and there are people out there, most in the private sector, who can carry out those roles more effectively and efficiently in the long run saving taxpayer money.

The reason I raise all of this is the news last week of cyber attacks on the National Health Service.

Last week, around 48 NHS organisation's found that they had lost access to their computer systems as a result of them becoming infected by a piece of software known as ‘ransomware’.

Using flaws in systems criminals are effectively able to take over computers, encrypting the information stored on them. These cyber attackers will only release the data when a usually fairly modest ransom has been paid using an all but untraceable, but very real, online currency known as Bitcoin.

The effects on the National Health Service were significant. Some General Practices were unable to access patient records, automated fridges for dispensing blood shut themselves down and in one incident an MRI scanner stopped working with an anaesthetised child inside it.

The attack on the NHS was by no means isolated, it was reported to have affected companies including Nissan and Renault as well as German train operator Deutsche Bahn and global logistics giant FedEx. In total 99 countries were reported to be affected.  

But the attack had probably it's most notable, if not potentially most severe, impact on parts of our health service. We are still not absolutely clear whether patient records were put at risk or not.

It transpired that the attack had been made on computers running the long obsolete computer operating system Windows XP. You won’t have seen this operating system on a home computer in many years but still, on a relatively large scale and despite warnings from government, some NHS organisation's continue to use it.

There are a plethora of reasons why this may be the case. It could be that some applications still in widespread use don’t work well with later versions of the operating system; it could be that existing and often expensive hardware and medical equipment doesn’t support newer software; it could be because IT support is inadequate; and patently it might be that trusts have prioritised resources in other directions.

But whatever the reason patients have been jeopardised as a result of IT failings.

It is impossible for any government to mitigate all risk. No one can say with certainty that they could have prevented last week's cyber attacks.

Similarly it’s impossible for any government to be immune to criminality and events which take place outside of their control; look no further than the mooted ban on laptops and tablet devices on transatlantic flights which we are told, given terrorist advances in explosives, is an inevitability.

But we must keep sight of the fact that whether it’s the procurement of a computer system or cyber and terror attacks any government would be remiss in assuming that there is no benefit in working closely, even delegating authority to, the private sector.

Yes private companies are there to make a profit but they are our friends and our co-workers.

Sometimes they are better placed to have the skills that our public services rely on.  

Coalville cannot be stuck in a past which no longer exists - my Coalville Times column

As a child growing up in the 1970’s there was nothing finer than being taken by my mum to, in my memory at least, the gleaming and large New Broadway shopping centre in Coalville to spend my saved up pocket money at the rather wonderful Geoff’s Toys.

I often think back to those visits where I would hand over pennies for a brand new Matchbox car or MB board game; never Action Man or Star Wars figures mark you – it seemed every boy my age had an ‘aunty’ who worked at Palitoy.

I remember the shelves seemingly tightly packed with Scalextric race cars and Hornby train sets all the way to the ceiling and in my reminiscences how dark the shop was as a result of windows being blocked out by countless Spirographs and girls toys I had absolutely no interest in.

And now after all those years Geoff’s Toys will soon be gone. A part of my childhood and the early years of countless Coalville children has died.

We all know how Coalville has suffered. Over the years we’ve seen great independent traders, look no further than the wonderful Cayman Reef, disappear. As the fortunes of national chains have varied we’ve seen the departure of Woolworths, Farm Foods, Greenwoods and soon NatWest leaving our beleaguered town.

Thanks to hard work by traders, landlords and yes, even the council often those empty shells of buildings have found new businesses to fill them. But not often enough. How many times have all of us bemoaned or heard about the death of our town?

We’ve all lost count of how often we complain about the dearth of charity shops or discount retailers.

We claim that Coalville is a special case. That Ashby doesn’t have it as tough. That if only the powers that be bothered.

But we’re wrong.

Coalville isn’t any different from countless other small towns that have seen years and years of decline. And the truth is that the problems go much, much deeper than any one organisation has the power to change.

If you have ever been lucky enough to visit the United States, whether it’s New York or Orlando or any other town of any size you will have visited Macy’s.

Macy’s is a giant of retail owning hundreds of anchor stores in virtually every mall around the country. If that isn’t enough the company owns the upmarket Bloomingdales to boot. Yet last week the company reported like for like sales as being 4.6% down on last year’s first quarter.

Over the past year Macy’s have announced the closure of over 100 huge department stores, some that have been trading for more than 60 years.

Macy’s are not on their own. Sales at other long established chains are plummeting. Kohls, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Sears, all massive players in US shopping, are consistently down.

And the explanation that comes forward again and again? The internet.

Last week the BBC reported Jeff Gennette, the Chief Executive of Macy’s as saying “These are unusual and challenging times for retail…we know that these changes are…not cyclical.”

In America NBC news recently put the plight of retailers even more succinctly: It’s “all really just a fancy way of saying “Amazon.””

I’m certainly not saying internet shopping in general or Amazon in particular are bad; I use internet shopping as much as the next person.

The problem is very nearly all of us do, it’s convenient and cheap; who can blame us? But we can’t have it all. We can’t have the advantages of the web and a thriving, vibrant town as we once did. Our expectations must be realistic.

There’s no reason why we can’t have great independent traders or seek to attract national chains. But in the future why will ever need the sheer number of retail units that we once had? How can we expect to sustain book shops, record or even toy stores when the way we shop has changed so significantly?

There’s absolutely no reason that Coalville, or any small market town for that matter, can’t be a success; but we have to base our expectations on reality rather on a past that no longer exists anywhere.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Just who leaked Labour's manifesto? A theory

In general I’m not one who subscribes to conspiracy theories. All the reasoned evidence points to President Kennedy being shot by a lone gunman; Princess Diana being killed as a result of a tragic accident; and no, Elvis isn’t working in any fast food outlet in the north west.

But then this morning I seem to have changed the habit of a lifetime and want to posit one such theory to you.

It’s an accepted fact, one that certainly hasn’t been denied by the Labour Party itself, that yesterday copies of the party’s draft election manifesto were leaked to three media outlets; The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mirror and BBC.

It’s also an accepted fact that draft document contains an offer to the electorate further to the left of the political spectrum than anything since 1983: renationalisation of rail, buses, energy and mail; creation of a National Education Service with the promise of free higher education; massive public spending and tax rises to accompany them.

In some ways it’s refreshing to see an agenda so different from anything promised by any aspirant party of government for nearly thirty five years; in others, if received wisdom get anywhere near meeting reality, it guarantees Conservative government for at least the next decade.

But the question today has to be ‘just who leaked it?’

And this is where my conspiratorial mind comes into play, I just can’t believe it’s anyone other than someone from the office of Jeremy Corbyn himself, either with his explicit or implied blessing.

Anyone who has watched how Labour operates over the past two years would be able to tell you that the party machine hasn’t been, how shall I say this, the most effective PR unit you’ve ever seen. How many times have important news stories happened and the leader or his team have gone AWOL? Who can forget THAT walking holiday during the 2016 Conservative Part Conference?

And yet this morning? Labour spokesmen were primed and ready to go for the morning round of news programmes.

Don’t underestimate how impressive a feat that was. In at most twenty four hours, and in all likelihood far less, since becoming aware that newspapers had the document the party machine was ready to put up a defence far more coherent than senior figures, see Ms’s Abbott and Raynor, have managed time and time again during this burgeoning campaign.

If one were cynical you might suggest parts of Labour high command were prepared to respond? Surely not?

But take it one step further.

Who benefits from the leak in the longer term?

If, as many believe, Mr Corbyn and his inner circle have already given up on winning the coming general election there’s a strong argument to be made for their hard left agenda becoming public prior to adoption by the party itself.

Any watering down of that agenda will see blame being placed squarely on the shoulders of moderates.

Corbyn supporters will argue, as is their wont, that the eventual published manifesto was once again ‘Tory lite’.

There will once again be a ready-made set of enemies to be coalesced against in an almost certain leadership challenge; figures to blame; what might have beens to be asserted.

And of course moderates attending the upcoming Clause 5 meeting, the body which will ultimately confirm the Labour manifesto, know it too. They know the implications of seeking to add a dose of common sense to the manifesto, many will believe they have the first shot being fired in the next leadership battle.

Corbyn and his acolytes are not going to give up easily; they know how to win internal party elections and if that is their primary aim it’s ever so convenient for them that their draft manifesto has been made public.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Community group angered by vandalism at local beauty spot

Potentially irreperable
A local community group has expressed their anger after a bench at a village beauty spot, that had been paid for and provided by their members, was vandalised.

Friends of Thringstone, a nationally lauded community group, had installed the bench at the entrance to 'Bob's Closs', close to the nearby village green.

Sadly at some point between Monday lunchtime and Tuesday morning potentially irreparable damage was caused to the piece of street furniture.

Damaged bench
Chairman of Friends of Thringstone, Nita Pearson, said that she was "absolutely fuming" and that the matter had been reported to the police.

Friends of Thringstone is a group who carry out voluntary work for the enjoyment of all village residents. It is hugely disappointing for them when a thoughtless few cause damage to the detriment of ordinary villagers and those committed to making Thringstone a better place to live.

If you are able to assist with  repairs or replacement of this damaged bench then please contact Friends of Thringstone through their website.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

I shall try and show you how reliable opinion polls are - my Coalville Times column

It’s fair to say that my political journey from leader of the labour group on the district council to conservative party activist has been a well-documented one, not least in the pages of this newspaper.

Although I maintain that my own personal politics haven’t changed that significantly, there is after all not much of a step from centre left to centre right on the political spectrum, there is little doubt if opinion polls are to be believed a great many others will be making the same electoral journey as me both in this week’s county council elections and on June 8th when we select our next Prime Minister.

Whenever I speak with people about opinion polls, I know I need to get out more, one thing I hear again and again is that ‘you can’t believe them, they are always wrong.’

So this week I should like to put to rest the notion that these surveys, carried out by professional pollsters and reported on so widely in the media, are usually inaccurate. In fact, quite to the contrary, I shall try and show you how reliable they really are.

First things first. Opinion polls are not the same as the start of every question on Family Fortunes. Pollsters do not simply ‘survey a hundred people’ at random.

Opinion polls aren’t the same as a phone vote on ‘This Morning’; for a start there is nothing to stop you phoning and voting on those things more than once and, let's face it, it is quite possible that This Morning viewers are not necessarily  representative of the wider population. There probably isn’t too many office and factory workers amongst their daily viewers, is there?

No, opinion polls, are weighted by pollsters to reflect the wider population. Companies like Ipsos MORI and ComRes will seek to ensure that they include the right number of men and women, rich and poor, black and white to reflect the wider population. The theory being that the responses of ten or twenty middle aged men with similar incomes and backgrounds working in factories will tend to be representative thousands who share a similar background. It’s a remarkably accurate way of predicting outcomes.

Now pollsters know that their samples aren’t always perfect and so they recognise that there is usually ‘a margin of error’. Maybe, they haven’t been able to sample enough retired people to be representative?

It’s that margin of error that tells you within a few percentage points what results are likely to be.

So when I hear that the pollsters got it wrong on last year's referendum go back and look at what the polls actually said. Yes most suggested that we would vote Remain but nearly all of them had the actual result in their margin of error. With the referendum it wasn’t that the polls were wrong but we weren’t understanding what they were trying to say to us.

There has been in living memory two times when opinion polls in the UK did get things wrong, the 1992 and 2015 General Elections. In both of them wins were predicted for Labour when in fact in both of them the Conservatives won comfortably.

After both elections pollster tried to figure out what went wrong and they came up with similar answers both times. Some people wanted to say they were voting for the ‘compassionate’ option of Labour but once they got in to the privacy of the polling booth they took the ‘competent’ option of voting Conservative. There’s even a name for these people, they’re called ‘shy Tories’.

Now all of this matters because it tells us something about the upcoming general election.

In all polls so far the Conservatives have a commanding lead well outside the margin of error and there is absolutely no precedent for their vote being overstated, in fact because of that shy Tory issue it could well be significantly more than what the polls suggest.

In truth opinion polls are pretty accurate, real polls far more so. Over the next day or so we will know the results of the County Council elections. If the Tories pick up seats here in North West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, if they win the West Midlands mayoral contest and maybe even take control of Nottinghamshire be prepared for a very big landslide come June 8th.

Simply put Labour supporter can’t really place in faith whatsoever in the current opinion polls being wrong and the true result being in their favour. The only way they win next month is to start turning them around.              

Monday, 8 May 2017

Stealth: A great Whitwick business - my Community Voice column

By the time you read this column I will no longer be your County Councillor. It’s been one of the great honours of my life to represent the people of Whitwick and Thringstone at County Hall; a privilege I will never forget. Thank you.

In looking back over the past four years I’m mindful of things achieved and disappointments of things not. I’ve been fortunate to visit Buckingham Palace, have dinner with inspirational servicemen and women and visit treasures in our county, like Castle House, which many don’t even know exist.

But as I look back, this column isn’t a place for politics, I am reminded of one night in particular.

About two years into my term of office at County Hall I received, out of the blue, an invite to be the guest of honour at a martial arts school annual prize giving. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening watching talented young people taking chunks out of each before going on to a rather raucous disco sadly interspersed, I’m sure for the students at least, with short bout of me ceremoniously doling out medals.

It was the first time I had ever been a ‘guest of honour’ and the poor kids who were receiving their trophies from me must have though ‘who the heck is this guy?’

But I learnt that night Stealth Black Belt Academy, based on Stephenson Industrial Estate, do things a little differently.

Stealth is the brainchild of Craig Smith, a man born and raised in Whitwick and who chose to return here with his family following a 12 year career in the Royal Air Force.

Craig wanted to do things differently though. Yes, Stealth was going to be about martial arts and physical fitness but it was also going to be fun so it shouldn't have surprised me when just a few days ago I caught up with Craig to hear about Stealth’s latest adventure.

I had already heard about the endurance challenges and fight nights that members undertook so I was somewhat surprised when Craig told me of his and his members next challenge. Strictly Come Dancing is coming to Coalville.

Over the past year Stealth members have taken it upon themselves to raise £5,000 for MacMillan Cancer Support and with just a few weeks to go look set to be breaking that barrier comfortably as they don sequins and Lycra for a night of quick steps and rhumbas.

As you might expect from a group of exceptionally fit martial artists these men and women are not taking the challenge lightly.

Craig tells me that with the demands of running a business he is only managing about sixty minutes of training a week whilst some of the competitors are putting in hour after hour to take part in group and show dances.

Judges have been arranged from local dance schools, a compère ‘the spitting image of Sir Bruce Forsyth’ will be on hand to make sure things go smoothly and exceptionally tight costumes have been ordered ‘and that’s just for the men.’

I ask Craig will the fundraising go on after the target has been raised? “Of course, we will be having our Queen’s Garden Party in June. It’s part of the ethos of Stealth: we want the business to be successful, we want to teach and help adults and children improve their fitness but we also want to have fun and give back to charity as well.”

It seems to me that isn’t a bad ethos for running any business. Isn’t it great when that kind of success story, that kind of dedication, stems out of our community, the one I've been so proud to represent?

I've heard a rumour...that hindsight is a powerful foe - my Catholic Universe column

If you are a forty-something man like me the biggest news of the past week wasn’t the ongoing campaigning for the upcoming general election, we’ve got weeks of that to go, and it wasn’t the analysis of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, we’ve literally got years of that left. No, it was something altogether much more exciting.

When you’re forty three and can remember growing up in the 1980’s this week's biggest news story was undoubtedly the reformation of one of the greatest pop acts of that era. Bananarama are back!

If you’re not my age then you just won't understand how big a deal this is. I can vividly remember dancing in my Farah slacks and pastel coloured cardigan to three sultry big-haired girls melodiously chanting that ‘Robert De Niro’s waiting’, waiting for what I can’t seem to remember.

I recall the day my Saisho Soundman, Dixon’s own brand version of Sony’s world dominating and far more expensive Walkman, chewed up my cassette tape of the band’s mega hit ‘Love in the First Degree’. How despondent was I for what seemed like weeks after until I had saved up enough to buy a replacement copy from my pocket money?

And how can I forget that first schoolboy crush on Keren, the ‘dark-haired’ one of the three original band members?  Every boy seemed to fancy Keren, she was just exotic enough to be exciting but just attainable enough that she could, just maybe be living in a council flat down the road.

I’m not sure why a horde of spotty teenage boys at a Catholic comprehensive in the midlands thought that a sophisticated and famous pop star ten years our senior would be interested in them but we just knew if she ever met us she would be bound to find one of us, most probably me, absolutely irresistible.

And now the three original girls from Bananarama are back and looking through the eyes of my former thirteen year old self maybe a little older, they’re now all in their mid fifties, but they’re still as good as ever.

All I can say is if the Catholic Universe does get offered access to the band for a press junket I would really, really like to put my name forward to be the one to interview them.

Now of course I fully understand that no matter how excited I am about the return of an eighties pop combo other things are going on in the world. I didn’t launch into a lengthy pitch to interview one of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s finest acts for the sake of it. No, there is purpose in my reminiscences.

It is very easy to be caught up in the past. To look back and think about how wonderful things were when, in fact, looking back without the hindrance of rose tinted glasses they may not have been so good after all.

Take for example Bananarama. I know now when I listen to their songs that whilst some were outstanding pop hits others were, to put it kindly, simply not very good. For every ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ there was at least two frankly woeful ‘Shy Boy’s or ‘Cruel Summer’s.

But it didn’t stop me and every other young teenage boy thinking at the time that every single was a musical masterpiece at least on a par with, if we only had any clue who he was, Irving Berlin.

We were doing what we at the time thought to be right, thought to be true. It didn’t matter that experts, in those days the New Musical Express or Melody Maker, were telling us the band was at best run of the mill we had made our minds up and nothing was going to change it.

Looking back idealising my favourite act from thirty years ago thinking they will be every bit as good now as they were then is of course a fantasy; certainly no greater fantasy than all of those leave voters wanting Britain to be ‘how it used to be’, but a fantasy nonetheless.

There has been another story in the news this week which has caught my eye.

Last Friday the Independent reported that ‘Cancer Drugs Fund: £1.27 billion initiative set up by David Cameron a ‘waste of money’, finds review’.

The newspaper reported in depth that a fund promised by David Cameron in the Conservative’s 2010 election manifesto designed to provide ground breaking new drugs to cancer patients had upon careful examination been a flop.

A report in the medical journal Annals of Oncology had found that the majority of the 100,000 patients who had received drugs through the scheme had not been helped in any way. Sixty two per cent of those who had received drugs under the scheme, not normally available through the NHS, had received no meaningful clinical benefit. Many patients suffered from significant side effects caused by, in some cases, drugs with somewhat spurious records of effectiveness.

The press to a greater or lesser degree have pinned the blame on the last Prime Minister for making a gargantuan and politically motivated error. With the benefit of hindsight they say the fact that unauthorised drugs were being prescribed so regularly should have indicated that they may not be that effective after all.

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing and, by definition, easy to have after an event has occurred. Just like I am able now to be a little more objective about my schoolboy crush it is easier to look back and say that an aspirant Prime Minister was promising something to the electorate that was both costly and foolish.

But, and we all know this, at the time of making his promise Mr Cameron didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. He was living in the moment.

So I decided to go back and look at what the newspapers were saying about access to groundbreaking cancer drugs in the year before the run up to the 2010 general election.

Without too much searching I found a 2009 Telegraph article reporting ‘Thousands of breast cancer sufferers to be denied life extending drug -  Breast cancer sufferers at the end of their lives should be denied a new drug that could give them three extra months, the NHS rationing body has recommended.’

 Another article from the same year, this time in the Daily Mail, proclaimed ‘Kidney cancer patients denied life-saving drugs by NHS rationing body NICE.’

And yet another story, from April 2010, reported ‘Woman sells home to pay for cancer drug denied by NHS.’

Three stories at the tip of an iceberg of thousands of lives at risk of beings shortened by cancer, thousands of families being ripped apart by that horrible disease.

Whether Mr Cameron’s cancer drugs fund was a purely political response to those suffering or whether it was the mark of a man trying to have an effect on those families I guess that we will never know. I would very much like to think it was the latter.

Interestingly at the time of making his promise Mr Cameron was to some extent ignoring the ‘experts’ who didn’t think the cancer drugs fund would work.

It was experts, this time musical ones, that I ignored too in my love for Bananarama.

Last year millions of us ignored experts when voting in the EU Referendum, prominent ‘Leave’ campaigner Michael Gove famously saying at the time ‘Britain has had enough of experts.’

The problem is that experts, whether they be musical or medical or economic, tend to be experts for a reason. Of course we can ignore them, sometimes it is even wise to do so, but more often than not their predictions do tend to come true.

I wonder how many of us will listen to experts in the upcoming general election? Or whether in five years time we will be sat asking ‘well why did that go wrong?’

And with that I’m off to back comb what's left of my hair, dust off my old cassette player and listen again and again to ‘I heard a rumour’. Have a great week.   

Monday, 1 May 2017

Conservatives: the John Lewis of politics?

This week's mayoral election in the West Midlands could well see a surprise victor for the Conservatives in the shape of ex John Lewis boss, Andy Street.

At the weekend an acquaintance was bemoaning how boring the Conservative general election campaign is likely to be and I pointed out that there was a probably not coincidental link between Mr Street’s previous career and the ‘Strong and Stable’ narrative of Theresa May’s pitch for a large  parliamentary majority and indeed, perhaps, of her own personal demeanour.

Just two years after the last election which itself was bookended by two referenda both responsible for their own respective political typhoons Mrs May is seeking to be a reliable captain for the nation as we move on to the next storm; a storm which she didn’t support but is determined to steer us through safely.

If you asked a random hundred people for words to describe the John Lewis business I would put a great deal of money that alongside descriptions like ‘quality’, ‘you know what you are getting’ and possibly even ‘expensive’ you would find those two words favoured so much by Tory strategists ‘strong’ and ‘stable’.

As this election draws nearer I don’t think Mrs May would be displeased for one second in being compared to John Lewis. Not trendy or particularly showy, just very, very good at what they do. At getting the basics right.

It seems to me at least that is what the country needs right now. We don’t necessarily need a charismatic orator, we’ve had plenty of them and look at the mess they can get us into, but rather a decent leader capable of taking the tough decisions which will need to be taken and with a mandate to support her.

Of course thinking about the Conservatives as John Lewis got me wondering what shop Labour may be most like?

Maybe Woolworths? A pick and mix of policies that were popular forty years ago but now, quite possibly about to disappear for ever?

I get a feeling the Liberal Democrats might be like Maplin; exciting and fresh from the outside but in reality just a collection of spare parts.

Any other ideas? Leave a suggestion in the comments below.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

It's time for a sensible discussion about pensions - my Catholic Universe column

Dear Reader, I must confess to you that I am writing this week's column in something of a rush.

I didn’t plan to be putting pen to paper quite so hurriedly but things didn’t work out so well today. Let me explain.

I’m a creature of habit and I always like to write my column for you at the same time each week. I tend to think, although I’m sure many would disagree, that it’s when my creative juices are flowing most freely.

So I was just about to sit down and start writing today when my wife shouted out that she couldn’t find her car keys. Sadly for me there could be no dispute that I was the last one to drive her car and despite all of vain protestations that “I’m sure I gave them to you” it was pretty clear that I was indeed the last one to see them.

My wife is a delightful woman although it is fair to say it’s best not to upset her and she we already running late for an appointment so dutifully I and my three children, who understand very clearly that a happy Mrs Spence is best for all of us, threw ourselves into find the missing keys.

We searched high and low for the best part of thirty minutes. We retraced our steps, we retraced the possible steps that the dog may have taken if he had found the keys on the floor, we retraced the steps that burglars may have taken if they had broken into the house causing absolutely no damage and left taking nothing with them. But still the keys could not be found.

Mrs Spence was not happy.

And then it struck me. Last night I had been reading an article which told me that burglars always looked for car keys in ‘the usual spots’; by the front door, on the stairs or on a key rack and that it was a good security measure to put keys in places that they would never think of looking.

That’s when I remembered that it might not be a bad idea to look in the lidded saucepan sat on the cooker and at last my dear wife’s keys were found. I expect to be forgiven sometime around next Tuesday.

I tell you all of this for a reason. I normally think of myself as a relatively sound, serious man. I like to think things through and arrive at rational decisions. You might not agree with my views but I like to think that in general I can explain why I do things.

But every now and then, like the story of Mrs Spence’s errant car keys, I do something remarkably stupid; and I must confess that today’s foolish mistake – the reason I’m writing this column in such a rush – was actually the second such error in two days. Let me tell you about the first.

I should have learned long, long ago that there are certain places you look to have rational, deeply thought debates. Those places include formal meetings, council chambers, coffee shops and over a couple of pints of best bitter late into the night in idyllic country pubs.

There is one place however that you should never try and enter into any form of rational debate and that is social media. Facebook is not a place for reason but for herd mentality but stupidly yesterday I forgot that key, crucial point and tried to discuss the funding of pensions with a friend on that forum.
The key problem is that unlike in a pub when you discuss something with a friend it is entirely possible that another friend of theirs may be listening and chipping in with salient points; on social media however ‘friends of friends’ is often code for ‘licence to abuse’.

Political parties of colours love pensioners. If there is one thing that every political activist knows, is taught from the very moment that they join a party it is that pensioner vote. You absolutely know that the vast majority of retired people will turn out on polling day, a sizeable minority regularly as clockwork vote using postal ballots way before then, and that their views will go a long way to determining the final result.

You also know that more often than not younger people don’t vote, that they are not going to determine the victor, and as such if you have a difficult choice to make to put it very politically ‘give to the old, take from the young’.

It’s a mantra that has been followed throughout the years but arguably never more so than with the last coalition government, elected in 2010.

As the austerity agenda kicked in, not just because it was politically expedient but also because it’s absolutely right to protect our most vulnerable and elderly citizens, protections for pensioners became the order of the day.

Bedroom tax didn’t apply to the elderly, neither did reductions in council tax benefit. Older people  still received free public transport, free TV licences and winter fuel payments. As universal child benefit was rightly being cut for higher earners with young children retired millionaires were still getting money to help with their heating although patently many didn’t need it.

But perhaps the biggest protection for older people was the state pension triple lock. The triple lock was introduced in 2010 and was a guarantee from the Tory-lead government that pensions would rise annually by either the higher of inflation, average earnings or at least 2.5%.

Practically, because both inflation and earnings have been growing at historically low rates, retired people have been receiving a 2.5% increase in their pensions. Or to put it in other words their income has been increasing faster than most people.

Now I completely understand that for the poorest pensioners 2.5% isn’t much and making ends meet is tough, but for those better off pensioners with private incomes a question has to be raised about whether the triple lock is both affordable and equitable to others.

The triple lock is going to be a big issue in the upcoming General Election campaign. At the time of writing the Labour Party has pledged to keep it in place for the next five years whereas the Conservatives have made no such commitment although they haven’t said they would repeal it either.

It is perfectly possible to have a rational debate about the triple lock and come to a reasoned position on either side of the argument. I would advocate as budgets get tighter need become more important than entitlement, even with the elderly. On the other hand it could be argued that the concept of means testing is very expensive and universality means greater buy in to ideas from wider society. My point is there is a good debate to be had which would inform how we vote and possible even party manifestos. I’m just not sure that debate can be had on social media.

I made comments to my Facebook friend very much on the same basis as the ones set out above. But social media appears to be the place for ad hominem attacks so consequently I was told that I don’t ‘get anything’, that I’m a ‘bigot’, that I ‘regurgitate arrogant words’, the list goes on.

The reason I raise all of this is simple, Dear Reader, and I know you will understand where I’m coming from.

Politics is about ideas. We have just embarked on a seven week General Election campaign and that’s a lot of conversations, a lot of debates and I’m sure a lot of social media arguments.

Let’s try and be civil to each other. Disagree about ideas certainly but do it with a smile and a belief that the person voicing a different opinion is every bit as decent as we want to portray ourselves. That they are someone with alternative views not a monster or lesser being.

We’ve got a long way to go in this campaign, let’s pace ourselves.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn: Not fit to protect our nation

Taking the first question at PMQs last Wednesday Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, entirely understandably and I’m sure entirely intentionally posed the Prime Minister a question designed to set the General Election campaign off with a set of themes that the Conservatives will run with consistently until June 8th.

Costa asked Mrs May Strong countries need strong economies. Strong countries need strong defences. Strong countries need strong leaders. As the nation prepares to go to the polls, who else in this House, apart from my right hon. Friend, can provide the leadership that is needed at this time?”

Strong economies, strong defences and strong leaders: very intentionally three strands of one argument that the Tories will be making continually to prove a point that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to govern; Theresa May is.

Traditionally it’s those three themes that pollsters tell us are central to the way we determine who we vote for.

It’s those three themes that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party know that they must be working on incessantly to reduce and eradicate large Tory leads in each area before the first week of June.

So Corbyn’s Sunday appearance on the BBC’s Marr show, particularly when asked about entirely reasonable hypothetical questions on defence, must have had Labour strategists weeping into their Chai Lattes.

Asked about letters of last resort the Labour leader declined to say that he would authorise use of nuclear weapons. Asked about renewal of Trident he shilly shallied, calling for defence reviews. Pressed on airstrikes and whether he would authorise drone attacks on ISIS figureheads he prevaricated offering no real answer.

As every voter, every Britain, knows the first priority of any Prime Minister must be that of the defence of our nation.

I’m certain that the Conservatives, and for that matter Tory supporting media, have long been producing a folder of stories designed to bring Mr Corbyn’s fitness to protect the country into question.

They will have the stories of Corbyn supporting unilateralism; of his historic closeness with members of the IRA; recordings of him calling terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah friends; photographs of him lining up to shake hands with Bashar al-Hassad.

Those sort of things all raise legitimate questions in the minds of ordinary people.

Perhaps the most telling quote from Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on Marr was I’m no supporter or defender of ISIS in any way.”

When an aspiring Prime Minister even has to clarify such a point on national television, to say that he is not a sleeper for those wanting harm to us all,  it’s certainly not unreasonable to have concerns about his capacity to put Britain’s security first.

For countless voters Corbyn’s failings in this area alone will be proof enough to ensure he never has to make difficult decisions that real leaders often do.  

Friday, 21 April 2017

Finances are tight for all but our town halls' top earners - my Catholic Universe column

I was sat a few days ago checking my bank statement when I noticed that my first monthly payment for council tax had been deducted from my account. I don’t know if you are anything like me but it’s only when I compare statements from month to month that I really notice that the cost of things is going up, sometimes a lot more than inflation.

As I looked at my council tax payment I could see that my monthly instalment for my typical house built around 15 years ago on a new estate had increased this year by very nearly ten pounds. Over the course of a year my bill is about one hundred pounds more than it was in the last financial year.

Now in and of itself I don’t have too much of a problem with my council tax increasing. I shouldn’t do; I was one of the very few people that had a direct vote to increase the tax in my county, and vote to increase it I did.

But I do fully understand that for many the tax rise hasn’t been negligible. For ordinary working families trying to make ends meet ten quid a month is noticeable, for the very worst off it can be the difference between heating and eating.

But the demand on public services, and local councils in particular, are tough right now.

Many local authorities are facing massive and rising bills to look after vulnerable children who have been taken into care but even these pale into insignificance when compared to the increasing cost of social care for our elderly population.

It is, I’m sure for all of us, great news that we are living longer, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that more and more of us are doing so managing, in general, with far more complex health conditions; as we get older very often more than one.

Looking after our elderly population is getting vastly more expensive and someone has to pay for it. I don’t mind if that is me through my council tax.

So I understand that as our government battle to reduce a deficit and pay bills that are unprecedented we have to pay a little more, there has to be a little pain for all of us.

But, I must confess, that this week my spirit of understanding has been tested a little, let me explain.
There is an organisation that you may have heard of called the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The stated purpose of the Alliance is to ‘Change the perception that big government is necessary and irreversible’ and ‘to explain the benefits of a low tax economy’.

The Alliance’s website goes on to explain that ‘we achieve this by releasing pioneering research into taxation and government spending…(using) the Freedom of Information Act to uncover information previously hidden from taxpayers.’

I am not the biggest fan of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, sometimes their ‘research’ will question, to my mind at least, public spending somewhat spuriously. But overall they do play an important role in monitoring our public services and this week they published what has become one of their most high profile annual pieces of work; the ‘Town Hall Rich List’.

To summarise each year the TPA analyse the accounts of local authorities to determine who is earning the big bucks. The organisation investigates how many local authority employees are earning more than one hundred thousand pounds a year and in broad terms what they do to earn so much of our taxpayers hard earned cash.

As always seems to be the case the figures are stark.

This year research conducted by the organisation shows that throughout Great Britain 2,314 council officers receive remuneration packages of more than one hundred thousand pounds; in a time of austerity that is an increase of 89 on last year.

The research conducted shows that in one authority alone, the London Borough of Southwark 44 members of staff earned more than the baseline figure.

Across Britain there are 68 councils who have 10 employees each earning £100,000 or more; that's 68 council’s paying at least one million pounds each to the number of staff that you can count on your fingers.

The TPA discovered that during the last financial year the highest amount paid to a single member of staff was the remuneration package given to Dave Smith, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sunderland Council who received a salary and a payoff including pension contributions of £625, 570.

Mr Smith wasn’t on his own though. The Chief Executive at Liverpool City Council received £461, 823; Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Director of Place received £414,100; whilst over in Yorkshire and the Humber the Chief Executive of Hambleton District, yes District, Council received a package of £397,967.

Now not for one second am I suggesting that any of these individuals or any of the other two thousand officers earning the highest salaries have done anything wrong, in fact quite to the contrary I am sure the vast majority of them are highly qualified and exemplary at their jobs.

I am sure that no impropriety has been uncovered from any council officers on the list and if there had been relevant action would have been taken. I’m equally certain that each employee has been paid within the terms of their contract.

But we have to question in this time when so many ordinary families are struggling should so many council officers be getting paid quite so much?

A great many are being paid more than our Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers responsible for the great offices of state. A great many are being paid more than than senior executives at some of our largest companies.

Are these people truly deserving of salaries, in many cases higher than their private sector equivalents; or is there a greater problem with salaries across the public sector?

Does every council need a Chief Executive with a commensurate remuneration package to match it? Or should councils be working together or merging to address just this type of problem?

Does that mean counties and cities and districts are at risk of losing some of their local determination? Or is it that something that most of us would be quite happy to live with?

But if you think that these 2,314 council employees are the sum total of this problem. Then stop and think again.

You see at the same time as the Taxpayers’ Alliance were releasing their Rich List the Association of Teachers and Lecturers were holding their annual conference when the subject of executive pay in academies was raised.

Conference heard how the boss of the taxpayer funded Harris Federation, which runs 41 state schools, was remunerated £425,000 last year; or as the Daily Mail puts it 85% higher than the head teacher of Eton.

According to figures released by the Department for Education in 2014/15 111 academy trustees, largely Chief Executives and Principals – including a number responsible for state funded Catholic faith schools, were each paid more than £150,000.

There is so much more than could be said about remuneration in academies and the independence of trustees making salary decisions and I am sure that in due course this will be a topic that is returned to by the media as a whole.

But for now I will leave you with a thought. As the vast majority of us watch our bills increase, often for good reasons, as and when our highly paid public sector executives depart do we honestly think that their replacements should be employed on the same terms and conditions as their predecessors?

Do we honestly think that we can’t employ an excellent manager for £90 or £80 or even £70 thousand pounds? Is the talent pool in the private sector so poor that we would see an exodus from these public sector employees?

I think not. And you know what? When it was proved not to be the case we would still have excellent people working in our public sector on more than decent salaries. 

Rules for new councillors - my Coalville Times column

This week’s column, it’s fair to say, has something of a niche audience. There’s not too many of you out there who are likely to benefit from my wisdom but nevertheless I think that it is important that I give some advice to a very small subset of the readership of this newspaper.

The rest of you are more than welcome to read along. Who knows, one day you might find yourself in a position where this column is of some help to you.

This week’s column is for those eight souls from North West Leicestershire and a similar number from South Derbyshire who in just a couple of weeks’ time will be elected as County Councillors.

It’s fair to say that a number of those elected on May 4th will be returning members and so for them this column is very much like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. So if you do happen to be one of those lucky enough to win a second or third term there’s nothing to see here, get yourselves back to County Hall quick sharp.

No I’m writing especially for those of you who have won a council seat for the very first time, there may be only a handful of you but for the sake of your sanity please read on.

Firstly, never ever expect to go into your local pub, church or corner shop and not be accosted by at least two people telling you of the state of potholes in their road. You will be forced to go out and see the aforementioned crater and sympathise with the state of highways generally and ‘what does my council tax pay for’ in particular.

No matter the size of the hole, whether it is nothing more than a stone chip loosening from the Tarmac surface or something akin to a meteorite striking a suburban estate road, you will be expected to treat it with the severest gravity and potentially even have a photograph taken of yourself looking very glum indeed for the benefit of the local paper.

As a rule of thumb seek to avoid the photographs; they only come back to haunt you and you soon discover there are actual websites for councillors pointing at things whilst looking very serious.

The same advice includes local residents complaining about grass verge parking.

Except that those who inconsiderately park their cars, damage our grass verges and make our villages such an eyesore are literally the spawn of the devil. Still, avoid photographs.

If you are lucky enough to be elected in a couple weeks please remember everyone thinks you get free food, drink, parking permits and probably dancing girls.  For the most part you don’t, you only get the things needed to do your job, but it’s pointless putting up an argument. You’re fair game now.

Lastly let me mention planning permission.

Now, I know that County Council’s don’t usually deal with planning permission apart from the big stuff like quarries or airstrips but that will not stop everyone treating you as though your remit goes as far down as second floor extensions and car ports.

Without exception, and it really doesn’t matter if an application is just one step up from mud huts or the best one ever made, neighbours will object and want you to do so too.

It doesn’t matter that we need more homes, especially affordable ones – they get the biggest objections, by the way – neighbours will not want them in their back yards.

Residents in your ward will expect you to argue against any and all planning applications regardless of whether their objections have merit or not. The operative statement here being that whilst some objections do many do not.

You will be tempted, no matter what your view really is, to capitulate and agree with the residents – it might be four years away but in a re-election campaign a few votes can swing things. But don’t.

Stand for what you believe to be right. If it’s a decent application that’s mitigated all major concerns have the guts to support it.

You’ve gone into politics to make a difference. The first step is being true to yourself and not agreeing with every NIMBY with a vote.

Who knows? Following my advice might mean you lose next time round but if you do you can look back and know you did things right. That really is what local politics is truly about.  

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Labour activists will battle for every vote, the Tories must match them

Let me tell you something about Labour Party activists; something every Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP member needs to keep in mind as June’s General Election approaches.

Labour Party activists, and I’m not talking about the Momentum / Corbynista keyboard warrior brigade here but the real battle hardened ones carrying the scars of countless election campaigns to prove it, are ferocious. Labour Party activists will go out in all weathers knocking on door after door after door and day after day long before any formal ‘short campaigns’ start.

They are decent principled people who care passionately about their party and will give up vast amounts of their time for their cause. It just so happens, now more than ever, that there cause is the wrong one.

The last thing that Britain needs now is the chaos of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour when it can have the pragmatic maturity of the Conservatives; steering the nation through the tough times of BREXIT negotiation that are bound to be ahead, but that’s an argument for another day.

No, there is a very good reason I raise the subject of Labour Party activists and it is this: they and Labour should not be underestimated.

Sitting here seven weeks out from polling day it is very easy indeed to think that this General Election is a foregone conclusion.

Conservatives can look at the polls, both headline figures and all of those interesting supporting tables, and think ‘this is going to be a walk in the park’.

We can read predictions of notional majorities around the 140 seat mark and get complacent; ‘surely no one of sane mind would vote for Corbyn?’

But the simple fact is that if that happens all of the time Tory supporters are sitting on their hands; whether it’s activists not turning out or Tory voters thinking ‘well, someone else will do it’, Labour will be out in numbers putting the groundwork in and motivating their core support.

Yes, we can argue that Labour's ‘messaging’ is a mess; it patently is.

We can believe that their petard will be will and truly hoisted by that horrible habit that they have of telling voters what they should believe rather than listening to what they do.

But they will be out there until 10.00pm on Thursday 8th June working for every vote they can get.

The reason I say all of this is important. I have an experience of the Labour Party that I simply don’t of the Tories. I am sure there are many amazing Conservative activists too.

No, the reason is a that there is danger of complacency resulting in a hard fought, unprecedented victory feeling a tad lacklustre.

Imagine if at dawn on a warm June Friday morning the news crews are reporting a majority of ‘just 60’. In real terms that would be an astonishing achievement but if you were expecting 140 seats? What then?

Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP activists will be working hard over the coming weeks to prevent a Tory win.

The polls will inevitably get closer.

And the Conservatives? If we want a win that will be remembered for generations then we will have to go toe to toe with them all.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Good Friday walks - my April Community Voice Column

Back in the very early 1980’s, at the age of 8 or 9, my parents decided – they always told me at my request – to move me from Thringstone Primary, where I had started my formal schooling a few years earlier to the Roman Catholic Holy Cross School at the top of Parsonwood Hill in Whitwick.

The move was a massive culture change for me. Having never really having been to church it was, for my very young self, completely alien having to say class prayers at the start and end of the day, at break and at lunch.

My first teacher at Holy Cross was the absolutely fearsome but, as I found out in later life, hugely fun and kind hearted Mrs Wilkins.

Tess is a devout woman who, my class mates told me very early on, would give 10 merits to each of us if she saw us going into church at the end of the school day and who could organise a school mass on Holy Days with the same type of regimen that you would normally attribute to a Sergeant Major. We very quickly learnt what we could and could not get away with with Mrs Wilkins.

If any of the boys, never the girls, were seen as having the right sort of stuff for the priesthood – it seemed to be the aspiration of everyone to have after so many years another priest raised in the parish – then Mrs Wilkins would soon send you off to Father to be enrolled as an altar server.

That point, to an extent, is where today's column starts.

One thing that anyone familiar with religion will tell you is that we Catholics love ritual, the outward signs of faith. Almost universally we love the carols and incense at midnight mass at Christmas time, we adore the seemingly never ending readings and symbolic fires at Easter. And most of us, certainly in my youth, loved the processions which take place, sometimes around the school playing field sometimes through the streets of Whitwick, every May and June.

The ‘Catholic’s marching’ became well known throughout the village. Altar servers and devoted gentlemen in their Sunday best would be seen twice a year carrying banners and a statue of the Virgin Mary through the Market Place. Behind them, in my memory at least, hundreds of the faithful would follow on reciting prayers and singing hymns. It became for me a highlight of the church year.

Of course, probably due to difficulties in obtaining the proper licences and police permissions, eventually these highly public marches stopped. These ‘Marian’ processions don’t have anywhere near the same high profile any more.

I’m delighted to say though that the tradition of processions hasn’t died out altogether though.

For the better part of thirty years annually every Good Friday morning Christians from our villages have taken part in a ‘Walk of Witness’ from the Monastery of Mount St Bernards to St Andrew’s Parish Church in Thringstone.

The walk, which seeks to remember the journey Jesus suffered before his crucifixion has always stopped for a moment of reflection at five further churches along the route.

The Churches Together ‘Walk of Witness’ is one small part that makes our community what it is. Year after year it has taken place whether there has been glorious early spring sunshine or even, one year, in heavy snow.

2017 will be no different. This year’s procession takes place on Good Friday, 14th April, and starts at the Monastery at 9:45am. What better way can there be to start Easter?

And if you’re an Old Catholic like me it will bring all those childhood memories flooding back.

Whatever you choose to do have a wonderful Easter.

May or Corbyn: The question you will be asked a thousand times

If a week is a long time in politics then seven must be an eternity, but that’s exactly the timespan we have to wait for until yesterday’s announced General Election actually comes to pass.

Let’s try and put it into some sort of context for you.

Where I live in Leicestershire if you are a parent your children are currently enjoying their Easter school holidays. Seven weeks is the same time for them to go back to school next week; have a whole half term; followed by another week off and return for another (nearly) full week of schooling all before the General Election takes place.

Seven weeks is a long time, not just in politics.

But I can guarantee you something.

I can 100% positively reassure you that there is one question you are going to be seeing in print, on posters, in social media adverts and be asked personally way, way more than any other question over the next (nearly) two months.

And that question is this:

On June 9th either our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, or current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will walk through the door of 10 Downing Street becoming our next Prime Minister: who do you want it to be?

Or conversely 'who do you least want it to be too?'

Of course the question might not be asked exactly in those words.

You may be asked which leader is most economically competent? Or, who would you prefer to be responsible for the defence of our nation? Or, who would you favour going into a room to defend Britain's interests with Presidents Putin or Trump or potentially Le Pen?

And you will be asked those questions again and again and again.

In the run up to the last General Election Peter Kellner, of pollsters YouGov, told anyone that would listen that no Prime Minister had ever been elected without a polling lead in at least one of two very important categories: best leader or most economically competent.

Kellner warned that Ed Miliband would be defeated partly because he was behind David Cameron in those two areas.

Look at where Mrs May now is in relation to Mr Corbyn. Effectively out of sight on competence, the economy and defence; amongst virtually every demographic group.

Yesterday being interviewed on College Green Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, reminded viewers that voters will have a binary choice on Thursday June 8th between ‘Theresa May’s Britain’ or ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain’.

That is exactly the same thing as the Tories will be hoping voters remember too.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A General Election to deliver a better BREXIT - the most important General Election in our history

So, that's it. Game on.

It could be that Mrs May figures disastrous local election results will signify the end of the fantastical experiment that was Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party - and who wouldn't want to have a tilt at a landslide victory when HM Loyal Opposition are in such a shambolic state?

It could be that the Prime Minister figures that the risk of losing a handful of marginal parliamentary seats to the resurgent Liberal Democrats would be vastly outweighed by the gains she is likely to make in the Labour heartlands.

It's possible that Mrs May looks at the polls; not just the headline figures but 'best Leader' and 'most economically competent too' and figures that there will never be a better time.

And it could be that the PM is banking on significant gains in the local elections in largely Tory shire counties in just over two weeks; the voting public won't make a protest vote just weeks before the big one, will they?

And whilst all of those things may be a factor in her decision it's not the main story; Theresa May is far more patriotic, far more serious than that.

Just weeks ago Mrs May triggered Article 50 to mark our withdrawal from the European Union.

We know that there is two years of hard negotiations to take place and simply put a majority of 17 or so MP's isn't big enough to ensure support for all of the measures she knows she's going to have to implement.

As preliminary talks take place at diplomatic levels take place it's absolutely right that the Prime Minister goes to the country seeking to increase that majority.

The EU Referendum changed politics forever and Mrs May needs to ensure that she has the personal mandate to do whatever is necessary to deliver the best outcome for Britain.

Now Theresa May needs the support of the electorate.

If we give it to her she will win and win big. That is what is needed to deliver the smoothest BREXIT for Britain.

It's time to get behind her, this is the most important General Election in our history

Monday, 17 April 2017

Councillors are overwhelmingly decent - we should be grateful: My Coalville Times column

In just a few weeks time my term of office as County Councillor for Whitwick will come to an end and for the first time in the better part of a decade I will no longer be an elected representative of the people on a highly politicised, district or county council.

As I prepare to step down I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my time as one of your councillors.

I am sure that there are many things I will look back on over the coming weeks with fondness or a wry smile, who knows I may even mention some of them here?

I will remember battles over HS2 and the rail freight interchange near to Castle Donington; I will reminisce about the closure of Snibston Discovery Park and be hopeful for its rebirth in the coming months; I will ponder over the successes of bringing derelict buildings back into use whether that was The Fox and Goose, The Pick and Shovel or in the very near future Coalville’s bus depot.

I hope and believe that as Britain moves out of a decade long economic torpor I stand down, admittedly having played a very minor role, with our district being at the forefront of job creation and new homes. I believe, although others may well disagree, that North West Leicestershire is in a better position than it was at the end of the last decade.

But as I stand down it won’t be all of those initiatives that will be at the forefront of my mind. Let me explain.

A few years ago I was telephoned by a homeowner in my patch who just so happened to have made a planning application. We discussed his plans for some time, I wasn’t on the planning committee at that point, and I told him on a personal level that I didn’t think they should be approved.

The homeowner was incensed and started ranting at me about how the approval of councillors could easily be bought.

It wasn’t the first time that I had had similar comments made to me and I answered in the same way that I always did.

“If you believe that councillors can be bribed so easily then please give me some evidence. There is no room in local democracy for crooks and if you have proof of wrongdoing I will be the first to take the matter further.”

It came as absolutely no surprise to me, and shouldn’t to you, that no evidence was forthcoming. No one who has ever made allegations to me, that this councillor or that officer was ‘on the take’ has ever provided me with one scintilla of proof.

All of which brings me to my main point.

Most people don’t know who their elected representatives are; a few will have heard of them.
When you don’t know someone it is far easier to question their motives, I’ve heard it done many times.

But as someone who knows all of the elected representatives on our district and county councils I would like to make an observation.

There are many councillors with whom I have had disagreements; there are even a very small number I don’t really like (it’s OK the feeling is probably mutual); but I would stake my reputation that the vast, vast majority of those seeking election to the County Council in a few weeks time are doing it for the right reasons.

Most councillors are hugely public spirited, they want to make their communities better places to live.

The vast majority of any party aren’t doing it ‘for the allowances’ but because they want to drive change; they’re even prepared to put up with public ridicule to deliver it. Do you know how scary it can be to knock on someone’s door and ask for their vote?

So in a few weeks time when you go to the polling station to cast your vote please do stop and think for a minute. You may disagree with the candidate or their manifesto; you may think that some of them are stark raving bonkers (a few are); but please don’t for one minute think they are standing for election to pocket a few quid.

Over the past years I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing councillors of all parties; by and large we are very lucky to have the public spirited elected representatives that we do.

I really do wish that those who are so ready to insinuate about how poor our councillors are really took the time to get to know them.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Easter message - compare and contrast with other religions

It's Easter Sunday morning and today Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his Easter video message.

Jeremy Corbyn | Happy Easter | 2017
As millions mark Easter around the world, it’s a time to reflect on the challenges we face and what our response should be.
Posted by Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday, 15 April 2017

And because I'm awake before anyone else in the house I thought it would be interesting to contrast this video with similar messages Mr Corbyn has issued for other religious festivals.

Here's one for Eid.

And another for Vaisakhi

Jeremy Corbyn | Happy Vaisakhi | 2017
I would like to wish everyone in the Sikh community, in this country and across the world, a very happy Vaisakhi.
Posted by Jeremy Corbyn on Thursday, 13 April 2017

Is there a same style of delivery in each video? Does Mr Corbyn seem equally at home with each message?

Interestingly I couldn't find a video for Passover. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

May volunteering says a lot about the difference between her and Corbyn

A few days ago I went to interview a local small businessman for an article I’m writing, as things often do in this type of situation after we had finished the interview proper talk moved on to other issues and we ended up chatting politics.

‘So, what do you think of Theresa May?’ I asked after a few minutes.

‘You know, throughout my life I’ve always been a Conservative voter but Mrs May is different from most Tory leaders: I really like her.’

I must admit it was a comment that didn’t surprise me at all.

Time and time again the same word keeps coming up from people who I speak to; and very definitely not just lifelong Tories. They ‘like’ Theresa May.

And it strikes me that being liked is important.

Since having that conversation I have asked people what it is that makes Mrs May likeable?

It’s certainly not an ability to tell jokes at Prime Ministers Questions; it’s definitely not being a sparkling orator or even necessarily coming across as particularly warm in interviews.

So given that the vast majority of us have never met her why do so many of us profess to liking this woman who can, at the very least come across on television as somewhat robotic?

One Twitter user told me “I could say this, Ken Clark is not someone I see eye to eye with on all sorts of things, same with Croydon North MP Steve Reed but I feel I'd enjoy a pint with both.”

But what makes a politician likeable, I asked? “Thinking about it (I) just have the impression they’re earnest.”

Another Facebook user responded a little differently “I don't think she's 'likeable' - very few Conservatives are, very few politicians generally, to be honest. What she does do is project an image of being a safe pair of hands in a time of chaos, particularly when the official opposition is doing the opposite. The Tories have always excelled at that - 'you don't have to like us but at least we keep the wheels on'. Generally, I think the most successful PMs have been the ones who are least liked... I think that's why she'll win and win big.”

And whilst both of those observations may well be highly accurate it was only when I read this morning’s Times that I think I fully understand why I, and quite possibly others, like Mrs May as much as I do.

If you peruse today’s press, certainly not on the front pages, you will see photographs of the Prime Minister volunteering with the marshalling at her local Good Friday road race, the Maidenhead 10.

Mrs May’s local newspaper, the Maidenhead Advertiser, reports that she “can be seen marshalling the race most years”.

And it struck me being a race Marshall is the epitome of likeability.

As someone who taken part in more than my fair share of road races over the years I know how important voluntary marshals really are.

Marshals turn out often on cold and wet mornings to stand in remote spots ensuring competitors take the right route and encouraging them onwards.

Marshals, especially when you’re near the back of the field as I usually was, make a race, they lift your spirits and the thousands who take part week after week around the country are completely unsung and yet without them races would simply not go ahead.

Marshals literally get nothing from the job they do apart from the sure knowledge that they are helping their community.

And this woman whose day job sees her leading our Government has, most years – long before the paparazzi turned up – given her free time to volunteer.

In many ways Theresa May is living proof of the Big Society that David Cameron espoused but never really bought into.

I would venture that Mrs May’s race marshalling does as much to explain her sense of community as Jeremy Corbyn’s endless taking the stage at protests does to explain his.

One is about actions; one is about words.

I think I know which option most of us ‘like’ more.

And why agree with my Facebook correspondent. I think she will win and win big.