Wednesday, 31 May 2017

What are Labour's plans for faith schools? Christians need to know.

If you have ever been to a Labour Party meeting, an experience that I'm sure most of you reading this piece today have never enjoyed, you will know that many members on the far left of that party totally and utterly hate the Tories and everything that we stand for.

It’s a hatred that I really haven’t encountered since I joined Conservative Party. I’m sure that many Tories have no liking for Labour but the visceral contempt for our opposition is something I just haven’t encountered. But that really is a story for another day.

You see, from all of my years of going to Labour Party meetings, there is one other thing that jumps out as being despised as much, if not more, than the Tories amongst those same members.

They hate religion. They ridicule believers and save there highest contempt for Christians.

You will often find atheists, agnostics and humanists amongst the ranks of the far left and their greatest vitriol is held over for faith-based education.

Try mentioning faith schools at Labour Party meetings and wait for the howls that ‘there is no place for  religion in education’, you will see what I mean.

It’s for that reason as a practising Catholic and writer that I am more than a little worried in that remotest of possibilities,  a Labour Government next Friday morning.

Nowhere in the Labour manifesto does is mention faith schools.

What you will find however are causes for concern if you are a parent whose children attend one.

Their manifesto claims that ‘Labour will ensure that all schools are democratically accountable, including appropriate controls to see that they serve the public interest and their local communities.’

What does that mean? How do diocese fit into that structure of democratic accountability? Or, maybe they don’t?

The manifesto goes on ‘We will require joined-up admissions policies across local schools to enable councils to fulfil their responsibilities on child places, to simplify the admissions process for parents and to ensure that no child slips through the net.’

Will faith based criteria find its way into those ‘joined-up admissions policies’? Or, will that not be acceptable in a modern socialist Britain?

Of course I could be scare-mongering, but just think for a second.

We know that the last moderate Labour government changed admissions procedures to prevent a majority of places being allocated on the basis of religion in new faith schools. We know how that prevented Christian denominations from seeking to build new schools.

If that was a moderate Labour government then what will an ideologically pure one do?

You won’t find much about faith schools on Labour websites but cast you net a little wider into the hinterland of left wing politics and it becomes much more illuminating.

The Socialist Party, formerly Militant, are no fans of faith schools. In 2014 on their website the party questioned ‘whether faith schools should have any place in our school system at all’.

Around the same time the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) were posting on their website ‘End private, sectarian and religious schools. Quality education for all.’ Before going on to state it is christian schools of all denominations, with catholic schools at the forefront, that are the largest players in the sectarian delivery of education. Following the advice of the Jesuit priest Gracian – “Give me a child of seven and I’ll give you the man” – they aim to indoctrinate in a manner that will dominate their pupils for life, ensuring the ongoing power of their anachronistic institutions.’ 

Is it mere chance that Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, described himself as a Marxist? Is it a coincidence that both fringe parties in this General Election are campaigning for a Corbyn victory?

The truth is that disagreeing with faith schools is a perfectly laudable position. I disagree profoundly but other reasonable people would support such a stance.

The real worry is that with this Labour Party we simply don’t know what their intention is for the future of faith schools.

Practicing Christians, parents and grandparents have a right to know before they go to the ballot box next Thursday.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Tough but honest May wins over Corbyn's optimistic fantasy - my Catholic Universe column

For newspaper columnists General Elections are both a blessing and a curse. For once there is absolutely no difficulty in coming up with a topic on which to opine, the downside of course is that every other columnist has the same story staring them in the face too.

It can all lead to column metre after column metre of newspaper text all dedicated to the very same topic: how stultifying.

It is for this very reason, dear reader, that so far I have very consciously stayed away, in newsprint at least, from pontificating on the subject of the upcoming general election for so long.

But I can’t stay quiet any longer. It’s all just too much. Manifestos have been published; car crash interviews with representatives of all parties have gone viral online; and by now a fair few of you will have already returned your postal ballots after they started falling onto doormats over the past few days.

You see, about a week ago now I received a message asking me if I would like to be one of the panel guests on a regional variation of BBC One’s Sunday Politics show. As is usual with these sort of things I was briefed, in general, the direction that the debate would follow.

‘We’ll be talking about the manifestos,’ the producer of the show told me, before indicating to my immense relief that we would in all likelihood only have time to discuss the parties most likely to form a government.

As a result I can testify that I am in actual fact one of the minute proportion of voters in this country who has, you know, actually read the whole of two election manifestos.

Perhaps incorrectly I am assuming, dear reader, that you have not found yourself  in a position where going from back to front cover of these lengthy tomes has been a necessity so I shall try and summarise them for you very succinctly.

In 2017 there is two things that you notice about the Conservative and Labour election manifestos. They are both, thankfully, very easy to read. Unfortunately they are also both immensely boring.
It is fair to say that for the first time in my lifetime there is clear blue water between the offerings of the two main parties, however not just in policies but in tone.

Labour’s manifesto is one the likes of which I have never read before. There is, in actual fact, a great deal to like about the optimistic tone it is written in.

After two years it is generally known that I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn but there is much to like about the manifesto his party has put forward.

In all seriousness who could not want free hospital parking, free school dinners, 10,000 more bobbies on the beat, free university education, billions upon billions put into health and schools, pay rises for public sector workers, a significantly increased minimum wage, increased paternity allowances and huge additional amounts being put into welfare payments?

It really isn’t a surprise when voters are asked whether they support such policies for the purpose of opinion polls that overwhelmingly they say ‘yes’.

The problem is that people do tend to say ‘yes’ to free things right up until the point that realise that very little is actually ever free and, indeed, nothing delivered by government actually ever is.

And that is where the optimism of the Labour manifesto stops. It is quite a dark concept that if you want to make things look free then you have find a bogeyman whose door the actual bill can be left at.

In their prospectus Labour have found three groups of dark figures who, they believe, the wider electorate will be willing to let them reap the true cost of their project from.

The ‘rich’ will find themselves paying more. If you are not quite sure whether you fall into that category just check if you are earning the same or less than an MP, if you are on the same then congratulations! Your income falls just short of the amount that can be earned before your tax rate increases significantly.

Businesses will find themselves subject to increased corporation tax. But at a time when many are considering whether Britain, given our withdrawal from the EU, is the best place to base themselves, and the hundreds of thousands of families who rely on them for employment, a Labour government is seeking to significantly increase their tax burden.

The final group who will be presented with the responsibility of meeting Labour’s spending commitments are, wait for it, you and I. Well, when I say ‘you and I’ obviously what Labour would like you to believe is that it will be the bankers through a ‘Robin Hood’ tax. The difficulty is that the billions potentially raised through such a tax directly impact on pension funds, the funds that you and I save for our retirement.

Whenever I go out canvassing in elections from time to time, or for that matter even at the pub or at church, I am used to hearing one thing about politicians: ‘they all lie’.

The Conservative manifesto really is an extraordinary piece of work. It highlights the challenges that the country is going to be facing over the coming years, not just BREXIT but equally major issues like the huge problem of how we tackle social care for older people, and actually tries to come up with workable solutions.

It places issues, like the withdrawal for most retired people of the winter fuel allowance, absolutely front and centre and risks alienating a voting group that has traditionally voted Tory, and why?

Because it seems Mrs May knows that it is the right thing to do.

Of course many elderly people need the winter fuel allowance payment, and they will still get it, but crucially many do not. We have to ask why then, when finances are exceptionally tight, are we paying it?

To my mind, and in fairness in the mind of many retired people that I talk too, we cannot. But it is a very brave politician that highlights a problem and tries to address it not in a way that garners the most votes but in an equitable, fair one.

It’s quite possible to argue all day long that you disagree with the contents of either manifesto but one fact is true. We hear that politicians are ‘all the same’ patently taking note of the gap between policies in the Labour and Tory manifestos, they are not.

In a few weeks we have a choice to make.

Do we want to vote for a party who has based it’s platform in the fantasy land of spending untold billions and a promise of it only affecting the rich? Or, do we want to support a party basing their admittedly more boring agenda, at a time when Britain is facing unprecedented change, in reality?

For me the answer isn’t difficult.

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.