Monday, 30 January 2017

The Trump state visit petition is a ridiulous thing

E-petitions are ridiculous things.
Look no further than the one that is currently doing the rounds calling for the British Government to withdraw the offer of a state visit to President Trump later this year.
As I sit typing at 3.00pm on Monday afternoon, just twenty four hours after the petition was launched, 1,294,718 people have taken the time to sign it.
That is a number that is unprecedented on the Government’s own electronic petition website. I’m sure it will go significantly higher.
But delve behind the total and you get a different picture, a picture possibly driven by ambivalence, possibly by disagreement but a picture which undoubtedly shows that a whirlwind of social media support does not necessarily correlate with the wider public mood.
You see, the government petition site allows you to drill down to see how many people in each parliamentary constituency have shown support for an idea and it’s illuminating.
For instance in the Boston and Skegness parliamentary constituency right now just 626 people have signed the petition, that’s 0.6% of the 103,898 electors in that area.
In Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, the constituency of Yvette Cooper, the percentage is just 0.75% of the electorate.
In my own, Conservative held, constituency of North West Leicestershire the figures are slightly higher with 1,178 signatures (or 1.23% of all voters).
Even in that most liberal of all bastions Brighton, Pavilion just 7.2% of constituents have signed this petition which is now dominating the news cycle.
The simple truth is, and accepting numbers of signatures may continue to rise significantly past the initial first 24 hour rush, that the overwhelming majority of our country will not take the minimal time or effort to fill in a few boxes online.
What does that tell us?
It may well say to a large number of us that President Trump is doing no more than the things he promised on the campaign trail and that he was elected into office to carry out.
It may well say that Her Majesty offered the invitation of a state visit in the full knowledge that this was Mr Trump’s agenda.
It could be argued that the majority of the British electorate believe a strong working relationship with the United States is preferable to hostile one and that America seeking to take control of borders in a way which is undesirable to us, including me I hasten to add, is not a red line sufficient enough to jeopardise that bond.
It could be that others of us, perhaps those with a greater understanding of the US system, take a view that an Executive Order is by definition an extension of existing legislation. Legislation that indeed was formulated under the Obama administration.
Or it could be that most Britons believe that President Trumps actions are a matter for the American public and not ours.
The potential reasons that people have not signed this e-petition are many but there can be no doubt that those choosing not to sign are in the significant majority.
All of which begs the question ‘why the furore now’?
And to my mind the answer is simple. There are a great many people in this country who simply do not like President Trump.
A great many think he is a boorish oaf not fit to lace the shoes of the urbane, intellectual former President Obama and no matter what this democratically elected President does he will be held, by them, in complete disdain.
I am no fan of President Trump, I can’t believe for one second that had I been able to vote that I would have cast my ballot for him. But he was democratically elected with a clear mandate and a clear agenda under the US system.
It is right for opponents of Mr Trump, both here and in the United States, to voice their dissent or to demonstrate. That is what freedom of speech is about.
But ultimately when we do so we have to realise that the far larger silent majority may well have other views.
When you sign an e-petition, even one which could be deemed by many to be nothing more than petulant grandstanding, you have to be careful. There is always the chance that it can highlight to the world how small your voice actually is.

Is it possible to turn the clock back? Is it worth it?

This is me.

Back in 2006.

I had just won a competition promoted by a major shoe manufacturer (can you guess which one?) and had been awarded my prize of being kitted out for an all expenses paid trip to take part in the Chicago Marathon.

I was a runner.

Granted, I wasn't a fast runner. In fact I was a pretty slow one. But I was very definitely still a runner.

Some of my medal haul
I've even got the medals to prove it.

I got my prize because shortly after the death of my father from bowel cancer I had taken up the sport, and lost five stone, and loved every moment as I tried to get fitter so (I hoped) the same fate didn't befall me.

I would run every day, sometimes twice. I would buy myself all of the latest gadgets to monitor and improve my performance. I would race virtually every weekend in at least a 10k but more often a half marathon.

Running was my number one pastime. I got to see some amazing places, what better way is there of running down the centre of New York's 5th Avenue or over the scenic bridges of Stockholm?

In many ways, and mostly for the better, running took over my life.

And then my life took over running.

I started a new job, I took more of a role in parenting my three children, I got involved in politics.

I had no time for running.

This is me now.

Ten years older, ten years more fatter, ten years more wheezy and, undoubtedly, ten years closer to the end.

Running has become something I did when I was young, something to look back on with fond memories.

But then, two or three weeks ago, an email dropped into my inbox. An email which in all probability should have gone into 'spam', but it didn't.

My daily newspaper, The Times, is sponsoring this year's Great North Run (my very first half marathon) and they had an allocation of places just for subscribers.

And in a moment of madness the years rolled back and I thought "what the hell".

I filled in the form and I entered my bank details and then a couple of days later I received this.

And now I'm part worried and part excited.

Can I get round without expiring on the John Reid Road? Has running changed? Can you still get shoes specially for fat lads?

But most of all does the thrill of crossing the finish line still feel the same? I bet it does.

And I've got seven months to find out. Seven months to lose weight. Seven months to see if my knees can take it.

Will I make it to the start, let alone the end of the world's biggest half marathon?

Only time will tell but I'm going to give it my best shot.

And I'm going to write about it here.

I'm fairly certain it's not going to be easy, but I'm also fairly certain if it pays off it will be worth it.

If you're interested please do keep checking back. It might give me a little motivation.

Who knows? It might give others a little inspiration.

See you on the trail!

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Unions are there for workers, not as the playthings of their Barons - my Catholic Universe column

Back in the summer of 1997 I was working for a council in the East Midlands.

It was a time very different to now, a time when seemingly the whole country thought that Tony Blair and his New Labour government were ‘like us’, a time when ‘cool britannia’ was the phrase on everyone’s lips and time when we thought that, yes, ‘things could only get better.’

It was also when for the very first time I found myself ‘properly’ becoming involved in politics. I agreed to do the job that no one else would do, I agreed to become the union steward.

I soon discovered that being a union steward was great. I got an afternoon off work, paid of course, every other week to attend the ‘executive committee’ and listen to veteran officials decry the new government for not rolling back all of Thatchers anti-union laws within the first few weeks of taking office.

One really lucky one amongst us, a friend in a neighbouring department, was elected branch secretary. He was paid not to do his job for three days a week and given an office just down the corridor from the Chief Executive for use during his facility time.

When I used to visit him for a chat and a coffee, which was frequent – my boss would never challenge me if I was on ‘union business’ – all my friend was ever seemingly doing was reading the latest missive from union HQ or that weeks copy of The Socialist Worker, a publication which he would attempt to sell around our building in the hope of converting more of the proletariat to his way of thinking.

I wanted to be him: righteous and untouchable.

One day, probably around mid June just four or five weeks after Labour had come to power, I went for my cup of ethically sourced coffee with my friend but he was behaving slightly differently. Rather than his normal,laid back self he was looking stressed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, “Is someone’s job at risk?”

“No, it’s more important than that” was his reply “I’ve been told I’ve got to organise a coach trip to Brighton to protest at the Labour Party Conference.”

Yes, you’ve read it correctly. Just four weeks after a Labour Government had taken office for the first time in nearly twenty years the union movement was organising a mass demonstration at their first party conference, a demonstration which in part at least was being funded by the taxpayers of the area in which I was working.

If this was union life I wanted some. An all expenses paid trip to the seaside with a couple of hours chanting to no one in particular followed by an afternoon wandering the Lanes and a few beers in a local pub.

At such a young age it seemed entirely right. As an idealistic union official I was there to fight for a socialist utopia and the people who paid my wages would be proud to know that I was demonstrating for them.

Now all of the above is completely true, I even had a Socialist Worker Badge at one stage although I never did join up, and I write it to highlight some of the ridiculous things that happen in the union movement.

It’s also true that I am a strong believer in that movement for very different reasons.

Another friend was at work when a colleague made a malicious allegation about them, an allegation which if upheld could have jeopardised their entire career.

My friend contacted their union rep who, over a period of four or five months, provided support and advocacy to them, who represented them at a disciplinary hearing and who won them complete exoneration.

Without the support of a dedicated, professional union advocate my friend may well have been alone at sea without a life jacket.

And that is the point. Like a great many organisations there are some amazing strengths to our trade unions, whilst at the same time there is – or at least was – ridiculous waste and mission creep which stretches way, way into a realm which is no longer the purview of being in the interests of most members but of the personal aims and agendas of a few people at the top of the organisation.

Over the past few weeks debate has been raging in the pages of this newspaper as to whether the government should introduce yet more laws to deter workers, particular those in jobs which are vital to our public services and infrastructure, from striking.

And I must admit when one considers the proportionality of strikes on our train network, strikes which unions maintain are about the safety issue of driver operated doors – an argument  which independent regulators stress are largely invalid - it is very difficult to argue against those calling for greater intervention.

It is even more difficult when leaders of those unions, such as ASLEF boss Tosh MacDonald, are on record as saying their aim is nothing less than bringing down the government. How is that helping the rank file members of his union?

With all my heart I believe in the role of unions, I believe in the solidarity of workers who when facing real injustice band together to fight it.

But there is a vast difference between that role, the role which I believe most union members support, and that of political agitators seeking to remove a democratically elected government.

Of course, one contributing factor to the current rise of unions as agitators and provocateurs was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Leader of the Labour Party.
The unions, particularly UNITE under the leadership of Len McCluskey, were instrumental in putting Mr Corbyn into office and the subsequent leftward shift of the party.

Unions hold twelve seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee. To put that into some kind of perspective the Parliamentary Labour Party hold just three and Labour Councillors only two.

It is difficult to overstate the power of unions in the Labour Party, but change is afoot.

Going on relatively unseen to the wider public a crucial election battle is taking place right now in the UNITE union.

General secretary McCluskey has voluntarily stood down from his role early in an attempt to seek reelection which would see him all but guaranteeing the leadership of Corbyn through to the anticipated date of the next General Election in 2020.

What, a few months ago, seemed like a stroll for Red Len however has suddenly got a whole lot more difficult. He is being challenged for the post by boss of Unite in the West Midlands, Gerard Coyne.

Mr Coyne has stepped into the role of challenger with a clear promise to stop ‘playing Westminster power games’ in order to get on with the job of protecting and improving what he, and I, believe really matter to union members: their pay and conditions, their safety and security at work.

It seems quite novel in this day and age that a union boss is purposely trying to be moderate, to be detaching themselves quite intentionally from the professional agitators but it is an approach that might just pay off.

There is very little doubt that the machine politics and powers of patronage are very much in the hands of the incumbent but the scrappy underdog seems to be gaining traction, at least with ordinary members.

The question has to be, given the usually low turnout in this type of election, whether those members are motivated enough by their dislike of a high profile, union baron leader to get out and vote for Coyne? Only time will tell.

I’m no longer a member of a trade union. They became too politically myopic for me in their hatred of all things Tory.

It seems to me though that if Coyne can pull off a shock victory we may just be one step closer to unions reclaiming their role as champion of workers  and not as arch-villains seeking to effect regime-change.

Given my recent record of endorsements however it’s likely to be business as normal for machine politics in our trade unions.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

How a twitter spat reminded me of the decency of strangers - my Catholic Universe column

With the frivolities of Christmas now subsided many of us are feeling a little blue.

As bills fall due and payslips don’t seem to go as far, and as hopes for a White Christmas give way to grumblings about having to defrost the car on January mornings we all feel a little miserable.

For some it seems like we have a hangover from a year long period of recklessness. We had our fun of voting for Brexit and removing a Prime Minister whilst watching our American cousins elect a somewhat unusual choice of President, but now we all have woken up to the stark reality that we have to make our choices work.

It’s very easy, as this long winter goes on, to feel depressed and a little cynical. Especially about politics.

So this week, if I may, I would like to tell you a little story about me which happened over Christmas. A story, when I look back at it, that reaffirms my belief in the sheer decency of human nature.

I am very conscious that this story doesn’t particularly show me in the best of lights, for which I apologise. As I have said many times before we all err from time to time, the measure of us all is to try and learn the lessons when we do.

This is a story of our time. It played out entirely on social media, a place where we somehow find it acceptable to say things that we would never dare to a person’s face, it is a story about a woman I have never met and probably never will but who quite by chance reminded me what humanity is about. In these pages she will remain entirely anonymous but you can rest assured her decency will remain with me for a very, very long time.

It all started with one tweet. For those who do not use any form of social media Twitter is an entirely alien idea. The website allows you to ‘microblog’, in short anyone can post messages to an audience of indeterminate size, either under their own name or anonymously, as long as that message is no longer than 140 characters.

Imagine that? How difficult is it to make an argument in a balanced reasonable way in what is essentially a fairly short sentence? I often have difficulty trying to do so in twelve hundred words!

But one tweet is all it took, a tweet by me which I knew would cause offence. I knew whilst it wouldn’t antagonise the vast majority of readers there would be a certain type of activist on the fringes of the Labour Party who would be incensed beyond belief.

I knew I shouldn’t go out intentionally and bait this subset of Twitter users but in that period of idleness between Christmas and New Year frankly I had nothing better to do.

So when I saw a campaign starting amongst some of Jeremy Corbyn’s most ardent supporters calling for the removal of Labour’s Deputy Leader from his post for someone altogether more pliable I tweeted one very short comment: “The loony left are calling for Tom Watson to be replaced by Angela Raynor. It’s as though they want rid of any last vestige of competence.”

That tweet really was all it took.

To me and I am sure countless others the term ‘loony left’ is completely anodyne, it’s shorthand for extremists on the edge of the political spectrum who were prevalent amongst Labour Party politics in the 1980’s and once again are now.

But to a small subset of activists it is a phrase that is dynamite, it’s the worst possible slur on them and in a condescending fashion which they often adopt it is grossly offensive to anyone suffering from mental health problems.

As I tried to explain to user after user that in common parlance ‘loony left’ is no more a slur on mental health as walking into my son’s bedroom and saying ‘it’s like Bedlam in here’. User after user, nearly always the anonymous sort, told me how reprehensible I was.

Now as I said at the outset of today’s column I did all of this because, to be frank I didn’t have a lot else to do on a dark winters night. I knew what I was doing and quite aside from the fact that my point was, to my mind at least, right I made it in a way which was going to stir a hornet’s nest.

And then I received the perfect tweet, a woman who in fairness was not hiding behind a shell of anonymity, who had taken my bait so perfectly.

The woman messaged me ‘As a psychotherapist I could really tear you apart, but I can see now you are an idiot…’

I had so much fun. I asked if calling me a idiot was suitable language for a psychotherapist? I asked if tearing me apart was some sort of superpower which came with the job? In short I was being a bit of an idiot but, I reasoned, so was the woman who had messaged me so all was fair in love and war.

Completely understandably the lady in question blocked me from any further interaction but I wasn’t for one second expecting what would happen next.

The very next day my ‘psychotherapist superhero’ managed to track down an email address for me and contacted me quite out of the blue.

It was a beautiful letter that made me think afresh and I am not for one second ashamed to say that it moved me to tears.

It transpired that my correspondent had received some bad news earlier in the day herself and she too had been thinking about our conversation. She wrote ‘That terrible news put all in perspective. Twitter is ugly, in my opinion, all social media really and can get the worse out of people.

It doesn't matter how I might have disagreed with you, I want to apologise to you for calling you an idiot: I had no right to do so, no matter how angry I might have felt, I do not know you, I do not do that normally.

I blocked what I perceived as unkindness and mockery of me, I did not want to block you! I felt bad. I wrote words out of anger…

I hope you will accept my apologies for what they are. Anyhow, I won't read it, As I said, I do not want those angry feelings inside me, so is twitter goodbye the minute I send this. I wish you and your loved ones all the best for the new year, top must be health and happiness.’

Out of a childish, manufactured spat I had received this beautiful email which without hesitation I wrote back accepting this lady’s generous apology and offering my own to her which she in turn accepted graciously.

In my reply I made an observation which for me at least is the most important lesson I learned last year, and one I am still to grasp fully. It is this: ‘When I left the Labour Party in September I was invited on the the BBC Sunday Politics show (just the regional edition I hasten to add) to explain my reasons for doing so. In a pre-recorded piece taken at the party conference Jon Ashworth, a decent member of the Shadow Cabinet, commented about me 'Leon has picked the wrong enemy, Jeremy isn't the enemy - the Tories are.'

My immediate response was this: The Tories are not the enemy, they are the opposition and we should treat them with the respect of someone who is decent but holds different views.’

Isn’t that the key point for all of us? There isn’t enough respect anymore. The world of social media, a Pandora’s Box which we cannot close, truly does bring out the worst in us.

We all fail from time to time but it doesn’t harm whatsoever to be reminded every now and then of the better angels of our nature.

There is so much good in people of all faiths and races and political persuasions that every now and then we need to step back and recall the things, the human decency that the vast majority of us have in common.

Have a wonderful week.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Corbyn's day is the punch Ali never gave Foreman

For anyone interested in Labour Party politics, if the fancy ever takes you that is, log on to YouTube and search for ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’.

For the uninitiated the search term will return perhaps the greatest ever boxing match between two literal giants of the sport, the then undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman and the sporting genius that was Muhammad Ali.

The fight is legendary, most experts expected the bigger, younger, fitter Foreman to win but in the event itself Ali’s ring savvy and adoption of his ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics absorbed everything Foreman had to offer, before the veteran challenger launched his own onslaught knocking the champ out.

But it is the end of the bout that is special. Watch it and you will see something almost imperceptible but undoubtedly now. over forty years on, one of the most iconic moments in sporting history.

Ali had delivered the most blistering, devastating combination of punches and Foreman was on his way to the ground and you see this legend of the ring about to deliver one final, crunching blow and then he stops.

Ali knew it was all over, Foreman was done and anymore punishment would have been unedifying.

And that moment is exactly the one that the British public have seen replicated by Jeremy Corbyn today.

This Labour Leader, if the polls are to be believed, on the ropes himself for many months chose today to launch himself as the Donald Trump-esque populist Corbyn 2.0, speaking truth unto power.

Yet you just knew as Mr Corbyn undertook his first interview, his very first on Good Morning Britain at the hands of Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, it wasn’t going to be his day.

Morgan’s abrupt interviewing style, constantly on the search for short direct answers, clearly didn’t suit the Labour Leader and his tendency to prevaricate but even that was better than his car crash which followed shortly afterwards on the Today programme.

Corbyn stumbled on migration, launched an ill thought out offensive calling for a maximum wage and ended by alienating countless commuters as he said that would be perfectly happy to stand on the picket line of the Southern Trains strikers – presumably explaining to short tempered travelers why they were wrong to be annoyed by losing a day’s pay through absolutely no choice of their own.

And at that moment, if I had previously held any doubts, I realised unhesitatingly it was all over for Corbyn.

Tomorrow there will be column after column written about Jeremy’s u-turn after u-turn today but the truth is for anyone who opposes him it’s unedifying too.

Jeremy Corbyn has today shown himself unequivocally to be unelectable, to be unfit for the highest office. Journalists and bloggers can write tomes about the man but there really isn’t any need.

We all know it: Corbynistas and opponents alike. After a day like today the Labour Leader is finished. His detractors are increasing by the day as his ardent support begins to falter.

It’s that moment that Ali didn’t punch Foreman. The fight is over. All that is to come is the post mortem.