Saturday, May 29, 2010


How could I have missed yesterday's list of those appointed to working peerages? John Shipley, who has led the first Liberal Democrat controlled major council in the region for the last four years, becomes a peer. Newcastle Lib Dems now have the job of deciding on a new group leader who will also lead the council. I had the privilege of working with John on some regional Lib Dem strategies and I'm sure that the House of Lords will benefit from his presence.
I'm also pleased to see Phil Willis in there, although not labelled a working peer I'm sure he won't be sitting back and doing nothing - he cares too passionately about children, young people, fairness for all (in fact, Liberal Democracy) to do that.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Green Travel & Green living

This afternoon's meeting of the Environment Partnership heard an update on the electric car charging points to be installed round the borough - not as many as we'd first thought because the grant funding doesn't stretch to laying in lots of extra cable so having a point in Preston Park won't happen just yet but we will get them in several other places where the power is more accessible.
The CO2 savings are quite impressive though the financial cost is still rather high until such time as economies of scale kick in.
Then we heard about the new Stockton Active Travel Centre, The Hub. When it was first proposed I confess I was a little cynical about whether there'd be much take up for its services but it seems there is - people are using the place to find out about cycling and walking, to join in guided walks and cycle rides, to learn how to maintain their own bike in good condition, to borrow a bike, to have lessons in cycling and much much more. The council officers are so enthusiastic that I can almost visualise me cycling along the riverside path with one of them , till reality hits!
And then on to the Feed In Tariffs for small scale generation of electricity. One of the good things the last Labour government did was to listen to the consultation responses on these and change them to make it really worthwhile installing microgeneration systems. The council is planning to install some and to encourage far more householders to install them at home. The new coalition government is committed to continuing the FITs so it's definitely worth installing them now!
So just the sort of meeting I really enjoy, hearing the good news about what's going on in the borough and being able to ask questions and raise issues to get the next step underway. Why can't they all be as positive as that??

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I spent the day at Eston Park School, over in Redcar & Cleveland council area. The school was running a Fairtrade Enterprise Day for year 8, with a view to starting on the track towards Fairtrade school status. I was asked as a Traidcraft speaker to go along and talk about Fairtrade. Actually I had to talk 6 times on much the same subject to six different groups of students, all with varying degrees of interest. It was a fascinating day. They spent time with Starbucks, hearing about the coffee producers and the processes from bean to cup, with me hearing about the ethics of Fairtrade, and with staff doing some work on the costs of schools in developing countries and joining in the campaign to ensure that the new government keep up the commitment of the previou government to help ensure that African children get the opportunity for education.
Then off to a meeting of governors at Durham Lane School. Very different but no less interesting. Lengthy discussions about the best ways of doing certain things, about how to ensure that evidence is recorded and readily available, about how to involve people without over burdening them - all topics that will be discussed in public services across the country as belts are tightened and the economic cutbacks take their toll.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There's been so much happening that I haven't had time to worry about blogging. For the first time in many years I sat and watched the State Opening of Parliament yesterday when visiting my mother. In recent years the Queen's speech has been a list of largely unnecessary laws, proposed for reasons best known to a government which was running out of steam. It was refreshing this year to hear some genuine Lib Dem proposals in there and to know that they'll become law in due course. There were some proposals which I'd rather hadn't made it to that stage of course, but that's the price of coalition - no one group gets things all their own way.
It was worth the pain to hear that children will no longer be locked up like criminals just because their parents' asylum claims haven't been accepted. How any Labour MP can hold his or her head up in public knowing that their government was locking up young children and they didn't try to do something about it, I'll never understand.
The commitment on the Aid budget was a sweet sound too. Our economy might be in trouble but it's nowhere near as bad as that in the poorest countries and we need to keep sharing our riches with those in need.
There was some sanctimonious whingeing about "leaks" of the speech in advance. It showed a lack of understanding of how the coalition was set up. All the bills had been notified in advance in the coalition document. Everyone who read that knew what the legislative programme is and the thinking behind it. But of course we're used to one party government which can only keep people interested (they thought) by having secrets which could be revealed at the right moment. From now on we can look forward to a more grown up way of governance. Long may it last.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's been a week of pronouncements from the coalition government - policy after policy which has been negotiated on to the point where both parties can accept that it will be implemented and others where there will be commissions or committees to come up with a suggested way forward. One I'm pleased to see because it met with quite a bit of approval on the doorsteps before the election is the idea of a commission to look at how we pay for elderly care in the future. Whenever I told people that we proposed sitting down with representatives of all concerned and trying to find the best ideas I was asked why no-one had done that before. One way probably won't suit all and it would be helpful to have a choice of ways to make sure that people don't reach their 60s or 70s in the future, worried silly about how they or their famiy will afford to live if they need residential care.
I'm also pleased at many of the justice proposals - no more of the "build more and more jails" approach, but a sensible look at what's needed including some relatively small things like anonymity for men accused of rape until the accusation is proved, and measures to reduce bullying.
The videos from Stockton Soapbox have started to appear on Stockton's YouTube site - some fascinating insights into life in the borough from people who've lived here for decades and people who are newly arrived, old and young, all sorts of people. Take a look.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Eaglescliffe ...

The work goes on. We had a meeting this morning of the 3 ward councillors for Eaglescliffe to discuss some of the less urgent issues which had been shelved while the election campaign took up spare time. It's good to know that we will soon have the CCTV relay poles in place so that cameras will be able to link Eaglescliffe and Yarm into the borough system. We hope to be able to deploy the cameras to resolve some anti-social behaviour problems, especially near both shopping parades. There is no reason why a handful of people should deter people from visiting shops during the evening, but the police cannot be in several places at once.
We're also looking at the possibility of some extra street lighting on one or two dark areas, more planting and more dog waste bins. If Eaglescliffe ward residents have other ideas let us know.
This evening's meeting of the Area Transport Strategy group heard of progress made on last year's priorities and spent a considerable time discussing what to spend money on this year. Eventually an improvement in street lighting to finish off a scheme which we'd hoped to partly fund from a housing development that hasn't been built, a speed indicator device for one of the villages in our patch, the possibility of linking with another area to improve pedestrian safety on the road between us all met with some approval and will be further investigated. These meetings are usually good humoured and involve a lot of negotiation and sharing of ideas for stretching the budget. Working in partnership to achieve improvements all round - that's what politics should be all the time! But we're all human and sometimes partnership is hard work. But it's worth the effort when things are achieved.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lib Dems at Work

If our Parliamentary party and Federal Executive hadn't supported the coalition deal overwhelmingly we would have needed a special conference of members to make the final decision. Being Liberal Democrats we had one anyway! It was never going to change the agreement but it did give the opportunity for 2000 people to debate and discuss in some depth what had been agreed and what might happen in the future, without the pressure of the media hanging on every sound bite.
And what a debate it was - 4 hours of discussion, 9 amendments to the motion, all pointing up places where a point needed to be emphasised.
I shall report in due course to members of Stockton Liberal Democrats on the detail of what was said, but I shall place on record here my belief that we have a party which is at least as united now as it was a year ago, which is ready to hang on tight and ride the roller coaster which will be the next 5 years, and which will emerge stronger at the end.
I will also say that I have never heard such a storming speech as that delivered by Simon Hughes - challenging and inspiring, it deserved the huge standing ovation at the end.
And yes, it does feel good to be able to refer to the person walking up the aisle of the conference room as "the minister for ...". As one speaker recalled that infamous conference when David Steel sent people back to their constituencies to prepare for government, he added that we'd spent a long time preparing and now it was time to do!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

700 years old and still going strong

That's Stockton market. On Wednesday the present Bishop of Durham made a flying visit to take part in celebrations of the signing of the market charter 700 years ago this month by his predecessor, Bishop Bek. As Bishop Tom pointed out, the bishops in medieval times had far more temporal power than now, but it was seen as an extension of their duty of care to the flock - making sure that the towns and villages were prosperous and (in modern jargon) sustainable.
The market traders had decorated stalls, visiting traders were demonstrating the crafts which would have been commonplace then - silver smiths, felters, musicians, carvers, chandlers and more. A group of residents from one the residential homes enjoyed the market and the speeches in the lovely sunshine.
On Wednesday and again today the Stockton soapbox was going in full swing. People of all ages and a huge variety of background and experience were speaking for a minute on their take on Stockton. Today I had a turn to speak about Fairtrade in the borough. Our newest MP, James Wharton, spoke about his belief in the future of the borough. A young immigrant talked of the wonderful welcome he'd had in the town, much to the delight of his little boy cheering "Daddy". 3 youngsters talked of their youth club and the great activities they've done there. A representative of the Credit Union spoke of the work they do. And all that was in the space of 5 minutes.
When the videos are uploaded to Youtube I'll publicise the link and readers can see what was said, but meantime - enjoy the photos.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Coalition first steps

The policy agreements are published, the ministerial roles are distributed and the cabinet has held its first meeting. And the verdict? From me - mixed.
On policy, I'm delighted to see so many Lib Dem policies in there either as definites for this year or as aspirations over the next 5 years. I'm delighted that the detention of children whose parents are seeking sanctuary here is to be stopped. I'm disappointed that a grudging commitment to a referendum on AV is the best deal on reform for election to the House of Commons, but I'm pleased that Nick Clegg is given the task of looking at all aspects of reform for our Parliament. I believe that Lib Dem grassroots politicians will keep reminding him that there's more to life than a cabinet post and a referendum. I know that many people ridicule the post of deputy prime minister, mainly because of the way it's been handled in the past, but Nick has a real portfolio with the opportunity to produce real change in British politics for ever. That's not a non-job!
On ministerial roles, I'm disappointed that women aren't more fairly represented. It's not even true that they've got 2nd tier jobs while the men have 1st tier. There just aren't enough of them there, period! I know we lost some good women in the election but we do have others - where are they? I'm sure the Conservatives are asking the same (at least the women must be!).
On the first cabinet meeting - well, what did we expect? I was disappointed at the gesture of reducing their ministerial allowance by 5%. Does that mean that they're only asking 5% budget cuts from us in local government?? Not likely. It's not as if it's a pay cut for them. None of them had it before the election so a 10% cut would not have been excessive. I'm pleased that they were open enough to say that they've set up a committee to look at issues of difference before they become so bad that they split the government apart. That's being grown up about the problems which will inevitably be present.
Overall verdict - I can live with it. I'm not ecstatic but it's probably the best deal for the country. Some guarantee of stability and no chance of the worst Tory excesses being implemented. There's some hope that we can demonstrate that coalition government can work in this country and that proportional representation can deliver a sustainable way out of recession.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Is this the way forward?

David Cameron as Prime Minister, Nick Clegg as deputy PM isn't quite what I had in mind during the campaign up to May 6th. I still await the detail tonight but it seems that our Parliamentary party and our Federal Executive are about to endorse a deal which falls short of what I wanted in terms of the reform of our voting system. However, I shan't comment any further on the details till they're known, unlike the media commentators who seem to regard no news as a licence to print stories they like.
Instead, I'll draw attention to something completely outside party politics, but very political none the less: free speech. Over the centuries in this country free speech has been greatly prized and from time to time threatened. Tomorrow and on Saturday for a few hours Stockton Market will have a true celebration of free speech - the Stockton Soapbox. I'm old enough to remember the Market Cross being used as a place for speeches, some interesting and some downright strange but mostly preaching salvation. The idea of a soapbox as a platform isn't new, but hasn't been used in Stockton for many a long year. Suzanne Fletcher had the idea of bringing it back into life as part of the 700th anniversary celebrations of the market charter being granted. So tomorrow and Saturday will see a range of people from MPs to refugees, young and old, rich and poor, speaking about their experience of Stockton, their hopes and dreams. It should be a great event and will complement the other celebrations perfectly.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

PR or bust!

Throughout the day emails have been coming in from members and supporters saying that PR is the most important thing to achieve in this hung parliament. The economy will get sorted one way or another but PR will only happen if Lib Dems force the issue.
Thousands of people across the country are protesting - surely their voices can't all be ignored?
If you want to join in try this.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Party Time

Winning a Parliamentary seat is something I've not been part of since joining the Young Liberals many years ago! I didn't play a very big part in Redcar's achievement but did what I could when I could and last night celebrated with many others. O'Grady's was packed, the music was loud, the cheers for Ian when he arrived must have inflicted damage on the rafters! There'll be some headaches today, but for Ian the work starts afresh. As he says, from delivering leaflets in Grangetown on Wednesday to helping decide the future government of the country on Saturday - what a change. So this morning he's on the train to London to take part in those debates.

The candles on the cake didn't represent Ian's age! They show the number of voters who put their trust in Ian Swales to do his best for Redcar and the country. Quite an increase on 5 years ago! That's a tribute to the hard work put in by Ian and local Lib Dems in that time.
The party's democratic structures mean that we all have a say before decisions are taken. Throughout yesterday and today members, Federal Executive and MPs are debating by phone, email, text and in person. Whether we agree with the final outcome or not, we know that we've had more say than the average member of either the Labour or Tory parties, or even than some of their MPs probably!
Voting reform and a studied, caring approach to cutting the national debt before the international money giants leap in and destroy our chances of deciding for ourselves - can enough politicians of different parties agree on a way to achieve this? Only time will tell.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The morning after

Redcar has a Lib Dem MP. Why isn't this front page news on the BBC and the Lib Dem website??? A swing of 25% to the Lib Dems from Labour should be shouted from the house tops, especially on a night that's brought so many disappointments elsewhere.
Stockton North has the expected Labour MP, Alex Cunningham. Frank Cook's efforts to show that his huge majority was a personal vote failed disastrously.
Philip Latham came a decent third but there was a sizeable swing to the Conservatives and that will make for more interest next time around perhaps.
Stockton South went to a recount before being decided in favour of James Wharton, local Tory boy. I'm fairly confident that he'll continue to work the constituency because he needs to increase that majority next time, but I'm also quite confident that he's a career politician who won't do anything to rock his Parliamentary boat.
Sadly, the huge impetus towards the Lib Dems didn't continue into the ballot box. People believed the rubbish about a Lib Dem vote being a wasted vote. Roll on electoral reform.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Election Day

Today marks the last day of the election campaign - the day when voters have a last chance to change the way the country is run.
Please make sure you use that vote. I hope you'll use it to vote for your Liberal Democrat candidate (Jacquie Bell in Stockton South or Philip Latham in Stockton North), but whoever you decide to support please use it.
Remember that people have died in this country in the past to make sure that ordinary men and women have the vote. We owe it to their memory and to our children and grandchildren to make sure that democracy thrives here.
Remember that if you haven't yet posted your postal vote it's too late to rely on the Royal Mail but you can take it in its envelope to any polling station in your constituency and pop it in the ballot box there.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Nick Clegg in Redcar

A break in campaigning this evening to go to Redcar and join one of Nick Clegg's Town Hall meetings. The audience of 200 was a mix of Lib Dem members & supporters, members of the public and people invited through an opinion poll company to try to ensure a good variety of people. It was good to see some young people from Yarm School there, still seeking answers to questions in order to help them choose where to put their cross on Thursday. The questions ranged from immigration to defence to Corus workers to education, the NHS, and there'd have been lots more if time had allowed.
An interesting hour and a chance for many people who've not seen the leader of a major party up close. More of this kind of meeting would give more people the opportunity I had as a teenager to listen to policies being proposed and make up my own mind with out the filter of press coverage.