Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Welcome back Kevin...

In a plot line that the scriptwriters of Dallas would be proud of Kevin Carroll is back at the helm of the Conservative Group at the Town Hall barely seven months after being voted out of the job by the narrowest of margins.

Having discovered that they have the power to sack him at will I am glad that the councillors have also discovered that he also their best choice for the job, someone who clearly has the leadership qualities that they need.

Much of the goings-on at Castle Circus look daft to the outside world and this twist probably adds to that appearance; but as I have posted on here before much of this is connected with the local political system adjusting to an entirely new form of local Government.

The leader of the local Conservatives in Torbay is not the leader of the group, it is the mayor Nick Bye who is directly elected. The councillors on all sides have grappled with the implications of this power shift for two years or more - and many still don't fully get it, particularly on the Lib dems side.

The role of councillor is changed in the mayoral system - and their chosen leader has to be the link between councillors and executive, a role that is closer to chief whip in the Parliamentary system than leader of the council under the old system.

Kevin is well suited to the job, and he knows I wish him well.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is a Lib Dem revival underway?

I reproduce a chart from Anthony Wells' excellent ukpollingreport website showing all the poll figures from every polling organisation since the last election.

Two things strike me as interesting about 2009 to date, the catastrophic drop in Labour support and the recovery in support for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Cleggs leadership had not been giving the Lib Dems the bounce they might have hoped for. With all the usual caveats - Lib Dem vote shares being lower in the polls than in elections, - Lib Dems always do better during an election campaign than the other parties -etc, the Lib Dems have been struggling to maintain mid teens throughout most of last year which suggested a very dire General Election performance indeed, perhaps halving their representation at Westminster.

However so far in 2009 their polling averages have picked up markedly, late teens at least, which would be enough to preserve maybe 40 existing Lib Dem MP's and gift them a score of new ones from Labour.

The polling suggests that Conservative support begins to top out at around 45% and any further loss of Labour votes seems to be transferring to the Liberal Democrats.

Could it be that we will see at least one poll this year that has the Lib Dems scoring higher than Labour?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Budget Day.

Let me tell you how it will be;
There's one for you, nineteen for me.
'Cause I'm the taxman,
Yeah, I'm the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I'm the taxman,
Yeah, I'm the taxman.

If you drive a car - I'll tax the street;
If you try to sit - I'll tax your seat;
If you get too cold - I'll tax the heat;
If you take a walk - I'll tax your feet.

Written by George Harrison in 1966 - revised version by Alistair Darling in 2009.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dumb Politics.

My opposite number in neighbouring Totnes, Liberal Democrat PPC and councillor Julian Brazil, has found himself 'in trouble' following allegations that he bullied a council officer and breached a national code of conduct.

He faces a potential six-month ban from representing the people who freely elected him if he is found 'guilty' by the non-elected Standards Board, a situation I think is grossly undemocratic regardless of the political allegiance of the councillor concerned.

At best the very expensive Standards Board has become little more than a way to slur opponents and at worst it risks crushing democratic accountability which is why the Conservatives have pledged to do away with it.

Liberal Democrats will surely agree with my view that it should be for voters to decide if the behaviour of their elected representatives is to an acceptable standard or not. The Leader of the Lib Dems in Local Government Cllr Richard Kemp (pictured) certainly does.

He called for the closure of the Standards Board for England in February this year, saying "The standard of decisions that are made by officers inside and outside councils relating to standards issues is diabolically low ....Officers make arbitrary decisions based on a whim about what action to take in what circumstances."

So it was really dumb politics for Liberal Democrats here in Torbay to seize on a Torbay Conservative councillors recent one-month ban (for doing exactly the same thing as Mr Brazil is accused of) and plaster lurid headlines about it across their leaflets.

Either dumb, or shockingly Hypocritical.

At the request of the person who made them, I have removed some comments from the comment section.

Monday, April 20, 2009

New Labour - The Goodwill gauge is empty.

The Easter weekend has been extra-ordinarily bad for the Government in general, and the New Labour project in particular. For weeks the papers have been hammering away at MP's and cabinet members in particular for mean-spirited and in some cases very questionable expenses claims, culminating in the Mail openly accusing a serving British Home Secretary of being a thief and a liar and challenging her to sue them (she hasn't).

The bank holiday weekend then opened up with revelations that Gordon Brown has employed a man who spends his tax-paid time concocting made-up slurs against senior Tory MP's to anonymously spread them round the internet. This was bad, but the further revelations about the nature of the slurs enraged the press and led to an avalanche of further stories from senior Labour figures who said that they, too, had been the subject of attacks and innuendo from the same 'hit squad'.

A lot of my non-political friends wonder why this story has qualified for day-after-day coverage for two weeks, the reason is that it exposes the squalid core at the centre of the New Labour project for the first time. One of the main complaints about the New Labour project has always been that it relied too much on the dark arts of rubbishing enemies and not enough on having a decent plan to run the country. They have been rightly accused of being stuck in opposition mode ever since 1997 - relying on spin rather than substance.

Not only that but it has re-opened the old wounds between the Brown camp and the Blairites who always complained of dirty tricks against them when this lot were working for the Chancellor in his ten years at the Treasury.

And this morning the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson as good as called Ed Balls a liar for playing down his relationship with Damian McBride; it is obvious that people at Gordon Browns right hand were in this mess up to their necks - Labour would do well to remember with Watergate it was the denials and the cover-up that cost Nixon the White House, not the bugging of his rivals.

The reason this is all very important is that the public are scathing of politicians who they think are more worried about their own jobs and careers than with running the country properly. The Government have suffered a humiliating collapse in their poll support just weeks after the world's media were being told that Gordon Brown had saved the world.

Watching Labour deteriorate into an unseemly scrabble for the post-election job of leader of the opposition while Britain slowly becomes once again 'the sick man of Europe' is frustrating and depressing.

Sadly we have another year of this to go.

Monday, April 06, 2009

More on expenses

Since my original letter to the Herald Express reminding voters of my promises concerning the allowances -and especially the bloated staffing and office allowances- being claimed by MP's both the other main parties have kicked up a huge fuss. I have had to reply to a letter from Labour in the Herald Express, and today, a letter from the Lib Dems.

This is my reply after Labour's press spokesman Barry Kaye complained last week:

"Barry Kaye, the press officer of the Newton Abbot Constituency Labour Party, seems to have been stirred up by my promises last week concerning what I would do concerning my own allowances if I am elected as Torbays next MP.

Having worked in business for twenty five years during which I have had to account for every penny it irritates me as much as the next man how lax the regime for MP's is, but I cannot promise to -as he so graphically described it - "ride into town and clean up Dodgy City'" - that is not what I said in my letter.

The only people who can ever 'clean up' Westminster properly are the electorate by considering carefully who they vote for. If people continue to elect people like Labour minister Mr McNulty who think it is all right to claim £60,000 in allowances for a second home that is nine miles away from his main home, or Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith saying her sisters spare room is her 'main home' so that she can claim £116,000, then that is their democratic choice and I am not going to interfere in it.

In the meantime, I am standing for election here, so I have told everyone clearly what I will do about my expenses if they decide to send me to Westminster. Long ago I invited the our existing MP to join me and make a similar pledge and he declined, so Torbay residents will have to compare what I have pledged with what the competing candidates offer, and make their own decision."

And today I have replied to the Lib Dem chairman who has penned a fairly tedious attempt to distance her MP from the expenses controversy in todays Herald. I have replied as follows:

The chairman of the Torbay Liberal Democrats Jean Cope weighed in from the yellow corner on Monday to attack me for making a clear statement about what I intend to do about my Parliamentary Allowances if I become the Bays next MP, she joins the Labour press spokesman who had a go at me for the same thing last week.

Both the other two parties have now had a high old time complaining about the promise I made (originally in 2003)to use the staffing allowance properly - to employ only essential staff in published job roles working exclusively on non political constituency matters; and to advertise any vacancy openly (including salary details) so that anyone qualified can apply. In addition I have said I will not employ family or political colleagues on the taxpayer and to publish all claimed expenses - including the detailed receipts.

I specifically did not mention the existing bay MP's staffing arrangements in either of my letters - so her claim that I have attempted to link Mr Sanders with the 'proven dishonest practices' of some MP's seems strangely paranoid. Perhaps Mrs Cope was unconsciously reflecting on her own members disquiet about their MP employing his political colleagues and his partner all these years on our taxes, or perhaps she was thinking about all the people looking for one of the good quality jobs that Mr Sanders is always saying Torbay needs - who have never been given so much as a sniff at working for him.<

As Jackie Smith has established, however immoral, claiming £40,000 from the public purse to pay your spouse is neither dishonest or illegal; but that does not mean it is right, or fair.

It's still not too late, Mrs Cope. Your MP could kill this off as a political issue tomorrow by simply matching my promise.

This is a really easy problem to deal with. Any MP who thinks the expenses are too generous really doesn't need to claim them. Banging on about how wrong the system is whilst milking it for all it's worth is the epitome of Hypocricy - which is why I really shouldn't be surprised at the letter from the Lib Dems.

What is a really interesting giveaway here is that in spite of massive hand-wringing and complaints along the lines of 'you have MP's on your side doing it too' neither the Labour candidate nor the Lib Dem MP have attempted to deal with this properly by matching my pledge.

Which tells you all you need to know.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Another busy weekend.

With all the fuss over expenses for MP's at the moment I am meeting lots of people who imagine I am somehow on the political payroll as well. This is not the case, as a PPC I am selected in advance to fight the next election whenever it comes, but in every other way I am just an ordinary volunteer activist so I have to fit the politics in with earning a living - just like most people.

At the moment I am working in Essex for a client and this means a 4.00am start on a Monday morning and I don't come home again until tennish on Thursday. This has meant that all the political activity that I need to do has to be packed into the remaining three days.

I think the staff at the fabulous Livermead House Hotel must be sick of the sight of me, having attended functions there on both Friday and Saturday evening this weekend.

On Friday we had our local Conservative Association AGM, which was surprisingly chirpy, for the first time in a long time we had raised a tiny bit more than we spent, and not only that we have spent a record-breaking amount on campaigning this year, we printed, published and distributed over 150,000 pieces of literature and surveyed over 20,000 homes in 2008 - which is the highest figure that we have on record. Membership is growing again, too, in spite of the minimim membership fee being £25 (we have a very successful 'friend of Torbay Conservatives' scheme available for a minimum donation of £1 but these numbers are not included in the official memership statistics).

Saturday night was the annual black-tie dinner for the Western Region Conservative Clubs Council. Many people think Conservative Clubs are the same as the Conservative Party but they are an entirely independent organisation (members of Conservative clubs are not members of the Party) although it shares the purpose of helping elect a Conservative Government and they donate many thousands to the party locally and nationally.

Clubs are not political and their members, though supportive, join to enjoy good company and a warm welcome, and not too much politics. Accordingly the dinner was a social affair and the fine speech by the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe was entertaining and unplifting. My wife Karen was also glowing -and more than usual by the end of the evening as one of the speakers announced that he thought she was not only beautiful and clever, but that she was the secret weapon that would assure our victory whenever the election comes - and he is probably right.

Coming on the back of two days of door-to-door canvassing in hilly Wellswood and after an intense work week in which I have travelled almost a thousand miles I must confess to being very tired by the end of dinner. How welcome it has been therefore, having such fabulous weather today. We have spent the afternoon just relaxing in the garden, drinking in the view, and reminding ourselves how lucky we are.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Torbay in decline? - Not Necessarily.

I am constantly being assured by some people that Torbay is in decline, not what it used to be, going downhill. I am told this by a wide range of people; not all of them with a political axe to grind. But just because lots of people feel that Torbay is not what it was does not make it true.

On the one side we have lots and lots of people who claim frequently that due to a lax benefits system Torbay, they say, has become the destination of choice for thousands of drug dependent, alcohol dependent homeless people; feckless single mothers, criminals and 'scroungers'. They say the harbour area has become a hotbed of crime, grime and human depravity where you will be lucky not to be beaten, mugged, or worse if you are reckless enough to find yourself there after dark. I will deal with some of these myths in a future posting.

On the other side we have lots and lots of people who claim that Torbay is in the pocket of the tourism industry which is determined to grind the good people into the dust. They say Torbay has become an economic basket-case, some kind of seaside rust-belt, whose only hope is massive Government intervention to save its helpless residents from a lifetime of poverty and hopelessness. Let’s have a look at these issues.

1) Torbay is a ‘low wage area’ because of the reliance on low paid hotel jobs. In fact nearly one in every five people (18.49%) in Torbay work in the distribution and retail industry. The next largest is manufacturing (14.69%), followed by health and social work (14.03%). Hotels and catering comes fifth with just 10 % of local employment.

2) People can only get part-time jobs. In the most recent Labour Force Study more than four out of five part-time employees were not interested in working full-time. In common with most other retirement destinations many of the local population are semi-retired. We also have an above-average number of single parent households where part-time work is often the only viable option.

3) Torbay incomes are falling. In 2002 Torbay average gross pay was 70% of the national average, by 2004 it had risen slightly to 72%; last year, according to the ONS and the GMB union the figure had risen to 77% - so although there is still a gap, it is closing.

4) There are fewer manufacturing jobs– this is not true. According to Plymouth University the numbers working in manufacturing in Torbay have been remarkably stable in a period when manufacturing across the country has been in massive decline, about 6,500 have worked in manufacturing here since the early 1960’s, the current number is around 7,000.

5) Torbay has an unemployment problem. In the mid 1990’s we had unemployment of nearly 12% whereas today unemployment rates today are just below 5%. According to ONS figures there are fewer people unemployed here than at any time since before the 1920’s. 1981 it was 5000, in 1991 there were 7,000 and in 2001 there were 4,700 local residents on the dole. Last year the figure was 1,300, although it has risen since to just below 2,000.

6) Torbay is in decline. Declining locations lose residents as people sell up and move on in search of prosperity. Average property prices have been rising in Torbay faster than both the regional and national averages; regionally prices are op 116% since 2000 - in Torbay the figure is 123%. Torbay is growing in size and density as more people move in than move out.

7) Torbay is a graveyard for business. The rate of new business registrations for VAT purposes has been climbing and is higher than the regional average. Their survival rates –at three, five and ten years are all way above the regional and national average. So more businesses are opening up and surviving longer in Torbay than elsewhere

8) Torbay town centres are dying. The amount of retail floor space in Torbay has risen by more than 50% since 1991. Despite the fact that Torbay suffers only having half the catchment area of inland locations - and in the teeth of deep recession Tesco’s, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and Iceland are all opening or expanding stores in the Bay and the empty Woolworths store is already apparently close to being re-let.

It has suited some people to spread the view that Torbay is in economic decline; to qualify for Government aid, to make the case for the bypass and to justify much council spending it is necessary to exaggerate the negative or at least talk up the need.

And nobody is saying that Torbay has no problems, certainly not me. We do have a serious problem with pockets of very real poverty in the Bay, we have challenges with some schools, and we have problems offering young people career options. We have poor transport links and major problems keeping our older residents fit, healthy and secure. But these are the same problems we have always had because of where we are and what we are, one of the best holiday and retirement destinations in Europe. Whichever way you cut it the statistics say that Torbay is economically improving relative to the rest of the UK, the statistics prove that Torbay residents are better off than in the 1970's, the 1980's and certainly in the 1990's. We are not 'in decline' but the reverse.