Saturday, 30 May 2009

Last week and counting ....

We're in to the last week of campaigning and although we're all still knocking on doors (and asking people to come out and vote on Thursday) I shall be glad when this particular election is over.

I was lucky enough to win at a by-election in November. Then, it was all hands on deck and, having never been involved in a County Council election, a very exciting time. We were all full of enthusiasm and it paid off as we won what had previously been a Conservative held seat.

This time I, and my County Council colleagues of all party persuasions are finding it very demoralising. For myself, I have been to almost all of my 9 parishes Parish Council meetings over my sixth month term, I’ve responded to constituents emails and delivered on the issues I promised during my last election campaign. And yet I’m still not sure it’s enough to persuade people to turn out and vote on June 4th.

Let the politicians in Westminster underestimate the strength of feeling in the country at their peril. The system has to change –saying sorry and paying the money back is not going to be enough!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Baroness on the beat!

Residents of Cambridge Road in Hardwick probably didn’t realise that the lady with a twinkle in her eye, canvassing them with me last night, was none other than Baroness Ros Scott of Needham Market, Party President of the Lib Dems.

For all Lib Dems it’s a case of mucking in if something needs doing. Just ask my saintly mother who will tell you all about stuffing envelopes to the wee small hours of the morning during an election campaign! At the moment with all the press attention on the expenses MPs are claiming, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of work at a constituency level is done by a behind the scenes group of dedicated volunteers. They do anything from knocking on doors, putting up poster boards in their gardens, delivering leaflets and calling people on the day of the election to remind them to vote. And trust me; we couldn’t do it without them!

Anyone who has met Ros will know what an extraordinary woman she is – tirelessly hardworking, witty and a gifted orator. She speaks from the heart and is always happy to respond to questions and look at new things. After her stint on the doorstep with me, we held a Q and A session with local people. It was interesting to hear her talk about what life is like in Westminster at the moment and the frustration of the party that the changes we have been calling for, for years now, are suddenly being lighted on by the other parties as the realisation dawns that the system really does have to change now – not at some magical time in the future.

We’ve been advocating these sorts of changes for years. Under the pressure of public disgust with the system they have perpetuated, the other parties are now toying with them. We all remember Dave’s green phase don’t we! And 12 years ago Labour swept to power on a pledge to reform the House of Lords. Well most of the life peers have gone, but we still have religious and non elected peers. Can anyone really trust the two other parties to finally deliver any part of what we’ve consistently been advocating for years now?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The walls come tumbling down

Back in 1990 I lived in Frankfurt, West Germany, at an extraordinary time in world history – the total collapse of the USSR and dismantlement of the Berlin Wall.

I had a subscription to Time magazine and week on week it would report what they expected to happen in Eastern European countries, but things were happening so fast no one could accurately predict what would happen next. “Trabbi Trummel” moved across western border points at breath taking speed and articles were out of date by the time they hit the news stands.

At the moment life in politics seems to closely mirror these events. Any one of the revelations about MPs expenses is something that would normally have run and run in the papers for weeks. Now there is so much that we are almost immune to the seismic implications.

But we shouldn’t forget that much as the USSR seemed invincible, it eventually fell. Not surprising when you consider that:

  • The leadership were out of touch with the people and world events
  • They had spent the nation’s wealth unwisely on foreign wars
  • The elite had their Dachas and the people paid for their western luxuries

Those who cynically call for a general election are merely opportunists. The problem of our Parliament is fundamental. The solutions are fundamental. And the reforms need to be radical. Not tinkering with a few things such as fixed duration parliaments and publishing expense claims of MPs and well paid public servants.

I smile at the Labour rush to endorse our own Roy Jenkins proposals on the introduction of Alternative Vote Plus system – 10 years after it was suggested – whilst the Conservatives reject it out of hand, deeming it to take away power from the man and woman in the street and hand it to the political elite. Funny how everyone wants change – except when it might affect them. Gorbachev tried to save the political elite by controlling the extent and pace of Glasnost and Perestroika, but as he learnt to his peril the momentum had built up and the system was just too rotten to be saved. All the walls fell.

Come the next election and the demise of the few MPs tossed overboard – and the significant number kept in with a stinging slap administered from their bosses to the fingers that have been in the public till – we need to remember one thing: opening the gates and allowing a new cohort of party
apparachiks in, is not going to be enough to fix what’s wrong.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ester, Martin and Joanna

We all keep plodding away, knocking on doors and canvassing votes this week – but I’m finding it very disheartening that so many people don’t seem to want to turn out and vote on June 4th. I’ve stood on the doorstep and debated the issue at length and pointed out that as someone will get elected for each seat it’s better to have your say now than complain about it later. Some are swayed – others are not. It’s hard to miss the irony that we have people falling over themselves to stand as politicians in the next general election (and good luck to Esther Rantzen, Martin Bell and Joanna Lumley if they decide to stand), whilst in Burma Aung San Suu Kyi is put on trial, yet again, just as she’s coming to the end of her latest house arrest and about to stand for election.

I’ll confess I almost chocked on my coffee this morning listening to the MP on Radio 4 explaining that they were positively encouraged to maximise their claims to boost their salary. I can't help but have this warped view of some middle aged people sitting in a club, smoking cigars and gently warming a tumbler of amber liquid in the palm of their hands, whilst discussing their claims in a school boy one-upmanship fashion - does a moat trump a garden folly or a swimming pool? But it's sad to think that our hard won democracy is something we now take for granted and no longer value. The suffragettes and others must be turning in their graves right now.

It takes people to stand up and be counted to change things, but in Britain we have a habit of voting with our feet. No mass revolution for us – not even in the days of rotten boroughs and the Enclosure Acts. We do things differently – through the ballot box. All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. Doing nothing can take many forms. It happened in Parliament because many good MPs saw the rotten practises, kept within the rules, and made no embarrassing claims. But they did nothing to change it. Did nothing to make it public. Did nothing to make a difference. The ballot box is both our shield and our sword and I hope we can persuade people to use it on June 4th!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A man’s word is his honour

Yesterday was the last full Council session before the election. We sadly said goodbye to people from all three parties who are not standing again in the elections on June 4th. There was a definite hint of “last day of school” about the place but we got through all the business and managed to finish by 4:00pm – a first since I was elected.

But the big news of the day had to be what’s happening in Westminster. Although I firmly believe the speaker did the right thing – proceedings last week and this can best be described as unedifying – I hope that this is not the end but truly is the beginning of remedying the state of affairs. I hope party leaders carry through with their proclamations about not letting people stand if they have abused the rules – but I also hope that the Met Commissioner and the DPP do something to hold those who have abused the expense system to account for their actions. Parliament shouldn’t be recommending that MPs pay Capital Gains Tax from now on – Joe Public doesn’t have the right to that sort of concession. I’m sure hard up pensioners would like the choice as to whether or not to pay their Council Tax or buy food.

Rant over – but national politicians will lose what little credibility they have if they don’t carry through with the suggestions they made yesterday. Those of us locally pounding the streets are being lumped in with them and night after night have to explain that we do most of our work voluntarily.

One retiring Councillor yesterday pointed out that if we want to encourage younger councillors – those in their 20s and 30s - then we have to pay them a fair salary. Cambridgeshire has a budget of close to a billion pounds. Effective oversight of the efficient spending of such a budget requires not only competent officials, but competent and effective elected representatives. This will not be achieved if only the retired and the rich can afford to be councillors.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Comfy Shoes

Well it’s definitely election time. My VERY comfy election shoes as they are referred to by the family (functional and practical but hardly the height of fashion) are comfortably broken in and clothing is starting to feel less snug than it has done since Christmas. Crisps are banished in favour of peanut butter on rice cakes to keep me going as I’m not home for regular meals (and yes I agree that they taste like cardboard at times but if you’re intolerant to wheat like me you eventually learn to find them palatable!) Like most people out knocking on doors at the moment I can only add my agreement that canvassing is good for you!

My evenings this week seem to be mostly taken up with Parish Council Meetings and a number of their AGMs. Monday saw me sprint between two of them. Much to their amusement I was in time for both with some careful planning and jiggling of my placement on the agenda.

And as the week goes on people are gradually thawing in their hostility to local politicians. The record of what I’ve achieved over the last 5 – 6 months speaks louder than any printed party political waffle can. Plus I can hold my head up when asked if I’m only around in the villages when I want a vote. My track record of attending County and Parish Council Meetings, sending in reports and following up on constituents calls speaks for itself. And I’m very much looking forward to tea with the over 60s on Friday morning! Those living in sheltered accommodation in our villages are an absolute mine of information and give me most of the best feedback I get in relation to pavements, pot holes and other things that need to be done.

So shoes dusted off again today and back out on the doorstep.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Apathy and abstinence

It’s been a long day today. I’ve had a lot of casework to follow up on and two Parish Annual General Meetings to attend. The day started early, it finishes late and I have this feeling that another 12 hours still wouldn’t see me done. Election time is upon us!!

I spent the afternoon in Grantchester knocking on doors and talking to local residents about the possibility of a monthly mobile Post Office Service now that their regular one has closed, and a bus to take them to a local supermarket.

Normally I love nothing more than being out on the door step talking to people. But today I feel truly deflated by the number of people who are adamant that they are not going to vote on June 4th because they are fed up with the conduct of politicians. Sadly we are all being condemned because of the actions of a number of MPs.

My former history teacher, Mr Rowles, would be apoplectic at such a turn of events. He instilled in to his students that we had a duty to use our vote because of the lengths that people before us had to go to, to ensure universal suffrage. I still remember listening on Radio 4 to people in South Africa, joyful at being given the vote for the first time, some queuing for days to cast their vote.

I too am disgusted at some of the financial claims that have been made, and can only hope that people will turn out and vote on June 4th based on our conduct in representing them at a local level.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Gravy Train

“Knocking” on the doorsteps over this last week people have quite rightly been very vocal about their distaste over sums claimed by MPs – and I have had to defend the position of local Councillors who do not have their noses in the trough.

For the record we get £7610 a year as a Councillor's allowance on which we pay tax and N.I. We can claim £10 a month for use of our home broadband, and we can claim mileage of 40p per mile for meetings that we attend. But not all meetings! If we go to one that we have been asked to attend by officers, or a full council meeting, then we claim. If we are attending meetings with constituents or Parish Council Meetings then we don’t. I haven’t asked the Council for use of a computer and nor do I have a Council Blackberry. I use my own home and mobile phone and don’t charge for calls I make.

Having been in the job for 5 months I’ve claimed approximately £70 for broadband and mileage (I didn't claim anything for December and January as I didn't manage to put my claim in on time). Nothing from John Lewis – and no second home!!

On the plus side those elected on June 4th will have job security for the next 4 years which is something very few people are lucky enough to have at the moment.