Wednesday, April 27, 2005

So what would it take ?

Opinion polls are a useful tool, but they are not perfect. In 1992 they got the result wrong: in 1997 and 2001 they predicted that Labour's percentage lead in votes would be much larger than it actually was. Pollsters in the US have similar problems. (Remember when we all went to bed under the impression that Kerry was winning and woke up to find that Dubya had the last laugh.)

All the pollsters are trying to correct for the bias which understated Conservative (and Lib/Dem) support in the last three elections; they are using different methods to do this, and that's one of the reasons different polls are all over the place. We will only find out whether any of them have got it more or less right on election night.

I very much doubt that those polls suggesting a Labour landslide of the same order as 1997 and 2001 can be right. For one thing, in those two years Tony Blair was still popular and most people accepted his self-evaluation as a "pretty straight kind of guy". If you described him in those terms today the majority of the electorate would either assume you were being ironic or ask you to pass the sick bag. Blair is not liked, respected, or trusted any more except by those with unflinching tribal loyalties. Four years ago many people thought that one term was not enough to make the changes they wanted to see and were willing to stick with New Labour for a second chance. This time they've had eight years - which is about the time that blaming the previous government for everything stops being effective. And whether you like the Conservative campaign or not, from my perspective having been a target seat chairman last time and a target seat candidate this time, the Tory effort in this election is light years more effective than four years ago.

I may be proved wrong in eight days time, but I think this election is close.

However, that raises an interesting question - if I'm admitting that the election is close I am accepting that about eight million people, maybe more, are going to vote Labour. And if this group will still vote Labour in present circumstances, what on earth would the Labour party have to do to stop these people voting for them ?

We have seen this government promise at their first election not to introduce student tuition fees, and do so, then promise at the following election not to introduce top-up fees, and do so. We have seen them try, in a completely shambolic manner, to tear up safeguards against arbitrary arrest which Englishmen have enjoyed for nearly 800 years, seeking the power for ministers to order people put under house arrest on the basis of "reasonable suspicion."

This country has been taken to war on the basis of Tony Blair's claim that the dictator we were overthrowing could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. When it became clear that this was nonsense, the Prime minister's defense was that he genuinely thought so at the time - in which case the information he was given was the worst intelligence failure for 20 years. So why was the chairman of the responsible committee promoted ?

We have seen this government provide 75p for existing pensioners and systematically wreck provision for future pensioners through their £5 billion a year raid on pension funds and by destroying incentives to save.

This week we learn that our prime minister, who swore at the time of the inquest into the suicide of Dr David Kelly that he had noting to do with the decision to provide Dr Kelly's name to the media, now admits that he did. We also find that the attorney general's advice on the legality of the war, which Tony Blair had assured us was unequivocal, turns out to be very equivocal indeed.

One cannot help but wonder, if this government announced the slaughter of the first born, how many people would still support them.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Shadow Health Secretary visits WCH

During the planning for the election campaign I was told that we could expect three Conservative font bench visits to the Copeland constituency, and asked who we would like and where in the constituency we should take them. Top of the list in my reply was for a Shadow health spokesman to visit West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, and I was delighted when the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, took up this request and came to WCH on Friday.

It was an interesting and useful visit, and I am grateful both to Andrew for coming to support our local hospital and to the management and staff who took time to meet us and show us round.

One of the key Conservative policies in this election is cleaner hospitals to reduce the threat of MRSA and other hospital acquired infections. West Cumberland has one of the better records in this area, and is one of the hospitals where the number of hospital acquired infections is falling: as we went round we saw some of the policies we hope to apply more generally were already in place.

Our visit covered some areas which had already been refurbished and some which had not - the difference was stunning and this is something which should be taken into account in the coming option appraisal.

We discussed the number of hospital beds which are needed in West Cumbria - at the moment there is considerable pressure on beds due to a 15% rise in cases coming to the hospital. If this situation persists it will have to be taken into account in the option appraisal.

One of the questions Andrew asked was how the working time directive is affecting the hospital. and we were pleased to be told that although it has had to taken into account in managing the time of doctors, nurses and other staff, West Cumberland Hospital is coping very well with this legislation. This was good nes in itself, and also because the working time directive was put forward last year as one of the factors which might make it dificult to keep two district general hospitals in North Cumbria.

Definately one of the high points of the campaign so far.

Priorities for Copeland

A gap in posts for a week due to technical difficulties - the site was down for maintenance when I tried to post. Normal service will now be resumed.

Time and again the same issues which people are most concerned about in West Cumbria keep coming up on the doorstep. Some are national issues which do not directly affect us here in Copeland. But there are a four particular issues which especially affect the lives of the people I meet or have the potential to do so.

These four main issues are my top priorities for Copeland, and they are

1) JOBS

West Cumbria has lost large numbers of jobs in recent years, and we are likely to lose many more due to changes in the nuclear industry. It has been estimated that 17,000 jobs, including those which may be hit by "knock on" effects following from decommissioning, are dependent on Sellafield and Drigg. And even if there is a new generation of nuclear plants including one in West Cumbria, which I strongly support, it is unlikely that there will be as many nuclear jobs here in the medium and long term as there are now. So we have to diversify the local economy and make it easier to attract the widest possible range of jobs.

2) HOSPITALS AND MEDICAL FACILITIES

The future of West Cumberland Hospital is rightly seen as a vital issue by many people, and I have been campaigning for nearly a year that we need a wide range of district general hospital services, including Accident & Emergency, Intensive Care and as many other services as can safely and effectively be provided, here in Copeland. I would prefer to see the existing hospital refurbished to the standard of a new hospital, but a new hospital on a site equally accessible to the people of Copeland would be acceptable provided it has at least as many facilities as the present hospital and an adequate number of beds - we need more beds in the area, not fewer.

District General Hospital services are not the only health issue. We also need to protect and improve Community hospitals in Cumbria such as the one at Millom. We urgently need more dentists. And we should reject Labour's "super surgeries" idea and keep our small doctor's surgeries. Amalgamating surgeries in a rural area like most of Copeland can leave people with far too far to travel to see a doctor - as people in Arlecdon have already discovered.

3) TRANSPORT

I have been at the public inquiry this week into the dreadful proposal to de-trunk (e.g. downgrade) the A595 south of Calderbridge. I am due to appear as a witness against this, but the inquiry has over-run and I will not be called until after the election. We need to improve our road and rail links, not downgrade them - especially if we want to attract more jobs.

I strongly support improvements to the A595 and A66 and the Duddon Estuary crossing proposal.

4) EDUCATION

I was delighted that plans for a University campus at Westlakes passed another hurdle last week. We must make the maximum possible use of this opportunity to improve the local skillbase, because a more higly trained and more flexible local workforce is another vital requirement to attract a wider range of jobs. To the same end I would like to see more apprenticeships. I was highly impressed to see the work of the Whitehaven Community Trust, who have helped over 400 people back into mainstream society – and training has been a major part of how they have done this.

OTHER ISSUES

Jobs, Health, Transport and Education are the four main issues but several other issues often come up on the doorstep. Crime and disorder are concerns in some parts of the constitutency and our policy to increase the Cumbria policy force by 343 officers, of whom 48 woud be deployed to fight crime drugs and disorder in Copeland, is going down extremely well.

Labour’s disastrous rural policies are also an issue in the farming areas of Copeland. After the shambles of the foot and mouth outbreak, nobody would have imagined that Labour could do anything worse, but Margaret Beckett’s atrocious implementation of the Single Farm Payment to hand out EU money has actually achieved it.

The new regime to award farm support is such a bureaucratic nightmare that it makes tax forms, Brown’s pensions credit, or even Einstein’s unified Field Theory easy to understand by comparison. But it is clear that it means less support for hill farmers and a headache for most others, especially in the “exceptionally deprived areas” which Margaret Beckett and DEFRA want to make even more deprived by slashing the support they get. Adding insult to injury you have the hunt ban, right to roam, and it is not surprising that many rural areas feel they are constantly under attack.

The fact that there are so many important local issues is one of the reason that the Copeland campaign has been so challenging and, to be honest, quite fascinating to be involved in - and why the likely result, whatever happens in the rest of the country, is so hard to call.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Why Britain is such a centralised society

Going straight from being a senior councillor to being a parliamentary candidate has given me one insight into why this country has such a centralised political system - the attitude of national pressure groups, lobbies, and charities.

To be fair to them, they behave in the way they do partly because we have developed such a centralised political culture. But while everyone talks the language of localism, far too many people are practicising the politics of centralism - perhaps without even realising it.

Between 2001 and 2004 I was the Portfolio holder for Planning and Conservation in the cabinet of a council dealing with a very heavy load of planning applications. And one of my motivations for standing for election to the House of Commons is to try to get central government off the backs of local government, because over those three years I become fed up to the back teeth with blinkered, incompetent micromanagement and interference from London.

So it was an eye-opener on standing down from the council cabinet and almost simultaneously becoming a PPC to find out how much mail I received from national campaigns - and what a high proportion of it would have been more relevant to the job I had just vacated.

For example, as a councillor I had been leading my authority's work on developing our local plan - or local development framework as it is now called. As a prospective MP I receive literally dozens of mailings and emails from well meaning charitable organisations, and many of them asked me to ensure that councils include particular things in their local development frameworks. I don't think any of those organisations had contacted me while I was actually writing one.

As a councillor I pushed through, in the teeth of opposition from the Housebuilders Federation, supplementary planning guidance on affordable housing designed to dramatically increase the number of affordable homes provided in the district. As a prospective MP I get requests to increase the number of affordable houses - something I over which I had far more direct control in my previous position than I will have if I become a backbench MP, though admittedly ministers have a great deal of influence over what councils can do. Unfortunately, if my experience as a councillor is anything to go by, it is much easier for ministers to hamper the efforts of councils to deal with a problem than it is to help.

It is somewhere between surprising and alarming the number of "pledges" and "Manifestos" I have been asked to support and cannot agree to, not because I disagree with the aims of the bodies concerned but because I believe in local democracy.

If we decide that a given service should be provided by national government, then it should be provided to the same standard in every part of the country, and complaints about "postcode lotteries" in such services are entirely reasonable if the service in some areas is better than others. Tha is the view which most of us would take about the NHS.

But if we are going to have local councils at all, then it must be because we think there are some services and issues which can be run more appropriately at a local level with the benefit of local knowledge and local choice. If we decide that a service should be provided by elected local authorities, then those councils, and not central government, should be given authority to run them, to make the decisions, and take the flak if people don't like those decisions. And those who don't like those decisions can and should campaign at a local level to change them.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Future Developments at Sellafield

I believe this country needs a balanced energy policy, which should make full use of nuclear power, renewable energy, and reducing waste of energy from all sources.

I was very pleased when Tim Yeo promised that if the Conservatives win the election, a decision will be made on whether to commission a new generation of nuclear power stations within a year of the election. If Britain is to continue have a nuclear industry, we do need a decision in the near future, or we will have abandoned nuclear power by default. And for areas like West Cumbria the uncertainty is very damaging.

I would like to see one of those new power stations at Sellafield. Obviously we have to take account of the limitations of the existing national grid and what can economically be done to improve it. I am advised that it would be difficult to upgrade the grid sufficiently to deliver the output from a 1000 MW reactor such as the AP1000, but many people connected with the industry consider that it would be economic to build an AP600 reactor at Sellafield.

This reactor delivers 600 MW - equivalent to ten million domestic lightbulbs, and also of the same order of magnitude as every single wind farm we currently have in the UK.

The current profile of employment in Copeland is as follows. Far and away the largest employer is Sellafield. Next is the NHS, and the future of West Cumberland hospital is still under review; it has been agreed that we need a district general hospital in West Cumbria but the location has not yet been decided. The next two largest employers in the consituency are the Borough and County councils.

In other words the area is economically completely dependent on the nuclear industry. I genuinely believe that it is in Britain's interest on environmental grounds to keep nuclear power as one of our sources of energy: there is no doubt that it would be an economic disaster for West Cumbria if any other decision is taken.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Another good week's campaigning

Have been canvassing in Millom and Gosforth today: have also canvassed this week in Whitehaven, Seascale, Egremont, and Ravenglass.

As always happens, the reception was better in some streets than others, but overall I am reasonably pleased.

We have lost very few of those who had indicated that they would vote Conservative last time. Every day we find some more people who voted Labour in the past but will be voting Conservative this time. And I keep finding people right across the political spectrum who have had enough of Tony Blair.

This is the seventh general election campaign in which I have been actively involved - I started in 1979 at the age of 18 - and it is the only election in all that time in which the number of negative comments I have heard on the doorstep about the Labour leader have greatly outnumbered those made about the Conservative leader. That even applies in 1983 when I had to take on the chin more criticisms of Margaret Thatcher than were made about Michael Foot - though I suspect those who were canvassing for Labour in 1983 probably took more flak about their leader then than they would have experienced in any election since until the current one.

The best line of the election so far came from an ex serviceman in Millom who would like to put Blair, Hoon and Straw in uniform and send them all to Iraq.

My main problem this week has been a mistake which keeps surfacing in the local newspapers, one after another. I have lived in the Copeland constituency since last summer, but unfortunately last week someone dug up an interview given the day after I was selected, when I promised to move to the constituency in the near future.

Three local newspapers in turn have repeated this as if it were still current, when in fact it is nearly ten months out of date - I kept the promise to move here within two weeks of making it.

Very irritating, but the press have been reasonably co-operative about agreeing to run corrections so we should be able to knock this one on the head by May 5th.

Overall I still have the impression that the result in Copeland is likely to be extremely close.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

You couldn't make it up!

For weeks the Labour party has been accusing the Conservatives of planning to slash spending on public services. One version of their scare story has misrepresented Conservative proposals to reduce administration and bureaucracy as a cut in front-line services. The Prime Minister even appeared to suggest that the Conservatives might sack every policeman and teacher in the country. (In fact we have no plans to cut front-line services.)

The other version of the scare story compares projected spending by Labour or Conservative governments five years into the future; both parties are planning to spend more on public services but the Conservative proposals for a smaller increase is described by Labour as "a cut". (Confusingly the amount under discussion in both stories is £35 billion.)

But today the Labour party has suggested exactly the opposite - instead of destroying the public services by spending less than Labour they are now accusing us of planning to spend £15 billion a year more.

They really can't have it both ways.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

More news on Postal votes

The situation on postal votes becomes more and more alarming.

There are plenty of people who really need them - I took a postal vote application form to a rural area today for someone who had a good reason why she would not be able to get to the polling station.

But we have to protect the integrity of the poll, and it is clear from the Birmingham judgement that the present system does not.

Today it is alleged in a Sunday newspaper that a committee of ministers considered the problem, initially wanted to legislate to increase the security of postal votes, but then took no action after being advised that the proposed measures, including those supported by the Electoral Commission and the police, would reduce takeup of votes among groups which were believed to favour Labour.

There need to be some hard questions asked about these allegations. If they are true then the ministers involved should be impeached.

A good weekend's campaigning

I have campaigned in Millom, Haverigg and Gilgarran this weekend. Quite pleased with the results. Almost all those who had previously been canvassed as Conservative still are, and a chunk of those who had previously been against or doubtful now say they will vote Conservative.

I am still meeting a significant proportion of voters who say they have not made their minds up. Some of those will be Labour supporters who are too polite to tell me they are not going to vote for me. So will many of those who say things like "Yes, I'll consider it" or "Yes, I'll be there." However, I have been canvassing for twenty six years and you do develop a sense for when people really are still thinking about it and when they're just being polite.

If someone says to me something specific like "I'll be voting Conservative this time" or "Yes, I'll vote for you", then nine times out of ten they really will. If someone says they are not voting for me then they definately won't. If someone says something in between - including a lot of statements that an inexperienced canvasser would take as support - you have to make a judgement call. It's very easy when canvassing to overestimate your support. But even allowing for that, we've had a good weekend.

Friday, April 08, 2005

How not to promote tourism in Cumbria

Because of the pope's funeral it was agreed not to carry out intrusive campaigning such as canvassing today, but we were advised that it is acceptable to deliver leaflets so I and my team have been doing that.

While out delivering leaflets I had a call from Radio Cumbria. Apparently the tourist board, presumably as a joke, are running an advertising campaign advising people to come on holiday in Cumbria as an "election free zone."

Well, there certainly are elections here and they are being fiercely contested. Anyone who comes here expecting not to see election posters is likely to be disappointed.

People complain when they think politicians are being less than truthful in their campaigning. In the real world anyone campaigning to win an election is bound to present the facts in the way most favourable to their own case, but the voters and are perfectly entitled to expect political candidates not to make false statements.

In my opinion that expectation has already been disappointed in the run up to this election to a greater extent than in any other election campaign I can remember. Have we not had enough mendacity about the election from some politicians without the tourist board joining in ?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tim Yeo promises early nuclear decision

On a vist to Cumbria the Conservative shadow Environment Secretary, Tim Yeo, has made some very helpful comments about the future of the nuclear industry.

He promised that that a Conservative government would make a decision about a new generation of nuclear power plants within a year being elected. One of the worst problems for West Cumbria has been uncertaintly about the future so this promise was very welcome.

I was also very pleased to hear the positive tone of Tim's comments about the nuclear industry.

"It's for the nuclear industry to show that it can be cost competitive" he said. "If it can, and can show that understandable concerns about waste can be met, then nuclear power has a role to play. It already produces a fifth of our energy and has the advantage of not producing carbon dioxide emissions."

This was the most positive statement yet made about the future of the nuclear industry by the relevant parliamentary spokesman of either of the two main parties. This is good news, not just for those people in West Cumbria who work in the nuclear industry, but for all those whose jobs may be affected by knock-on on effects in any large scale run-down of nuclear activity.

First full day of campaigning

I have been out and about in Whitehaven today, while teams of my supporters have been delivering leaflets in a number of areas including Millom.

First indications from my first election canvassing session today confirms the impression from our local surveys over the past few months that the Conservative vote is reasonably firm and the Labour vote rather less so. A lot of voters are very concerned about the rundown of local industry, the management of local health services, and the economic future of West Cumbria. Many Copeland residents say they have not yet decided how to vote.

I think the election here in Copeland is likely to be very close indeed.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

And so at last it begins ...

It is eight months since I was selected to fight the Copeland seat but it seems like years. And the unofficial pre-campaign has run on so long that it must seem to most members of the public that we have already been fighting an election campaign for months. But today at last the "phoney war" came to an end as the PM finally went to Buckingham Palace to request a dissolution of parliament. And we finally know officially what everyone involved in politics has been convinced of for some time - the general election will be on 5th May.

The news coincided with a clutch of opinion polls, one showing the Conservatives five points ahead and the others showing reduced Labour leads, which suggest that the election is not a foregone conclusion. I think there is everything to play for. Anyone who spends time on the doorstep knows that many voters are fed up with politicians of all parties, large numbers say they have yet to decide how to vote, and that the Labour vote in particular is quite "soft". Any candidate of any party who takes the result for granted this time is most unwise.

The news also coincided with an extraordinary court case in which the judge quashed the election of six Labour councillors in Birmingham, accused the Birmingham Labour party of a "massive, systematic and organised fraud" and condemned the government's handling of arrangements for postal votes. Last week we were all reading about Robert Mugabe's fraudulent election win in Zimbabwe. Anyone who was complacent enough to imagine that it could not happen here should read the judgement given by Richard Mawrey, QC.

Judge Mawrey suggested that the vote-rigging perpetrated by Labour in Birmingham "would disgrace a banana republic" and said of the government's failure to accept that there was a problem that "To assert that 'the systems already in place to deal with the allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working' indicates a state not simply of complacency but of denial." He added that it was wrong to speak of systems working well to defeat fraud or of systems working badly because "There are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been," he said. "Until there are, fraud will continue unabated".

The judge went on to make serious criticisms of the way the new postal voting arrangements work. For example, he said of the way voting papers are posted in esily identifiable envelopes, "Short of writing 'Steal Me' on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands."

This whole situation came about because the Labour government complacently over-ruled the advice of the Elections commission. I do not think they were guilty of knowingly promoting vote-rigging but I do think they were guilty of indefensible arrogance in ignoring the advice of the commission, the House of Lords, and almost everyone else. And the people who they ignored have been proven to have had a much better understanding than the government about the implications of the measures which the government forced through.

I have strongly supported wider means of voting in the past, including E-voting and greater use of postal voting, but this must not be at the expense of the integrity of the poll. We urgently need a review of security arrangements for postal votes - it is too late for new legislation before May 5th, but everything possible must be done to tighten up.

I have also signed up to the Electoral Commission's new campaigning recommendations on what candidates should and should not do in dealing with postal and proxy votes.

Monday, April 04, 2005

RIP Pope John Paul II

Like all political candidates I have suspended political campaigning yesterday and today as a mark of respect for Pope John Paul II.

I was still at school when he was elected, following his predecessor's tragic death after just a month in office. He was a towering presence for nearly three decades and a man who will be remembered as one of the strongest popes in history.

I did not agree with all of his views - on some issues he made me look like a soggy liberal, while on other issues, despite his reputation as an arch-conservative, he could be quite left-wing. But whether you agreed with him or not, you had to respect his integrity. Despite the trappings of power there was something about Pope John Paul which held to the simplicity, modesty, and sincerity which I associate with the early church and with Jesus himself.

I myself am an anglican, my wife is a catholic, although we both think of ourselves as Christians. I was pleased that yesterday's service at my local anglican church, St Mary's Gosforth, included a moving prayer for the pope and for the Catholic church. I am sure that all christians, and indeed those of other faiths, will be praying that the catholic church can find someone of the same stature to replace him.