Sunday, May 29, 2005

Save the La'al Ratty !

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with the name, La'al Ratty is the nickname of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Even before we moved to West Cumbria this charming and very well run miniature steam railway was one of our favourite places to take the twins. As I understand it "La'al Ratty" means "little narrow way" in the local dialect, but the railway also has some charming promotional material which presents "La'al Ratty" as a kind of Beatrix Potter rodent stationmaster.

There has been a suggestion in the local press that the nickame might be dropped on the basis that it is hard for people from outside Cumbria to follow. As incomers ourselves, who are regular visitors and travellers on the railway, my family would very much regret any such move. We think the nickname adds to the character of the railway. There was certainly no lack of vistors when we came to the railway either this weekend or last. Let's hope the idea of a name change turns out to be another "silly season" story.

Friday, May 27, 2005

A595 Inquiry concludes

This week saw the final session of the A595 public inquiry - held over from before the election. The main sessions a couple of weeks ago were largely taken up with the battle between the Highways Agency (the national roads organisation, who are promoting the barmy idea of de-trunking the A595), and the statutory objectors (which means Cumbria County Council and Copeland Borough Council.

The inquiry over-ran the originally allocated time and most of the "other objectors" - such as the Neighbourhood Forum, Copeland Conservatives, the local Lib/Dems, and several other local bodies - had to come back a few weeks later.

I was speaking at the inquiry as a witness for Copeland Conservatives. Like all the other local parties and organisations involved, we want to keep the A595 south of Calder Bridge, and the A5092 through to Greenodd, as trunk roads maintained by the national Highways Agency.

I was very impressed by the degree of cross-party co-operation among the people who were giving evidence against the downgrading of the A595. In the initial session Copeland council's witnesses had included both the leader of the council and the opposition leader: this week we saw a Conservative councillor calling a Labour councillor as a witness.

I thought we made some telling points about the need for better access to the area to protect the economy of West Cumbria and the strategic national and internationl importance of the routes to the nuclear facilities at Sellafield and Drigg. We shall have to see whether we have convinced the inspector. If not, it will not be for want of trying.

Monday, May 16, 2005

On inclusivity

This post was provoked by the Simon Heffer piece in the Mail but has a much wider currency.

There is a lot of nonsense talked from diametrically opposite directions about the very real efforts the Conservative party has made to select a wider range of able candidates. This comes from two groups of people with mirror-image agendas.

The first group, most of whom are inclined towards New Labour and therefore have a vested interest in finding a stick to beat the Conservatives with, claim that there has been no significant change in the diversity of the Conservative candidate list. The second group, of which Simon Heffer is the arch example, criticise the attempt to promote women, gay, and ethnic minority candidates and all too frequently make the inaccurate charge that this is being done in a politically correct way regardless of the ability of the candidates concerned.

Obviously as someone who fought a seat for the Conservatives this time I cannot pretend to be entirely objective about the quality of the people on the list. Nevertheless, I can compare the fellow applicants I met while going round the country trying to find a seat with the candidates I met during the previous parliament as a constituency chairman, and the people I interviewed as a selection committee member the parliament before that. I do not know every single person who fought a seat this time. But I do know that, regardless of whether my own political career ever goes any further, I will be very proud for the rest of my life to have been selected to fight a seat as part of a team which included people of the quality of the other Conservative candidates I met.

To anyone who still thinks that the Conservative candidates were all male, straight, white, Tory boys, I would point out that we had more ethnic minority candidates than any other major party, two of them in very safe seats and several others in target seats (including an asian woman in Enoch Powell's old seat.) St Albans now has its first ever woman MP after the Conservatives regained the seat. At least five openly gay Conservatives were standing in safe or target seats, two of whom were elected.

However, to anyone who imagines that our female, ethnic minority, or gay candidates would not have deserved their places on grounds of ability and effort, I can only say that those I know were able, decent human beings all of whom worked extremely hard. And so were the straight, white, males. Those who were elected this time will make excellent MPs - and I hope those who were not will also get the chance to make good MPs after the next election.

The grass finally gets it ...

The grass in both my gardens has this in common with Robert Kilroy Silk - all three finally got it after the election.

Winning elections is always more fun than losing them, but one consequence of losing an election is that you get a bit more time to sort your life out. The has been lawnmowing week. I was down in St Albans for a few days, during which time I set the mower to the level with the blades as far as possible off the ground and removed a vast amopunt of vegetation from the lawn. Then I came back to Cumbria, bringing the mower with me, and gave a similar nasty shock to the grass and weeds here.

Now I have a lot of thank you letters to write: if anyone who helped my campaign is reading this, thanks for everything you did and the letter is on its way !

I have received many very kind messages about the 2005 election campaign, all of which were most appreciated. However, it is now time to move on. I cannot make any assumptions at all about whether the party will want me to be a candidate again next time - the new leader will almost certainly review the approved list of candidates and will be quite right to do so - nor about whether the Copeland association (or any other constituency) would want me as their candidate. However, I suspect I will find a campaign to be involved in.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The fat lady sings ...

Well, the campaign is over and Labour have held the Copeland seat.

As I suspected was the case, the majority of polls were understating the Conservative share of the national vote and overstating Labour's. However, the result in Copeland was much more disappointing than I expected.

As I wrote in previous posts, I allowed when canvassing for the possibility that many people were too polite to tell me they were not voting for me. Comparing what I was told on the doorstep with what happened on the night, I wonder if this was true to an even greater extent than I had allowed. Alternatively the people I managed to speak to and who expressed an opinion may not have been entirely representative of the constituency.

However, I would like to thank all those - more than ten thousand people - who did vote for me, and all those who worked on my campaign.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

VOTE POSITIVELY FOR A BETTER FUTURE

At last the General and County council elections are finally coming to a close and it is time for everyone - except the 20% who have already voted by post - to make their cross.

I hope everyone will use their vote, and use it positively for a better future.

Once in five years we are all equal, and we all have a chance to say
where this country should be going. For me, and for many people, this is an opportunity. For others it seems to be a threat.

We can campaign for a positive agenda for tomorrow, or we can resort to childish scare tactics. I have lost count of the number of times the Labour campaign in Copeland have warned that a vote cast for anyone but themselves might result in my winning, and this is presented as the end of civilisation as we know it. Usually this is based on gross misrepresentation of Tory policies, sometimes it is downright silly, as when the Prime minister appeared to suggest that the Conservatives would sack every teacher, nurse, and policeman in the country. Needless to say our real policies do not involve a single lost job among any of these groups.

Instead of the tactics of fear I want to put forward positive policies for Copeland. First of all, we must work, not just to retain existing health services in West Cumbria, but to improve them. I want to see the NHS Trusts, Copeland Council, and the new University campus at Westlakes work together to develop a serious long-term strategy for a recognised teaching hospital in Cumbria. This cannot be achieved overnight, but the very fact that a positive strategy for the long-term future of local hospitals is being put in place would do a great deal to address the concerns of poor morale and difficulty in recruitment and retention which are a real threat to the service. We will not solve the problems facing local hospital services either by denying that they exist or by
the kind of language which makes morale problems even worse. We will
solve the problems by recognising them and addressing them.

A Conservative government will ring-fence the money currently being
spent on the NHS and increase it each year in real terms. We will scrap national targets and give hospitals and GPs more freedom to address local patient needs, while redirecting the resources currently used to administer these targets towards front-line improvements such as cleaner hospitals and more dentists.

West Cumbria desperately needs more jobs, and a wider range of jobs. I support new nuclear build at Sellafield but this will not be enough.

The new University campus represents an enormous opportunity to improve the local skill base and we must make the strongest effort to properly exploit it. We must also do more to develop opportunities for modern apprenticeships and training. We must reduce the burden of bureaucracy and centrally imposed rules on teachers and give heads more power to improve school discipline.

Improvements to our transport infrastructure, both road and rail, are also essential. I am the only candidate who actually put himself down to speak as a witness at the A595 inquiry - we need to improve that road, not downgrade it. I also support the Duddon Estuary crossing project and improvements to the A66.

We should also improve the quality of people's lives by providing more police and scrapping some of the paperwork that keeps them in police stations so they can spend more time on the beat.

Since moving to West Cumbria with my family I have enjoyed life here
immensely. But it could be even better, and that is what I want to
achieve.

The Conservatives have a positive agenda for change which I am proud to support. And I would say to people in Copeland, however you vote, vote positively.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

And on a lighter note ...

I had just arrived back from canvassing in Ennerdale Bridge today with the local Conservative councillor. Still transferring leaflets back from his car to mine when his phone rang. He came out of the house with the cordless handset, said "Just a moment, I have someone here who will be able to help you" and handed it to me. I annnounced my name and heard

"Hello, this is the Conservative Party, can we count on your support in the election on Thursday ?"

"Yes, I will be voting for myself." I replied, and explained to the lady from the Conservative national call centre (known as Geneva) that her computer system had dialled a Conservative councillor who had handed the phone to the local Conservative parliamentary candidate.

I doubt if the script on her machine covered that one but it gave us all a good laugh.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Three days to go

Well, it has certainly been a busy few weeks, and will continue to be hectic for another three days.

I have been enjoying the election immensely but whichever way the result goes it will be a relief in the early hours of Friday morning when the returning officer announces who has won and we all know where we stand.

I have particularly enjoyed the debates. BBC Radio Cumbria last Monday with all six candidates: Whitehaven School last Wedneday afternoon with everyone except Independent candidate Brian Early: Churches in Whitehaven the same evening with all six: and St Bees School this afternoon with myself, the Lib/Dem and a county councillor standing in for the Labour candidate. (They also had a Green party speaker - there is no Green candidate in Copeland this time, but there may have been some green candidates in the school mock elections.)

I felt that all these opportunities for people to see and hear the people who are putting themselves up for election in an unscripted environment was a bit of real politics as it should be. I am disappointed that the voters of Millom will not have the chance to see an equivalent event. The churches in Millom did try to organise a debate, which both I and the Lib/Dem candidate agreed to attend, but Labour and UKIP declined while the other two candidates did not respond.

I think the Copeland constituency is too close to call. The seat needs a 7.15% swing to go from Labour to Conservative and our canvass returns suggest something of that order. This assumes that I have judged correctly which of the voters who indicate that they will be voting for me are just being polite or judge this the quickest way of getting me to move on.

But presumably those who do not like telling a candidate that they are not going to vote for him would have had the same feeling four years ago - and compared with four years ago there certainly appears to be significant movement from Labour to Conservative.

A lot will depend on whether Conservative or Labour voters are more determined to turn out and vote, and whether those who make up their minds at the last minute all go in a particular direction.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, in the last three elections the opinion polls overstated Labour support and understated that for the Conservatives and Lib/Dems. The pollsters are aware of this and are trying to correct for the biases which caused it; different polling companies are using different methods to correct, and that's why the polls are all over the place. A TV commentator said this evening that the election might be a lot closer and more unpredictable than many people think and that fits my impressions on the doorstep.

Even if a given poll is right, the projections of seats won and lost which people make as a result all seem to assume a uniform swing, and that is not going to happen - there are different local circumstances in each constituency and changes in the pattern of tactical voting can make a big difference.

We will all know on Friday.