Syria – my response to leader e-mail

Here’s my response to the email that Jeremy Corbyn sent yesterday to party members asking for their view on Syria.

“Whilst noting that MPs may wish to consult, any political decision on Syria should be based on the latest evidence and intelligence and not on political dogma. As such, any view put forward by an ordinary party member is inevitably flawed as we do not have this background to inform our view. It should also be recognised that there will be consequences whether or not we bomb and that innocent civilians will die or be injured regardless of whether the UK choose to become involved or not.

ISIS along with all worldwide terrorist organisations must be addressed and their actions eradicated or at least reduced. Therefore, the UK must play a full part in working with as many countries as possible in uniting resources against these and other threats. However, there are many ways that this can be done and there are already many other countries with better resources than us that have been bombing Syrian targets over a long period with little obvious effect. Our involvement might therefore be better used as part of a cross nation ground force (ideally through the UN) for example humanitarian aid, intelligence, use of military bases, logistics and remotely targeting communication systems in order to reduce the spread of jihadists videos and hate preaching of all kinds.

ISIS is a terrorist organisation with cells throughout the world. Any military action in Syria must therefore also consider the wider impact not only to the civilian population in Raqqa but to civilians around the world. We must be sure that military action would weaken and not strengthen ISIS by recruiting more suicide bombers to their twisted cause thus making the situation even worse. There must be a clear short and long term strategy not only for Syria but to jointly address worldwide terrorism in all their forms.”


The only argument for Trident is emotional

I haven’t been to Labour Conference this year but it is no surprise that Trident hit the headlines at some point. Similarly, it can be a surprise to no-one that Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out personally using nuclear weapons as leader as he is a long standing opponent.

The politics and arguments around Trident are quite interesting especially to a former Politics graduate like me that studied political violence as part of their degree.

Logically, there are absolutely no circumstances whatsoever when a UK leader would actually use nuclear weapons.  We never have and we never will and Jeremy Corbyn is merely stating the reality.   The reasons are:-

  1. No logical or sane government would use them against another logical and sane government due to the wider world impact. Let’s imagine that we decided to use them against say Russia – the end result would be our own annihilation via a nuclear war. The closest we got to this was the Bay of Pigs in 1963 between America and Russia and we have never considered using them. Would a logical and sane government really invade us if we didn’t have nuclear weapons? Less than 10 countries in the world have them now. Only America has actually used them 70 years ago although other countries have conducted testing usually to shore up their own political situation at home.
  2. But the world has moved on since the 1960s so what about North Korea or other despots where the argument goes that we need to “put them in their place”. Unfortunately, the deterrent aspect of a nuclear deterrent only works if the opposing party is in their right mind. Put another way, we have to be sure that they care enough about their own people not to see this as a chance to write their name in the annals of history by being the final leader of their country or deluding themselves that they can be ultimate world leader. Nuclear weapons would have no impact to that as there is no deterrent.
  3. Ah, what about ISIL or other terrorist groups – they don’t care about us? Nope they don’t but as any politics student knows, the most dangerous terrorists are those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and in their case, martyrdom is seen as a positive.  Even if all the terrorists were in the same geographic location rather than remotely networked all over the world, there are easier ways than attempting to nuke them taking out tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.   In any case, the next wave of terrorism is almost certainly going to be based on affecting the internet, energy sources or water supplies as this would have maximum impact. ISIL would love to get their hands on nuclear weapons regardless of whether we had them or not but reducing availability would make this less likely.

Leaving aside a jobs argument (namely that Trident may be good or bad but at least it provides employment) let’s focus on the only reason for Trident and that is purely emotional and it comes down to this. Having our own nuclear weapon makes us FEEL safe. It makes us feel as if we are still a world superpower and in control of our own destiny. There’s absolutely no logic to the argument but it doesn’t matter because it’s what we think.

If we look to America, it’s a similar psychology which explains why so many ordinary citizens still insist in carrying a gun believing that it is the only way of protecting their family and household. UK culture would scoff at this pointing out the huge rate of gun crimes in the US but nonetheless even President Obama has shied back from upsetting the gun lobby or more importantly the quiet stubbornness of many citizens.

The internal discussion in the Labour Party is not actually about security at all. It’s about unemotional logic put forward by Jeremy Corbyn on the one hand and on the other, the emotional connection to the UK public that many shadow Cabinet members want to build.  Put bluntly, can you put a financial figure on ensuring people feel safe regardless of whether it does?  Probably not which is why Jeremy Corbyn for Labour and Michael Portillo in the Conservatives are unlikely to persuade their respective parties despite the clear logic behind their position.

What next for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn?

The voting has been completed after a long campaign and tomorrow will see Jeremy Corbyn announced as the next leader of the Labour Party probably with Tom Watson (or maybe Stella Creasy) as his Deputy.

I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn and cannot at this time, see how he can possibly become Prime Minister. In my view, we have ended up with a leader who can “preach to the already converted” but sadly hugely divisive and offputting to those people whose vote we need to win again (just like Ian Duncan Smith was when Tory leader)

However, that argument has passed and we are now in a different stage. Here’s my guide to what may happen next.

  1. The result will be both legitimate and clear. Jeremy Corbyn should therefore be given the opportunity to lead and expect all Labour figures to support him personally in doing that. You can do this without agreeing with all of his views and fully campaign for the party and all our representatives. That is what I intend to do and encourage others to do the same although know many people personally in my CLP and elsewhere who will quickly resign from the party.
  2. All of the Deputy Leadership candidates should accept posts in his shadow cabinet. They all pledged to serve whoever was the leader and their breadth will be a good balance.
  3. Personally, I would advise the other leadership candidates not to accept posts at least for a 12 month period. They can serve in other ways perhaps leading party commissions on particular policy areas or be loyal backbenchers focusing on community issues but it would be unfair for them to have collective responsibility on leadership positions. Similarly many MPs will refuse to serve and they should be allowed to publicly disagree on areas such as Heathrow, Trident, foreign policy and economy so freely as long as it is about policy and not personal.
  4. Jeremy Corbyn should consider scrapping the whipping system for Labour MPs. As he himself rebelled more than 500 times, MPs can hardly be expected to show loyalty whilst in opposition. This would actually cause major problems for the Conservatives too by scrapping the pairing system. If Labour have no idea how many MPs will support a motion, how will the Conservatives do so with such a tiny majority? The end result would be Labour MPs feeling more positive by voting on conscience more regularly with the emphasis on polite disagreement rather than personal rows..
  5. Jeremy Corbyn should consider spending as little time as possible in Parliament. For Prime Minister Questions, he should stick to a few key themes perhaps foreign policy, impact of austerity etc and ask factual questions rather than debating.  His talents are more in communities and he has been elected to give hope to others and therefore needs to tour the whole country starting in marginal and safe tory areas.
  6. He will need to consider how to respond to situations where he could be perceived as hypocritical. For example, the Leader of the Opposition has certain perks and numerous invites (for example to attend state dinners with the royal family) So responsibility on the one hand may not easily fit with anti austerity on the other. It’s no coincidence that there has already been discussion about salary, special protection etc. This will be interesting to see and ironically if played well may end up being his greatest asset.

Even with these first steps, I would currently expect Jeremy Corbyn to last a maximum of two years. MPs will expect to see London choose a Labour Mayor next year and minor progress in Scotland. There will be an EU referendum which may cause tensions for all party leaders but the final key will be the 2017 local elections. If Lab are behind in those polls or do badly, I would expect MPs to act swiftly then and force a leadership contest or perhaps Corbyn himself might honourably resign/retire (he would be 68 then and almost 71 at next general election). The bookmakers are offering Evens that Jeremy Corbyn will be the Lab Leader at the 2020 general election and that seems very low.

Whatever happens, it will be an interesting and challenging time for all of the political parties and not just Labour.

Labour Ballot papers go out this week and this Surrey Cllr picks ….@LizforLeader and @Caroline4Deputy

So .. who are you voting for?” has been the question I’ve heard time and again over recent weeks. Friends, family, political colleagues and opponents and even members of my cricket team have offered their own views but I have been genuinely undecided. To be honest, the idea of a leadership campaign before understanding the reasons why Labour lost did not enthuse me at all.

However, as time has gone on, the campaign has become far more interesting in part because it defines the discussions taking place “on the left” and also challenged mainstream political thinking.

Jeremy Corbyn deserves some credit for that. He was a reluctant candidate from the “Left” of the party and narrowly scraped enough MP nominations. It is true that many of these were lent and that some now regret this but nonetheless MPs did this because he is commonly recognised as a decent, principled man with friends across the party and in other parties. I doubt that any other candidate from this wing of the party would have gone anywhere near to securing 35 nominations. Around half of his nominations was because he was a friend rather than because of his political views. There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has re-energised many Labour supporters and it’s certainly true that membership has shot up especially from younger people. Surrey Heath has seen an increase of around 50% since the election and there is a similar picture around the country.

But having spent numerous hours campaigning in various areas, I can categorically say that Labour did not lose the election because it was not left-wing enough. Throughout all the door knocking, there were around 5 to 10 people in total that expressed this view but some of them still voted for us anyway with the odd person going to UKIP, Green or didn’t vote at all.  In contrast, hundreds told me their issue was fear of economy changes, our leader and the SNP in government. The idea that Ed Miliband was too right wing to be elected is ludicrous and yet some people still believe this in Labour circles.  A victory for Jeremy Corbyn would appear to make all 3 issues even worse in key marginals which is why few PPCs in key marginals support him.

Labour can only win a future election by taking votes from the Conservatives and I simply don’t understand how Jeremy Corbyn would do this so can’t vote for him. If he does win, I suspect his leadership will last 2 years at most and then the party will move to replace him as the Tories did with Ian Duncan Smith.

Turning to the three other candidates, Yvette Cooper was the choice of our Surrey Heath members. I can see why – she’s a unifying, competent and experienced performer and would do a steady job if elected. However, I personally am not sure that a steady job is what is needed now as a steady job would probably get a similar result to now. Whether the public would be willing “to put Ed Balls into Downing Street” is something I doubt but she would have 4 years to work on this.  I will be voting for her as 3rd.

Now it gets harder… I have met Andy Burnham and he is extremely down to earth, very friendly and has great empathy with people. There is no doubt that without the unstinting intervention of Andy, the Hillsborough Justice for the 96 campaign would not have been successful. To gain huge respect from bereaved families as someone who was both a politician but also a massive Everton fan is an achievement that few politicians can ever match. If Andy Burnham does win, the Party will move forward fairly united and bridge all strands.

I have never met Liz Kendall and yet I keep hearing the same message from those who are floating voters that she is “saying the right things”, “what she says makes sense”, “she’s got something about her that I like” and “,I voted Tory this time but would definitely vote for her”. Political opponents on the Tory side seem more cautious if she was elected than other candidates. On the downside, some see her as “a bit young” and less polished and would have internal party issues to resolve.

If there was a general election tomorrow, my choice would be easy and for Andy Burnham but there is no election tomorrow. The choice for me is therefore which candidate in an election taking place in 5 years time is the most likely to win over Tory voters.  It has to be Tory voters and Tory seats that are the key because there are far more than those of other votes and other seats.  If Labour had won every seat in Scotland and those of UKIP and Green, the Conservatives would still have won the election. It seems incredible to me that so few Labour supporters seem to have grasped this fact.

A party led by Liz Kendall would be a huge gamble that may be beyond Labour members but yet it seems clear to me that she offers the best chance of winning in 2020 or at least denying the Conservatives a further majority. She may not win this contest but the more votes she gets shows that the party are grasping what the electorate rather than what party supporters are saying.

For that reason, I am going to plump for Liz but would be happy if Andy won and content if Yvette did so.

Turning to the Deputy, I am a massive fan of Ben Bradshaw as my first general election campaign was spent in Exeter. Similarly, Stella Creasy is a real star with a fantastic understanding of community working and campaigning which the party must implement. Angela Eagle is well respected across the party and Tom Watson is well known for his vigorous campaigning against powerful figures.

However, Caroline Flint has a powerful personal story and is comfortable with both the powerful and powerless. I have pounded the streets of Woking with Caroline and she has a great knack of energising others. More importantly, if Corbyn does win, she would be a good counter balance and if he doesn’t then she would be an asset for every other candidate.

My vote will be 1) Caroline Flint 2) Stella Creasy  3) Ben Bradshaw 4) Angela Eagle 5) Tom Watson

Welfare means being “well fair”

There’s been lots of chatter across the Labour Party today about the proposed welfare cuts and whether to support or oppose them. The issue here is not quite as it seems as actually the political parties and the public want pretty much the same thing but the issue here is different views about perception and the actual reality.

The British public want a system where the clue is in the name “well fair” but that of course means value judging who should and who should not receive this.

So in the yes group are generally the disabled, the elderly and those who have worked hard in their lives but are now on hard times “through no fault of their own”.

Whereas the no camp basically consists of those who are healthy, able to work but “choose not to” and then a separate category of people whose personal circumstances are value judged by others (as one example, someone with several children and/or from different relationships) claimed as “their fault”

The problem is that whilst these generalisations sound great and you will find large numbers articulating this view including for political soundbites, it doesn’t make sense when applied to reality.

So let’s pick one example – the benefits cap where people are given a total amount of benefit to ensure that “work pays”.  This sounds a very fair idea – why should people on benefits get more than someone who works hard and £20k is a lot for “doing nothing”?

However, most people don’t realise that there are two aspects to benefits namely amounts of actual money that people receive and then monies that they don’t receive and never actually see but pays for a service or facility.

The biggest amount of “benefit” that people get is usually housing benefit which is either paid directly to their Council, Housing association or more commonly now, private landlord.  The level of rent is set by landlords and tenants have no choice as they are generally placed there by agencies. This system is proposed to change under universal credit so the tenant does receive the money first but that is not what happens now.   In effect, the tenant has nothing to do with this at all as the money goes straight to landlords.

On the other hand, people do receive a variety of financial benefits such as child benefit, disability benefit and others relating to being out of work and these are paid into bank accounts. How they spend this money is up to them but the amounts are not generous.

The problem with an overall cap is that tenants have absolutely no way of reducing most of this expenditure and have no choice in the matter. They cannot downsize and in fact there are now very few properties that come within the housing benefit cap anyway. If the overall cap is therefore reduced, all that will happen is that vulnerable tenants would have to be evicted as their housing benefit would not cover their rents and means merely shifting a “welfare” budget to a “local government” budget at much greater cost to the public purse.

Rather than getting into a tangle during a leadership contest about whether to support or oppose an overall benefits cap, a better option for the Labour leadership would be to agree the principle of a welfare cap per household but exclude housing benefit from this cap and then exclude from universal credit calculations. This would be politically clever because they could argue a lower headline cap of say £10k for households whilst pressing the government on reducing private and social rentals and therefore housing benefit. Both of these policies would be popular in the party and nationally by attacking profiteering landlords whilst giving extra protection to those in need. The Govt would find this harder to refuse bearing in mind that the recent budget has already intervened on rents by a proposed reduction.

Wonder if any of the leadership candidates will cut through the issue and propose this?

Blame the behaviour and not “travellers”

The big story in Surrey Heath this week has been an unauthorised traveller incursion in Heatherside Recreation Ground. Indeed, the front page of this week’s Camberley News & Mail says, “Travellers leave “chaos” at rec” followed by, “Rubbish and human waste left at recreation ground will cost £10,000 to clear away.”

These sorts of headlines are understandable albeit depressing to read.  Why?  Because it wrongly and unfairly condemns an entire ethnic minority for the selfish conduct of a few.

There appears to be 3 main concerns so let’s deal with these in turn.

(a) Unauthorised incursion namely that people set up a camp when not allowed to do this.

It is absolutely true that this situation should not have occurred and that the 30 or so caravans should not have been there. Residents are right to express concern about security. However, whilst saying this, it is important to try and understand why this might occur and try to understand the issue as a whole.

Travellers generally “travel” in extended family units especially throughout the summer. Many will visit various events with the main ones being the Epsom Derby and the Appleby Fayre. In this case, it has been reported that one member of the group was heavily pregnant and whilst I don’t know if this was true, incursions tend to occur in this type of event or where a group member has serious illness. What tends to happen is that they “camp” near a hospital until the health situation is resolved and then move on after a few days generally just before authorities take enforcement action against them anyway.

So whilst it is absolutely correct to take enforcement action, the problem is the breach of planning regulations and not the ethnic group of the people breaking them. Put another way, is it just gypsies and travellers that break planning regs? Of course not, most Councils regularly have to deal with retrospective planning applications or where developers have failed to build something as agreed. The real question is do we act with the same vigour when dealing with these breaches or just those of travellers?

We should also consider that Surrey Heath has a recognised shortage of 18 gypsy and traveller pitches and the Council appear to have no obvious plan to address this.

(b) Litter and flytipping left behind

Again, I have no truck with flytippers and litterbugs and it is right to highlight the financial cost of this.

However, one of the main reasons why there tends to be litter and flytipping left after an incursion is because very often, they are not provided with a refuse service, skips or litterbins. Travellers are no different to anyone else in that they generate rubbish both personally and in relation to the work that they do. However, whilst the “settled community” would have a weekly bin collection from their house, travellers on the road don’t. Most Councils provide skips and bins (charged to the occupiers) in recognition of this in order to reduce the environmental damage that occurs although I don’t know whether this occurred in Heatherside. If not, I would definitely recommend this for any future incursion that may occur in the borough.

In addition, despite myths to the contrary, a caravan used by a Gypsy or Traveller would generally be extremely clean inside. Part of this is historic but it has to be clean for practical and health reasons too. Therefore, people do not want to keep any rubbish inside their properties at all especially things like food waste so it gets dumped outside generally away from caravans hence why it ends up in hedges and fields.

This rightly causes anger in communities where it occurs because of the excessive litter and flytipping and the clear-up costs. However, whilst £10k and around 25 tons of rubbish sounds a large amount, it’s worth putting that in context with the amounts that we spend clearing up litter and rubbish from Camberley Town Centre every single day. Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have bins and cleaners in our town centre for a week or our local parks or our streets…would they remain spotless or would they quickly become a dumping ground with litter strewn everywhere and rubbish bags all over the place? Would that be the fault of gypsies and travellers or the fault of some selfish people of all backgrounds in all communities?

3. Human waste

As highlighted earlier, caravans tend to be extremely clean and for this reason would quite often not have a toilet facility. We may find this strange but for some cultures particularly those within the Gypsy and some traveller communities, the idea of a toilet in the caravan would be considered “dirty” and even on official pitches, their toilet and bathroom would be in a different external area and not in their caravan.

So whilst human waste in public areas is obviously disgusting and deeply unpleasant, the fact is that everyone needs to use the toilet on a regular basis. Again, the best way to resolve this during an incursion is to arrange a temporary toilet facility for occupiers. This is a cost but ultimately far cheaper than cleaning up public areas and far less unpleasant for local residents.

Of course, it’s not just members of this community that may produce human waste in public. If you go into a town centre at a weekend, it’s not uncommon to see people urinate or defecate in more secluded areas or being sick all over the pavement. And if we are really honest, how many times have any one of us been “caught short” when out in the countryside and decided to have a pee or a poo behind a tree?  If we are going to criticise people for using public areas as a toilet then travellers are hardly the only people in society who do this and perhaps we should all be humble enough to recognise that.

Society has now moved on and the fight for equality has meant that many people are no longer stigmatised to the same extent as even 20 years ago. The vast majority consider that it is no longer acceptable to criticise someone on the grounds of their colour, their race or their sexuality but yet there still seems to be a way to go when it comes to gypsies and travellers. I doubt we would have seen a headline, “White British men and women leave “chaos” in rec” or “Irish people leave “chaos” in rec” so why have we mentioned travellers?

Personally I think we need to do a lot more to build community understanding such as explaining why certain traditions or problems occur and the impact of these to all. By taking some simple practical steps, we can ensure that both local residents and visiting “travellers” then get the support they need.

Why the Council should have skated over a Camberley Ice Rink..

The first Exec of the new Council saw an interesting community topic for new Councillors namely whether Camberley should get a temporary ice rink at London Road Recreation Ground for Christmas.

Now the romantic side of anyone will naturally find this idea appealing – who can fail to get a warm feeling about the idea of families skating together with grandparents looking on supping their mulled wine and nibbling their Christmas biscuits?  That is why iconic venues across the UK such as Somerset House, Winchester Cathedral and Windsor are so popular and ambitious town centres wish to grab some of this spirit and the monies that may come from it.

But would we seriously say the same about the London Road Recreation Ground on the edge of Camberley Town Centre? Now granted, I have played football there on many occasions and it has the Leisure Centre next to it but it’s not exactly a Christmassy venue no matter how many “Victorian pavilions” aka “changing rooms” are based there.

Ah, but what about all those other Town Centres that operate ice rinks around the country? Now it is true that there are city centres which operate similar ventures but they are based in the centre of a large city usually right in the middle of the main shopping area.  They compliment rather than compete with the shops. Other Councils have tried and failed to make them work hence why you don’t see them in every town. The attraction of financial success has proved to be a pipe dream.

In contrast, London Road Recreation Ground does not adjoin any shops and is removed from our main shopping areas. Yes it is a 5 min walk but to access you would have to cross a number of busy roads not suitable for children and walk to a part of town that apart from the leisure centre has few natural visitors. Personally I doubt that many will choose to do so unless they park at the Arena (discouraged)

Therefore, by definition, anyone who is visiting the ice rink/Christmas stalls will not be visiting our shops at the same time. Instead,the Council have decided to set up a rival town centre location such that customers could park in Main Square and walk there without passing a single shop. How is this possibly promoting town centre redevelopment of our shopping area?  Even if this did attract new destination shoppers to try Camberley (which I doubt), the distance means that there is no guarantee they will bother to look round our town centre which is actually what we want people to do. To use a football analogy, it seems the equivalent of scoring an own goal.

The venue also lacks any kind of visual presence as it will not be seen by drivers along the A30 (blocked by the Leisure Centre) and will have limited viewing from Southwell Park Road. Most people will not realise that it is there without a heavy marketing campaign that would be better spent on the town centre itself.  I dread to think how much officer time will now be sucked up trying to make this work that could and should be spent elsewhere.

Some Cllrs did realise this at the meeting and there were increasingly desperate attempts to put forward alternative town centre venues such as Park Street  and both the ground floor and top floor of a car park but apparently it was here or not at all. At this point, it should have been obvious that we were trying to fit our town centre to match an ice rink and not the other way round and immediately scrapped the idea with regret. Sadly that didn’t happen.

Ironically, even if the idea is a roaring success, that brings a range of other problems which were articulately raised by Cllr Colin Dougan namely parking, noise, policing and traffic impact to his local residents. None of these were answered at the meeting although he will at least be consulted on progress along with the Town Cllrs whose residents won’t be impacted at all.

The emotional argument for an ice rink in Camberley is inviting and I suspect that some have been carried away with the success of events like the cycle race such that judgement has been clouded. The logical argument against using London Road Rec is compelling and the risk to the town centre vision alarming.