Richard Willis's Blog

First for local news and first for comment

Happy New Year Gordon – Now Go!

As we are about to enter 2010, a certain General Election year, senior Labour back-benchers have today renewed their calls for Gordon Brown to resign as Prime Minister and party leader. Since he took over the leadership of the Labour Party from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown has rarely enjoyed universal support, even within his own party. We know that John Hutton indicated his view that Brown would be “f***ing disaster” as leader and clearly a section of senior Labour representatives share that view.

In June Cabinet member James Purnell quit as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions once polls had closed on the European and local elections. He called for Gordon Brown to resign even though at that time he did not even know the degree to which Labour would be slaughtered at the polls. A series of other more junior Government members joined the exodus, although Brown weathered the storm and launched repeated fight-backs. A few weeks back there was a glimmer of hope for Brown’s supporters when the polls appeared to show a narrowing of the deficit behind the Conservatives to single figures. This has since been somewhat countered by other polls showing a much larger Conservative lead.

The clear hope within the Labour Party is that as the election approaches and voters focus on the choice between the two main parties, that the gap will narrow, giving Labour a fighting chance of being the largest party in a hung Parliament. To be successful that hope relied on projecting an improved image of Government unity and competence. That hope has been shattered tonight as two senior figures have called for Brown to go in the interests of the Labour Party.

The first out of the blocks was Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, the influential Chairman of the Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families. I listened to him interviewed on Radio 4 where he stated that he thought Brown should resign. He has also said the same to his local paper.

The second senior figure to call on Brown to resign is former Home Secretary Charles Clarke. He has called for Brown to resign in order to avoid the Conservatives being in power for more than a decade (Iain Dale has this article). Neither Sheerman nor Clarke are Brown’s biggest fans and they have called for him to go before but the reminder of divisions within the party are the last thing that Number 10 would have wanted as they prepare to launch their umpteenth relaunch. Today’s resignation calls have the appearance of a co-ordinated move and it will be interesting to see if more follow.

Unless at least one senior cabinet figure resigns and calls for Brown to go he is likely to soldier on to General Election defeat. Undoubtedly that is what Conservative Campaign Headquarters would prefer but the internal disruption that a leadership election could cause, so close to an election, is probably dream scenario number two. The only situation that could truly transform Labour’s prospects would be a smooth transfer of power to a popular, credible leader, around whom the party immediately united. Any suggestions?

Brown has seen off his critics before and his resilience should not be underestimated. At present his critics are mere noises off but if momentum can be generated by today’s resignation calls he could be distracted from his main focus, which is preparation from the impending General Election. Either way, it is bad news for a Labour Party that is struggling to constistently maintain a poll rating of over 30%.

December 30, 2009 Posted by | National | 9 Comments

Speed Cameras – The Debate

One of the most polarised debates in the transport sphere is over the utility and purpose of fixed site speed cameras. There are those who argue that cameras are merely a means of raising money from the already over-taxed motorist. They are ranged against those who believe that cameras are instrumental in making speeding motorists slow down, and thereby saving lives. It is certainly the case that local residents often have a perception that traffic speeds in their road and they want something done about it. Speed cameras are one of the most popular requested solutions.

It was therefore politically courageous of the ruling Conservative Group on Swindon Council to decide last year to remove all fixed cameras from 31 July 2009. At the time the Council was branded as “reckless” and criticised by a wide range of groups and agencies but the Conservative Group stuck to its view and terminated the arrangement that saw all revenues go to central Government, while maintenance costs fell to the Council. The Council did not remove all speed control measures. They agreed to invest the maintenance cost of cameras into other speeding prevention measures.

Six months on it is possible to assess the impact of the decision. The predicted carnage on the roads has not happened and the number of motoring related deaths and serious injuries remains virtually unchanged. It would be sensible to allow more time to reach a final conclusion but the initial stats suggest that Swindon made the right decision. I recently asked Reading Council Officers what consideration had been given to following Swindon’s lead and was immediately attacked by Labour Councillors. The answer was that under Labour control no thought has been given to removing fixed-site speed cameras.

What do you think? Do you think it is time that Reading gave consideration to following Swindon’s lead and removing fixed speed cameras?

December 29, 2009 Posted by | Local, National | 11 Comments

Christmas Crackers 2

Last year in one of my very first articles I posted the jokes that were in my family Christmas crackers. Here once again are the delights of the many bad jokes in crackers:

   What do ghosts eat?    Goulash

   What do you call a chicken in a shell suit?    An egg

   Why did the cow wear a bell?    Because her horn did not work

   What do you call two robbers?   A pair of knickers

   What do you call a horse in pyjamas?    A Zebra

   What do you call a train loaded with toffee?   A chew chew train

   Where do snowmen go to dance?    To a snowball

   Why do cows lie down in the rain?    To keep each udder dry

   What do ghosts eat?    Spookgetti

   What lies in a pram and wobbles?    A jelly-baby

   Why did the tomato blush?    Because it saw the salad dressing

Dont blame me, I didn’t write these!

December 28, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

David Taylor MP 1946-2009

I was sorry to learn of the sudden death on Boxing Day of Leicestershire North West MP David Taylor. He suffered a heart attack whilst walking with his family and died shortly afterwards. He was aged just 63. It is a sobering reminder that none of us are immortal and we should take every opportunity to spend time with our family.

In the run up to the 2001 General Election Leicestershire North West was one of the Parliamentary seats that I was short-listed to contest. I therefore undertook some background research on the constituency and David Taylor. I have some family in the area and therefore had spent some time there as a child. I never met David Taylor but I did learn that he was a popular local MP who had made quite an impact since his election in 1997. He had previously stood and lost in 1992. As history shows, I did not get selected and Nick Weston fought the seat for the Conservatives in 2001.

David Taylor was sitting on a rapidly dwindling majority and had already announced his intention to stand down at the next General Election. Andrew Bridgen, a successful local businessman, will be contesting the seat for the Conservatives and in light of recent polls, will have high hopes of regaining the seat for the party. Due to the highly marginal nature of the seat and the strong Conservative second place Gordon Brown is unlikely to call an early by-election. Instead he will probably leave the seat unrepresented for the next few months so that a replacement can be chosen by the electorate at the same time as the General Election. Any other decision would probably see a Conservative gain and a very bad launch for Labour’s General Election campaign.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | National | 12 Comments

Merry Christmas

May wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas. In this time of ice and snow there has been much chaos and congestion and I am about to head off to join my family for a couple of days up north in Cumbria. There may therefore be a short break in posting until I am back.

I hope that you have great Christmas break and enjoy the celebrations whatever they may mean to you.

December 24, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | 3 Comments

Snow Chaos – The Aftermath

Now that the heavy snowfall of yesterday afternoon has stopped we can begin to analyse what happened and why the roads were so poorly prepared.

It is undoubtedly true, as I said yesterday that Reading, as were other Councils, was caught on the hop by the heavy snow fall. It is rare that the South of England experiences snow falls of this scale and when it does they are usually in the New Year and not before Christmas. Colleagues of mine were stranded in various places and some resorted to staying in hotels or with friends as they were unable to get home. I know that many local residents had problems getting home and some experienced accidents and scares. I was horrified to read of ambulances slipping backwards down hills and people stranded in the snow. I was keeping an eye on the Met Office website and they did not issue a severe weather warning until 1pm yesterday and the snow began to fall at 1.30pm, leaving very little time for Councils to react.

What we need now is a considered investigation into the circumstances leading to yesterday’s severe weather and the Council’s reaction. I understand that several Councillors of all parties have requested this, although the Lib Dems are shouting loudly as though they are the only ones. It is very much to be regretted that while Council Officers were coming in off leave and out of hours to respond to this emergency, local Liberal Democrat politicians were (and still are) seeking to make political capital from the situation. When we are faced with a severe weather situation it is important that politicians react responsibly and do not impede those who are going about their duties.

Contrary to some of the silly statements on local blogs and twitter, serious questions are already being asked by Conservative Councillors. Yesterday evening I emailed Transport officers at RBC to request a briefing on events as soon as the immediate crisis had died down. Today I have discussed the situation with the Head of Transport at RBC to better understand the apparent lack of response and the reasons for it. I have also requested a full investigation and report by the Council’s CCEA Scrutiny Panel in discussions I have had with the Scrutiny Panel’s Chairman. As Vice-Chairman of the Environment Scrutiny Panel I have also raised this matter in the past with Council officers and will continue to do so to ensure that the Council is as prepared as it can be. What I have not done is gone onto local radio, whilst not in possession of all the facts, to stoke up local anger based on ill-informed comment and speculation.

Some people seem to think that gritting or salting is a panacea to bad weather and slippery pavements. It is not. There are several means of treating roads and pavements but laying grit while heavy snow is falling is simply not effective. When there is reasonable advanced warning roads and pavements can be pre-treated with urea or rocksalt. In this case there was very little warning from the Met Office and no advance warning at all through the weather warnings used by local Councils.

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the response to yesterday’s unusually heavy snow and I and my colleagues will be at the forefront of pressing for these but we will do so responsibly. The fact remains that local Councils of all political hues were caught out yesterday.

I would like to pay tribute to the Council staff who have come in off Christmas leave or worked extended hours to deal with this situation. There is still a huge job to be done today to catch up with gritting and snow clearance after the event and I will not do anything to impede that process just to score political points.

UPDATE: If anyone doubts that Reading was not the only authority caught out recently just read this criticism from Lancashire, an area far more used to bad weather.

December 22, 2009 Posted by | Local | 8 Comments

Rory Bremner’s Political Review of 2009

I love watching good impressionists and Rory Bremner is amongst the best I have ever seen. This is his political review of 2009 and it is great:


December 22, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

New ComRes Poll – Tory Lead Cut to 9%

There is a new poll from Communicate Research reported tonight for tomorrow’s Independent which shows the Conservative lead cut to just 9%:

            Conservative              38% (down 3%)

                                      Labour                      29% (up 5%) 

                                      Lib Dem                     19% (down 2%)

In terms of the lead, the polls are all over the place at the moment. However, there is more consistency when individual party vote shares are considered. Each of the parties varies no more than about 3% around a central point, with the Conservative share being even less variable.

It is worth noting that the equivalent ComRes poll on 21 Dec last year showed a Conservative lead of just 5%!

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

Snow and Ice Brings Reading to a Standstill

It is unusual for us in the South of England to enjoy snow that settles before Christmas but we seem to be especially prone to it this year. The snow of last week had not cleared when this afternoon we have seen heavy falls of snow on top of existing ice and snow. (My road is shown in the picture on the left)

I needed to go into Reading this afternoon and set off shortly after the new snow started. I am quite experienced in driving in snow and therefore warmed the engine before setting off and began gently pumping my brakes as I got rolling. They were well frozen and took some time to begin to work. I headed down through Caversham  and came up against the grid-locked traffic down Bryants Avenue. As the snow was falling increasingly heavily and the traffic looked awful I decided to head back home before it got worse.

It seems that the snow caught our local highways team on the hop as there was no obvious gritting or salting on even the main roads. Cars were therefore struggling on even the most gentle slope and I certainly had a few hairy moments heading back up Lower Henly Road and Caversham Park Road.

Anyway I was fortunate to get back home safely and am now snug and warm on the sofa in front of the TV. I hope that all my readers are alright and managed to make it home OK. We are so much less able to cope with cold weather in this country than many other countries.

Keep safe and keep warm!

UPDATE: 7pm – I am hearing that Peppard Road, which runs north out of Reading, has been closed to traffic. Lower Caversham is blocked with traffic and stuck cars. Pedestrians are having to help push emergency vehicles and stuck cars.

UPDATE: 8:30pm – Reading Borough Council have issued the following notice “There are now indications that traffic is beginning to move again but we would urge all road-users affected by the current adverse weather and road conditions to stay inside their vehicle, if at all possible, and to stay as warm as possible. The authorities are monitoring the situation closely and are doing what they can to resolve it.

Motorists who decide they must leave their vehicles are advised to exercise extreme caution when travelling on foot.

In order not to worsen traffic congestion, road-users that decide they have to abandon their vehicle must not obstruct the road in any circumstances. To assist drivers, parking restrictions will not be enforced overnight on roads and in car parks run by Reading, Wokingham and West Berkshire Councils and by NCP and The Oracle.

If overnight accommodation is needed, we would advise motorists to stay with nearby friends or relatives, if possible, or to make use of hotel accommodation or contact the police or their local authority.”

UPDATE: I have posted another article here now that I have had discussions with senior Council Officers about yesterday’s events. There are some typically petulant comments on one local Lib Dem blog reflecting the way that some local Lib Dem politicians have sought to use yesterdays weather crisis for their own political advantage. More responsible politicians have been busily working behind the scenes to find out the facts and ensure that lessons are learned.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Local | 6 Comments

New(ish) MORI Poll – Tory Lead Rockets to 17%

There is a newly reported poll from Ipsos Mori in tomorrow’s Observer which shows the Conservative lead surging to 17%:

            Conservative              43% (up 6%)

                                                        Labour                       26% (down 5%) 

                                                        Lib Dem                     20% (up 3%)

Tonight rumours have swirled around the blogosphere suggesting Labour narrowing the gap further or even taking the lead. However, the actual result is a massive surge for the Conservatives and confirms MORI’s reputation for erratic results.

As I pointed out with the last MORI poll this is also now an “old” poll. Fieldwork was completed last weekend and the poll has been held unpublished since then.

December 19, 2009 Posted by | Polls | 1 Comment

New YouGov Poll – Tory Lead Increases to 12%

There is a new poll from YouGov reported this morning for tomorrow’s Sunday People which shows an increased Conservative lead almost completely reversing the previous jump in Labour’s vote share:

            Conservative              40% (no change)

            Labour                       28% (down 3%) 

                                          Lib Dem                     18% (up 2%)

As noted before, the Conservative share is remarkably consistent at the moment, with the fluctuations being in the Labour and Lib Dem shares.

December 19, 2009 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

One Year Old Today

One year ago today I embarked on a journey with no idea how it would go or for how long. In the last year I have tried to post something almost every day, focussing mainly on politics and opinion polls, with some film and show reviews thrown in, plus a sprinkling of defence issues.

Here are just a few stats from my blog over the past year:

                     150,000 hits – averaging 12,500 hits per month (record month Oct 09 – 18,205 hits / record day 27 Sep 09 – 1,738 hits)

                     2,118 comments posted

                     517 articles written and posted

The following is a selection of my postings in the last year:

1.  General Election Speculation – my first article in which I argued that Brown would not risk an early General Election. I stated my belief that Spring 2010 would be the most likely date.

2.  Tech Savvy or Luddite? – one of my first articles which investigated the local web presence of the Reading political parties and candidates. The article led to coverage in the local press and Reading West MP Martin Salter proudly accepting the award of “Luddite” which I had bestowed on him. Later in the year the Reading West Lib Dem candidate which I had highlighted as almost invisible, resigned as the candidate.

3.  President Obama – A New Era Dawns – I reflected on the hopes and aspirations for the United States’ first ever black President.

4.  Margaret Thatcher – Climate Change Pioneer – Once again Margaret Thatcher was ahead of her time on this issue as on so many others.

5.  Building a New 21st Century Reading Station – One of many articles I have written about local decisions and policies in an attempt to better inform local people as to what is being done in their name.

6.  Norwich North – What Should we Expect Today? – this was one of the occasions when I stuck my neck out and made some concrete predictions. I was rather relieved when my predictions proved pretty close to the final result. No doubt had I been wrong certain commentators would have been quick to gloat!

7.  “Gaffe Prone” Labour Candidate Trips Up – I broke the story of the appallingly inept interview given by Reading West Labour candidate Naz Sarkar to BBC Radio Berkshire’s Andrew Peach. Within a couple of days the story and associated YouTube clip had “gone viral” with coverage across the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Contrary to some assertions I cannot claim the credit for putting the audio clip onto YouTube.

8.  New Aircraft Carriers Begun as Defence Review is Announced – one of a number of defence articles I have written. Whilst the government has continued to announce a series of big ticket orders for defence equipment, within the last week we have learned the cost of their failure properly to fund these orders. Now the Armed Forces face a period of uncertainty as they await the outcome of the anticipated defence review.

9.  The X-Factor 2009 – Initial Auditions – anyone who reads my blog will know that I love reality TV singing shows. Usually my support for any competitor means that they get voted out shortly afterwards but in this case I am proud to say that I spotted the talent of eventual winner Joe McElderry.

10.  Manchester Conference Round Up – it was good to be able to blog live from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. One of the great things about blogging is to be able to write about things for a wide audience that normally only those on the political “inside” get to experience. I received many public and private messages about my Conference articles.

I am pleased with my record of predictions over the last year but of course no-one gets everything right! Last night (as a couple of eagle-eyed readers spotted) I mixed up the UNISON trade union with UNITE. Oh well, I blame the lateness of the hour I was writing and the fact that with no PC, I am still dependent on a borrowed laptop which is not as easy to use as my old PC.

Writing a blog is a considerable commitment but I have been delighted with the way it has been received. As well as the over 2,000 comments posted below articles, I have received hundreds and hundreds of emails with suggestions, information and corrections. The most satisfying thing has been the feedback from people who appreciate what I write. Readers of Total Politics voted this the top Conservative Councillor blog in the country and the third ranked of all Councillors. “Councillor” magazine described this as “undoubtedly the most attractive” blog of the top ten.

I pioneered the monthly reporting of my “activity” statistics of meetings attended and cases submitted through the Council’s recording system. This was largely in order to better inform my constituents of what I am up to on their behalf but also because of the misuse of statistics by other local politicians, in order to praise or condemn Councillors on a single criteria.

I also like to include relevant YouTube clips to liven up the content. I think my favorite clip of the year was this one:

As we end 2009 and embark upon a new year we can be certain that we will face a General Election and local elections. The opinion polls indicate that Labour will lose office nationally and I very much hope that they will lose (minority) control of Reading for the first time in 27 years. 2010 promises to be a watershed year politically and it will be a fantastic time to be blogging, with the ability to comment on the developing political story. However, without readers a blog is almost pointless. I do hope that you will continue to read, comment and message me.  In return I will do my best to keep up the frequency and variety of posting.

Thank you to everyone who helps to make this blog the success it has become. It is very much a shared success.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | 9 Comments

New Angus Reid Strategies Poll – Tories Enjoy 16% Lead

There is a new poll out from Angus Reid Strategies reported on which shows the Conservative lead at a sizeable 16%:

            Conservative              40% (no change)

            Labour                       24% (up 1%) 

            Lib Dem                     20% (up 1%)

Once again Conservatives are above the magic 40% mark and way ahead of Labour. Labour have continued to edge up a fraction (they were also up 1% in Angus Reid’s last poll) but the changes are within the margin of error.

Interestingly all recent polls seems to be consistent on the Conservative share, which suggests that their vote is not as soft as some have suggested. What has varied however is the size of the lead, which is dependent on the split of the Labour and Lib Dem shares. Historic evidence suggests that the lowest share given to Labour is the one that is most accurate.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Polls | 1 Comment

British Airways Strike Threat is Lifted (For Now)

I was pleased to learn this evening that British Airways won their court case against the “UNITE” Trade Union with the result that flights for many thousands of people will not now be disrupted over Christmas and the New Year. It was always a bizarre decision by UNITE to force a 12 day strike on their staff members. Many of us hoped that the days of prolonged strikes in former public sector companies were long gone.

The dinosaurs in UNITE have seriously miscalculated this time. It is true that there was an overwhelming vote by staff for industrial action but friends I know in BA have told me that they thought that they were voting for a series of one or two day strikes and not two weeks over the main winter holiday period. I was interested to learn that some BA staff are planning to resign from UNITE in frustration at their inability to legally conduct a national ballot and the high level decision to go for a 12 day strike.

British Airways has been operating on a financial knife edge for some time and one of their biggest costs is staff pay. We are not talking about low paid staff either. BA staff are amongst the very best paid in the business and the company was not proposing to change this. However, they were planning to cut 1 to 3 staff from flights; something that many other private sector companies have done in these difficult economic times.

If BA staff want to secure their jobs and the future of their company then they must not allow themselves to be used by militant dinosaurs in the Trade Union movement. I very much hope that if there is a second ballot for industrial action that UNITE members will reflect on how badly they have been served by the national Union leadership and the importance of helping their company to compete in the modern world. Upsetting customers in a highly competitive industry is not the recipe for success and job security.

The courts have today given BA a second chance. Now both the company management and the staff must find a way to work together for mutual benefit.

December 17, 2009 Posted by | National | 6 Comments

New ICM Poll – Tory Lead Cut to 9%

There is a new ICM poll reported tonight for tomorrow’s Guardian which shows a further slight trimming of the Conservative lead to 9%:

            Conservative              40% (no change)

                                                  Labour                       31% (up 2%) 

                                                  Lib Dem                      18% (down 1%)

The changes shown above are compared to the most recent ICM poll. The Guardian’s graphic shows changes from its own ICM poll last month. This is consistent with most other polls in showing a slight upturn in the Labour share and the Conservatives at around 40%. However, the individual changes are again within the margin of error.

The outlier at the moment seems to be the ComRes poll which shows a 17% Conservative lead.

December 14, 2009 Posted by | Polls | 1 Comment