Richard Willis's Blog

First for local news and first for comment

Alok Sharma Launches New Website

Reading West Conservative Parliamentary candidate Alok Sharma has launched a new website for the final phase in the run up to the General Election. This is a well designed and attractive website with good information on current and past campaigns, press releases and literature, and links to many local agencies.

I have known Alok for many years and unlike his Labour opponent, he is very much a local Reading man. He grew up in Earley and Whitley Wood and went to school in Reading. As a qualified chartered accountant, he has a range of work experience from working on a factory production line, being a company auditor, tutoring university students, running a business and advising companies. Alok is married and lives in Reading Borough with his wife and two young daughters (pictured left).

Have a look at the website here. It is well worth a look as an example of how to do a political website. Labour have a lot still to learn in this area of campaigning.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Local | 1 Comment

The Latest Defections from the Lib Dems….!

Cllr Joyce Sortwell

Hot on the heels of another Labour Councillor defecting to the Conservatives comes news of two more Lib Dems crossing over. This time in Eastleigh, base of Lib Dem leadership wannabe Chris Huhne MP.

Cllr Joyce Sortwell of Eastleigh Borough Council has left the ruling Lib Dem group on the Council to join the small Conservative Opposition group. With her has come her husband Cllr Graham Sortwell who is a local Parish Councillor. Both of the Sortwells were welcomed to the party by Hampshire North West MP Sir George Young.

Cllr Joyce Sortwell said, “This has been a big decision for me to take.  I became very disillusioned with the Liberal Democrats and feel that the Conservatives and Maria Hutchings work hard for local people and offer the right ideas for Eastleigh”. Maria Hutchings is the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh.

I join with Eastleigh Conservatives in welcoming Cllr Joyce Sortwell and Cllr Graham Sortwell to the party.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | National | 1 Comment

New MORI Poll – Tory Lead Cut Again to Just 5%

There is a new poll from Ipsos Mori published tonight for tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph which shows a further fall in the Conservative lead to the lowest level in any recent national poll:

            Conservative              37% (down 3%)

                                                        Labour                       32% (no change) 

                                                        Lib Dem                     19% (up 3%)

As I have pointed out before MORI is very erratic, and the Lib Dem increase only partially reverses last month’s fall. I would not put a great deal of store by this poll. It is ironic that the Telegraph have chosen MORI to replace YouGov as their pollster. The Telegraph used to use Gallup who would produce equally erratic results as MORI do.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

New Harris Poll – Tory Lead at 9%

There is a new Harris poll reported today for the Metro which shows the Conservatives maintaining a healthy lead over Labour. The party ratings are:

            Conservative              39%

                                                                              Labour                       30%  

                                                                              Lib Dem                      22%            

This is the first poll conducted by Harris since last June which had some bizarre results. Hence I did not think it appropriate to show the changes in the party shares.

All the polls are pretty consistent at the moment with the Conservatives on around 39%, Labour around 30% and the Lib Dems around 19%.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

New Angus Reid Poll – Tory Lead at 12% But Greater in Marginals

There is a new Angus Reid poll published today for the Political Betting blog showing the Conservatives with a 12% lead:

            Conservative              38% (down 2%)

            Labour                       26% (no change) 

            Lib Dem                     19% (no change)

However, the most interesting figures are in the marginals. In the Lab/Cons marginals the figures are (change from 2005 GE):

                                          Labour                       28% (down 5%)

                                          Conservative              42% (up 9%)

                                          Lib Dem                      15% (down 2%)

In the Lib Dem held marginals the figures are (change from 2005 GE):

                                          Conservative              33% (up 4%)

                                          Lib Dem                      39% (down 7%)

                                          Labour                       16% (down 3%)

The marginals results are very good news for the Conservatives and suggest that the effort has been focussed most effectively where it is needed. This also means that a much smaller Conservative lead would be likely to deliver an overall majority.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

Council Tax Debate and Dirty Tricks

Last night Reading Borough Council met to set the Council Tax rate for the 2010/11 Financial Year. On the table was a proposal from Labour to increase Reading’s Council Tax by 2.2%. This is almost half the increase imposed last year (4%) but still higher than the two neighbouring authorities (Wokingham and West Berks have announced 1.9% increases) and higher than the expected national average of a 1.6% increase.

We Conservatives have had a consistent position of wanting to freeze Council Tax, both last year and this. One of the big surprises of the night was the complete 180 degree U-turn by the Lib Dems who announced that they also wanted a freeze, despite having last year supported Labour’s above inflation increase.

Lib Dem Group Leader Cllr Kirsten Bayes and backbencher Cllr Warren Swaine made speeches saying why a freeze would be right in the current economic difficulties (last year when still diving into recession they said the opposite). Cllr Swaine explained that whilst he had lots of ideas of how to achieve the freeze without cutting front-line services, the fact that Council Officers would not help him develop them meant that the Lib Dems could not propose an alternative budget. Both we and the Lib Dems then voted down Labour’s budget.

All political groups then adjourned several times in succession to discuss the way forward. My group decided that we should test the seriousness of the Lib Dems apparent volte face and so we drafted an amendment that would have adjourned the Council meeting for 24 hours with an instruction to the Council’s Senior Finance Officer to amend the budget to achieve the 2% savings needed to deliver a freeze. We agreed that one condition should be that front-line services should not be impacted by the savings. Areas for savings could include central administration and the publicity budgets.

This draft motion was then put to the Lib Dems, who had some reservations and were clearly divided as to their response. It was while we were concluding our discussion on the Lib Dem response that Labour took the opportunity to force a quick vote on the budget in our absence. They were constitutionally entitled to do so but in previous years even Labour has followed the honourable course of waiting until all of the other parties were present before resuming debate. This time there was no such courtesy extended and the vote was conducted in our absence. Naturally Labour prevailed and their budget passed.

We then had to vote on setting a Council Tax and we voted against Labour’s proposal along with the Lib Dems. So the Council had set a budget but not the Council Tax to deliver it. There was much conferring amongst the Council’s senior officers who eventually concluded that there was a procedural way to reverse the budget decision, but when approached the Lib Dems had no appetite to do so. We therefore accepted that it would be irresponsible to continue to refuse to set a Council Tax as this could lead to major problems in sending out bills and collecting the funds we need to deliver services. We abstained in the final vote in order to allow a Council Tax to be set. The Lib Dems did the same. We finished at 11:40pm, having begun the evening at 6:30pm!

Many of us were incensed at Labour’s conduct. Bouncing a vote as they did, smacks of the desperation with which they have continued to cling onto power in Reading. As someone said to me at the end of the night “what goes around comes around” and if the people of Reading do decide to elect a Conservative administration this May, Labour will not find many of my colleagues willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The Lib Dems also proved once again to be all over the place both in their budget stance and their response to our attempts to work with them to achieve the freeze.

As I have argued before, a freeze would benefit every Council Tax payer and those on low and fixed incomes the most. Labour mouth the rhetoric of helping the vulnerable but their policies often hurt the vulnerable the most. That is why so often Labour Reading scores poorly when assessed by independent bodies, compared to the best Conservative run councils.

The choice is therefore now even clearer between a Labour run Reading that continue with above average Council Tax increases with sub-standard services and a Conservative run Reading that would get best value for every Pound spent and freeze Council for at least the first year.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | Local | 5 Comments

This Month’s Labour Defection to the Tories is…..!

A few weeks have passed without a single Labour Councillor defecting to the Conservatives following a steady stream at the end of last year. However I am delighted to report that another senior Labour Councillor has seen the light and crossed the floor. Cllr Anwara Ali is a Tower Hamlets Councillor for the Bow West ward and a high profile local GP. Until recently she was the Labour Executive’s Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing.

In a statement released today Cllr Ali said “I have been a lifelong Labour supporter, but I believe the country cannot afford five more years of Gordon Brown. As a GP working on the frontline in the largest practice in the East End, I have become increasingly disillusioned with Labour’s failure to reform the NHS. The past decade has seen this government waste millions of pounds on bureaucracy in hospitals. Gordon Brown’s obsessions with top down targets and a tick box culture has ruined the morale and goodwill of the national health staff.

I feel I cannot continue to serve the people of Tower Hamlets whilst I am part of a Labour party in the borough that is racked by divisions and splits unable to deliver services to the most needy people.”

Labour have suffered a succession of Black and Minority Ethnic defections to the Conservative Party in the last 18 months, further diminishing their already depleted Councillor base and undermining their ability to play “the race card” as they have often done in the past.

Cllr Ali has joined a small but very active Conservative Group in one of the very few authorities which is still heavily dominated by the Labour Party. She will be a very welcome addition to the team.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | National | Leave a comment

Setting Reading’s Council Tax – Tonight

For those readers who live in Reading, tonight there is an opportunity to view the full Council undertake one of the most important debates of the year. Tonight we will discuss the Council’s budget for the 2010/11 financial year and set the level of Council Tax that will enable that budget to be delivered.

We will also discuss Reading’s Local Area Agreement  and the Cultural Strategy but the main focus will be on the Budget. This year Labour’s proposal is for an increase in the Reading Borough Council element of 2.2%, which due to the low level of Fire and Police increases this year will result in a 2.1% increase for Council Tax payers. The actual increase in spending is 3.8% in Council Tax but Labour have reduced the impact on us all by using £2.5m from reserves and balances.

The VAT “windfall” of £3.6m received last year has been used to cover this year’s £1.4m overspend and keep the Council Tax increase down. The budget papers describe this approach as “a short-term funding measure which will increase budget pressures in future years”. This leads to the conclusion that this budget “contains a higher level of risk compared with budgets set in previous years”. The result is that the Council’s Chief Finance Officer has insisted that £5m be kept in the reserves, as opposed to £4m last year, to cover the higher level of risk.

Conservatives have consistently argued that the Council should be freezing Council Tax in these tough times. Across the nation many Councils are freezing their Council Tax this year. In London even Labour Councils are doing so! Here in Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead have managed to CUT Council Tax by 4% this year. It could be done here too.

The Council meeting begins at 6:30pm tonight in the Civic Offices. Any Reading residents who would like to come along and watch the meeting is welcome to do so from the public gallery where copies of the Agenda and Council Reports will be available.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | Local | 2 Comments

New ICM Poll – Tory Lead Cut to 7%

There is a new ICM poll reported in tomorrow’s Guardian which shows a further decrease in the Conservative lead to just 7%.  Labour and the Lib Dems are unchanged:

            Conservative              37% (down 2%)

                                                  Labour                       30% (no change) 

                                                  Lib Dem                      20% (no change)

There is now a very consistent picture of the Conservatives falling below 40% but there is no consistency with the Labour and Lib Dem shares. In this poll neither of the other two parties have benefitted from the Conservative polling decline.

The graphic below shows the changes from last month’s Guardian ICM poll rather than the changes from the most recent ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph.

February 22, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

Gordon Brown IS Unfit for Office – It’s Official!

For many years allegations have swirled around that Gordon Brown had a vile temper and often inflicted this on members of his staff. We have had newspaper reports of flying Nokias and hysterical outbursts at junior staffers. Indeed, when I worked next door in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2003-4 I had a friend in the Treasury who told me about the atmosphere in the higher reaches of the Treasury and how they tried to keep out of the way of the then Chancellor, one Gordon Brown.

Even before Tony Blair handed the baton of office over to Brown there were stories of Brown being “psychologically flawed”. Some dismissed these as the barbs of bitter Blairites but others knew the truth. Throughout his time as Chancellor Brown had earned the nick-name of “Macavity” for his tendency to dodge the difficult questions in the House of Commons, preferring instead to put up a junior Treasury Minister to take the flak. He confined his Common’s appearances to those set piece occasions where procedure and tradition allowed him to dominate without being under any great pressure.

Since Gordon moved into 10 Downing Street there have been a steady stream of rumours of rages, tantrums and violence towards staff members. All, of course, have been denied by Brown’s key lieutenants. However, a new book by respected journalist Andrew Rawnsley has blown the lid on the sordid details and provided some impeccable corroberation of the allegations made.

Sensationally, Rawnsley claims that Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell had to speak to the Prime Minister after his behaviour left civil servants “frightened and bruised”. Brown’s rages are reported to include shouting and swearing at staff, using physical violence against staff, and punching or stabbing furnishings with his pen. This has not been denied by the Cabinet Office, who have been careful to deny only things that have not been alleged by Rawnsley. The Cabinet Secretary speaking to Brown about his conduct was even confirmed by Labour MP Stephen Pound on Sky News over the weekend.

Today the head of the National Bullying Hotline has claimed that staff working for Number 10 have even called the hotline to complain of their treatment. Christine Pratt is quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying “I have personally taken a call from staff in the Prime Minister’s office, staff who believe they are working in a bullying culture and that it has caused them some stress. We would have hoped Gordon Brown would lead by example. If an employer receives complaints they should investigate.”

If this is what Gordon Brown is like as a manager is it any wonder that individuals like Damian McBride were allowed to operate unchecked inside Downing Street. Someone who can bully their own staff and terrorise civil servants is more than capable of sanctioning or tolerating a campaign of intimidation and lies against their political opponents. It should be noted that McBride was very close to Gordon Brown as his personal spin doctor. I do wonder whether this particular unpleasant episode should be re-examined in the light of this weekend’s developments. Maybe Rawnsley will have something to say about this in further instalments of his book.

This is undoubtedly the most damning allegation about a serving Prime Minister’s personal conduct that I can recall. Anyone else in management who treated their staff in this way would face the most severe disciplinary action or dismissal. For the most senior politician in the country to be behaving in this way sets the most appalling example. How can any Labour Minister have any credibility when talking about bulling, violence or respect for others, when they have tolerated Brown’s behaviour?

Brown’s behaviour also contrasts markedly with that of Margaret Thatcher. Despite her fierce public image she was renowned for her personal kindness to her staff and the trouble she often took to write personal notes when a staff member faced a personal loss or problem. When she left Downing Street, many of the staff lined up to see her leave Number 10 were in tears. I very much doubt that Brown will attract the same sympathy and support from his staff.

The disgraceful truth is that we have a Prime Minister who is a bully and a coward, and is therefore unfit for high office. If his employers (the voting public) have any sense they will ensure that he is dismissed at the coming General Election.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | National | 3 Comments

New ComRes Poll – Tory Lead Cut to 8%

There is a new poll from Communicate Research reported today for the think tank Theos which shows the Conservative lead falling back to 8% reversing the jump in the Tory lead in the last ComRes poll:

             Conservative             38% (down 2%)

                                      Labour                      30% (up 1%) 

                                      Lib Dem                     20% (down 1%)

This poll reveals some striking differences among religious groups. Despite the Iraq war and concern about anti-terror laws, 57% of Muslims intend to vote Labour. Only 32% of Muslims are ‘absolutely certain’ to vote, however – well below the national average of 47%.

For the Conservatives, support amongst those of no religion has grown sharply since 2005 (up from 21% to 34%) but amongst Christians it has only grown from 38% to 40%. Amongst Christians, however, 48% say they are ‘absolutely certain’ to vote, a figure which rises to 61% amongst Christians who say their faith is very important to their lives.

One reason for the Conservatives’ limited gains amongst Christians is that only 21% of people believe that the Conservative Party has been the friendliest towards the Christian faith over recent years, only fractionally different from the 20% for Labour. 9% say the Liberal Democrats.

However, Labour is seen as most friendly to Islam by 36% of the public, while 10% say the same of the Conservatives and 7% say it of the Liberal Democrats. Among Muslims, 49% say that Labour is most friendly towards their faith.

The Liberal Democrats poll best amongst people who say they do not belong to any religion, scoring 26% compared to 20% overall and 18% amongst Christians.

The research also reveals that one-third of people (32%) believe that religious freedoms have been restricted in Britain over the last 10 years, compared with 59% who disagree. However, both Muslims and strong Christians take a different view. 51% of Christians who say their faith is very important to their lives and 53% of Muslims believe that religious freedoms have been restricted over the past 10 years.

In the light of recent comments by the Pope regarding the UK’s equality laws, it is notable that two thirds (64%) of people believe that he and other religious leaders have a responsibility to speak out on political issues they are concerned about, compared with only 30% who disagree. 63% disagree that the law should prevent people from expressing their religious views in the work place.

The poll also shows a gender divide in attitudes towards religion with women less likely than men to say their religious beliefs do not really influence their life (40% – 53%).

February 21, 2010 Posted by | Polls | 1 Comment

What Gordon Brown Should Have Said Today…

Today Gordon Brown addressed the Labour Party Spring Conference. He tried to persuade people that Labour was the party for them but what I think he should have said is:

“If you believe in a Government of Ministers that lie, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in falling public sector productivity, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in record public debt, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in higher taxes and a more complicated tax system, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in reckless spending and boom and bust, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in increased poverty and a widening gap between the rich and poor, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in sending our armed forces into combat without basic equipment, then New Labour is for you.

If you believe in management by fear and bullying, then New Labour is for you.”

February 20, 2010 Posted by | National | 1 Comment

Argentina’s Sabre Rattling Over the Falklands

This week has not been a comfortable one for the 3,000 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory 8,000 miles south of the UK. Readers from my generation will remember the dramatic events of 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government  despatched a Royal Naval task force to the South Atlantic to recover the islands for the Crown.

Since then the UK has maintained a sizeable garrison on the islands and I served 6 months on the islands in 1994 as part of the military presence. I wrote about my impressions last year and this prompted an international debate in the comments section about the two countries’ respective claims. Indeed this remains the article with the most reader comments on this blog.

This week there have been echoes of 1982 as Argentina’s struggling government has sought to up the ante in order to detract from its domestic difficulties. This was very much the motivation for the 1982 invasion. However, then Argentina was ruled by a fascist military dictatorship; now at least it has a nationalist but democratic government. As with the UK, Argentina’s armed forces are also much smaller than they were in 1982, although they would have home advantage in any renewed conflict.

Argentina’s protests this week revolve around their objection to the British determination to begin exploiting the estimated massive oil reserves to the east of the islands. The UK and Argentina had signed an agreement on the division of resources to the west of the islands but the current Argentine government has now repudiated that agreement. Argentina has sought to impose restrictions on shipping that transits the maritime territory that it claims, which includes all of the Falklands’ territorial waters.

The Falklands’ government has reacted by insisting that the drilling is not a matter for Argentina and that it has every intention of proceeding with exploratory drilling in its waters. Some estimates have suggested that the waters off the Falklands could be as productive as the North Sea withoil  reserves that could make the islanders rich and help to pay for the UK’s military presence.

It is unlikely that Argentina’s bluster will develop into military action but a prudent British government would now be taking steps to augment the defences of the islands. In 1976 the then Labour Government sent a submarine to the islands to deter Argentina’s government from invading. I very much hope that this Labour Government has learned the lessons from that deterence and the confused messages that were sent out in 1981/82 when the Royal Navy presence was very publicly to be withdrawn and the Falklands left almost defenceless. Swift and low level action now could ensure that a military conflict is unthinkable to the Argentines.

No-one with any sense wants to see further loss of life in the South Atlantic.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | International | 8 Comments

New Angus Reid Poll – Tory Lead up to 14%

Last night Political Betting published a new poll from the Canadian pollster Angus Reid showing an increase in the Conservative lead to 14%. The Tories will also be delighted to back on 40% once again:

                Conservative              40% (up 2%)

                Labour                       26% (up 1%) 

                                                                            Lib Dem                      18% (down 2%)

This is the highest share for Labour with this pollster but there is no comfort for Labour in the 14% Conservative lead and their 40% share of the vote. The Lib Dems will be disappointed to be at 18% with Angus Reid who have so far usually shown them at a higher level than other pollsters.

NB: I will not be reporting the daily YouGov tracker poll in the Sun unless it shows some particularly interesting result. Tracker polls have a somewhat dubious record and I am as yet unsure as to the methodology. This is exactly the same approach as I adopted to the tracker poll during the party conference season.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

New YouGov Poll – Tories Maintain 9% Lead as they Draw Level With SNP in Scotland

There is a new YouGov poll in tomorrow’s Sun newspaper showing the Conservatives with a 9% lead:

            Conservative              39% (down 1%)

            Labour                       30% (down 1%) 

                                          Lib Dem                     18% (no change)

However, the most interesting figures are in the Scottish sub set which shows:

                                          Labour                       37%

                                          Conservative              21%

                                          SNP                            21%

                                          Lib Dem                      15%

I don’t yet know the size of the Scottish subset but I am told that the main poll had over 2,100 people in its sample which suggests that the Scottish subset may be big enough to be meaningful. We will have to see tomorrow when full details should become available.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment