Phil Riley: George Osborne wants to take us back to the 1930s

The Autumn Statement is when the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives an indication of his long-term economic targets and, in the Autumn Statement released just before Christmas, George Osborne surprised some commentators by saying that his long term aim was to get spending by the state back to levels not seen since the 1930s. Now that’s an interesting target. After the great financial crash of 1929, a major economic depression gripped much of Europe and, indirectly, contributed to the Second World War. Amongst other events, the 1930s is famous for the Jarrow march when unemployed men from the North East of England marched to London to draw attention to their plight. It’s also the time when there was no National Health Service and families had to work out whether they could afford to pay for the doctor before asking for a visit.
The experiences of many ordinary people during that time led to the election of the Labour government in 1945 and to the establishment of what has become known as the welfare state set up to ensure that, when the nation enters a time of economic difficulty, hardship for the individuals and families hardest hit is softened to ensure that there is, at least, some food on the table and some warmth in the house. 
Anyone who has been watching the course of events over the last four years will have realised that the coalition government no longer believes that, in times of economic difficulty, hardship should be shared out. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats are quite content for the burden to fall hardest on particular groups whilst other sections of society continue to do very well. That’s why economic inequality is growing at a pace that worries everyone except the rich and their apologists in the government and that’s why bankers are still getting huge bonuses whilst pay rises for ordinary workers are almost non-existent and benefits are being cut.
And now, to cap it all, George Osborne tells us that, instead of the 1930s being a decade of shame, they represent an economic target! If you get the chance to talk to a Tory or a Liberal Democrat, ask them which features of the 1930s they would bring back to support the reduction in state spending so desired by the Chancellor – paying for the doctor, maybe? Soup kitchens for the unemployed? Even deeper cuts in benefits?

When will David Cameron do the honourable thing?

So, now it’s the turn of the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Yates, to resign. Last night, it was the Commissioner himself, Sir Paul Stephenson, and, on Friday, it was Murdoch’s senior colleagues, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton. Some of these were pushed and some jumped but this storm of resignations illustrates the seriousness with which the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is now being seen throughout the nation.

But, what about the Prime Minister’s position in all this? Andy Coulson resigned from his position as Editor of the News of the World in January 2007 after two journalists working for that paper were sent to prison for hacking into the voicemail of members of the Royal Family. Less than 6 months later, in July 2007, David Cameron gave him ” a second chance ” and appointed him to be the Conservative Party Communications Director and, after the General Election in May 2010, he appointed Andy Coulson to be the Director of Communications for the Prime Minister – a job that placed him at the very heart of the government machine. David Cameron made this appointment despite, as we now know, receiving advice from both senior members of the Liberal Democrat Party and the Editor of the Guardian newspaper that Coulson would eventually be found to be implicated to a much great degree than he had previously admitted in illegal activities at the News of the World

Sir Paul Stephenson made the point in his resignation speech that he sees no real difference between his own error of judgement in appointing a former senior executive from the News of the World to be his media advisor and what David Cameron did with Andy Coulson but that there are occasions when responsibility has to seen to be accepted by the most senior person in the organisation. In contrast, the Prime Minister has, so far, refused to even apologise for his decision. So, while the nation watches with astonishment as this scandal unfolds, the Prime Minister ducks and dives and refuses to even accept that he has made an error in judgement.

As Ed Miliband keeps saying ” the Prime Minister just doesn’t get it!”

The old slogans are the best!

In those dim and distant days when Margaret Thatcher was running her one-woman campaign to change the face of Britain, the left used to have a slogan about the Tories that said ” they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing!”

And, it struck me this morning how well that slogan sums up the behaviour and direction of the ruling Tory/Lib Dem coalition on Blackburn with Darwen Council and their hasty decision to make a series of cuts to community centres and leisure facilities in an attempt to balance the budget. The cost of the facilities that are going to be scrapped hasn’t been spelt out particularly well but let’s say that, after redundancies are taken into account, it’s around £100,000 but the value of these facilities to the users and to the town are unknown and could be incalculable. Almost inevitably, the facilities are located in the most disadvantaged parts of the town and they offer potentially life-enhancing opportunities to children, in particular, who probably won’t get the chance anywhere else or again. Whether viewed from the perspectve of improving public health and life-expectancy or the chance to take part in sporting or cultural activities from swimming to squash to martial arts to joining a majorettes troupe, these are vital opportuniities that shouldn’t be thrown away by some impulsive piece of wrecking-ball politics.

The Coalition leaders will point to the presence of a brand new leisure facility in Darwen as an alterrnative but, realistically, the chances of a non-driver with children who lives in Shadsworth getting to Darwen on spasmodic public transport is remote and probably won’t happen. Even more crazily, the Coalition leaders may point to their suggestion that the facilities could be run by the local community without any input from the Council. This kind of lunatic idea just shows how far removed these guys are from reality……people with already busy and complex lives don’t have the time to take on responsibilities that are currently being carried out by trained professionals, nor do they have the time to start raising significant sums of money to keep these centres running.

Of course, no-one should be surprised that a Tory-led council is making these type of cuts or these kind of other worldly suggestions because this is what Tories do. It might be a long timing coming but this is a return of the Thatcherites! They want to reduce the size of the state and, where better to start, than the provision of public sporting and cultural facilities that the Tories don’t use and would rather see provided by a profit-making organisation. The Liberal Democrats, however, used to have a different political culture but, in their desperate urge to share power, they have sacrificed their politics and have become cheer-leaders for the Tories.

So, it’s time to dust down that old slogan but, unlike the 1980s, this time it applies to both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats!

Probably, time to get in the loft and see what else is there from those old days because this new vandalism isn’t going to go away for some time!

A local and national mandate

Phil Riley is election agent to Jack Straw

At around 4am, after a slow but meticulous count, the General Election result was announced in Blackburn and, to the surprise of the candidate (but not, I’m pleased to say, to me) Jack Straw’s majority had increased from 8,009 in 2005 to 9,856 – a swing of 1.1% to Labour! A fantastic result, given everything that was happening elsewhere, and a reflection of how well Jack is regarded by the people of Blackburn. It also reflected a tremendous campaign by the Blackburn Labour Party and the hundreds of volunteers who have worked consistently for the last few weeks and, in particular on election day, to make sure that Labour’s message was heard above the noise from the other candidates.

At 5pm on Friday afternoon, at the end of the local election count, cheers were again ringing out in King George’s Hall as Labour had gained 3 seats from the Liberal Democrats to move to within one seat of regaining control of Blackburn with Darwen Council. The three gains – in Shear Brow, Bastwell and Audley – again reflected the strength and energy of Labour’s campaign but there were also tremendous results in Corporation Park in Blackburn, Sudell and Sunnyhurst in Darwen. These results leave the Labour Party with 31 seats on the Council with 33 seats for the combined Tory, Liberal and For Darwen opposition. True to the responses of this discredited coalition, the immediate instincts of the Tory leader of the coalition were to ignore the overwhelming desire of the people of Blackburn for a Labour administration and to stagger on until they are put out of their misery when Labour makes its next gain at some future date. This is profoundly anti-democratic but completely in keeping with recent behaviour.

  • Labour Party – 31 seats (+3 gains in Audley, Bastwell, Shear Brow)
  • Conservative Party – 19 seats (no change)
  • Liberal Dem0crats – 9 seats (-2 losses in Audley and Bastwell)
  • For Darwen Party – 5 seats (no change)
  • Independents – 0 seats (-1 loss in Shear Brow)

Grinding his axe: yet more sour grapes from Craig Murray

Phil Riley is election agent to Jack Straw

So, the Victorian concept of treating has raised its head in the current General Election campaign in Blackburn. For those of you of a historical disposition, the law around treating (or the process of buying votes through the provision of food or drink) was developed as a response to the Blackburn millowners’ reaction to the 1867 Reform Act which broadly gave the vote to the male industrial working class. In a subsequent General Election, some workers at Brookhouse Mills on the side of the River Blakewater in Blackburn showed independence of thought by voting Liberal in contradiction to the advice of their employers. It wasn’t a secret ballot in those days and they were sacked, but a group of them marched to Preston to petition W.E Gladstone, the Prime Minister of the day, and a process was started which ended up with both a secret ballot and a law against treating.

Fast forward to Blackburn of today and allegations of treating are being made against the Labour Party in that food was provided at a political meeting held last Sunday and attended by Asian voters. It was, but importantly, the meeting was a private meeting and was advertised as an election rally and tickets were given to supporters. The purpose of the event was not to convince the waverer; it was to rally the troops. There were a number of speakers and. not surprisingly for an election rally, there was widespread support for Jack Straw and the speakers encouraged the attendees to work for victory on 6 May. At the end of the meeting, a brief meal of curry, rotis and sweet rice was served in the ground floor of the Centre where the meeting was held. As Jack Straw’s agent, I had taken legal advice about the appropriateness of providing food and, from two sources, was told that, provided the food was not banquet style and provided the meeting was a private meeting for supporters and food was not advertised on the tickets, the provision of a simple meal would be considered a reflection of the local Gujerati culture and would not be considered treating. So, it went ahead but, clearly, the informal arrangements that only supporters would attend the rally failed and three attendees have signed sworn affidavits leading to accusations of treating. These have been dismissed not only be the Blackburn Deputy Returning Officer but also by Lancashire Constabulary.

Yesterday, Blackburn Labour Party’s enemy since 2005, the failed ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, blogged about these accusations. Murray, not surprisingly given his history of loathing for Blackburn MP and former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has accepted the allegations and given them wide and hysterical publicity. Odd then that he should be silent about the behaviour of Bushra Irfan, the candidate that Murray is supporting in this election. She has held a number of events in a local Asian restaurant and these have been widely advertised in the local press with the strapline – ‘Free dinner – must be registered voter in Blackburn’. This falls well within the definition of treating but Craig Murray,with his acute long range observation of all things Blackburn has not been moved to comment.

Double standards, maybe? Or is Murray so consumed with hatred for Straw that he can’t see the wood for the trees?