Saturday, 22 November 2014

Weasel Words in NLC



Here's a 'weasel worded' press release from the bosses at North Lanarkshire Council which is full of misleading and inaccurate statements that I will deal with in a moment.

But first of all I'd like to say that the Labour politicians who have been running North Lanarkshire Council for the past fifteen years are now in a blind panic because a terrible backlash is building up over the way the Council has handled equal pay.

And while it's true that settlement negotiations are being conducted by senior council officials, these are the same officials, broadly speaking, who have made a complete dog's dinner of equal pay over the years and implemented local pay arrangements (after consulting the trade unions) that blatantly discriminate against traditional, female dominated jobs.

So if you ask me, the buck stops with the politicians because they set the Council's overall strategy and have the final say about the size and scope of any settlement of all the outstanding claims, which is exactly what happened in neighbouring South Lanarkshire Council as well.

At the moment the parties are still very far apart and there is no ongoing negotiation, despite what the Council says. Action 4 Equality Scotland (A4ES) rejected the council's settlement proposals because they were completely unacceptable.  

Another point on which The Council's press release if incorrect is on the subject of interest due on backdated awards because this is not the only or main point of contention - as far as A4ES is concerned the issue of identifying relevant comparators is much more important. 

'Comparators' are used to determine the size of the pay gap between traditional male and female jobs and the Council has been trying to manipulate this issue to its own advantage and to the detriment of the claimants. 

So Action 4 Equality Scotland will only be prepared to reach a  settlement that is fair, just and in the best interests of our 3,000 plus clients in North Lanarkshire - and if the Council wants to speed things up, all they have to do is to put a realistic settlement offer on the table.


North Lanarkshire Press Statement 

North Lanarkshire Council has expressed its “extreme regret” at the length of time talks on equal pay are taking to resolve.

The council entered into talks earlier this year on what are known as ‘second wave’ claims. An offer to second wave claimants’ representatives was made some weeks ago, and negotiations on that offer are continuing with further information and calculations currently being provided to claimants’ representatives.

June Murray, the council’s Executive Director of Corporate Services, said: “It’s important that our employees know where things currently stand. We have made an offer to the claimants’ solicitors and the council remains in talks in good faith to try to reach a solution.

“There is no doubt that we are very disappointed by the pace of reaching agreement on this, as we are sure the claimants are. These issues are extremely complex but we remain committed to settling equal pay claims where those claims are justified as soon as possible." 

The council has already settled around 6500 claims totalling £36million.

One of the trade unions involved in negotiations is urging its members to protest at councillors’ surgeries. However, Mrs Murray believes this will not be effective as the matter is out of councillors’ hands. Responsibility is on officers to conduct negotiations and ensure that all claims are valid. 

She explained: “Our councillors approved negotiations and are receiving regular progress reports. Until there is a proposal which we are agreed on – which councillors will have to approve – there is nothing for those members to decide.

 “Protesting at surgeries could cause difficulty for people who need to see their councillor on extremely serious and urgent topics and staging such protests could disrupt those discussions. Given the negotiations are active and ongoing we are surprised by this turn of events.”

The full update – available on the council website at www.northlanarkshire.gov.uk – also details the position on another group of claims, those known as ‘first wave’ claims.

The council agreed last year to settle first wave claims. Mrs Murray explained that ‘the main barrier to achieving agreement with the claimants representatives was failure to  reach agreement on the level of interest to be applied.The Employment Tribunal’s ruling on interest is awaited. An offer made on behalf of the council’s remains on the table.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT EQUAL PAY

20 November 2014

What is the status of the current outstanding claims against the council?
There are two groups of claims we are currently involved with. The first group of claims are what are known as first wave claims.

The council agreed last year to settle these. However, there is a disagreement about the rate of interest to be applied to the settlement and tribunal proceedings continue in respect of this. This is for a remaining group of claimants, around 350, represented by one legal firm. Settlement terms have already been reached with two other groups of claimants.

Despite claims to the contrary in recent media reports, the tribunal panel has made no ruling in respect of the rate of interest to be applied. Regrettably, despite the council's best efforts, this has meant that these claims have not been settled as quickly as either the claimants or the council would have wished.

The much larger group of claims are known as second wave claims. Earlier this year the council entered into negotiations with lawyers for the claimants with a view to settling these claims where that was appropriate.

What is the current status of those negotiations?
A number of weeks ago, the council made an offer in respect of these second wave claims. While that offer was not considered suitable by the claimants’ representatives, further talks remain ongoing between the parties.

Why is this taking so long?
These are complex issues, compounded by the transfer between the parties of large and detailed volumes of information. However, the council is frustrated by the pace – or lack of it – in its bid to reach a settlement.

The council is not dragging its heels on this issue. We believe it is in everyone’s best interests to deal with this as quickly as possible.

What is the role of elected members?
Elected members approved the start of negotiations. These talks are now being led – as is proper – by lawyers. If a settlement can be agreed in principle then councillors will be asked to approve that but there is nothing elected members can do at this stage. Regular updates are brought before members for their consideration and any decisions required on an ongoing basis will be made by elected members.

Are these the first equal pay claims the council has settled?
No. The council has already settled around 6500 claims to the value of around around £36million.

Why doesn’t the council just settle this by paying the claimants what they want?
The council has always adopted an approach of settling equal pay claims where such a settlement is justified. However, the council also has a duty to the public purse and must ensure best value.

Every individual claim requires checking and it is often the case that errors are made in the calculation of the claim by the claimant or their representatives. This in itself is a complex process.

When can we expect a resolution?
In both first and second wave claims the council has made what it considers to be appropriate offers. These offers remain on the table.

Had these offers been accepted many claimants could have received a settlement by now. Regrettably that hasn’t happened, but the council remains committed to negotiation and we would like to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

Van Man

With tales of the White Van Man dominating the political news, I thought I'd remind readers of my so far unsuccessful quest to interview another Van Man in the shape of Van Morrison. 

If and when I achieve my goal, I'll let people know.


Van the Man (24 March 2014)


I've finally decided that I'm going to write to Van Morrison and ask the man for an interview, but from what I've heard he's a bit of a grumpy so and so which means the answer is likely to be No.

But if you don't ask you don't get - and I've never been put off a challenge in my life, so here goes because just maybe all the tumblers will click into place.  

Apart from enjoying Van Morrison's music for as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to interview him ever since Brian Keenan told me that he went to school with Van the Man in Belfast - along with David Ervine, a politician from Northern Ireland who played a key role in the 'Good Friday' Peace Agreement.

So my pitch to Van will be that he's the one that got away, so far at least.

What a day to look forward to that would be - I'll let you know how I get on.
  

Brian Keenan (3 January 2012)

I wrote about my love of Van Morrison's music the other day - which reminded me of an interview I wrote about Brian Keenan - for one of the Sunday newspapers 10 years ago.

Brian Keenan went to school in Belfast with Van Morrison - which he told me at the time when I met him in the bar of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh - where we chatted very amiably over a few glasses of good red wine.

Brian Keenan also went to school with another well-known public figure from Belfast -  David Ervine - one of the key figures in reaching the Good Friday Agreement.

I interviewed David Ervine as well some time later - and I enjoyed the company of both men - so Van Morrison is the one that got away - for the moment at least.

So here's the interview I wrote after my meeting Brian Keenan.

If I can find it, I'll post the one with David Ervine as well though - sadly - David Ervine has since died.    

Hope for everything, expect nothing

Brian Keenan was kidnapped and held hostage in the Lebanon for five years. He was chained like an animal, alone, in the dark, denied his freedom and, for much of the time, all human contact. “Hoping for everything, expecting nothing was the key to surviving”, says Keenan. The words would make a fitting epitaph for a man who is now very much alive and kicking, his life transformed by a mixture of tenacity and fate.

The horrors of Keenan’s captivity are described in ‘An Evil Cradling’. Published in 1992 this powerful book tells of the struggle to hold on to his sanity. “Most prisoners have their release date outside the cell doors”, says Brian. ”Mine was different. I was caged behind lots of different doors, but the finishing post was never in sight. Hoping without expecting was the only way to carry on. I had to find a source of inner strength I never knew existed”.

Smaller in stature than expected, Keenan looks an unlikely person to strike fear into armed guards. He has a slightly crumpled exterior and a ready smile, his manner calm and assured, watchful and attentive, drinking in his surroundings. Brought up in Belfast, from a Protestant working class background, Keenan has always retained a strong Irish identity. Hostages were kidnapped to punish America for its role in the Middle East; Britons became targets because of the Thatcher Government’s support for America’s bombing of Libya. Keenan was in Beirut only a few months before being bundled into the boot of a car, on his way the American University, where he taught. An innocent Irishman abroad was mistaken for an Englishman in a cruel twist of fate.

“The biggest problem was the sheer monotony”, says Keenan. ”The door opened every morning and I was allowed out to shower and use the toilet. After that I was locked up again for the rest of the day. No conversation, no friendly voices or human kindnesses, were allowed. I had to wear a blindfold all the time. The mind numbing routine never changed. The isolation was terrible; my only visitors were those who came unseen and unheard by the guards. I made them welcome, they became my friends; we would talk for hours. I held on to them, they pushed back my prison walls”.

“One of my visitors was Turlough Carolan, a blind harpist who lived and died in Ireland three centuries years ago. I knew little of the man, a few scraps of information from my youth, but for some reason he jumped into my mind. We talked and talked, about his music, Irish culture and history. I made him a promise: I would write his life story when I got home. I made one other promise which was to tell the tale of my captivity”.

Keenan was finally released from his living nightmare in 1990. For five years the Irish government had kept up the diplomatic pressure. The British Foreign Office, meanwhile, was accused of dragging its feet. Keenan continues to hold them in cold contempt. ”British politicians thought they could draw a line under things by welcoming the hostages back. The truth is they could and should have done more to get people home”, he says.

Keenan headed for Dublin as soon as he was released. He underwent a thorough health check where he met his future wife, Audrey, who was assigned as his physiotherapist. He describes their first encounter with affection. ”I thought I was in great shape. I exercised every day in my small confined space, countless press up and the like, and had the impression I was very fit. But Audrey brought me back to earth with the observation that while my muscle tone was OK, my coordination had gone all to hell.”

“I disappeared as soon as I finished the hospital checks. I headed for a remote cottage in Co. Mayo half way up a mountain where no one could find me, particularly the press. Offers to write my story had come flooding in, but I had already decided to do nothing until the others were released. I was worried about John McCarthy and the friends I’d left behind. I found it hard to live with the possibility of John being held on his own, without company or companionship. We grew very close in our shared hell, which must have been down to luck or something. Our sense of humour and different personalities clicked straight away. If they hadn’t, who knows what might have happened? As things turned out John was moved in with the remaining American hostages, though I had no way of knowing this at the time”. 

“I threw myself into the kind of hard manual labour that’s good for body and soul, or mine at least. I wanted to be on my own; I craved the peace and solitude. I had no TV, radio or electricity or newspapers which I had been deprived of for so long. But I had a monkey on my shoulder. When the hostages came home it insisted that I kept my bargain and that I write the book that became ‘An Evil Cradling’. I didn’t know where to start or how. I had never written anything like a book before. I went for a drive and a walk along a desolate beach to summon up inspiration. Nothing stirred. On the way back I stopped at a ruined priory trying to call up my some of my old spirits. I scribbled notes down, words and headings, whatever came into my head and sorted them into piles back at the cottage.”

“I started to tell my story to a tape recorder and the words came pouring out, in a torrent. As I spoke, the tears were running down my face: I was listening to a man confronting his demons and I paused only for breath until I had finished both sides of four tapes. I decided to treat myself to a pint in a local bar and the barman, Seamus, asked me if I had been away. I looked relaxed, he told me, as though I had just got back from a good holiday. He was very observant; a great burden had just been lifted from me. After that, finishing the book was easy, like writing with a feather in my hand.”

Keenan continued his writing career once ‘A Evil Cradling’ had been published, but at his own pace. ”I am now in a very fortunate position: life is not a race for me, I can take the time to enjoy the journey”, he says. A travel book with his friend John McCarthy followed and has gone to the top of the best-seller list in the UK. ‘Between Extremes’ tells of their prison fantasy about starting a Yak farm in Patagonia (Southern Chile), which allowed them to escape the dreadful reality of their situation. They vowed to visit their make believe world after gaining their freedom, but it led to another strange occurrence.

On his return from Lebanon the first gift Brian received was a book of collected poems by Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner. “You can’t explain something like that”, he observes with a wry smile. ”Coincidence maybe, but no other living soul could have known of our fantasy world in South America, as we lay in chains in Beirut”. Neruda and his book of poems became a spirit guide for Keenan on his journey to Patagonia.

The last debt to pay is to the blind harpist, Turlough Carolan, who befriended Keenan in his darkest days. “I swore I would write his story, but it was like trying to describe the early life of Jesus Christ at times”, says Keenan. ”There were no records or witnesses. I had to find the child, start from scratch and piece the jigsaw together. Turlough fascinated me; he lit up my mind though I knew only a few bars of his music. Why he should have appeared is a mystery, but he got me through some very tough times; he helped me stay sane."

The book is finished and is being published as ‘Turlough’ a fictional account of the bard’s life. Keenan, just turned fifty, is proud of his achievement. He is at peace with himself and life generally. He lives outside Dublin now and is married with two young boys, 3 years and 10 months. His life has changed beyond all recognition as once it did before, but he looks forwards not back. He winces visibly at being asked to speculate about being separated from his new family.

The spell is broken as John McCarthy arrived with the news about ‘Between Extremes’ becoming top of the pops. He is Yin to Keenan’s Yang: slim, clean-shaven, the youthfulness of Peter Pan and dress sense of James Bond (Pierce Brosnan version). “Fate and friendship can take you on some extraordinary journeys” says Keenan. “I met John under incredible circumstances, but we have a gigantic level of understanding about ourselves and the human spirit. So, some good came of it after all”.

Mark A. Irvine

November 2000

PUP Peacemaker (18 June 2013)


More than 10 years ago I interviewed David Ervine - the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) - who was one of the key figures involved in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

I have to say that David Ervine seemed like a thoughful, intelligent man to me - so imagine my surprise when I read an article in The Herald newspaper recently - which suggests to me that his party seems to have fallen into the hands of a bunch of 'nutjobs' these days. 

The Herald report said that the PUP is to visit Scotland after a productive meeting with a Rangers Football Club supporters group - known as the Vanguard Bears apparently - so that the PUP can throw its 'weight' behind the No Campaign in the 2014 independence referendum.

Now quite what Scotland's independence referendum has to do with football or the PUP is a mystery to me - and I can't imagine someone like David Ervine having anything to do with such a madcap scheme.

Yet in a statement following its meeting with the Vanguard Bears, a PUP spokesman said: 

"In what was seen as a very positive and productive meeting many issues were discussed, from maintaining the union, the development of a vibrant and strong political Unionist presence in Scotland, the negative role of 'Lundy' type individuals [traitors] and the impact they are having on Unionist co-operation in Scotland, to the deliberate untruths being peddled by media outlets and so-called academics.

"Both parties have agreed to continue to work together through maintaining the union, and the Progressive Unionist Party will send a delegation to Scotland, in the coming months, to address Scottish Unionists on the issues discussed."

Here's my interview with David Ervine - I have little doubt that under his leadership the PUP would be having nothing to do with the Vanguard Bears - because the whole business is completely embarrassing.   

Clear and present danger

“I spent four years in the 1990’s staying one step ahead of the IRA”, says David Ervine. “Now the death threats come from other unionists which is a reflection of the times we live in”. Ervine is the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, born and brought up in Protestant East Belfast. He went to the same school as Brian Keenan and Van Morrison, though at 47 he is the youngest of the trio by a few years. He arrives at his office in Newtownards Road unaccompanied. He greets the women in the small reception area warmly, with affection. A party worker tells of similar intimidation: a death threat from the Real IRA last year didn’t worry her unduly. But ones from within your own community are different: these people know where you live.

David Ervine burns with passion and sincerity, in between puffs on his pipe. His body language and dark eyes convey conviction. “There is no room whatever in our philosophy for violence of any description, from whatever source, for whatever reason”, he says. He speaks from his heart and his head, but from experience as well. Ervine spent five and a half years in the Maze Prison alongside unionist leaders like Gusty Spence. The youngest of five children, he recalls his father with pride and respect. “My dad was a naval officer. He encouraged us to all to ask questions, to challenge things and not just to accept them at face value. He would ask out loud why people didn’t just go to church quietly, minding their own business, instead of parading up and down the street signalling their presence to the world. My mum (an ex-factory worker) can’t believe I’m a Member of the Legislative Assembly. She laughs and teases me about being on the TV, which keeps my feet firmly on the ground”.

Ervine left school at fourteen like most working class boys of his generation. He followed his father’s advice and trained as a pattern maker: a skilled trade, intended to be of lasting benefit. Living and working in Belfast City centre he drifted into the street culture of paramilitary violence. Aged twenty-one he was arrested in possession of a bomb and sentenced to eleven years in jail. Like all political prisoners he believes he is innocent of any crime. “The choice was pretty stark in the Maze”, says Ervine. “Either you got on with your life or languished in your cell. Prison provides plenty of time for reflection, if nothing else. A progressive view of the penal system is that being sent to prison is someone’s punishment, not what goes on once you’re inside. So, I set about acquiring the education I missed at school. I learned to read and write properly and took up the foundation courses for an Open University degree”.

“After a while, prisoners from the Official IRA were moved into the same block as the UVF. We faced a dilemma over shared facilities like the library. Either we found a way of using them together or we would have been unable to use them at all. We came up with practical solutions. We negotiated non-violence pacts so prisoners could share the same space without the constant fear of attack. We found ways of living together inside prison that encouraged us to start thinking about life on the outside. But the authorities wanted to portray us all as mindless criminals; they were threatened by what was the start of a peace process inside the jail. Merlyn Rees, Roy Mason and Margaret Thatcher were devoid of vision and imagination: their blind determination to criminalise the prisoners set the peace process back years”.

“The Maze had a kind of hothouse effect on people like me”, says Ervine. “I realised gradually that the political system in Northern Ireland manipulated society. I was just cannon fodder until then. Arguing and debating issues in prison politicised me, changed my outlook on life. I could identify with the anger of people who were outraged at the fact that only 12% of working class Catholic children passed their 11 plus exams. I began to wonder why no one was making a lot of noise about the fact that only 3% of kids from a Protestant working class background passed the same exam. I became a committed socialist in prison and turned my back on bigotry, sectarianism and hypocrisy”.

“When I was released I owed a huge debt to my wife and young son. Many marriages and relationships fell apart under the strain, but my wife stuck with me and survived by taking all kinds of skivying jobs. I wanted a quiet, normal life and became a milkman then a manager in the business. In 1984 I had a knock on the door and two men asked me to join the Progressive Unionist Party. Becoming involved in politics was another big turning point in my life, but I knew that if things were going to change people like me had to change them from the inside. Critics of unionism from the outside have no effect. Verbal Exocets from the outside harden the bunker mentality and stiffen its resolve. I drew inspiration from the old saying about evil triumphing when good men do nothing. It felt like the right thing to do then and still does today, despite all the difficulties”.

“Being a committed socialist is difficult anywhere. In Northern Ireland it brings you into conflict with some powerful prejudices, but the big difference is that some people have grown used to settling differences with a gun. Being pro-choice on abortion, standing up for people’s human rights on issues of gender and sexuality is not just controversial. There are people who would hurt you for holding such beliefs”.

The Good Friday Agreement is in a continual state of crisis, but Ervine draws comfort from visible signs of progress. “Punishment beatings make the headlines these days in place of sectarian murders. We still have a long way to go to achieve our aim of a decent and just society. But the fact the guns have stayed silent for so long is a sign of how far we’ve come. The negotiations between the political parties and the British and Irish Governments were regularly interrupted with news of atrocities and murders. Before the negotiations got underway people refused to shake hands or meet one another. Now it’s an everyday occurrence and the world hasn’t come to an end”.

Ervine’s mobile phone rings continually: the press are looking for confirmation about rumours of an end to the violence that has broken out between the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). He is cautious and knows nothing of a cease-fire, but believes the gunmen from the UFF to be nothing less than gangsters fuelled by drug money and maverick elements within the security services.

During the peace negotiations Ervine and the others were whisked away to South Africa for a meeting with the African National Congress (ANC), which negotiated a peaceful transfer of power in an apartheid state. “Nelson Mandela is an impressive character”, he says. “Surrounded by politicians of all kinds, army generals and suchlike he gave good advice: ‘you don’t make a peace with your friends, but with your enemies’. We are still making that peace now though sometimes it seems to be hanging by a thread. The reality is there’s nowhere else to go. The pro-agreement parties need to keep moving forward. Implementing things like the Patten report needs give and take all round. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have people come away from the negotiating table completely empty handed”.

The new Assembly has made politicians more accessible: the focus now is Belfast not Westminster. The phone rings again, this time a woman victim of domestic violence. “You are at your most vulnerable just now”, he tells her. “Don’t expose yourself. Keep your friends around at all times and make sure you’re safe” Later he adds with grim honesty, ”Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in the past year, but there’s not many demonstrations about that. The politics of Northern Ireland focus on religion and sectarianism for obvious reasons, but there are plenty of other problems for us to tackle such as education, jobs, health and housing. Once the people and the politicians start to tackle these issues together, we’ll have turned a corner”.

The PUP punches far above its weight in the peace process. For a small party it has played a crucial role by being prepared to stand in other peoples’ shoes. Ervine has rubbed shoulders with world leaders, Presidents and Prime Ministers but remains completely unfazed and down to earth. “Whatever happens things will not go back to how they were in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. I was born, brought up and have lived my whole life in Belfast. I am in the business of making the world a better place for everyone regardless of race, colour or creed. One day we will succeed”, he says.


Mark Irvine

4 October 2001

White Van Man's Revenge

Emily Thornbury’s tweeted picture

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party's biggest critics have seized on the resignation of Emily Thornberry to pour more scorn on Ed Miliband, the following article from The Telegraph being a good example.


But there's a serious political message for Ed Miliband in this saga which will surely become known as the Revenge of the White Van Man - how did Labour get so out of touch that the Party's justice spokesperson could tweet with 'amazement' at the sight of  a few England flags hanging outside someone's house?

And to think that Labour held this seat until 2010, as Martin Kettle points out below, yet won only a miserable 16% in last Thursday's by-election.  

Rochester by-election: How Ed Miliband turned expected defeat into utter disaster

David Cameron's headache has somehow become Ed Miliband's nightmare


By Mary Riddell - The Telegraph

The result in Rochester and Strood offers some disappointment to all the contenders. Mark Reckless gained the seat but with a smaller majority than Nigel Farage will think safe. David Cameron lost a second seat to Ukip, while the Lib Dems were all but obliterated, taking less than one per cent of the vote.

But it was Ed Miliband who somehow contrived to come off worst. Though the Labour vote was almost halved, that dismal showing had been expected – and Labour had its story ready. Rochester, its boundaries (slightly) redrawn since its time as a Labour constituency was low on the opposition's target list. It was even lower, at 271, in Mr Farage's possible gains, but let that pass.

Labour, as its strategists stressed, was not throwing much weight behind the Rochester fight because of its "limited resources." Unfortunately for Mr Mr Miliband, those resources included the former shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, whose tweet of a voter's home, bedecked with England flags and with a white van parked in the drive, was construed as the sneer of a snobbish politician contemptuous of the working-class vote.

No matter that Miss Thornberry was brought up by a single mother on a housing estate or that she has done good work in helping her poorer constituents. The fact that Labour's supply of good lawyers (of whom Miss Thornberry is one) is as slender as Lord Falconer counted for nothing. Nor did the long-time loyalty to Mr Miliband which, presumably, prompted her to do her bit in Rochester.

Where Mr Cameron "threw the kitchen sink" at Rochester, Mr Miliband inadvertently lobbed an explosive device into the contest. Hours after the row first stirred, Miss Thornberry was gone – judged guilty of the cardinal sin of disrespecting Labour's dwindling working-class vote. Looking out of touch is the rawest of nerves for Mr Miliband, especially now that Ukip is stressing (as Mr Farage has long made clear), that while it welcomes any Tory seat it can garner, its long-term aspirations are rooted in Labour heartlands.

While the Tories might suffer most at the coming election, Labour stands to face great damage in 2020. As Mr Miliband knows well, he has a more complex problem than the Tories. Where Mr Cameron faces trouble on the Right, Mr Miliband must confront a three-way threat. The nationalist voters of Scotland, who may desert him next May, include many disaffected Labour deserters. Back in England, where some Labour voters want a tougher line on migrants, many others see the party's contortions on immigration as a reason to back the Greens instead.

Labour's core vote has been dissipating since 1997, as millions of former loyalists have gone missing. With residual supporters scattering to insurgent parties, or simply too disillusioned to vote at all, Mr Miliband is neuralgically anxious about seeming disconnected from an angry electorate. Hence the defenestration of Miss Thornberry.

Her sacking will be construed in two ways. Either it is the overreaction of a panic-stricken leadership. Or, alternatively, it is the ruthless action of a leader prepared, without hesitation, to sacrifice a close ally over a crass blunder. Either way, this is a dismal day a Labour Party that has performed the unfortunate alchemy of turning defeat to disaster.

Poverty of Ambition (18 November 2014)



Martin Kettle writing in The Guardian lays bare the poverty of ambition that defines the Labour Party these days.

Under Ed Miliband's leadership the best Labour can hope for is to scrape home as the largest party, but with only one third or so of the popular vote and with a programme which is little different from that of the present Coalition Government. 

Miliband is approaching the point of no return. He must now come out fighting

Labour needs to reconnect in southern marginals or raise its game in Scotland. Better still, do both

By Martin Kettle - The Guardian


Illustration by Joe Magee

The north Kent constituency of Rochester and Strood, where probably the most consequential byelection of this parliament will take place in three weeks’ time, is a seat that a strong Labour party could win. A confident Labour party certainly ought to be in strong contention. Instead, Ed Miliband seems resigned to finishing third behind the Conservatives and Ukip. No part of what this says about the Labour party’s condition is good.

Historically, Rochester and Strood is a Tory-Labour marginal. It is essentially the same seat as the former Medway constituency which, in turn, was much the same seat as the old Rochester and Chatham, which was first created in 1950. In most postwar general elections, as Rochester voted, so voted Britain. Over the decades, Labour’s record there has been good. After holding it for most of the 1950s, Labour’s Arthur Bottomley lost the seat to the Tories in 1959. Anne Kerr won it back for Labour in 1964 and retained it until 1970. Bob Bean ousted the Tories in October 1974 and held it until 1979. In 1997, Bob Marshall-Andrews captured Medway for Labour once again, holding on to it – rather to his own surprise – until 2010.

If you know your postwar political history, the conclusion is pretty obvious. To get a Labour government, you have to win Rochester and Strood. It is one of the seats in Kent – like Dartford and Dover – that help to make the difference between Labour general election victory and general election defeat. Without wins in the marginals in such counties as Kent, Berkshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, you don’t get Labour governments.

If a byelection like this had cropped up in the run-up to a general election in earlier eras of Labour opposition, the party would have thrown everything into winning it. Imagine a Rochester and Strood byelection in 1996. Tony Blair’s Labour party would have won at a canter. Today, although Labour has a good candidate, a committed campaign team and regular visits from front benchers, the officially undenied sense is that Labour is doing enough to make a respectable showing but not spending its slender resources on a hopeless cause.

The official response is to shrug the shoulders and observe that Rochester and Strood is only number 125 on Labour’s target list. But there’s an important reason for that. A target list reflects the results of the last election. In 2010, the swing from Labour to Tory in what the statisticians call the outer metropolitan area (OMA) – places such as Rochester and Strood – was particularly strong, 7.2% as against 5% in the UK as a whole. In the Kent Labour seats, such as Rochester and Strood, the swing was even stronger, 9.8%. The result was that Labour lost 10 of its 13 seats in the OMA, leaving only Slough and the two Luton seats.

What this says, therefore, is that seats such as Rochester strongly disliked what Labour offered in 2010, not that Labour can’t reach them if it tries. It says that such seats are volatile, not that they are unwinnable. And, as British politics is becoming more volatile, not less – and more geographically heterogeneous, not less – seats like this are winnable with the right message and good organisation.

Such places as Rochester contain a lot of traditional Labour voters as well as undecideds who have gone for Labour when it has spoken for the times. More than 13,650 people voted Labour in Rochester and Strood even in 2010, 28.5% of the turnout. Living in the south-east, burdened by high housing and travel costs, many of them in public-sector jobs where pay has been squeezed, lots of them will know exactly what a cost-of-living crisis, Labour’s central message, is all about.

At the very least, Labour ought to be increasing its share of the vote in the byelection. It has managed that more often than not in this parliament, even in Heywood and Middleton, though not in Clacton. In Rochester, that may not happen either. While some Labour voters are undoubtedly tempted to switch to Ukip, even when the Ukip candidate is the former Tory MP, there is also said to be evidence that better-off Labour voters are contemplating voting tactically for the Tories to keep Ukip out. For Labour in Rochester, the test is merely to hold on.

This might be a reasonable, if unheroic, strategy if things were going brilliantly elsewhere. But that is far from the case. Johann Lamont’s resignation as the Scottish Labour leader – and her decision to set light to the house as she left it – worsens Labour’s troubles in Scotland, where there seems to be near-panic about at least a dozen Labour seats falling to the SNP next May. A Ukip win in tomorrow’s South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner byelection would only add to the sense of disarray.

Give Miliband his due. He has come a long way since 2010 by staying unruffled. He is carrying out the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy of waiting to act until he thinks the time is right. And it may, just, work. Labour is marginally ahead in the polls and the electoral system is stacked against the Tories. But the stakes in late 2014 are now higher than they were in 2010. With the general election imminent, voters are beginning to pay attention, and attitudes are becoming more fixed. Attitudes towards Miliband are dire. Moreover, the cost of an error gets higher all the time.

For Miliband, a point of real crisis has now been reached. This crisis is all about the number of seats he needs to win. Miliband’s refusal to chase votes in southern English seats such as Rochester is predicated on the solidity of Labour seats in, for example, Scotland. While Scotland was secure, it could be argued that Kent did not matter. Now, however, Scotland is not secure. As a result, Kent again matters.

Miliband, therefore, has to come off the ropes now. He must either act decisively to restore Labour in Scotland – which means allowing the Scottish party to go its own way while remaining an ally, as the Bavarian CSU does with Angela Merkel’s CDU – or he must get out of his London comfort zone, fight Rochester to win and thus send a message to England. The option of doing nothing does not exist. But if he wants my advice, he should do both.

Snooty Tweet


The Conservatives may have lost the Rochester and Strood by-election to Ukip, but it seems that Labour has emerged with the biggest bloody nose after the Party's justice chief, Emily Thornberry, was forced to resign following a supposedly 'snooty' tweet.

Since the following article was published in The Times, Emily has been complaining that she did nothing wrong, in which case the obvious question is: why didn't she stand up for herself and explain what she was trying to say with her 'Image from Rochester' caption?

In any event, it's yet another PR disaster for Ed Miliband and Labour, and I the fact that the People's Party had yet another property millionaire in its shadow cabinet won't have escaped the voters.   


Labour law chief quits over ‘snooty’ tweet

After the picture was posted online, Ms Thornberry's Labour colleagues berated her for being 'derogatory'

By Fariha Karim, Matt Dathan - The Times


A member of the shadow cabinet was forced to resign last night after posting a “derogatory” tweet showing a house draped in England flags with a white van parked outside.

Emily Thornberry tweeted the picture with the caption “Image from Rochester” early yesterday shortly after polls for the by-election opened.

The shadow attorney-general, who lives in a £3 million house in Islington, north London, was accused by party members, including John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, of being snooty and treating working-class voters “with contempt”.

At first she brushed off criticism by claiming that she was a victim of “mischief-making” and that her critics were showing “a somewhat prejudiced attitude towards Islington”.

Ms Thornberry, 54, who represents Islington South & Finsbury, was given a dressing-down by Ed Miliband, and then apologised. However, the row continued and he spoke to her a second time. A short while later she resigned.

She said in a statement released by the party: “Earlier today I sent a tweet which has caused offence to some people. That was never my intention and I have apologised. However, I will not let anything distract from Labour’s chance to win the coming general election. I have therefore tonight told Ed Miliband I will resign from the shadow cabinet.”

The row is damaging for the Labour party, which faces claims that it is out of touch with its traditional working-class base. The prospect of working-class Labour voters defecting to Ukip has been a particular worry in Rochester & Strood. Mr Miliband was reported to have “never been so angry” as when he gave Ms Thornberry a dressing-down.

Before her resignation, Dan Ware, the man who lives in the house, called her a snob. Speaking at his home in Rochester, he told The Sun: “She shouldn’t have taken it [the photograph] without asking. I’ve not got a clue who she is. She’s a snob. I didn’t even know it was the by-election today.”

Mr Ware, 37, a car trader, said that he had put the flags up “for the World Cup and we will continue to fly them”.

Ms Thornberry, who took on the role of shadow attorney-general in 2011, was derided by the Tories and Ukip for the tweet.

Henry Smith, the Tory MP for Crawley, said it had shown the “mark of a true champagne socialist” while Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said: “What is Labour’s Emily Thornberry trying to imply about Rochester & Strood? I suspect she’s let [Ed] Miliband’s mask slip.”

A spokesman for Mr Miliband said that the party leader had “made his view very clear that people should fly the England flag with pride”.

Explaining why she decided to post the image, Ms Thornberry said: “I’ve never seen anything like it before. My point is that it’s a remarkable image of a house completely covered in flags.”

A Labour source said that Ms Thornberry “thought the right thing to do was to resign. Ed [Miliband] agreed.”

Name and Shame


The decision of the High Court to name six Asian caught up in the Birmingham child sexual exploitation scandal is to be welcomed, I think.

Because while there is always the possibility of self-appointed 'vigilantes' taking the law into their own hands, this is surely outweighed by the importance of naming and shaming these men within their own communities where they masquerade as decent, honest citizens while posing a terrible threat to vulnerable young girls. 

Men in Birmingham 'exploitation' order named
Birmingham City Council had launched civil court proceedings against 10 men, a High Court judge had been told

Six men banned from contact with young girls after a council became the first to use civil injunctions to block child sexual exploitation can be named, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice Keehan said the names of Mohammed Anjam, 31, Omar Ahmed, 27, and Mohammed Javed, 34, could be revealed.

Alam Shah, 37, Sajid Hussain, 40, and Naseem Khan, 29, can also be named.

An injunction against a seventh man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was also granted.

Police had raised concerns about the men's safety if they were identified.

'Vulnerable 17 year old'

After the hearing, Det Ch Supt Danny Long, head of West Midlands Police's public protection unit, said photographs of the men would not be made public.

"We are duty bound to act proportionately to the threat the men currently pose to the girl and possibly others," he said.

"We also have a duty to consider the impact of releasing the men's images on innocent family members."

The judge had granted long-term injunctions against two of the men earlier this week.

The injunctions came after social workers at Birmingham City Council and police raised concerns about the welfare of a vulnerable 17-year-old girl who is in the care of the council.

The judge barred the men from approaching the girl until she turned 18 following a public hearing in the Family Division of the High Court in London.

Mr Justice Keehan said the name of Omar Ahmed, 27, could be revealed - Sian Lloyd reports

He also barred them from approaching "any female under 18", with whom they were not personally associated.

Lorna Meyer QC, for Birmingham City Council, said the authority and police had identified a "number of individuals" found to be "inappropriately" in the company of the 17-year-old girl.

Lawyers thought there was not enough evidence to secure criminal convictions - on a beyond reasonable doubt basis - "at the current time".

But they thought there was enough evidence to obtain civil court injunctions - on a balance of probabilities basis.

Contempt of court

Orders were made against Mr Khan, of Bordesley Green, Mr Javed, of Tyseley, and Mr Alam, from Small Heath at the hearing.

Mr Justice Keehan made orders against Mr Anjam, of Aston, and Ahmed, from Yardley, on Monday.

An order had been made against Mr Hussain, of Warwick Road, Birmingham, at an earlier hearing.

The local authority had launched civil court proceedings against 10 men.

Miss Meyer said if long-term injunctions were made, and any of the men were found "in the company of a vulnerable child" by West Midlands Police or Birmingham City Council in breach of the orders, then lawyers would ask a judge to impose jail terms for contempt of court.


Analysis: Michael Buchanan, BBC News

This is undoubtedly a creative way to try to protect children from a council whose recent history is littered with child protection failures.

Unable to gather enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, but desperate to protect vulnerable children, councils have often sought to place the child in secure accommodation. That is often seen as punishing the victim as they are taken away from their own community having already been sexually exploited.

Seeking injunctions through the civil courts, where the burden of proof is lower than in criminal trials, has therefore allowed Birmingham to put the men on the back foot.

But if any of the men are attacked, or their identification leads to community tensions - both fears were expressed by the police in court - then the rationale behind what is currently seen as an innovative legal approach, and one that is being eagerly watched by other councils, could lead to some serious questions for Birmingham City Council.
Mr Justice Keehan heard arguments about the publication of names from police, some of the men and journalists.

The judge ruled the media should be allowed to identify men who were the subject of full and final injunctions.

The council said the girl had been reported missing from care 102 times since July 2010 and it believed she had been "consistently sexually exploited".

Head of anti-sexual abuse programmes at children's charity the NSPCC, John Brown, said the council's actions were a "brave step" but accepted the case may prove controversial.

"Any measured effort to stop the foul activities of those seeking to exploit vulnerable children is to be welcomed," he said.

'Ground-breaking' move

Peter Hay, strategic director of people at Birmingham City Council, said: "We're still a council with our struggles with safeguarding children. That's well known.

"The importance and ground-breaking nature of what we've done here is that for the first time those that are sexually exploiting children cannot rely on their silence.

"We can find other ways of bringing it... to attention and dealing with the men concerned than just the child who has all those vulnerabilities whose silence has been bought in by other things such as drink or alcohol."

Det Ch Supt Long said: "We will monitor compliance with the injunctions... This is a test case, this is something that is being watched across the country with regards how we get on.

"This is not a soft option. Where we have the evidence we will always go down the criminal route, we will look to arrest and to put people in front of a court."

There were 75 live criminal investigations at the moment into child exploitation in the West Midlands and a further 210 cases were being looked into, authorities said.

The hearing is to conclude on Thursday.

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