A letter to my MP on cuts to the ESA

This week the government forced through a cut to the Employment and Support Allowance – what used to be incapacity benefit – and overuled objection in the Lords by claiming ‘financial privilege.’ Members of the upper house had expressed concern and were seeking an impact assessment but this is now forced through as yet another step on the Conservative government’s path to dismantling the welfare state and widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Read More »

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Stop arguing, start opposing

Say what you like about the Conservative Party but one thing they have pretty much totally nailed is a united front. Yes, there may be occasional dissenters but on the whole the Conservative Party stand together, vote together and when they need to they circle the wagons and defend en masse.

Even when individual MPs do not agree with policy, even when they speak up in parliament against that policy, they still vote with their party.

I’ve written vefore about wishing MPs had a totally free reign to vote with their consciences (presuming they have one) and to do what’s right for their constituents but there’s not much chance of that happening anytime soon due the the political party model. Therefore if a party is going to really oppose the government – and I would say this if it was the Conservatives in opposition to Labour too – there needs to be some unity instead of airing grievances and hanging out their dirty washing in public.

Look at Labour right now. After a massive upswing in party membership and overwhelming support for a left-field leadership candidate (Corbyn) they seem to to be deadset on arguing amongst themselves rather than making the most of their support.

Jeremy Corbyn is a straightforward, principled man and had the Right worried but rather than work together to support him against attacks in the press, some Labour MPs such as Simon Danczuk have taken to taking potshots in the Daily Mail!

When the London Fire Brigade Union is on the verge of reaffiliating with the Party, anti-Corbyn MP John Woodcock attacks them on Twitter

JohnWoodcock

Today (27th November 2015)there is news of potential resignations over the Party’s position on bombing Syria. I’m sure their are disagreements and heated discussions within all Parties but very rarely do we hear about them. The Tories control their MPs like they control their press yet it seems Labour would disintegrate over who had control of theTV remote on a quiet night in!

The Scottish National Party present a united front but I believe that is because their MPs and other members are like-minded and share common goals. When Nicola Sturgeon speaks one believes she speaks for her party and nobody is sniping at her or undermining her in the press.

Labour need to look to the SNP, take note of their policies (apart form the independence thing!) as they reflect what many of us believe Labour should be standing for and then look at them as an example of a Party unified to represent the electorate.

It’s simple, surely? Stop bickering and start opposing this government before it’s too late.

 

 

A letter to my MP on the changes to tax credits

I normally take a deep breath and think about what I want to say before I write to my MP. I normally let the first rush of anger and frustration subside before starting to type but this time I didn’t wait, I didn’t need to. I’m clear on what I think about the debate and vote on tax credits today and I don’t need to wait.

I was doing some quick sums on the effect of the measures voted through today and I came to the same conclusion as many observers, commentators, unions, etc. those in need of tax credits because of low incomes will find themselves with even lower incomes. Unison published this image which summarises it quite neatly and It’s chilling. A low earner just cannot afford to lose more than 10% of his income.

Your MP probably doesn’t respond to the standard campaign emails, the 38 Degrees, etc, mine now has an auto-response to that effect, so take a minute to write something personal. Be concise, be polite and make sure he knows what you think. I use www.writetothem.com – go get ’em!

My letter is as follows. I’ll post any replies and correspondence as a comment.

—-

Dear Mel Stride,

I hope this finds you well but unfortunately many of my fellow constituents, colleagues and friends and many more in Great Britain will be less well as a result of the vote today on tax credits.

The voting figures suggest a party whip rather than a free vote so I guess many of your party’s MPs will have voted for something which pulls the rug out from many of their constituents, something which will leave children hungry and the poorest cold this winter.

I understand that tax credits subsidise low wages and also rising rents but cutting them before tackling wages and rents is cruel, irresponsible and frankly heartless. Many will accuse the Conservative party of being out of touch, of being detached from the realities of life in modern Britain and who could blame them? Can an MP or member of the Lords appreciate what it is like to have to survive (and I don’t use that word lightly) on low wages as the cost of living continues to rise?

This change of the tax credit thresholds is targetting those who need help, it’s going to cut the incomes of single parents and families already struggling to make ends meet and the dependence charities and foodbanks will most surely increase.

For one of the world’s richest economies that is quite simply disgraceful and those pushing ahead with the austerity measures; measures based on idealogy rather than evidence should be ashamed of themselves.

Yours sincerely,

Rich Mills

Could the SNP be a viable political party for England and Wales?

Both during the run up to and in the months following the 2015 General Election I watched the progress of the SNP with a touch of envy. Here was a party which was saying what I wanted to hear; a modern take on socialism but along with that an understanding of the needs of businesses in their country, a party wanting to strike a balance between the needs of the people and economic stability.

Of course, I had a problem with their original raison d’etre – Scottish independence – as I want to see Scotland remain part of the UK and I think all the home nations are stronger for it, but aside from that this was a party which spoke to me and whose views were fairly representative of my own.

It wasn’t too long ago that Labour and the Conservatives campaigned together to maintain the Union but now the SNP are a strong party in Westminster, the establishment parties – and I include Labour in that – are calling to exclude Scottish MPs from voting on English matters! Why is that though? Can any matter be truly Scottish or English only given that we have a single currency and so many shared resources and infrastructures?

The Conservatives are obviously scared of a strong, confident party which speaks up for the people; a party which is big enough to influence voting but also one which can influence the thinking of the nation with its strong, clear position on issues such as benefit reform, fox hunting and our nuclear deterrent.

What of Labour? The SNP seem to be presenting a traditional labour viewpoint on many matters but why is the party of the traditional working class so reticent to partner with them? I believe that many in the Labour Party truly believe that their route back to power lies in attracting idle class, middle-England voters from the Conservative Party; A New “New Labour” if you will. After years of being accused of being Tory-lite under Tony Blair many Labour figures such as Liz Kendall, Tristram Hunt and Harriet Harman now seem to see this as their way forward rather than looking to their core party values and membership.

The rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates that party members new and old see him as being in touch with their core values, despite him being perhaps slightly too “left” for some.Party members recognise in him a sense of decency and a wish to do the right thing for those most in need. They see someone sharing some common ground with past Labour leading lights such as Tony Benn and John Smith and maybe even Dennis Skinner; someone willing to stand up and carry the fight across the floor of the commons without fearing a negative response from the right wing press.

Newly elected SNP MP Mhairi Black in her now famous maiden speech quite openly told the few Labour MPs present that the SNP was founded on the same strong socialist values of the Labour Party of old. The SNP were offering a hand to the Labour Party and many voters would have looked to them and said, “That’s it, that’s what we want!” but the Labour leadership are undecided, unsure of what they are, what they could be or even what they want to be.

So, is there a chance that the SNP could become a valid party for the other home nations? This article on a surge in SNP membership South of the border would seem to suggest it can.

The SNP message is attractive to voters from several parties – Green, Labour, Lib Dem and also Conservative. A party pushing for a more inclusive, fairer society. A welfare system which recognises that poverty and benefits might not be the lifestyle choice that the rhetoric of other politicians might seem to suggest. A party which sees a renewed, conventional nuclear deterrent as faintly ridiculous given the talk of a need to balance the books and wipe out the deficit.

In Nicola Sturgeon the SNP have a credible leader who refuses to be bullied, who doesn’t toe the establishment line and speaks out for those who need support. Is it a credible alternative though? Sturgeon performed incredibly well in televised debates in the lead up to the election and opinion pole ratings showed a party on a par with some established UK wide parties despite the fact that relatively few people could vote for them. I believe the SNP can build on May’s results and I also believe (and hope) that the quest for Scottish independence will be replaced by a party striving for a more Democratic UK, a more inclusive UK and an altogether more positive UK.

How long will it be before we see an SNP candidate South of the border? Only time will tell but many of us will be watching with interest.

A Letter to my MP on Changes to the Benefits System

Dear Mel Stride,

Just a quick note to say that as a constituent and citizen I am shocked
and disappointed that the way the chancellor has proposed to implement
cuts to the benefits system.

I pay tax and have paid tax for many years and am more than happy to do
so. I believe that a society has a duty to support those in need but I
strongly resent changes to taxation which benefit those who are wealthy
enough to not need additional help whilst those at the lower end of the
pay spectrum bear the brunt. The assertion that “we are all in it
together” and that we must all contribute in order to reduce the
deficit rings a little hollow while cuts to the incomes of working
families seem to offset changes to inheritance tax and the higher rate
of tax.

Surely the way to implement this would be in a way which supports
rather than penalises families and workers – to drive changes to
employment and to raise the minimum wage to the point where as much
employment as possible pays a true living wage? As wages rise then the
demand on the benefits system would surely decrease as families would
need and claim less but instead we seem to be making cuts based on an
ideology and rhetoric rather than supporting those worst affected.

The token announcement of a living wage to be in place by 2020 but cuts
and changes being in place long before seems like a token offering to
soften the blow but one which few are falling for.

I know many people see those depending on the benefits as “scroungers”
and that it is a lifestyle choice, a life of “something for nothing”
while the rest of us work to support them but I believe that view is as
outdated as it is incorrect. The austerity of the last 5 years and
further measures coming our way despite warning by organisations such
as the IMF, has left many struggling to get by. I find myself donating
more to charity than ever before but to charities nearer to home, to
organisations plugging the gaps such as foodbanks rather than animal
welfare. The fact that we as a wealthy nation have so many living in
poverty, including children (and changing the way we classify poverty
does not change a thing!)  is surely a disgrace. We should be ashamed
and like with many things rise above party politics and aim for a
stronger, more inclusive society.

I know that you cannot influence this directly of course nor are there
are votes or debates imminent where this might be discussed but as per
previous correspondence if I do not write then my voice won’t be heard.

Yours sincerely,

Rich Mills

Campaigning as an independent parliamentary candidate in Devon

What have I learnt from the recent General Election? Well, aside from the obvious – (1) the manipulation of the media by the Conservative party is absolute, (2) politicians can and will lie in order to get elected without anybody questioning what they say & (3) Moretonhampstead is a socialist enclave in the heart of True Blue Devon, I have learnt this:

It is and probably always will be really difficult for an independent candidate to challenge an established, mainstream party MP seeking re-election.

I watched the campaign of Claire Wright with interest as we had a previous employer in common, I work in the constituency where Claire was standing – Devon East – and also I liked what she had to say. Claire’s campaign went brilliantly and there was a real groundswell of support, great coverage in the press, strong performances in hustings and bookmakers flagged Claire as a potential upset in what is traditionally seen as a safe Tory seat.

The final count gave Claire a 24% share with 13,140 votes which was a huge achievement for an independent, first time candidate but the winner, Hugo Swire, the constituency’s Conservative MP since 2001 polled 25,401 votes – a 46% share. Given that Swire had been largely absent from his constituency during the campaign and a couple of months early had made the news with some ill-considered jokes about benefits claimants at a charity auction, this showed how strong the Tory hold is on the constituency and also the resources the party can call on when required. Claire’s campaign had some financial backing and a team of volunteers behind it but the Conservative party has such financial clout, focused and experienced local activists and also access to land for billboards which the mainstream parties struggle to challenge, Couple that with the backing in the mainstream media – party political broadcasts, ministers and others appearances on prime time TV and of course some biased reporting in the country’s most popular papers – and also that many voters can not be swayed from how they have always voted then how could an independent make the breakthrough?

An independent cannot offer sweeteners to elderly voters in the form of pension promises or tax breaks. An independent cannot get exposure on BBC Question Time. An independent cannot get their policies and message, however good they might be, on the front page of the Daily Mail, Times or Sun. Maybe though Claire’s campaign can be a first step; exposure and experience before a 2nd tilt at it in 5 years time.

In Central Devon (the constituency in which I live) my friend & local musician Andy Williamson was standing for election as a candidate for the Green Party. Andy fought a great campaign, understated to some extent but one which obviously registered with the electorate as he polled a respectable 8.9% share in what is seen as a super-safe Tory seat. What was really interesting in Central Devon was the presence of an independent candidate coming from a totally different angle from Claire in Devon East.

Arthur Price announced himself with a short speech at hustings in the Moorland town of Bovey Tracey as someone dismayed with politics and politicians in this country; someone looking for a “conviction politician” who he could trust. Unable to find one, he stood himself. Arthur didn’t expect to win, he didn’t even expect to have his deposit returned. He didn’t canvas or doorstep or have any financial backing. What Arthur did have was an energy which was lacking and a real belief. For someone not looking for votes, simply to have a chance to confront and challenge the incumbent MP and have his opinion heard, Arthur made a splash. His votes numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands but given that his exposure was limited to hustings in key towns, limited local press and social networking through Twitter and Youtube his standing showed what might be possible. You can read Arthur’s profile here and check out his election song here (really!).

I learnt a lot about the political process in Devon by attending the count in Okehampton on election night, thanks to an invite  to be a Counting Agent from Andy Williamson. There I saw the Conservative machine in action and I don’t mean that in any bad way. The Tories in Devon (and I presume across the country) are geared up to put their candidates in a strong position and it is something that other parties should learn from.

I didn’t appreciate until Thursday night the huge amount of “staff” that a serious party might have present at the count; Local councilors, agents, counting agents and of course the candidates themselves all present. I attended as a counting agent, strictly speaking to observe and challenge any discrepancies but it was interesting to see how the Tories mobilise – each of them had a clipboard and pre-printed tally charts and as each box was emptied, verified & pre-counted they were sampling and counting, in some cases quite accurately. This breakdown of voting lets them know where to target their efforts: Was Bovey Tracey “true blue” but Chudleigh marginal? Was Chudleigh Knighton a low turnout and if so is it always? Is Moretonhampstead actually anti-Tory and if so can they afford to sacrifice it and concentrate on the marginal areas where they might affect the outcome with less effort? No other party was mobilised like this. I didn’t see a labour badge until 3AM by which time the Tories had enough info to know they’d won comfortably but also how to tackle their next few campaigns. Interestingly the lack of a Labour presence on the night backs up the reports of Labour’s 35% strategy in the election. Are Labour candidates in safe Tory seats simply token efforts with no real support?

Many of the Conservative party members I spoke to at the count were surprised at the results around the country, following such a negative campaign (the “fear factor” of the SNP scare story, the personal attacks on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, etc) and some dubious claims by the party. It was interesting to hear many agree with my suggestion that it didn’t make sense that Central Devon was a safe Tory seat given the levels of unemployment, low average wages, the lack of opportunities for the young and infrastructures under pressure due to the cuts, that many towns in Devon would seem to have more in common with traditional Labour areas than Conservative.

The recent data published on votes by age group showed that the Conservative party won by securing the over 65 vote, a demographic courted by David Cameron in the run up to the election. Was that data accurate? it is likely that his was just a poll, a sample and like all such data their is a margin of error but it does make sense. It is certainly something that Claire Wright agreed was a challenge in her campaigning, along with the fear of the SNP breaking up The Union!

What does it all mean though for an independent candidate (or Labour or Green) looking to stand and win in such a seat? I believe that a good run up is needed over several years, perhaps starting as a Town Councillor in order to build a profile and get known as someone who makes a difference. The challenge comes when one needs to tackle the whole constituency, particularly one as large as Central or East Devon; how does one find the time and money to compete with a full time politician? Most of us need to work so taking the role full-time unpaid is not realistic. Perhaps taking a lead from Arthur Price in his use of social media in order to get noticed? Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and online versions of the papers are prevalent and will likely be more so by the time of the next election,

Also something to consider is the age of voters. Does one naturally lean to the Conservatives with age or do your political beliefs remain unchanged? Is the seemingly crucial over 65 age group something that the Tories can rely on in years to come or will that Blue vote be diluted? Many disenfranchised younger people too young to vote this time around will be able to vote in 2020. Will cuts, tuition fees and a lack of opportunity push these people towards an alternative?

Much to think about, including of course, “will I stand?” but I think importantly we shouldn’t accept any seat as being safe for any one party, it is not healthy to accept the status quo without question and I am sure many politicians will agree that any party needs to be held to account in order to stay current and be sure that they are representing the electorate.

Letter to My MP, Monday 18th May 2015 – How do you balance your party’s interests with those of your constituents?

Dear Mel Stride,

firstly congratulations on your being re-elected for another term.

After listening to your answers at a couple of the hustings events in the lead up to the election I have a question which is this;

“How do you as an MP balance representing your constituents with your role as a party whip?”

For example, if your government proposes a rise in the rate of VAT. You stated at a hustings that you are strongly against a rise in this parliament but if such a rise was proposed and your role as a whip is to ensure government support, how would you resolve such a conflict? (Presuming it wasn’t a free vote)

No real reason for choosing VAT, other than it stuck in my mind. I guess in a way it is really a question as to how any MP balances party loyalties with what might actually be best for their constituents.

Yours sincerely,

Rich Mills