Brandy's Blog - A Northern View of Westminster

Imagine trying to persuade twelve of your friends to agree on politics. Hard enough, right? Then, get those twelve friends to agree with their shared sworn enemy. Pretty much impossible, no?

Well that's effectively what's been achieved in the North East today. Twelve Labour councils, each with their own interests and ideas, coming together to shake hands with a Tory government. While disagreement and debate still lingers, we shouldn't lose sight of how massive these two deals are.

They've taken a good year of negotiations. While Manchester got its act together last November to sign off a devolution deal, councils in our part of the north struggled to swallow the demand of elected mayors. There were concerns, for example, about how one mayor for the North East combined authority would represent everywhere from Berwick to Barnard Castle. Others complained about an extra layer of politics which voters in our region have rejected in the past.

Then there were the conspiracy theories. Was the government secretly hoping these mayors would turn out to be Tory? After all, a largely Labour London managed to elect Boris. Could the Conservatives finally crack the near one-party state that is the North East?

But ultimately, those concerns have been parked for now. Sources tell me our councils didn't want to fall behind other regions - better to catch a bumpy ride than to miss the train altogether. So, subject to a little public consultation and some small print, the deals are done. Two years to elect two new mayors - I hope you're ready for the next round of politics.

Original article: ITV News

Normally it's Nigel Farage who does the upstaging. But even he must make way for Katie Hopkins.

Few people in UKIP even knew the outspoken newspaper columnist was here today. She supports the Tories, but wanted to speak at a fringe event about our electoral system. And, in typical style, she had something else to say too.

Out of the blue, she began telling me that people in Britain care too much about refugees. 'There's far too many people out there supporting refugees and migrants' she said, 'everybody saw a photo, they were very upset by that staged photo'.

'Staged?', I asked. 'For me that photo, of course it's a sad thing...but children have been drowning for a long time and the more we welcome refugees the more we encourage them to come, the more people are going to I say don't get upset about one photo'.

UKIP have been quick to distance themselves from her words. Though when I asked Nigel Farage whether he thought the photo was staged, he didn't exactly condemn her comments. 'I think we shouldn't be focusing on an image of one dead little boy, we should be focusing on three thousand dead people over the course of this year, and those deaths caused by an EU policy that encouraged them to come', he said. 'Was that photo staged?', I pressed. 'I doubt it, I've no idea', was all he'd say.

Original article: ITV News

Shelbrooke versus the cynics

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Fast asleep, or straining to hear? Your opinion on what Alec Shelbrooke was up to during last night's Commons debate depends on a) which photo of him you have seen, b) just how cynical you feel about MPs.

The original photo that went viral on Twitter showed the Elmet and Rothwell MP appearing to have nodded off during a debate on trade union reforms at 10pm. The angry tweets poured in, with the regular accusation that MPs are lazy, insensitive jobsworths.

The only problem is, Alec Shelbrooke wasn't asleep. He immediately hit back, saying he had been leaning in to a speaker to hear the debate more clearly, as he's partially deaf. And when I went back through last night's Commons footage, his story was vindicated.

The truth is Alec Shelbrooke's eyes were wide open for almost the whole of the four seconds the camera was trained on him - except, of course, for when he blinked.

Journalists who originally posted the picture of him with eyes shut have largely apologised. But my Twitter feed is full of people who are still determined to believe that Alec Shelbrooke was asleep. Let's always work to keep MPs on their toes. But vilifying them for blinking? I'm not sure that's the best use of our efforts.

More here: ITV News

As Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg helps run the country. But he still reckons he has time to run his own constituency too. He's forever dropping references to Sheffield into press conferences and interviews, as if he's totally in touch. But I wanted to know just how much of that is lip service - does he really get out to his seat as much as he implies?

I decided to spend the day with him in Sheffield Hallam; first stop, Totley Primary School.

We both make terrible puns about 'cooking up policies' as Nick Clegg dishes out free school meals (which he expanded in government to cover all under-7s). "I love getting out of stuffy Whitehall offices", he tells me, as he shovels chips onto a tray (chips are just for Fridays, I'm assured). "I'm quite a gregarious individual", he adds, "I love doing what I do with my constituents."

And these are particularly bright and friendly children. They all correctly tell me that it's Nick Clegg over there dishing up peas, and that he's the Deputy Prime Minister. But when I ask them if they've ever seen him before in Sheffield, the answer is almost always no. "But he does go to the same hairdresser's as me, which is a bit weird", one of them giggles.

After a round of brilliantly curious questions (we find out he's nervous when he meets the Queen, that he'd like a dog, and that he never planned to be a politician) it's on to the next stop. Work Ltd helps adults with learning difficulties, and Nick Clegg is a patron. They've made the Christmas card he'll send out to constituents, which he clearly approves of: "It's stunning!"

And he may need to send out a few cards this year to butter up the voters. Recent polls suggest there are just a few points between him and his Labour rival in Sheffield Hallam. I ask him whether he's suspiciously been in Sheffield a little more in recent months, as if he's worried about the election. "I think that's unfair", he says, "I've always diligently kept up my constituency work...I enjoy it."

The final stop is a strange paradox. Totley Library was threatened with closure due to coalition cuts (executed by Sheffield Council), but Nick Clegg stepped in to campaign to keep it open. He's here to do a shift with the volunteers, and tells me, "We're all juggling things. It is right local authorities need to make savings. I think the choices about how you make savings vary from place to place. Are councils being sensible? I don't think they are in my neck of the woods."

Then comes an interesting revelation. Nick Clegg doesn't just stack books - he's written one. A novel, which he tells me is incredibly embarrassing and hidden away in a cupboard at home. Something about a man looking back on his life. "It'll never be published", he promises.

As for what he wants for Christmas, he'd like a book that's a little better written. "I suppose the test of where your heart is, is where you'll spend Christmas", I suggest, "Sheffield or London?" The answer is neither. "We'll be in Spain with my mother-in-law!" Quite a compromise.

And this may be Nick Clegg's last Christmas juggling the two jobs. Next year there's that pesky election. Will he still be running the country after May? Will he even be running a constituency?

Video: ITV News

Paul Sykes has everything. The mansion, the maid, the Jaguar. His home on the Studley Park Estate with its drive running right up to Fountains Abbey is, in all honesty, the most beautiful I've ever been in. But he's still seeking something more.

Not money. He's lost interest in that - £650m is enough for anyone. It's politics and philosophy that really absorb him now.

He's been bankrolling UKIP ever since its birth, spending millions to get it to this point. Once a Tory, he left the Conservatives in 1992, determined that Britain should never join the Euro. Already a multi-millionaire through his scrap metal, property and internet businesses, he funded eurosceptic Tory candidates at first, before joining forces with Nigel Farage.

But Paul Sykes is about to turn the tap off. "It's like holding the back seat of a cycle, there's a time when you're to let go", he tells me. That time is the next general election, when Mr Sykes hopes UKIP's swelling membership will bring in enough funds: "It's getting to the stage where I'm hopeful they'll still need me for little things, but the funding job's going away."

But until then, there's an election to be fought, and Paul Sykes is in charge of the party's marginal constituencies. He tells me they'll now target at least 45 seats, given the result in Rochester and Strood. And it's Labour voters he's setting his sights on.

Sykes still considers himself working class (his father was a miner) and he complains about immigrants undercutting wages and taking low-paid jobs. "The unfairness is that we've had borders removed and who's suffered from that? Certainly not big business. Big business loves wage compression; loves wage competition. To bring someone into the country on a sixth of the wages, they [British workers] can't compete with that."

Interesting when Mr Sykes himself was once in 'big business'. I ask him if it's a bit hypocritical to knock immigration, when he can't promise he hasn't employed immigrants himself, and even admits he'd be tempted to in future: "Of course I would. I'd employ anybody. But you've got to start taking responsibility for people who haven't got work, who are low've got open borders where people are coming in that are not just competition, they're wiping these people out, they can't compete."

I joke that UKIP sounds more Labour than Labour itself. But Paul Sykes doesn't like being compared to Ed Miliband. "I think he's like a student...a geeky historian. I couldn't see him in a job", he says of the Labour leader. As for a coalition between the two parties, definitely not. "There's no way. We've got to look at what the outcome is [but] just mentioning Labour and thinking about Ed Miliband, I couldn't possibly", he laughs.

Besides, Paul Sykes might not be so interested in coalition deals in 2015. He's got his heart set on a far bigger question. His lounge is full of books about the Earth and how to save it - surprising when UKIP are sceptical about climate change. "I'm going to be there when they stop the last tree being cut down", he says. In fact, he's planted a million trees on his estate, and is now heavily involved in environmental projects across the globe.

I'm not sure Paul Sykes will ever 'retire'. But he does seem ready for a new and more spiritual journey. He's launched companies, built shopping centres and helped create the biggest force in British politics this millennium. But next, Paul Sykes wants to save the world.

Video: ITV News

If people were saying things about you on television and in the newspapers, would you let them get away with it without having a say yourself? Well, thousands of immigrants do just that. Despite being at the centre of this election campaign and often having the right to vote here, very few turn out on polling day, with many oblivious to the debate going on around them.

In fact, a recent poll found that only 16% of Polish immigrants have voted in a European election in Britain (as opposed to in their home country), with fewer than half being aware of UKIP. I want to know what it's like to be at the heart of the debate without even realising it, so I set off to Lincolnshire to meet Konrad Lucki.

Konrad came here ten years ago from Poland to work as a taxi driver. He's heard a fair few views in his cab, but with polling day fast approaching, we drive to Brigg to gauge the latest feeling on immigration.

We do meet some who say immigration is good for the country, but a group of men in their 20s sum up the majority of views: "Two or three of our best mates are struggling like hell for work and then there are Polish people coming into the country. They're in here for three months and then they can claim on the dole - claim what we're effectively paying in tax."

I ask Konrad whether that's difficult to hear. "Yes it is hard", he says. "A lot of the jobs we do, the English people don't want to do. For example, my first taxi company boss employed me because none of his English friends wanted to do that job."

Given his frustration, I also ask Konrad whether he'll vote. He's keen, but we soon discover he's too late to register. That's one of the major stumbling blocks for immigrants - very few are registered, often because they don't even realise an election is taking place.

Back in London, I meet Dorota Zimnoch from the Polish City Club, who's focusing her efforts on that very issue. She thinks she's got about two thirds of Poles registered this time, using a mixture of campaign videos and leaflets.

With surveys suggesting that Poles favour the Liberal Democrats and are least likely to vote UKIP (contrary to the wider population), Dorota is keen to stress she's not promoting any particular party. But she says, "We want to give Polish people the opportunity to hear what the parties are saying. We hope that if they hear that they are not welcome here and they feel emotional about that then they will use their vote to object to that, though there may be other more important factors for them."

And what about those individuals who have been pushing immigration up the agenda in recent years, do they feel comfortable that they are conducting a debate that excludes - intentionally or not - the very people at the centre of the discussion? "The fact is that they have the right to vote", says Alp Mehmet of Migration Watch. "If you're asking me whether we should be using resources to encourage other EU nationals to get out and vote? No, I most certainly do not think we should be doing that."

His point is that there are already general campaigns to encourage people from all walks of life to vote. And research suggests that more Eastern Europeans - particularly Poles - are at least registered to vote this time around. But the curious fact remains that while immigration is at the very centre of this election, thousands of immigrants will find themselves left outside the debate altogether.

"How old is she?"
"Is she your first?"
"Do you live nearby?"
"Do you come here every Friday?"

He fires off questions faster than a laser printer at Labour HQ. But this is Ed Miliband with his mind on Doncaster rather than Downing Street. He subtly adjusts his tone, giving every mum at the local children's centre a 'Great to see you!' as if they've met many times before.

It's easy to forget that to run the country, you must first run a constituency. The Labour leader has been doing that in Doncaster North since 2005. But I want to know whether being a national politician actually allows him time to be a local one too.

We're in Bentley, in the heart of his constituency, where Ed Miliband is meeting mums and babies. The room is packed with photo opportunities, and he's good at spotting them.

"I'm coming to the sand pit!" We gather round while he dives straight in, digging around and telling mums, "This is what my kids love too." He's in slightly manic mode, not quite the relaxed approach of a local MP. Still, the parents make polite conversation and not a single baby cries.

I catch him in the corridor. "How often do you get to the constituency then Ed?" "I come as often as I can, obviously it's hard being leader of the Labour party and combining it with the constituency, but I manage to come quite a lot", he says. I try to push it. "Once a month?" "Well, a bit more if I can."

I'm interested to know whether he thinks being the leader of a party is a help or a hindrance to his local constituency. "I hope it's a help", he says, "because what my constituents are saying to me feeds right back into national party policy".

We keep the chat brief, because it's time for another round of 'Great to see you!' This time it's at Don Valley Academy, where a 'Bite the Ballot' event is being held to encourage more young people to vote.

The students are being asked how they'd divide Britain's limited coffers between government departments. Post-2015, this may of course be Ed Miliband's toughest task. But he mostly resists the urge to lecture, and the students tell me they like him. "He seems quite down to earth. I mean, my dad knows him, so it's not like nobody knows who he is", says one.

But you can't help but wonder whether Doncaster is just a vessel for Ed Miliband to try and become Prime Minister. He's a former adviser to Gordon Brown who was parachuted into the safest seat the Labour party could find. So outside the school I ask him, "You're not from Doncaster - do you think they see you as a Yorkshireman or an outsider?" "I came as an outsider" he admits, "But I feel I've got to know the area and the people here incredibly well and I hope that I show that my first job is as a representative of this area - that's what brings me to Parliament."

Time to test that on Tory turf. Doncaster is hardly marginal, but there are Conservative pockets, and we follow Ed Miliband to one near Fenwick. He digs in, quite literally, for the classic of all photo calls: cutting the sod for a local village hall.

Here they're not so sure about him. They praise his help with getting the project off the ground, but as much as Ed Miliband tries to charm 92 year-old Betty, she tells me, "He's not my political party. I won't be voting for him."

So I ask Ed Miliband, "People are very polite, but when you're not here they tell polling companies you shouldn't be the next Prime Minister, why do you think that is?" I can almost see him scanning his brain for the stock answer. "I don't pay much attention to polls", he insists. "The best thing I can do is lay out my priorities and then in fourteen months time the people can decide."

But there's no avoiding the latest polling, showing Labour's lead over the Tories is narrowing while Miliband's personal ratings stagnate (at best). His ability to relate to people locally, and nationally, is more vital than ever. So it is interesting that on all three of his constituency visits people seem to warm to him more in person than on television. On home turf he's slightly more relaxed, perhaps even more likable. And as we part ways, I can't help wondering whether a little more 'local Ed', and a little less 'national politician', might not do him any harm.

Video: ITV News

The North East might not have a vote in the Scottish referendum, but it has a view. And with the region butting right up against the border, MPs decided this morning that it was time to make that view clear.

This was an alliance of politicians rarely seen in the region - Lib Dems, Labour, Tories, all arguing against independence. At one point, even bitter rivals James Wharton and Tom Blenkinsop put aside their Teeside rivalries and rallied together in defence of the union.

Their arguments centre around two points: travel and trade.

On travel, the Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson summed it up like this: "If you believe in a strong Scotland, if you want to see a prosperous North East, why do you want to put barriers between the two?" The argument here is that if Scotland leaves the UK, it'd have to have an international border with England, restricting the movement of commuters and tourists. Sir Alan Beith even warned his border town of Berwick that "unless you see your future entirely as a town of exchange kiosks and smugglers, we are much better off together".

On trade, the argument is more complex. Partly, it's about the complicated currency arguments: will Scotland keep the pound or will companies have to exchange money to do business? But for the North East, it's also about taxes. An independent Scotland could slash corporation tax, for example, making it less competitive to do business in Newcastle than Edinburgh. Would that lead business to head north? On this, James Wharton warned, "We already see the Scottish Enterprise Agency able to give an extra push to companies in terms of where they bring their business when competing with the North East."

The Scottish Nationalist MP Angus MacNeil was there to refute both arguments with characteristic flair. In his thick Highlands & Islands tones, he quipped "The truth is we will not be erecting any barriers...we can continue to flow and interact with each other freely." He pointed to countries like Switzerland where there is free travel across the border, argued that Scotland would keep the pound, and brazenly added, "I look forward to the day when I'll be witnessing people in the North East finding the chance of employment in Scotland rather than having to go further afield to the south east of England."

After 90 minutes, the debate was over. A rare English intervention in a Scottish question. The argument will now retreat back across the border, with just six months until Scotland decides.

I request the interview, but she chooses the time and place. We meet at Thirsk livestock market just after lunch. As the cattle are prodded and paraded, I'm here to do some probing myself.

Anne McIntosh has avoided interviews about her deselection until now. The process has been personal and sometimes explosive, and as an experienced MP she's a pro at publicity - she doesn't want this to turn toxic and waits until the furore has died down.

But as the interview unfolds, she begins to reveal how she feels about being dropped by her local party as Tory candidate for Thirsk and Malton. She admits the campaign around her deselection was 'difficult', even 'curious' - carefully chosen words. But when I ask about accusations by party members that she's 'a nightmare' to work with, there's a hint of anger. "Calling an MP a silly little girl, I think most people would find that quite offensive", she says. "Do you find that offensive?" I ask. She dodges, just enough to keep her powder dry.

But she clearly feels her deselection wasn't fair. She complains that she wasn't allowed to contact local party members during the affair (though she concedes she did write a letter), and hints at foul play by the local association. In fact, she says the only 'democratic' thing to do is to have another vote on who should be candidate, this time involving everyone in the constituency.

What she's asking for is an open primary, where every voter has a say on who the Tory candidate should be, not just paid-up members of the Conservative party. She'll have to work hard to get one - it's not the usual process and the party could easily refuse. But she thinks this could provide unity in Thirsk and Malton; that it'll settle the argument once and for all.

I ask her whether she's fighting too hard, whether it's time to step aside gracefully (I carefully suggest she'll be 60 at the next election and she's been an MP for seventeen years). "I'm not ready to hang up my boots" she says, and quite rightly insists age shouldn't matter. But battling on could make this row even more toxic. Anne McIntosh has fought and won many elections, but it's a different matter taking on your own party.

The edited version of my interview is here ITV News

Anne McIntosh - What's it all about?

Friday, January 31st, 2014

A lot of people have asked me in the past few days 'what's all this arguing over Anne McIntosh about?' Well, the answer depends on who you speak to.

The MP has some staunch critics in her local constituency, several of whom are on the executive committee of the local Conservative Association. That committee normally decides whether or not to reselect Anne McIntosh as the Tory candidate. Twice before they've tried to get rid of her, then last year they stuck the knife in for a third time.

But why? Well her critics say she's difficult to work with, has a short temper and neglects her constituency by choosing to spend most of her time in London. One senior party figure told me 'she's a nightmare' and that the local Tories have struggled to get her to even tell them which visits she's going on in her constituency so that they can coordinate campaigning.

But then there is the McIntosh camp. Many in her constituency - particularly female party members and farmers - are loyal to her. They claim some of the old guard on the executive committee are a bit sexist; that they can't handle a strong woman and that they don't understand the MP's heavy commitments as chair of the influential Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in London. Conservative Central HQ seemed to partially side with this view when they found that the local association had stuffed the executive committee full of new members - was this a coup to get enough people into positions where they could vote to oust Anne McIntosh? It seemed fishy. Hence the national party have put it out to a wider vote of all party members in Thirsk & Malton, not just the executive committee.

But since then the whole row has turned even more sour, with spats in the local paper and rifts in the party. Are the executive committee really 'old bulls with ageing antlers?' Is Anne McIntosh truly 'a silly little girl'? Whichever side you take, this is now about more than just Anne McIntosh. It's about party unity and the ability of local members to hold it together for the next election, especially with UKIP on the campaign trail.

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