Conservative

Neck and Neck nationally

Two polls are now putting the Lib Dems ahead of Conservative and Labour. No poll has put Lib Dems ahead since 1985, and all the polls are now agreeing that the gap between Lib Dems and the others is lower than the sampling error — in other words — we are truly neck and neck, and everything is to play for.

A Tory blogger is already claiming that this is all rubbish and he hasn’t noticed any of this on the doors. I don’t know what doors he’s been knocking on, but out on the streets of Shipston, Alcester, Tanworth and Claverdon, the story is totally different. People have been coming up to me for weeks telling me that they will vote for me for the first time because they are not satisfied with the Tory Central Office candidate here in Stratford. As of yesterday, people are walking up to me and saying “I have been a Tory voter all my life and I am voting for you for the first time because you have the finest leader in the land.”

It is changing. And it is likely to change more. Lab/Con spin doctors are saying that the Clegg will not have it his own way next time. My observation is this: in competitive situations, although the scores can reverse, they usually don’t. We all remember the great reversals of fortune because they make compelling stories. But, usually, the one who starts out in front increases their lead. I’ve seen this over and over again in competitive sports, and the psychology of sports is very similar to that of debate. Yes, anything can happen. But the most likely thing is that Clegg will solidify his dominance in the debates. Based on this week’s polls — and, again, anything can happen — this will be reflected in polls leads, and on election day.

BBC praise for plans

Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor had this to say about the Lib Dem manifesto: “The Liberal Democrats may be only the third largest party at Westminster – but when it comes to tax plans, they punch above their weight. Their manifesto has a lot more numbers than either of the other parties. That deserves some credit. Their tax proposals are also by far the most ambitious we’ve seen this week. Whether they would do what the party says they would do is another matter.”

On Labour and the Tories, she was less kind: “The Labour and Conservative manifestos are very different. Labour’s was big on words – and detailed promises and commitments which we had heard before. It put government at the centre. The Conservative version is longer, but lighter. About a third of its 118 pages actually contains written text – the rest is made up of pictures, fun facts, and (yes) blank pages to give readers a rest. Their focus is on the private sector – and on individuals.

“But the two documents have one important thing in common: neither of them makes any further contribution to public understanding on how Britain’s £167bn budget deficit is going to be cut. And they both leave plenty out.”

The Lib Dem manifesto is about four key policies —

• Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
• A fair chance for every child.
• A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
• A fair deal for you from politicians.

In the words of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats: “We’ve had 65 years of Labour and the Conservatives: the same parties taking turns and making the same mistakes, letting you down. It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

The manifesto itself is a pretty hefty document — strengthened, as Stephanie Flanders points out, by pages and pages of detailed costings. This is not pie in the sky, these are workable plans which — if the situation did transpire that we were in government with members of other parties willing to work with us — would form the blueprint for economic recovery. Sustainable economic recovery that is, because, despite the promises of the last four chancellors (Lawson, Clarke, Brown, Darling) the Labour/Conservative or Labservative economics has done nothing but cycle us through boom and bust.

If the full document is more than you want to read right now, here are the key points in a bit more detail:
fair taxes
that put money back in your pocket
• The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
• 3.6 million low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
• Paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

a fair chance
for every child
• Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
• Made possible by investing £2.5 billion in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
• Give schools the freedom to make the right choices for their pupils

a fair future
creating jobs by making Britain greener
• Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
• Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

a fair deal
by cleaning up politics
• Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
• Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
• Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes

What? No tourist office?

Warwickshire’s Shakespeare Country ceases trading I went down to the Stratford Tourist Information Office at the Bridge Foot yesterday. It was closed.

It was closed because it has closed down. On Monday, Stratford District Council decided to defer a decision to give it the £275,000 funding it relies on to trade. When I got there on Wednesday, I was greeted by a lady who had just been told she had no job. She introduced me to a circle of people — bright, alert people, who clearly have been a welcome and efficient sight to tourists arriving in the town — who had also just lost their jobs. They made me promise I wasn’t from the press.

Back in front of the now closed and papered up tourist office, I found a pile of leaflets which had been left for the wind and the rain and anybody who might want them. Two tourists — Chinese, I think — were looking round. I welcomed them to Stratford, and apologised that the tourist office was closed. What else could one do?

An hour before this, I was on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire explaining why closing the tourist office was complete folly in the week before Easter. Not that this is a difficult thing to explain. I was followed by Stratford’s Conservative Council leader Les Topham. Topham began by saying that this was exactly the kind of stupid thing that a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate would say. I wondered if I had perhaps made an error of fact. Had I got the contribution of tourism to the local economy (£1 billion a year) wrong? Or perhaps I had got some of the other details wrong? It’s easy to make a mistake when you’re on the radio. But he didn’t accuse me of anything like that. Instead, he played the ‘It’s not our fault’ card. “It wasn’t the District Council that boarded up the office, it was the company”, he said. True, but irrelevant. The BBC presenter pushed the point for me. But Les was adamant: all they had done was withdraw the funding. It was the tourism company’s own decision to close.

Say what?

I used to work in a funding body (West Midlands Arts), so I know how this works. If the major funder pulls the plug, that’s it. The lights go off. Unlike a commercial company, which may be able to sell itself on as a going concern, a not-for-profit which has one major source of funding no longer has a financial future if that source of funding is taken away. Les Topham’s assertion that it wasn’t the council’s fault is eerily similar to other assertions made by Stratford District Council over the last few years. Somehow, it’s never their fault.

I accept that the company had problems. I also accept that it may well not have had a long term future funded by the tax-payer. But pulling the plug in the week before Easter? As one of my colleagues suggested, it looks like someone is trying to close Stratford down. With shops boarded up here and there it’s obvious that the recession has hit us. But take away the tourist information centre from the UK’s third biggest tourist attraction, and you send out a signal which can be read anywhere.

Apparently they are going to have some people giving out leaflets in the Leisure Centre (not, I think, that many people travel on buses from London or wherever else they have been visiting to go to Stratford’s famous Leisure Centre) and some in the town. Fine. But if you get out your SatNav and ask it for Tourist Information, it takes you to the office at the Bridge Foot. If you look on a map, or any of countless leaflets in circulation or treasured inside shoeboxes across half the world, the tourism centre is marked as where it’s been for years.

Except it isn’t.

Seriously, it is time for the Stratford Tories to go. Les Topham remarked (in the Stratford Herald) last year that they didn’t seem to be very popular in Stratford, and he couldn’t work out why. Les, you can call me ‘stupid’ on the radio if you like, but I and anyone else can see why your team is not popular in Stratford. Can’t you?

More questions than answers

As the great-grandson of a railwayman, and the grandson of a railway missionary, I love trains, railways, railway stations and rail travel. My natural inclination is to back them. So I’m in a slightly funny position with the consultation on Stratford’s prospective Parkway Station. The public consultation is very short — 4 March to 19 March — and the consultation presentation leaves many more questions than it answers. The consultation documents are in the form of posters, and the consultation website gives virtually no more information.

The questions I would expect to be answered in a consultation of this kind are as follows:

  • What routes are being served, and what are the train operator plans for the future of these routes, if the station is built?
  • What is the capacity of the route to take on more passengers?
  • What evidence is there that opening a new station will increase passenger numbers?
  • If the new station will not increase passenger numbers, what is the predicted impact on existing stations?
  • In the case of Stratford-upon-Avon, I have some other, very specific questions. Stratford is (or was, last time I checked) Britain’s third most popular tourist destination. It will play a leading role in the Cultural Olympiad as part of the 2012 Olympics. It is home to the world’s most famous theatre, and the world’s most famous theatre company, and also to the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Parkway stations, such as Warwick Parkway, are typically constructed on out-of-town sites to give easy parking for local people to commute to perhaps London or Birmingham. They provide ample parking, hence the name Parkway and relatively easy access from motorways. It’s true there are people who have to go from Stratford to Birmingham or London, though my local station of Honeybourne is a deal more convenient, faster and more cost effective for trips to London, and Warwick Parkway is available on the other side of Stratford. But most of the potential growth in rail use for Stratford is inward, not outward: tourism is destined to play an even larger part in the town’s future, with the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next year.

    Therefore, I would want to know:

  • What testing has been done of likely tourist uptake of the new station?
  • Given that tourists can walk from the existing station into the town, what is the likely response to having to walk to a bus, and then take the bus into town, only to have to take it out later in order to return?
  • What negotiations have taken place with train operators to ensure good links with fast services? Even from Warwick, it is quicker to drive to Coventry to take a train to London than to take the Chiltern line from Warwick Parkway
  • I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable. But, despite laudable sections on environmental and flooding impact, the consultation posters significantly fail to answer the basic rail-industry questions, and, equally, the more specific Stratford-facing questions.

    I would very much like to be able to support the creation of a new station. However, on the evidence presented to me, I don’t believe I can. Right now — and I would be only too happy to be proved wrong — this seems to be yet another grandiose public construction scheme of the type that is plaguing this area, whether Labour-led (“Eco”-towns) or Conservative (Bancroft and Bridge).

    If they know why they are doing this, please would they tell us? Otherwise, it is time to learn that just because we can build something, it does not mean that we should.

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