The Heart of a Town

The memorial plaque to the 1993 IRA bombings in Warrington, which claimed the lives of two children, and which has been stolen by scrap metal thieves.

For the first sixteen years of my life, I lived and grew up in an industrial town in north west England called Warrington. Today that town is all over the news, and not for very good reasons.

A little background. In 1993, the IRA detonated a series of bombs in the town. The first was at a disused gasworks, and injured no one- though a policeman was shot and injured by the terrorists. The second and third went off consecutively in the crowded town centre, injuring many and killing two young children: Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball.

Since that day, the attrocity has become part of the town’s mythology. Tim Parry’s parents set up a charitable trust to promote peace, I remember studying the bombings at school, the town’s two MPs wrote to Bill Clinton to ask him to stop American citizens funding the IRA- and a memorial “River of Life” fountain was built in the town centre, where the bombs went off.

But today the news is all over the media that the plaque from that fountain has been stolen. Residents are sadden and confused, and Tim Parry’s father has voiced his disgust. It’s a reaction I think is impossible to share.

This wasn’t an attack on the town, or on the memory of the event. It would almost be understandable if it were. But this was nothing ideological, it was simply that the plaque was bronze and could be sold for scrap. The Telegraph are reporting that it would have been worth £30.

The memory of an act of atrocity, the murder of two innocent children, and more importantly the dignified response of the town has been desecrated for the sake of £30.

I don’t want to believe that anyone from the town, that anyone who understood what it signified, could have done this. I don’t know who did, but I hope that they are caught and punished- not out of some desire for vengeance, but so that they can know what it is that they’ve stolen, what it signifies, and why it is important.

Something similar happened in Maidenhead a while back. A statue, erected as a memorial to three children who were killed on a school trip, was stolen from the town centre for its value as scrap. The entire community felt disgust and outrage, that the meaning behind the statue had been so disrespected.

Metal theft has been a growing problem for a while, but the theft of such items as Warrington’s plaque and the Maidenhead statue, not to mention war memorials around the country which have seen similar treatment, are a step above the lead off roofs. It shows a disrespect for communities, for the ties that bind them together, and for the greater meaning behind these things.

Today, my heart weeps for my hometown, as it struggles to come to terms with this heartless act. That plaque was more than just a piece of metal. It was a reminder of what we can overcome and of the dignity that we are capable of.

Thames Valley Police Commissioner – Labour Nomination Hustings

Tim Starkey and Jon Harvey- the two shortlisted candidates for the Labour nomination for Thames Valley police & crime commissioner.

Last night, Wokingham Labour Party held a hustings for the two shortlisted candidates for the Labour nomination in November’s elections for the Police & Crime Commissioner of the Thames Valley region. The two candidates are Tim Starkey and Jon Harvey, who not only have satisfactorily near-rhyming names, but who both have shiny websites so you can read up on their policies.

It was a fairly well attended affair, with party members present from Reading East, Bracknell and my own Maidenhead as well as Wokingham, and the questioning was lively. It was, I thought, an excellent hustings.

Both candidates were well qualified for the job, and were brimming with ideas of how to improve policing in the Thames Valley. Tim is a barrister, who has worked in prosecution and defence, and a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate who defected to Ed Miliband’s Labour in protest against the coalition policy. Jon is a lifelong Labour man with experience working as an adviser to police forces and politicians, and a town councillor in Buckingham.

One of the most positive things to come out of the hustings, I feel, is a very genuine belief from both Tim and Jon that a Labour candidate can win this. I think the local elections two weeks ago were something of a game-changer. Whilst Labour progress in Wokingham was a little stalled, elsewhere across the Thames Valley area we made big gains. And here we have something to offer.

One of the most interesting ideas I heard was from Tim. It’s number one on his list of five pledges:

To restore officer numbers in the Thames Valley to 2010 levels could be paid for by a rise in the police precept of £4 a year for band D properties. I believe this is a price worth paying.

I reckon he’s onto something. I believe that people are quite happy to pay taxes, if they can see where those taxes are going. And £4 per year is a small price to pay for a full-strength police force, and the piece of mind that would provide residents.

Jon touched upon another policing matter, of equal importance I would say to the drastic cuts in numbers: police privatisation. Back in March it emerged shockingly that two police forces had already offered major contracts to private security firms, and that others were considering following suit.

He also showed this worrying image:

Police privatisation is a serious threat. It also seems to be Conservative Party policy. Like Jon, I think that a great many ordinary residents of the Thames Valley area would find the idea of a private security guard patrolling their streets very worrying.

Like I said before, Labour do have a real shot at this. And though I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I’ll vote for Tim or Jon, I know whichever of them wins the selection, they would both make an excellent candidate and an excellent Police and Crime Commissioner.

RIP Pam Kennedy

Pamela Joan Kennedy (1933-2012)

Having been off the grid for the better part of a week, I’ve only just learned this tragic piece of news: Pamela Kennedy, a valued and very much loved member of Maidenhead Constituency Labour Party passed away from cancer at the start of the week.

Pam was a member of the executive committee, serving in the role of social secretary and media contact. I’m not sure how long she filled this role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was longer than I’ve been alive!

Pam was always a very active member, and when I first joined the Labour Party she was there and enthusiastic at the very first meeting I attended. As many will know, local party politics can be an uphill slog in areas with a traditionally ingrained hostility to your flag, but that never seemed to dishearten Pam. Any meeting that she at which she was present- and her attendance was pretty much an assured thing at any meeting themed around her beloved NHS- would benefit from her contributions.

I don’t claim to have known her well or long, but every conversation I had with her left me feeling better for it. The local party, the town of Maidenhead, and Labour as a whole are left poorer without her, but greater for her contributions. She will be missed indeed.

RIP Pamela Joan Kennedy.

John Redwood Wants Your Letters

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, would like residents to email him to tell him that they oppose the Health and Social Care Bill.

It may surprise readers to learn this, but I don’t always watch the BBC’s flagship political debate show, Question Time. I enjoy it (most of the time) and with the advent of twitter and the #bbcqt hashtag it makes it all the more interesting to be able to interact with and contribute to the debate as it’s unfolding. Of course, the counterpoint of this is that it can sometimes be a little trying as an experience.

Last week, however, I did watch it. I had debated whether or not to, with the excellent Rachel Reeves being a mark in the plus column, and the increasingly barking and offensive David Starkey a reason against. I didn’t actually know that Wokingham’s own John Redwood, a man not-undeservingly called “The Vulcan”, was representing the Conservative side of the argument until I turned on.

When John was asked by an audience member why, if the Health and Social Care Bill is so good, it is taking so long to pass, he predictable blamed that old red axis of the Labour Party and the Trades Union. He then went on to make this statement:

“I don’t find, as Rachel does, that this is a matter of great controversy in my constituency. I’ve had very few letters and emails about it, and my general practicioners are just getting on and implementing it because they like it and they want to make a success of it.”

At the time, I took the route of the cynic and simply tweeted this:

I didn’t think much beyond that, to be honest, but John decided to make his own digital response- not to me specifically, but tweeters in general. This is something of a pleasant surprise, as since Mr Redwood’s twitter account only tweets new posts to his blog, I hadn’t thought it was manned by him or even a real person. But clearly someone checks tweets directed at it, so I guess they aren’t in vain. Hope springs eternal.

On his blogged response, John further claims that the emails he has received to date have had no addresses attached, so he concludes that they were not from constituents. I don’t think this is a particularly unreasonable conclusion, but I do stand by my tweet. I am convinced there is opposition to this inherently flawed bill, even within Wokingham. I don’t, however, expect John “heir to Thatcher” Redwood to find any problem with the privatisation and fragmentation of the health service.

John goes on to say this:

“If any constituent does wish me to consider objections to the Bill or wants me to take matters up with Mr Lansley, I remain as always very happy to do so and will reply personally to you as I always do. I would be grateful for you to include your address so I can see you are a constituent.”

Which, as they say, sounds like fighting talk. So, if you live in Wokingham constituency and want to let your MP know your feelings about the Health and Social Care Bill, why not drop him a letter or an email (with your address included) to the below address(es):

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

And just as an explanatory note, I haven’t (and won’t) write to Mr Redwood, as I’m not a constituent of his. By a quirk of electoral boundaries, whilst lying within Wokingham local authority Wargrave is inside Maidenhead constituency; so my MP is the Rt. Hon. Theresa May. I will, however, be writing to the Home Secretary to outline my opposition to the bill, because according to John that’s what counts. I would have thought that my letter to the Maidenhead Advertiser the other week, signing the e-petition against the bill, and previously holding forth against it in all manner of media would have been enough, but there you go.

If any of you are interested, I may post my letter to Ms May on this blog, so you can use it as a template.

Dining with Woodley Labour

Gareth Thomas MP gave some tantalising hints of new jobs policies emerging as the budget gets closer.

The local elections are almost upon us, so all over the country local branches of political parties are holding fundraising events to fill their coffers for the fight. Thursday night saw Woodley Labour Party’s; a dinner at the Oakwood Centre.

Woodley straddles Wokingham, Maidenhead and Reading areas (depending on who’s asking, and what for), so the Labour Party there is a little more lively than other local areas. This meant that there were representatives from a few different groups present-  a nice melting pot of local left-wing politics.

I was there, flying the flag for Maidenhead CLP (and, of course, Twyford and District branch) along with a few others, and we were joined by Cllr Matt Rodda and others from Reading, as well as members from Wokingham-proper. The whole thing was hosted by Greg Bello (who will be standing in Bulmershe and Whitegates ward, come May), who did an excellent job.

The speaker was supposed to be the Rt. Hon. Douglas Alexander MP, shadow foreign secretary. Sadly, he was unable to attend, but was let off after a promise to come next year and sending Gareth Thomas MP, shadow minister for civil society, in his place. Mr Thomas gave a good speech, a little shaky when he started on local matters (understandably, really, given that Harrow West isn’t really next door to Reading East, and that he was no doubt asked to give it on very short notice), but much stronger when turning to what Labour need to do in order to win a majority in 2015.

He also answered questions from the floor, and in response to mine on what policies Labour will adopt to encourage job

My souvenir from the Woodley Labour fundraiser - a Smith Institute pamphlet, signed by Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander

creation, as a cure for George Osborne’s austerity-induced slump (and, in all probability, recession) with some rather encouraging comments. He started by pushing Labour’s five-point plan, which whilst not new was certainly encouraging, as it represents an immediate plan of action to tackle the growth and jobs crisis. He followed that up, though, with the promise that more policies directed at increasing employment would be revealed as the budget, in March, gets closer.

After Gareth finished, and had to rush off, there was a raffle and an auction to raise more funds for the election campaign. A bottle of House of Commons wine signed by Ed Miliband went down quite well (and fetched a good price), and yours truly picked up a copy of a policy report from the Smith Institute signed by Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown. Yes, I’m a massive political geek. I’ve come to terms with it.

All in all, a good evening- especially when me and Ashleigh seemed to clean up at the raffle. It was also a very encouraging prelude to the local election campaign, boosting-morale and providing a funding base for taking on the Tories and Lib Dems on traditionally hostile soil.

Bring on the fight!

Cameron Comes to Maidenhead (But Doesn’t Bring Any Answers)

Policies not working? No new ideas? Then just repeat the old ones, but louder and with a serious expression.

I’m a bit late to this one (somehow my days having been eaten by the combined monsters of writing and Skyrim), but last Thursday saw the Dear Leader, David Cameron, leave the Westminster bubble briefly on a jaunt to Maidenhead. Actually, it was something of a week-long jaunt, which saw him go all the way up to Salford and annoy, in addition to everyone he came into direct contact with, nurses nationwide.

But in Maidenhead he met with a group of 100 business men and women, for a Q&A. Obviously, things aren’t going to plan on the economic front. He said that cutting public spending to the quick would get growth going; it hasn’t. He said that the destruction of untold numbers of public sector jobs would result in a private sector employment boom; it didn’t. He said that his government would reduce borrowing; it hasn’t.

So what to do if you’re a staunch conservative whose policies and ideology are having the exact opposite affect you (but few others) expected them to do? Blame it on ancillary factors! The biggest “commitment” to come out of Cameron’s Maidenhead photo op was a pledge to cut away the red tape. This means deregulation, the very thing which everyone has pretty much agreed caused the financial crisis in the first place.

Cameron wants to remove a whole tranche of worker protection regulations. We’ve already heard how workers will have to have been employed for two years before they can go to a tribunal if unfairly dismissed, but the Tories want to make it even easier to sack people.

They believe that it is too easy for a sacked worker to take their former-employer to court and get compensation. I don’t think this stands up to any sort of scrutiny really, and I’m not the only one, but I struggle simply with the idea that making it easy to sack people will improve the situation.

The suggestion that the reason that there are so few jobs available because cautious employers are too nervous to take on workers that they may not be able to sack is ridiculous. There are so few jobs because businesses cannot afford to take on staff. The economy is crawling along, and the banks aren’t lending to small businesses- something which the government’s Project Merlin was supposed to solve, but didn’t.

Added to that, if you make it easier to sack people, then consumer confidence will take a huge dent. If people are worrying that they could be sacked at any moment (the counter-argument seeming to be that whilst there are unscrupulous employees, there would never be unscrupulous employers; I’m sure we all believe that…) then they aren’t going to rush out and spend, they’ll save. Which would cause another contraction in economic growth. Which is exactly what we all need.

In short, Cameron came to a Q&A in Maidenhead with a lot of ideological waffle, but still nothing in the way of actual answers.

Burger King leaving Maidenhead shows a failure of local government

The withdrawal of Burger King from Maidenhead high street represents another nail in the coffin of town centre retail, and shows how local politics is failing local economies.

A while back, it was all over the national news that McDonald’s had pulled out of Rochdale. This was mooted as an indicator of just how poor the economic situation is. The line of thought being that, presumably, if even McDonald’s didn’t think there was money to be made in Rochdale, the situation was fast approaching hopeless.

So what then of Burger King’s decision to pull out of Maidenhead high street? I doubt that this will be as heavily covered by the national press, this being Theresa May’s back yard, but it surely shows that the dire economic situation is far from confined to town centres in the north west.

Local economies are arguably as important to people’s lives as the national big picture, but somehow it never seems to get the same attention. If small businesses like McDonald’s and Burger King close, then it shows not only that there is little money to be made, but it narrows the opportunities available, chiefly to young people in the area. Customer-facing low-wage jobs like that are often the stepping stones for teenagers into work from full-time education. Getting a part-time job has been a rite of passage, but if there is nowhere offering such positions, what are they to do.

There’s also the wider impact. Fast food restaurants provide a barometer on the rest of the high street. They rely on passing footfall from other shops in an area. People will rarely go to town specifically for a burger, but are far more likely to take a break from shopping the locality for the convenience of fast food. If these places are failing, it can only really come down to a lack of footfall generally in the vacinity, which will amount to a failure of primarily retail.

The fact is that small town centre high streets, like Maidenhead and Wokingham, aren’t going to be able to compete with big out-of-town locations, or even the bigger towns and cities in the area. For that reason, proximity both to London and Reading is to the detriment of the smaller Wokingham and Maidenhead high streets.

Since neither are going to be able to compete, there seems little point in trying. Rather than going for big branded shops,  they should make for what is available to them. Local councils can make locations more attractive to small, independent businesses which would fit better into their market town locale, and cultivate a more secure, more unique economic base.

But, in both Wokingham and Maidenhead, the councils seem paralysed.  Both have solid Tory majorities, who seem afraid of looking in any direction but the past, and lack the drive to do something to actually address the problem. With central government’s continuing austerity policies cutting too far, too fast, 2012 is not going to be an easy year. The people of both Wokingham and Maidenhead need  more inspired leadership, if they are to weather this storm.

An Article in the Advertiser

It’s now two weeks (nearly) since the disastrous libraries debate at Wokingham Borough Council, but the local press is still mopping up the Conservatives’ ineptitude. This week is the turn of the Twyford Advertiser, whose article is simply titled “‘Shambolic’ meeting“. Three guesses as to who the shambolic part is a quote from!

The Twyford Advertiser's article on Wokingham Borough Council's library privatisation debate

The Twyford Advertiser‘s shiny new website features a briefer version of the story, but I shall, as usual, quote a portion of the printed text for you:

Matthew S Dent, a Labour activist from Wargrave, called the debate shambolic.

‘A private company will want to make money, which will need them to cut down somewhere,’ he said. ‘If the council won’t let them close libraries they’ll have to reduce opening hours, cut employees or their wages, and increase fees and fines.’

He added that if WBC makes the terms too restrictive, no private partner will want to sign the contract.

You may even notice that the photo with the article features a familiar face. It was taken on a freezing Monday morning outside a closed Wargrave Library, so all things considered I think it came out well. The look I was going for was serious, and the Advertiser‘s description of “CONCERNED” feels a bit generous. I might have lumped for “GORMLESS”, but it gets the point across I guess.

At any rate, it’s good to see the local press responding in so versatile manner to the horrific debate. The Wokingham Times did so with a frightfully responsive letters page, the Reading Chronicle with a very frank article. There is a risk of political stagnation in staunchly safe areas like this, and that can have disastrous consequences for democracy- a single party with absolute power isn’t often a good thing, regardless of which party it is. A local press unafraid to challenge and inform is a very effective foil to that. It will be very interesting to see how the Henley Standard cover the matter tomorrow.

The only disappointment in the matter is that, being in the Twyford Advertiser, the people of Maidenhead (who, arguably, suffer a worse state of single-party local dictatorship, with the Conservatives holding fifty of fifty-seven seats) are unlikely to read it.

Maidenhead Labour Enters the 21st Century!

It’s finally happened! After a few months of pushing, as Youth Officer, Maidenhead CLP has finally started a Facebook page!

My progress in my few months in this position has hardly been a torrent of success, but then I never really expected that. Maidenhead CLP is a fairly small party, in a heavily-Conservative area. Any gains that we can aim to make are going to be long-rather than medium-term.

But our increasing forays onto the internet will help. The increased visibility offered by the website, the Twitter account and now the Facebook page means that people will for the first time be able to see with an easy Google glance what we are doing in the town and the surrounding area.

So maybe this will be the turning point. As I said during my own election campaign, the internet campaigning space is still wide open. The Tories ignore it and the Lib Dems misuse it. If Labour can move in and dominate it, then we can start to fight back of generations of no-alternative Conservatism.

Maybe I’m dreaming, maybe not. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, why not head over and “like” the new Facebook page?

UPDATE: We also now have a Google+ page. Google+ is still something of a wild and empty wasteland, but if you’re over there, please take a look.

Letter in the Twyford Advertiser

My letter in the Twyford Advertiser (3rd November 2011)

This week’s Twyford (or Maidenhead) Advertiser sees a letter from yours truly, adorning the letters page. It’s a bit of a cheeky one, so I thought I’d share it with you all.

For those of you who can’t read my tacked-together-in-Paint image (sorry, it was over two columns), I will relate it in full:

ON TUESDAY morning I browsed the Hansard records of Monday night’s House of Commons debate on an EU referedum, I was surprised to find Theresa May listed among the No’s.

This, one would assume, is the same Theresa May who called so vocally for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, until that pledge was quietly dropped from the Conservative manifesto.

Given her vote on Monday night, and her response reported by Ken Wight in last week’s letters page to a UKIP activist, is Mrs May perhaps becoming something of a Europhile?

And will Maindenhead Conservative Association be deselecting her in punishment for toeing the Government line, as numbers other local parties across the Country are reported to have threatened?

Only time, one presumes, will tell.

Matthew S. Dent

Firstly, I would like to highlight that the abombinable apostrophe mistake in the first paragraph was not mine, but that of the Advertiser’s editorial staff. I know how to us an apostrophe, and I know (because I sent it to them as) “noes”. Sadly, the Advertiser seem to have stopped posting letters on their website, so you can’t comment angrily about it there. Feel free to do so here, instead, though.

Secondly, this is just a lighthearted jab at my local MP. I know Maidenhead Conservative Association won’t deselect her, no matter how annoyed many of them may be about the government’s stance on the EU. Probably, if they tried to, Mrs May would be given a different safe seat, and the whole lot of them would be suspended. It wouldn’t be the first time.

But what it does show, is that Mrs May might be at risk of splitting her vote. I don’t think we’re likely to see an upsurge of grassroots anger dethroning her (she had a majority of 16,769- even split, she won’t lose her seat), but these things always start small.

The incident I’m referring to in the letter, is when she was approached in the street by a UKIP campaigner who tried to offer her a UKIP DVD to watch, and she responded “I don’t need anything from UKIP, thank you.”

I probably would have said the same (or similar…), but this is different for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not an elected MP. Surely Mrs May would want to listen to the views of all constituents (apart from me, of course, I’m a Labour MP).  Secondly, the Tories have been hemorrhaging voters to UKIP for a while now, and following the government’s performance on the EU referendum motion, even more quickly.

Maybe that’s something Mrs May should be concerned about. Or maybe not, what do I know?

UPDATE: My ego insists that I point out that the misplaced apostrophe was not the only sin of the Advertiser editorial staff, and that the butchered thing which they printed, whilst carrying the true content of my letter, bares little resemblance in structure.