Revitalising Wakefield

I’m usually an outspoken critic when it comes to developments in Wakefield. My view until recently is that the council and developers were making the city worse by creating monstrosities and disposing of good buildings. Take for instance, the hideous new hospital that blights the skyline and Trinity Walk, the shopping ‘centre’ that doesn’t have a proper roof. Whilst I appreciate the new shops that have moved into Wakefield as a result (Next, Debenhams, H&M) I wish they’d been housed in a building – but maybe that’s just me.

However, my attitude to developments changed with the Wakefield One building, the new home of the library, art gallery and some council offices. It’s a modern building that actually complements the city skyline and fits in with the surrounding area. Also cheering me up are the station redevelopments. Wakefield has two train stations and major work has started on both of them in recent weeks. I’m sure that the finished products won’t be entirely to my taste but the regeneration is certainly necessary and will hopefully give travellers a better impression than they currently get. Wakefield Kirkgate has been a danger spot for years and since it’s the closest station to The Hepworth it’s a very bad advert for Wakefield.

Speaking of The Hepworth, this week they announced they’re expanding into an adjacent mill this summer. I look forward to seeing the results of that. Wakefield is very close to becoming a culture hotspot. Down the other end of town there’s a bid to turn disused Unity Hall into a music venue and general cultural and entrepreneurial hub. Across the road, Theatre Royal Wakefield has received funding to help refurbishment and since a nightclub has become vacant further up the street there are rumblings that we may finally reclaim the so-called ‘Westgate Run’ of pubs and bars and turn it into something really special.

It’s an exciting time to be in this part of Yorkshire and I commend everyone involved in this turnaround for the city. I do, of course, have some further suggestions for improvement – if anyone’s listening.

  • Pay off the final businesses on Kirkgate to get them out of the old cinema building and rip it down once and for all. If you can’t think of anything to build there (no more flats necessary, thank you very much) then make it a public space, somewhere for people to relax after rigorous exercise at the new leisure centre.
  • Get some restaurants into the empty Merchant Gate developments, however you do it. The new station complex may help with this.
  • Encourage refurbishment of shops on the way to Trinity Walk. Currently, it’s like walking from one world to another.
  • Offer huge incentives to businesses to move into the stretch of Westgate decimated since Argos moved to Trinity Walk. The relocation of Sports Direct was a good start but with the loss of HMV and others that area needs some serious attention.

Have I missed anything?

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Nadine Dorries – An Example of a Good Politician?

It may just be me but I detest the idea that party whips should be able to force party members into line. It’s something all the more relevant today following last night ‘rebellion’ (for want of a better word) of 116 Conservative MPs who expressed ‘regret’ at the lack of EU referendum legislation in the Queen’s Speech. Now, we know the landscape of the EU argument is shifting daily so I don’t want to focus on that. What ignited my fury was James Kirkup’s blog in The Telegraph entitled ‘Nadine Dorries has taken a week to prove that David Cameron needs a new Chief Whip’.

Now, Dorries is hardly my favourite MP. Jaunts to the jungle aside, her stance on gay marriage and her scare tactics about abortion are not to my tastes. But I can’t fault her for having a mouth and using it, whether I like what she says or not. The fact is, she causes such a problem to the Tory high-command because she refuses to keep her opinions to herself. I would love to have an MP willing to speak out against their leader in my constituency. At least it would convince me they were human and not some zombie able to be manipulated by one word from their leader.

Nigel Farage has made the point quite frequently in recent weeks that the country is ready for a new type of politics. I think that, more than ever, citizens want to be able to hold their MP to account. They want their MP to be able to justify themselves to their constituency and not just to their parties. I would respect my MP if I believed her opinions were her own and not just those she trots out to ensure her place in the Shadow Cabinet.

As I see it, whipping has no place in modern politics. The party system is fast losing its grip on reality. The internet has enabled people to check up on their representatives, social media has helped those representatives to connect with the people. If you want to run an effective party these days, you need to work from the ground up in individual areas. Yes, you need to generally have a right-leaning or a left-leaning consensus but you do not need to dehumanise MPs by making them part of a herd to be controlled. The public should control their politicians, not David Cameron or Ed Miliband. I actually have respect for a party that is divided, like the Tory party at present. It means that there are people within that party who have their own opinions, who listen to the concerns of their constituents. Go on, Ed Miliband, tell me why that’s wrong.

Postal Voting Problems

Interesting news today from the Electoral Commission. They have admitting that the postal voting system is still open to abuse and have conceded that identity checks at polling stations and restrictions on postal voting may be necessary to combat fraud. This comes a few weeks after UKIP’s Nigel Farage claimed that postal votes ‘are not free and fair votes’. I’ve agreed with that assessment for some time. I’m always reminded of my grandparents – my grandfather was a staunch Labour man but my grandmother voted Tory. If they’d been filling in postal votes she wouldn’t have been able to do that, it was just the way the relationship worked. I don’t think the problems with postal voting is as much about outright fraud (though it exists) as it about coercion. There can be a tremendous pressure in some households to follow the ‘leader’ and I think we need to acknowledge this as a problem.

Of course, I’m not against postal votes in cases where the person would not otherwise be able to vote – those on holiday, the elderly and disabled who can’t easily make it to the polling station. Beyond that, though, I don’t think it should be allowed. I do not believe that with polling stations open for 15 hours that most other people couldn’t take five minutes to make use of them. If you’ve got a special case, put it forward by all means and perhaps receive a special dispensation. But in trying to make voting accessible it seems to me that we’re actually hindering transparency and encouraging coercion.

The areas that will be monitored as part of this crackdown are places where there have been cases of alleged fraud in the past.: Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Burnley, Calderdale, Coventry, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Oldham, Pendle, Peterborough, Slough, Tower Hamlets, Walsall, and Woking. The most striking of these is Tower Hamlets where after every election in the last few years there have been shouts of fraud and coercion. While there has been insufficient evidence to bring about prosecutions, this area certainly merits close attention. Next year it’s the Tower Hamlets mayoral election and, given the perpetual rumours of fraud surrounding the incumbent Lutfur Rahman, I look forward to these elections being monitored closely.

In my region, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees are going to be under scrutiny. Kirklees elections were hit with allegations of fraud last year with three men receiving cautions while in 2008 a former Conservative member was convicted for making false applications to vote by proxy. The problem is that outright fraud is rather difficult to prove. The small number of convictions do not mean it’s a rare activity. But, personally, I’m more worried about coercion. I believe that everyone should have the ability to vote without constraint, whether I agree with their political choices or not. I fear that just isn’t happening in the UK today.

Miliband Believes He Knows Best

It doesn’t give me pleasure to point out the stupidity of today’s politicians – or their hypocrisy. I’d rather the people at the top of the tree were worthwhile, honest people who listened to their constituents and didn’t try to govern in a way that they believe is in the ‘national interest’. I am terribly uncomfortable with a few people who ‘know best’ overriding the wishes of the country as a whole. Yet they keep telling us that they do ‘know best’. This weekend Ed Miliband did it again.

In his speech to the Progress Conference Miliband repeatedly pointed to giving power back to the people. He said, ‘Power in Britain is far too centralised. Local people don’t feel they have a say in the decisions that shape their lives.’ He said, ‘But immigration doesn’t just work for everyone automatically. And we got it wrong in government. Not just the policy. But our failure to listen.’ He doesn’t see the irony of promising to listen then reiterating, quite firmly, that he will not offer the British public a referendum on our membership of the EU.

He makes fun of the problems in the Tory party over Europe without acknowledging the incredibly high number of people (of all political colours) who would now like a referendum on the EU. He said, ‘David Cameron may try to out Farage-Farage on Britain’s membership of the European Union. But in all of our decisions we make, we will always stand up for the national interest. And our national interest lies in staying in the EU. And working for the changes that will make it work better for Britain. It is wrong now to commit to an in/out referendum and have four years of uncertainty and a ‘closed for business’ sign above our country. Of course people are frustrated about the EU, but in town centres across the country I heard loud and clear where people see the national interest, what people are most worried about: jobs, living standards, the fate of their small businesses. One Nation Labour will not put them at risk.’

There are so many things wrong with this. For a start, he believes – as David Cameron seems to – that there is some incredible prospect of renegotiation. He apparently thinks that the EU will roll over and let us dictate the terms of our membership when senior European figures frequently say that there is no chance of moving backwards, that it is towards ever-closer political and fiscal union that the EU must go. And then he states that our ‘national interest’ will be served by staying in the EU. I wouldn’t mind if he and Clegg and the people who frequently trumpet this could give us sound and credible figures but they can’t. That’s why they’re losing the war and, if they can’t concoct a decent argument, they deserve to.

I wonder what Miliband’s actual vision of ‘One Nation’ is. At the moment it feels very much like a nation having to believe what one man tells them. Is that the message he was trying to put across? Wake up, Mr Miliband, and realise that you can’t talk about listening to people and connecting with them only to deny them a referendum that more and more of them are clamouring for.

A Solution For David Cameron

Now the dust has settled after last week’s local elections, the Tory party still seem on the back foot. They’ve wheeled out some of the big guns – Theresa May and William Hague – who promise ‘greater certainty’ on a referendum in response to the UKIP threat but, I think, they’re being overly optimistic about the limited appeal of UKIP. A ‘cast iron guarantee (for want of a more fitting phrase) might’ve have quelled the UKIP problem a few years ago but now I don’t think it’s going to be so easy any more. UKIP now have many more councillors than the Tories would like. Come 2015, as everyone keeps pointing out, these will be footsoldiers. UKIP suddenly have a stronger army at a local level and the Tories are that little bit weaker.

What Cameron needs to do is think about the wider picture. He can’t bring forward legislation to guarantee his referendum in 2017 because of his coalition partners (the way I see it, Nick Clegg is sulking in a corner with his arms crossed threatening to leave – but go where?). If the Tories had a majority I think they’d squeeze this legislation through but they don’t. So what’s the solution? Get a backbencher to propose a bill.

Think about it. A proposal for legislation guaranteeing a referendum is debated in the House of Commons and then voted on. It will probably be defeated but, here’s the point, in this country (unlike the EU MEPs who can shield themselves if they wish) we can see exactly who voted for a bill and who voted against it. Come the next election, voters will be able to see whether their own MP voted for them to have a say in the future of the UK or whether they neglected to trust their constituents. One thing that characterises UKIP’s rise is that they listen to the fears and concerns of ordinary people. The main criticism of the career politicians who litter the benches at Westminster is that they are out of touch with everyday life. How better to make them confront it?

In such a scenario, Ed Miliband would face a dilemma. He clearly wants us to stay in the EU and would, I think, be inclined to whip his MPs to agree with him. Why would he allow a bill he detests the thought of to slip through via the backing of some of his own MPs? It’ll be a test of two things – the loyalty of MPs to their constituents and the strength of Miliband’s leadership. I think whichever way you look at this, Ed Miliband loses.

In my own constituency of  Wakefield, Labour’s Mary Creagh (currently Shadow Environment Secretary) is only sitting on a majority of 1,613 votes. The Tory candidate was snapping at her heels in 2010 but, crucially, UKIP neglected to stand in the area because the Tory candidate was a Eurosceptic. I wonder if such a decision will hold in 2015? Nevertheless, Creagh is one of those MPs who needs to think long and hard about where her responsibility lies – to her leader or to her constituents. However, I fear I know which side she will land on and it’ll be one that’ll cause her some problems come 2015. If a Tory leaflet drops through my door proudly proclaiming that Creagh voted against giving her constituents a say in the running of our country, that she didn’t trust us to have an opinion, I doubt I’ll be surprised.