Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Interesting Poster

Passing through the very busy St Albans market today I nearly crashed into this poster van.. but took a picture instead.

Monday, 25 May 2009

more shaggy dog stories and coastal erosion

What is it with me and dogs on this election campaign? Four weeks ago it was dog bite through letter box. This morning it was a warm wet dribble down the left ankle. I was gently putting the world to rights with one lady at the bank holiday market in rural Fordham, Cambridgeshire when her companion clearly felt he could wait no longer for the urban lamppost - she was mortified. On returning home I popped my trainers in the washing machine and reflected that the reception amongst the human kind had been more constructive.

On Friday I was in a small village on the Norfolk Coast that is gently slipping into the sea. Our Westminster Candidate Trevor Ivory had brought together local resident experts from fishermen to environmental scientists along with representatives of the parish, district and county council to meet with potential Westminster and European parliamentarians for a serious discussion on a very serious issue... This was a model of how we need to work together at all levels of representation.

The cliffs are falling away. Back in Victorian days (and before that) public engineers came up with creative ideas to hold back the tide - THAT WORKED - but in the past few years our coastal defenses have been neglected. In one day I had a condensed degree course in erosion, the local economy, tidal movements, fish spawning grounds, gravel dredging, insurance issues and more. It's something you can't learn from a text book but need to see with experts on the ground. Local people say our generation's neglect is storing up more problems for the future. On the ground, I can see their point.

I have promised to find out more about how other countries are dealing with similar problems. For example, do other countries have a local maintanance/insurance program? Advice welcome!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

From mending the potholes to hankies for Obama...

Last night I met a David Cameron fans. A frail elderly lady in Cambridge answered the door. When DC and Samantha had their third child she knitted a baby blanket for them. She even showed me David's thank you letter. However she is extremely concerned as she has not yet received a thank you from Michelle Obama for the lace hankies that she popped in the post to the White House a few weeks ago. Could I help her sort out what is wrong with the US postal system? I suggested that she gives the Obamas a few more weeks to respond. It made a difference from the normal complaints about potholes and pavements but perhaps more difficult to sort out.

Seriously though there have been some accusations (from other parties!) that we Conservatives are not out and about meeting the public enough in this election - this could not be further from the truth. We are not only on the doorsteps but also actively going to places where we might meet as many members of the public as possible. Yesterday as well as canvassing in Cambridge we spent some time handing out leaflets during the home rush hour near the station. OK this photo was taken between trains! One taxi driver took my leaflet - read it and then came back asking for a bundle. He was so impressed he would like to share our message with passengers.

Tonight I will attend a public hustings organised by a community group in Woodbridge, Suffolk and on Monday I will attend another hustings in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

That's Life comes to Luton

This morning the Westminster parliamentary candidate for Luton North had a long standing meeting with the principal of the "outstanding" sixth form college.

As we were tucked away in the head's office learning about his funding issues, exam successes and building plans we heard that Esther Rantzen was down the corridor with the A level politics group. The BBC asked us to join in the team discussion.

It was all rather bizarre. Esther seemed to have got her geography a bit muddled. She is thinking about standing in the next general election in Luton South - not North. She told us that the young people had been discussing crime and not feeling safe at night - and the poor image that they complain others associate with their town - why didn't politicians focus on young people's issues? With a dramatic gesture she announced that if she is elected to represent the town weight she will bring her celebrity friends to bring ballroom dancing to Luton. This didn't exactly set the group on fire... though they were pleased to be listened to.

Jeremy Brier,
our excellent young parliamentary candidate took an intake of breath, he explained that in recent weeks he has knocked on over 2,000 doors in the town. They are not all celebrities - he explained some of the things he think could be done with encouraging local community volunters.

Whilst I applaud Esther for highlighting the need to clean up the expenses scandal there is more to do. Tossing her hat into the ring here could end up splitting the vote for the Conservative candidate in Luton South Nigel Huddleston and allowing Labour back in - that is if Margaret Moran doesn't get the message before the election and step down.

I am not going to claim that I know all the solutions to Luton's issues but it will take more than a cha-cha-cha or a tango. There are the business and jobs issues I wrote about a few days ago as well as the concerns at Vauxhall. Christian and Muslim leaders have written to all candidates asking asking for peace and Unity following recent events of extremism that do not reflect the views of the majority. I do know from recent visits that we have dedicated conservative candidates and volunteers working with local people to help make a difference and feeding back the concerns and issues from the ground to David Cameron's team in Westminster helping to form not just local but national policy.

Jeremy and I then went on to meet volunteers at the hospital radio and record a non political piece about what working life might be like if elected to the European Parliament.

I then left Luton to join candidates in Hemel Hempstead for a VERY positive canvassing session. The local conservative MP, Mike Pelling is clearly very deeply respected. His experience as a trained firefighter shone through during the Buncefield Oil depot explosion. I heard from local councillors that the constituency had not even begun to recover from the loss of jobs from Buncefield when the recession started to bite. But what I heard on the doorstep tonight was a clear endorsement that they know their MP is on their side.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Away from expenses rows there are other issues too....

Today has been a busy day on the campaign trail focusing on some of the issues affecting businesses in the region. Despite the understandable anger about MPs expenses, we should not forget these issues.

In Newmarket our MEP candidate team was joined by Jeremy Hunt, shadow minister for media, culture and sport. Around 7,000 people from all walks of life are employed in the horse training and breeding industry around Newmarket, and 80,000 across the UK. Horses from here travel all across the world. The industry like many others has been affected by the recession. Free trade is vital. We discussed what has already been done to lift trade restrictions, what more can be done as well as the worrying implications of some planned EU legislation and how we could help them.

At formal campaign "launch" we all signed a pledge on transparent expenses and our aims to stand up for Britain against EU rule, fight against the waste of British taxpayers money in the EU and defend British businesses in a free trade environment. Good stuff.

We went to visit the other end of the extreme in rural business. Three years ago a family farm in Norfolk decided to diversify into their dream and built England's only Whisky distillery. (Given that most of UK's malt is produced from barley grown in East Anglia there should be more!). This business employs only 5 extra members of staff but they are important jobs in a rural area. Within this short time they are already exporting around the world and had 20,000 visitors stop off for a tour last year. We discussed the benefit they have had from the lower pound.

Then to Archant Newspapers, owners of the Eastern Daily Press and many other papers and magazines across the East of England. This industry has been hit (there are lots of different reasons) but the recession has accelerated a downturn in revenues - think of the drop off in income from property and job ads alone. Local papers are important, not only do most people look in them if finding a home to rent or new job but they also are often vital in holding local government to account. They too want a level playing field with, for example, news sheets funded by local councils. Jeremy was able to discuss his concerns and share ideas.

Then to Norwich Castle and their excellent museum (I must take my children there). Again they are needing to be extra careful with cash. I heard that they have benefited from EU funds in the past and about their struggles with bureaucracy. Again this is something I would like to see reformed - it is British tax-payers money that has been paid over to the EU: we would like more back but it must be spent well.

Then on to Fakenham on the Norfok coast. I was given a tour of the town, and the race course that pulls in over 10,000 visitors on a good race day. Tourism and agriculture are the key businesses - as well as the chocolate factory. I spoke about what we would like to do to help agriculture with our Honest Food Campaign, and heard from those involved in "hospitality" how the lower pound may help with this years summer tourist trade. I explained our commitment to keep out of the Euro. Crime and antisocial behaviour are issues too, I saw the shop windows that had been smashed over the weekend.

We then went to knock on some doors. Not surprisingly the expenses scandal is the biggest talking point but as the conversations progress to other issues I was buoyed up by the large number of people who feel that the Conservative party is still worth their vote.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Being on the doorsteps is more important than ever before

It is not easy out on the doorsteps in the middle of expenses-gate but it is important.

There are many who are not interested - many still are - and some just need to talk.

This evening in Hatfield I met a soldier's mother. When I introduced myself she told me she has spent each election reminding others that woman died for the right to vote - but she was so distressed by this week's news she said she would spoil her ballot paper. We talked.

Her son had been sent to Iraq without proper boots, he has fought for our country in Afghanistan. For a family that has given so much to be so disillusioned by their political leaders is truly desperate.

We talked for a long time - I explained the frustrations that had brought me into politics, my background, what we are fighting for in these elections. We talked about what our husbands like to do at the weekend. She even said that she likes her local MP.

With 5 1/2 million people living in the East of England it is impossible to talk to them all - but I felt that this mother more than earned her right to let all this week's anger out on someone who is standing for election.

Perhaps she will now use her vote. I will keep knocking on doors.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

What the Teacher said.........

This morning I met an outstanding group of sixth-formers. Despite it being the middle of exam season nearly 200 students gathered in the school hall (I believe voluntarily!) knowing they were going to meet and question politicians involved in the up-coming election.

I asked the students how many of them were entitled to vote in this election- many hands went up. I then asked how many would vote. The vast majority of those hands stayed up. We often hear negative things about young people but whenever I have had a chance to talk talk to school groups recently I have been very impressed from Norfolk to Cambridgeshire and today in Essex.

Caught up in the morass of expenses scandals there are many negative things being said about politicians. The three candidates today each gave our personal story of what had brought us to a stage where we decided to stop complaining from the outside and decide to put our own heads over the parapet in these local and international elections. The students then asked probing and informed questions. I was even followed out of the hall by two students wanting to know my views on Turkey and the EU.

OK this may not be a normal school in its approach to international affairs - it is a state comprehensive but an "International School" and the students sit the international baccalaureate, not A Levels.

At the end of the meeting the Co-Head Teacher gave a speech in defence of politicians. Very Brave. He implored the students to dig deeply into their education and conscience when deciding who to vote for. He asked them to think hard about why the newspapers print a story before believing it - he confronted the expenses scandal and asked them to debate what politicians should be paid (or go back to the dark days when only the wealthy could afford to do the job). He told them that the gap between politicians and people was larger than at any time he had known, but that without politics they would not today have their school, and it would be politicians and not bankers or financiers who have to sort out the mess of our economy. He even told them that politics is an honorable profession.

He told them that "there is noting wrong with having principles that evolve - what is wrong is having no principles". As a former banker turned politician I could have hugged him.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Feedback from the Streets....

As a candidate in the upcoming European Elections I am covering hundreds of miles and meeting hundreds of people each day - I hope I am not spreading Swine Flu ... no sneezes yet!

In Kings Lynn today the shops were very busy. Lynn draws people from not just Northern Norfolk but across the fens from Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire too. It is no surprise that after the expenses scandals stories many residents say not going to vote but they were outnumbered by those who will - if I had a penny for every person who told me they were pleased with the action that David Cameron took yesterday then I would more than have covered all my recent petrol fill-ups. People are always surprised when I tell them that candidates are volunteers and not paid for their time or any expenses. Incidentally if elected I will publish any expenses on line.

I then went down to Eye in Suffolk to canvas with Cllr Guy McGregor who has become a friend through our shared passion to help get long distance freight off the roads and onto the rail. Guy informed me that the bid for EU funds to help this project went in today.... finally our lobbying of the Department for Transport has worked. The bid should have gone in years ago. British taxpayers money is paid into the EU and we must get our fair share back.

Guy had arranged a public meeting in the beautiful town hall. The crowd that turned up were surprised to hear that this is one of the larger audiences that have been at such meetings across the country. Guy and his fellow district councillors spoke with great passion about the differences that have been made to affordable housing, schools and roads in the areas... as well as how the care for the rurally isolated elderly population. Good stuff.

I'm sorry if I bored them to death with what the Tories are doing to fight back against silly EU directives affecting the poultry industry, food labelling, how new UK cars no longer need seperate tests in 27 countries etc -let alone everything that is wrong with the Lisbon treaty but they are important too.

Monday, 11 May 2009

A lifeboat story...

Today has to be a personal highlight of the European Election campaign so far. When I was a child I collected bottle tops for a Blue Peter campaign to buy a lifeboat. Today I got to stand on one. - admittedly the boat was on shore in the shed but perhaps some day they will take me to sea. The RNLI is a fabulous organisation - so was the boat I visited today.

Today I visited the Caister lifeboat, near Yarmouth. It is the only non-RNLI boat in the country, has a 200+ year history and gets about 50 call outs a year. They raise over £140,000 a year just to keep the service going, all the lifeboat men are volunteers and their passion for serving the local community is palpable. When I asked how we could help they just told me to let people know what they do.

Earlier in the day I was at Huntingdon Regional College where again many members of staff were passionate about their desire to help their local community - both young and old. We need to provide hands on skills to help build our way out of this recession, local training is vital. But the principal explained that her building is obsolete, she has a cost effective plan for moving but is caught up in the multi million pound scandal of mismanagement of national funding budgets.

David Willetts
explained to me in detail the capital expenditure accounting trap that has caused a double whammy for many similar colleges in the country. Sadly all the press were interested in was whether he can change a lightbulb - which clearly he can.

There are some very damning stories coming out in the press about those in political life - which is an insult to those who truly serve their communities. I have no time for those who fiddle expenses and the sooner this mess is cleared up the better.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Balancing Politics and a Family Life

Since I was first selected as a candidate in the European Elections I have been asked one question more than any other - its not about my views on healthcare, education, the economy (or EU budgets) but very quietly from county town to tiny village I have been taken aside by a concerned voter to ask how I would balance this job whilst also being a mother.

Perhaps the past few day's diary will give you a snapshot. On Friday morning I dropped the kids at school. Then I went to Watford (Hertfordshire), met our Westminster Candidate and many volunteers to collect signatures in the High Street demanding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The children were collected from school by a friend, went swimming and then back home to dad. In the meantime I spent a couple hours in Loughton (Essex) with Eleanor Laing MP. It was incredibly impressive to see Eleanor meeting many friends amongst her constituents, handing out leaflets, taking notes of local problems to help with later. Her constituents know that on Friday evenings she is usually outside the tube station and one constituent even came off the tube with a bundle of papers on an issue she wanted to share with her MP. I then went on to Southend to a public meeting - returning late.

My 11 year old daughter has been pestering me for a shopping trip. So yesterday, Saturday we went to Sudbury (Suffolk.) Whilst I joined Conservatives campaigning in the High Street and market square while my daughter enjoyed the tweenie paradise of "New Look" and picked up some presents for school friends. I handed out leaflets and combined doing some food shopping with discussing business with local market traders and politics with shoppers.

We raced back home for my final rehearsal - I sing in a choir. Last night's concert was a mixture of Gershwin, Bernstein and then lots of ABBA. My husband peeled himself and my boys off the cricket pitch just a bit late for the first half.... everyone was a bit late to bed still singing Mamma Mia.

Today, Sunday - day off - cricket training with the children in Saffron Walden, lunch in a cafe in the market square. Then Hannah Montana movie with my daughter in the afternoon (Hannah has 200 million viewers every week - we grown-ups should take note) ending up in a family supper with local lamb and some of the English Asparagus I bought yesterday. Yummy.... and a bit of emergency ironing!

I have no doubt that if elected on June 4th I will miss my family hugely for the 3 nights a week I will often spend away. But this is no different to the life of friends who are midwifes, doctors or casualty nurses who also work hours away from their family. Like them, I will be doing a job that I believe can make a difference, and like every working mum in the country I will need to concentrate on devoting time to both work and family.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Difficult times and parliamentary expenses

This morning, in Brentwood (Essex), I met a mother very slowly pushing her young daughter's buggy down the street - number two is due in July. They had just said goodbye to her husband who was made redundant recently. He was on his way to a job interview - perhaps he will be one of the lucky ones. I once put my hand up for redundancy and though for me it was "voluntary" and I was reasonably confident I had other options, it was still terrifying.

In Peterborough this evening I knocked on the door of a man who had just voted to take a pay cut in order to try to save his job, the company he works for and his fellow workmates. He had to explain this to his 17 year old daughter just as the TV was exposing another MP expenses story. Not yet able to vote herself she is already furious - so is he. He had spent 25 years serving his country on the frontline in the RAF. We talked.

I explained that if I am elected on June 4th and want to do the job well then I will need some help - but told him I won't employ any family members. Interestingly he said he didn't care about that - provided they are the right person and work hard. He said I should make public what is spent and what I've done.... so that if he thinks I have done a bad job or wasted his money he can vote me out. I agreed to do this.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

In Hatfield - the difficult decisions of the credit crunch

I was in Hatfield in Hertfordshire this morning. Elections can be really bizarre, one of the leafleting volunteers had been visiting some flats and noticed incredible heat and blinding lights behind the otherwise empty letter box... He then dropped into the local nick - is this going to be another cannabis factory bust?

I've been there a few times this year. We started off by visiting the town centre - it was market day but other than ASDA its not exactly drawing the crowds - the shopping area is a throw back to the 1950s and desperately in need of regeneration. The local council had agreed a huge regeneration plan that was weeks away from being signed when the credit crunch hit.

The Government was asked to put its money where its mouth is and help fund re-development as well as the new homes they force on areas like this from a regional master plan - but they anti-ed up less than a third of the cash that is needed even to paper the cracks and less than 3% of a regeneration plan.

The local community are doing what they can. A youth club had recently re-decorated a graffiti strewn area with some of the best "street art" I've seen.

I heard local traders talk about the quandry they now face... they cant afford increased rent or rates that a new development might need but are also desperate for something to be done. The two local councillors I was with are also leaving no stone unturned to try to find a solution - traders, residents and local politician are all working together... but the system doesn't support them.

Over the past year I have seen many examples of British tax-payers money being poorly spent by our UK government and quangos under an EU flag and then imposed from a massive regional height - yet when local people want support for a project they know is right for their area they find that the bureaucratic box ticking just doesn't help them. Solutions to development issues like this are never going to be easy but as far as I'm concerned the sooner we get rid of regional planning targets and use what little money there is to support local decisions the better.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

How are small businesses doing?

I have just got home this evening to discover that my 7 year old has dribbled Orange Calippo ice lolly all over my keyboard --- Sticky YUCK. Just one of the benefits of being able to work 24x7 from home!

In Luton this morning I met with a wide variety of small business and shop owners in the Bury Park area. This is not a traditional English high street but an incredibly diverse area of different cultures trading side by side. I have got used to seeing boarded up shop windows in recent months but there were none here. I met grocery shop owners, legal advisors, estate agents, clothiers and carpet sellers. All have experienced difficult months but all had gone into the downturn with little debt, hard working families sharing the workload and very loyal customers... and they are still going. Later I had the chance to chat to a very traditional village shop/post office keeper in a leafy village she said that exactly the same principles (low debt, long hours by family, keep supporting the customers) is what is keeping her business going too.

Its not all easy... one man explained that he had run his own business for 16 years before having to close 18 months ago. He has since been looking for work. His support from the local job centre has involved signing him on for a 6 week training program, ticking the "training" box and errr that's it.

The man in his early 30s behind the counter in one of the grocery shops asked me how long I thought the recession would ask. I started explaining how bad our national debt was and the need to both work our way out of this and the difficult decisions a future government would have. I was using quite simple language. He then told me he had studied economics for five years and has a degree from UCL - we ended up debating whether the Chinese Government stockpiling would have a long lasting effect on world rice prices and how he is now by-passing Euro-based wholesalers to import food directly from producer countries.

Back in Ely this evening I joined a County Council candidate who is new to politics. He describes himself as an engineer working in animal welfare. It turns out that from Ely he is working for sanctuaries as well known as the Battersea Dogs Home, and importing equipment from the US then exporting all over Europe.

Never underestimate the small businessman - or woman!

Monday, 4 May 2009

From North to South and only one UKIP voter...

I met a UKIP voter today. He said he is going to vote UKIP because "what has happened to Britain since 1997 is all the Conservative party's fault... you should have got rid of Labour by now". I have to admit that I struggled so much with this logic that I had to leave him to his Beer, perhaps Iain Dale. will be able to explain. In the past 6 days of constant campaigning Mr Beer has been the only person to try to defend UKIP to me.

We were enjoying a blustery bank holiday in the village of Stilton at the northern tip of rural East Anglia where many, many hundreds had gathered to watch the annual cheese rolling competition - along with fairground, candy-floss, tombolas, plant stalls and carnival atmosphere that is so much part of British summers. Half a dozen Tories in blue rosettes could not have been given a warmer welcome - from young to old.

On Saturday I was in Thurrock - at the other extreme of the East of England. A stones throw from the Dartford Tunnel and the shoppers paradise of Lakeside, I was knocking on doors with Jackie Doyle-Price who is fighting a Labour stronghold for the next general election. I didn't meet a Labour voter all morning.

Finally this evening I was canvassing in a "Lib Dem stronghold" near Cambridge (actually not a lot of LDs here either). It constantly amazes me that people who say they are voting LD have no idea about their international policy on Europe. When I explain that our local LD MEP not only supports the Lisbon Treaty but also helped draft it - and that he wants to join the Euro - their support seems to melt.

One undecided voter asked me what I would do with the National Debt - "we will have to work our way out of it" I said. People know there are no easy answers but know that it is time for some straight ones.

Addendum .... sorry correction I did meet a lady in Thurrock on Saturday who had voted Labour all her life but she then admitted she had told her 17 year old daughter the night before that it was time for another Margaret Thatcher ... she suggested that I shouldn't count her as a Labour voter any more.

Friday, 1 May 2009

May Day in Norwich and remembering our Heroes

As the troops of today come back from Iraq I had an emotional reminder from a hero of past conflicts.

I was in Norwich today with another candidate for the European Elections, John Flack, and our two Westminster candidates Chloe Smith and Anthony Little. We were given an incredibly warm welcome by shoppers and stall holders in the market. "I've always voted Labour but this time it will be for you" was the message repeated again and again.

I bought some Norfolk cheese and discussed our honest food campaign with the stall holder. I discussed the red tape on small businesses with others and pensions, savings and the difficulties finding jobs with many shoppers.

We saw the despicable state of the War Memorial that is left derelict and an EU part-funded arts installation that 2 years on is left to grow weeds. Where are our priorities?

We were then quizzed on a wide variety of political issues (from who pays for your bath plug to re-hab for drug addicted muggers) by older people at a drop in day centre before joining more older people at a lunch club.

I sat opposite Derek. He is 87 and communicates through gestures, smiles and struggled grunts. Perhaps it was because of the Gurkha news and troops coming back home but the group around him started telling me about their memories of The War. Derek's gestures became agitated with tears welling in his eyes. With help from his carer he told me he had been rescued from the beaches in Dunkirk and then fought for 3 years in Burma. He lost half of his hand and was awarded the Burma Star. Though we couldn't talk, sixty years on I could still feel the pain in his face as he tried to tell me about those years. Tears welled in my eyes too.

Over the next few years we will have an increasing older population. In today's economic circumstances decisions about how to help them will be extremely difficult. We owe it to our heroes of previous years to be honest in facing up to that challenge.

Later in the day we had an open meeting in a pub to discuss the European Elections with volunteers and a chance to catch up with a lady publican about the cocktail of issues that are closing down so many locals. Then on to Cambridgeshire to a briefing about rural businesses, water, food and agriculture, infrastructure and planning from the Country Land and Business Association. Another busy day. Tomorrow Essex.