Friday, 14 November 2014

The road to May starts with the Mebyon Kernow conference and engaging more

This sunday is the Mebyon Kernow conference. Every party conference is an important one,  The focus this year is engagement, the conference is a great time to see more of a party and find it's members, spokespersons and leadership all in one place ready to speak to people. It's a time to inform policy, hold debates and engage with both the membership and the public. Below is a blog with some of my thoughts about the conference and a link to the agenda for sunday's event.

This conference is more important than most. For a number of reasons: firstly there's the general election looming large on the horizon, make no mistake this is the most unpredictable election in a long long time. Opinion polls reveal there is a record low of people that will vote for Labour and Tory next May. The polls also tell us only a fraction more voters will vote Lib Dem next year (across the UK) then will vote for the SNP (just in Scotland). The three big parties will try to make out that this election is a contest between them, the reality says something completely different. The opportunity for Mebyon Kernow to make a mark is huge.

Secondly the issue of devolution has never been higher on the agenda. The time to push for ambitious devolution and for Cornwall to have the say on what powers we want, rather than politicians in London deciding, is now. Government occasionally glances it's eye over devolution, but these opportunities do not happen that often. At previous times, like when Labour was in power last, Cornwall got nothing our voices were not heard by the powers that be. There is not greater time then now to make our voices heard and we need to look to members of the party to help us do that.

These things combined, now is the time for Mebyon Kernow to step up. To think harder about how we do things, work harder and smarter and make our impact on politics. To be honest and to be frank this is not an easy thing to do, as unpopular as they are at the moment the 'Westminster' parties dwarf us in terms of budget, organisation and paid staff (of which we have none). Add to this people are very familiar with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, turn on the tv to watch the news and they'll be there. David versus Goliath seems a worthy example to draw here but in fact our sling is not aimed at one Goliath it's aimed at a number of them. We have to be better at engaging people, both voters and supporters of the party. We don't have the easy option of a top down campaign reliant on huge sums of money for advertising and a regular slot on the news. We have to be bottom up, we have to learn from the Scottish independence campaign that their 45% of yes voters were won against the odds, by a grass roots campaign. We don't have the big corporate donors of Tory, Lib Dem and Labour we need to look instead to hard work.

With that in mind the format of the conference is different this year. There's still the engagement we do very well as a party and we're one of those rare beasts in politics these days that decides policy based on debate and voting by the membership. Added to that we've cut down on the number of speeches and the focus of the afternoon session -which is open to the public- is engagement.  Starting at 2 it kicks off with a keynote speech from Dick Cole. There then follows a roundtable discussion with Mebyon Kernow's parliamentary candidates on the implications of the Scottish independence referendum and the campaign for a Cornish Assembly. I think it will be a good opportunity for us (meaning specifically Andrew Long, Loveday Jenkin, Stephen Richardson and myself) to explain how we view things and to see what the conference thinks.

In the second part there follows a more open discussion with the same candidates on Mebyon Kernow priorities for the general election campaign. This part I'm looking forward to most and I have little doubt it will be a robust debate with people that want the party going in one direction or another making their case for it. Politics is a complicated subject, although MK is borne out of being what is essentially a single issue party there are many things officials of the party and members care about.

Looking at the morning session there are 3 motions to conference, the first is on sport and the need for investment and better facilities in Cornwall. The second is votes for young people, which I will be seconding and speaking on, which seeks to get 16 and 17 years old the right to vote. The third is reversing the devastating austerity cuts to Cornwall. As you can see these are 3 complicated and varied issues. I hope the motions all pass, these are 3 things I care about deeply. That said, they are not the only issues. That's why I will find the second roundtable discussion the most fascinating and I hope to learn the most from it. I sincerely hope party members are active in this discussion and members of the public, to tease out the issues and indeed strategies and make the party better.

Here's a link to the agenda and the venue is of course Lys Kernow (New County Hall) in the main chamber, more details and directions here.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Another nail in the coffin of localism as Pickle's rejects supermarket levy out of hand

The Tory minister Eric Pickles has denied local councils the right to choose to levy a big business. I wrote about a large retailer levy a while back in perhaps an overly academic fashion looking at the pros and cons. I did have some conversations with senior councillors and officers at Cornwall Council and a few months later they did write to government asking for those powers. I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of a big retail tax, all of our town centers have empty shops, yet Cornish towns are increasingly encircled by supermarkets and out of town retail. The small independent local businesses are obviously losing out to the multinational chains and as a consequence money is leaving Cornwall faster than tourists in late August.

What's so thoroughly depressing and frustrating about it all is that man Eric Pickle's again acting like lord and master over local government and indeed local communities. In an amazing act of hyperbole even for Eric he sent out a personal press release the DCLG website states: "Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, stood up for hard-working people today." Is frankly bizzare and falls into that typical lazy politician trap of saying what people want to hear regardless of the reality. Is it just hard working people that shop in supermarkets, don't lazy people, unemployed people, students, children and those not able to work shop there too? Do hard working people not shop in town too? or is it just the feckless found on the high street?

This case is so typical of Eric Pickle's despite the fact he said things like this a couple of years ago when he unveiled the localism bill:

"It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre - and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best."

He doesn't understand localism, him and his government have backtracked on nearly every principle of this forcing councils to accept housing figures they don't want and to effectively cap council tax to pursue their ideology of cutting public services. Recently William Hague ruled out a Cornish Assembly without even asking anyone in Cornwall! The same is true of Eric's refusal to tax big retailers. It's not about what the local areas want, Cornwall Councils can't even ask people if they want this. Eric has decided from his office hundreds of miles away, end of story. This control freakery of Westminster needs to stop, Supermarkets like housing so much else should be our choice not the distant government, which is why I believe a Cornish Assembly is the answer.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Penzance Town Council votes for a breakwater

Amongst other things this evening the town council voted to support a feasibility study into a breakwater for Mount's Bay. A study is crucial to prove the viability of such a sea defence. This would be essential for pulling in any funding from the government or through EU funds.The amount is a £10,000 from the town out of an estimated £100,000. It does seem like a large amount of money, but unfortunately the nature of consultancy and expertise is such that it is expensive. Without any such report a future breakwater to protect Penzance harbour and seafront would be impossible.
This is a significant step forward and the large amount of support from the town council tonight and on the issue if sea defences more generally bodes well for the future. Of course we are still talking about the future. A report will not automatically mean a breakwater will be built nor the money found. But if the report finds a realistic option we will have a lot of ammunition to lobby for funding.
Also tonight we heard from Cllr McKenna on the works to fix the prom. This stage replacing the parts of the damaged sea wall is nearly complete. We look to the future and funding being found for new railings and a new surface for the promenade.