Thursday, 20 March 2008

More Maudlin Than Maundy

I'm feeling a bit low today. I generally do on Thursdays, as the pile of tasks lined up for me take on the shape of an insurmountable obstacle -- you see, I work at my regular job Monday to Wednesday, and between that and the weekend (which of course begins early this week, Happy Easter to all) I have a lot to fit in if I'm to be effective in my Liberal Democrat roles. This week is busier than others as I mentioned in my last post, but that is not all that is grinding me down. It's reading.

This article over on Liberal Conspiracy, by the fabulous Alix Mortimer, intended to highlight alternatives to the tax measures introduced by the government which would not cause the poorest workers to lose out (as of course we know this budget has done), has attracted some predictable criticism. I think Alix deals marvellously with it all, but it still makes me seethe to see people try to justify the fact that anyone who earns under £17k will be worse off this tax year. And it bothers me that every time anyone starts to put the case of low-paid workers, they are slapped with statistics about reducing child poverty. Excuse me, I really don't want to see families suffer, far from it, but there are people out there without children who seem to have no voice at the moment. My little brother finished university last year, and while he keeps one eye on the job market for anything that relates to his degree, he works in a temporary position earning just about enough to support him and his partner, who is still studying. He is not entitled to tax credits, as he falls foul of yet another inequable little quirk of that system whereby if you are under 25, you are only eligible for working tax credits if you have children. He is a model of what this country needs in so many ways, determined to pay his way, contributing to the economy, and he now has to tighten his belt somewhat to account for the drop in his net pay. Go tell him that you are only interested in lifting children out of poverty, not people in general, and he doesn't deserve a tax cut as he earns less than £17k and see what he has to say about it! And what about those families who benefit under the current system? Even if we leave aside the horror stories of tax credits going wrong as frequently as they do and leaving people with huge bills that they couldn't have prevented and can't afford, there comes a point where Mrs X who has maintained a certain lifestyle for herself and her children by using the tax credits that supplement her small income suddenly finds that she is overextended, because her children reach the age where tax credits don't apply any more and child benefit is no longer payable, and wham - just like that the family income drops like a lead weight. It's all so short sighted. Government seems to be full of people who either haven't struggled in their lives -- or if they have, much in the same way as women routinely sign themselves up to relive the searing agony and indignity of pregnancy and childbirth because the suffering has faded in their memories while the romantic and beautiful memory of having a new member of the family has only grown, their memories have blocked out the reality of their former lives of counting up coppers for bus fare and worrying on a daily basis about money because they are so smugly content about how they have risen above it and remember their climb up the greasy pole much more vividly. Preserve me from that fate, I never ever want to turn into one of those people who have no empathy and no vision of what life is like on a low income!

So, I started out a bit miserable, got very frustrated reading the above, and then went on to discover there are actually even worse examples of the prevailing I'm-alright-Jack attitude on Liberal Conspiracy this week: take the comments on this article by Kate Belgrave, a case study proving the fact that some people - heavens above - really are dependent on state benefits and need support rather than the threat of removal of their tiny income and is rewarded by narrow-minded commentors with the message that "a drug addict's sob story is not going to gain anyones sympathy". She quite rightly attacks one of the Tories' key messages: "help people into jobs and cut benefits for those who won’t work". Time limit benefits and 'workfare' are the not the right solution for people who find themselves unemployed long-term. I know. I was unemployed for over a year due to all sorts of complex issues and frankly I thank my lucky stars that I don't have too much of a tendency to addiction or I could easily have been in a whole lot worse situation. Still now, because of the people who surround me, I could give you dozens of case studies of good people, who are in no way spongers, who can't afford to work, aren't in a position to work for mental health or addiction related reasons, and telling them their benefits would be cut if they didn't get into a job would not help them change their minds and think "oh well, I think I will get off benefits then, it's been a nice few years slacking, I think I'd rather have a job and more money and a nicer lifestyle now!" It's frankly insane to think it would, or even if it did to think that a job which would lift them out of the benefit trap would fall into their laps in all areas of the country, no matter what their skillset is. I want the people who run this country to genuinely care for and work for ALL the people they represent, not just the ones who are in a comfortable enough position to shout the loudest. Cutting benefits for people who haven't found work fast enough and have no other income - it's barbaric! Why not pick on inheritance and capital gains tax instead? Yes, the idea of losing the big comfortable family home that you haven't worked to build up and will still benefit from the proceeds of to some tune may be bad, but I don't believe it's nearly as bad as ending up homeless and desperate and probably dying an early death - the tories are telling the wrong people to go out, get a job and sort themselves out. 

It's probably apt that this post comes on Maundy Thursday. How much longer will we live in the post-Thatcherite consensus era before the neediest people in our society are back to being supported by charity and alms money?

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

So Ms Ashley, What Do You Feel You Can Bring to This Position?

Well, the time is almost at hand. We had a strategy meeting last night to finalise what our four candidates in Pembroke are campaigning on and how we're going to do it, and I go out tomorrow to start to collect my signatures for nomination to stand as a candidate in this year's local elections. It's not a simple matter, getting your name on that ballot paper. The candidate pack is like a paper doorstep, and full of daunting warnings and guidelines.

I keep telling myself that I don't have to get so anxious about the whole process; that I am doing the best I can and that is all that anyone expects, that if I don't win it doesn't negatively impact on my life in any way, that it really isn't a matter of life and death. It doesn't calm me. The fact is, I don't want to seem arrogant but I really am the best person for the job out of the available applicants. It's just that the interview process for this particular job is much more arduous and peculiar than for any other position: having to face a panel of over a thousand people, some of whom don't care who wins and probably won't even cast a vote either way, some of whom are related to or are otherwise close to the other candidates, and some of whom vote by habit a certain way and won't change their minds.

I don't know if it's helpful to even think of an election campaign in terms of a huge job interview. It's a handy analogy but frankly, the position of county councillor is perhaps not one that many people would like if it were written out as a job description, with the benefits and responsibilities laid bare. There is a good reason why the majority of councillors are older men. Basically, being a councillor doesn't pay very much (and nor should it - public money can be better spent) but at the same time, meetings and other demands on a councillor's time tend to keep them busy in the daytimes. This means it is very difficult to find other work to supplement the meagre income and so generally speaking the people who stand for election are those who are already self-sufficient in some way. For me, it's not about the money. It's not about any sense of kudos either. So why am I doing it? There are two reasons. Firstly I am the sort of person who wants to learn constantly. My first choice of job would be to become Professor Ashley, living in a place lined with groaning bookshelves and burying myself in academic study. There are however other ways to learn and develop as a person, and this is definitely one of them. How could I learn about the way the world works in any better way than by getting involved in the running of things? Learning as I go, making sure I am the best trained and informed I possibly can be to be the most effective representative and point of contact for the electorate I possibly can be. It's an attractive prospect. And it links nicely with my second motivation, which is to help people. I want to be the best kind of councillor - one who is accessible and helpful and does everything within her power to improve the situation for the local community. Already as a campaigner I am coming across many people who are isolated and neglected, and I want to involve them in every decision I take. It's part of being a Liberal Democrat, but it's also part of who I am - I only want to get into any position of power to give that power right back to the people it belongs to - all the people.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

How Flattered I Am, Mr Hughes

But don't you think the leader of Conwy Council should have better things to do with his time than reading my internet musings?

For the three men and a dog who were reading before it happened, I probably ought to explain that my nascent blog has already been the victim of a cheap shot by the Labour Party's own Ronnie Hughes, leader of his group in Conwy council. You can read it here, along with my response. This post and that official response mark the limit to my involvement in the affair. I have turned down a bid from the Richard Evans show on BBC Radio Wales, because I don't think Mr Hughes deserves to be given airtime or credence.

Of course, I would like to offer a full apology to anyone who was genuinely offended. I'm well aware that casual figures of speech can sometimes be taken the wrong way. However, to anyone reading the full original post, it should be clear that this was a jocular way to open a blog post. In its way in fact, it is a backhanded compliment - the fact that so many people from the North-West of England choose to retire to Llandudno, along with other seaside towns in North Wales, just goes to show how attractive and pleasant the area is. I myself spent happy holidays in Llandudno and the surrounding region as a child.

As far as I am concerned though, Mr Hughes' comment is less about concern for local residents and more about blatant electioneering -- a desperate attempt to score points over my party. It is not surprising that it comes now, so close to the local elections. It is a great shame that some politicians feel the need to take part in this kind of negative campaigning. It lends credibility to the widely-held view that all politicians are no better than squabbling children, only interested in their own self-promotion. I aim to base my campaign not around my opponents' weaknesses, but around my strengths and beliefs. Last night, I was sitting next to the Labour candidate for my ward at an unrelated meeting, and we agreed that politics should be a competition, not a war, and without good competition, victory means nothing. If Mr Hughes is still making a priority of reading my blog, I would ask him to follow his colleague's shining example.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Naughty Lemming

In my defence, parts of the reason why I still have the same amount of leaflets sitting forlornly in a box in my living room that I had on Thursday are valid. I mean, it isn't easy to prioritise your life and I did need to collect something from Pembroke yesterday. I need to spend some time with my daughter before she forgets what I looked like. I need to do some housework and get some groceries. I don't technically need to sleep until practically lunchtime and then faff about on facebook for two hours though. Naughty lemming.

Thursday was a productive day. I took out our latest leaflet to more than half of the ward with the help of the unstoppable John and Ron (who actually delivered for an hour after I had gone home, bless them). I got to speak to some of the people who had returned the survey I had taken out and got my first promises of votes from people I didn't already know - hurrah! Not resting on my laurels though, whatever it may look like today! I have plenty of weekend left, and I fully intend to go out and rain paper through everyone's letterboxes tomorrow. And prepare the membership report for Tuesday's executive meeting. And call my friends and supporters to see if they want to help out this week. For today though.. pass the coffee and the vacuum cleaner, I am staying home for a change!