Liberal Democrats: On the rise again in the shires?

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Lib Dem poster Pic credit: http://www.geraldvernonjackson.org.uk/

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Almost without any comment  there appears to  be quite a  Liberal Democrat transformation in voting patterns outside the big cities in the latest rounds of council by-elections

The meltdown in the 2015 general election  left the Liberal Democrats with just eight seats in Parliament.The party seemed incapable of recovering from the damage it suffered from the electorate by going into a coalition with the Tories.

Indeed last year’s council by-elections saw the Lib Dems losing more ground to the Tories in places like Woking and Brentwood. The party made a little progress in the May local elections gaining 45 seats and control of one council, Watford.

Yet since the Brexit vote the Liberal Democrats – unscathed by any party infighting – have made  no fewer than six gains – two in Cornwall and one each in Wiltshire, Surrey, Norfolk and Northampton. I have written about this in Tribune  this week.

The interesting thing is not just the gains but the huge leap in vote share by the Liberal Democrats.

The latest result in Northampton – which came in after Tribune went to press- saw in Westone the Lib Dem share up 36.4 per cent and the Tory share down 28.8 per cent. A very useful website Vote UK Forum  records that in this ward the Lib Dems – despite a low poll – garnered 268 more votes  than in the general election.

The only other factor appears to be that the Liberal Democrat had stood for a nearby area some time ago and there was some resentment that the Tory lived in a village and not in the town.

The party – like Labour – is being helped by the decline in support for the now leaderless UKIP since the referendum. UKIP appears to be both declining and having difficulty in putting up council candidates.
The Lib Dem gain from UKIP in Cornwall was caused by UKIP not putting up a candidate in a seat they already held. As a result the Lib Dem candidate won the Newquay seat with a 57 per cent share of the vote. Conservative and Labour shares were down.
Lib Dems did well defeating another independent in Cornwall and one in Trowbridge, Wiltshire where the party got 45 per cent share of the vote. In North Norfolk they roundly defeated the Tory candidate in a seat which the Lib Dems had not contested at the last council election.

The interesting point is this is not being repeated where the Liberal Democrats are fighting Labour in metropolitan areas.Apart from a modest rise in one Islington seat won convincingly by Labour and a near miss in Southwark the party is performing dismally.

Indeed the challenge to Labour -if any- has come from the Greens who nearly won a seat in the London borough of Lambeth and ate into the Labour vote in both Luton and the London borough of Newham.

This would suggest that the “Corbyn” factor has not damaged Labour in its strongholds – indeed often the opposite with the Labour share increasing. And the Voter UK website also points that the revitalised local Labour Party are by far the best in getting their local vote out – up 10 per cent on average this year. But the Tories are holding off challenges from Labour in Tory marginals.

 

Exaro: What next?

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Most people have been shocked at the sudden closure of the Exaro website. Excepting trolls and troll websites that is.It means the  end of an outlet for a cutting edge form of investigative journalism. It certainly made waves  – whether on controversial allegations of child sex abuse and paedophile rings, the Dame Janet Smith findings, tax avoidance, and  media stories like the ” Rupert Murdoch ” tapes.

And it is worth saying  that the owner Jerome Booth, generously funded the site for five years without ever interfering in the editorial content.

Every effort will be made by Mark Conrad and me to see that  these investigations and more will continue and we are having conversations with a number of people on what we do next – whether using the Exaro site or with other media organisations.

But I thought a couple of points should be made to ensure people don’t get the wrong idea.

First, conspiracy theorists please note, the site has not been closed down because of its coverage of the child sex abuse allegations and by hints from dark forces. It is purely the result of a wider financial decision

Second, the site was not scheduled for closure when its former editor in chief, Mark Watts, was first made redundant and then dismissed. Nor at that time were other people expected to lose their jobs. Logically you would not appoint new people to run a  site if you wanted to close it.

Indeed we both had plans for developing new challenging stories  which first appeared in the last few weeks and there were more in the pipeline. We were also looking at new commercial ideas and partners to fund the site.

This has paradoxically put us in a good position to examine alternatives for the future. We are also  looking out for opportunities for Exaro staff who were there at the time of the closure so this excellent team can continue their investigations.

All I can say is watch this space. I am not commenting further  on the  sad and traumatic events of this week. There is the chance of a new era ahead.

 

A disturbing child sex abuse case that raises awkward questions about insurers

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Justice Lowell Goddard giving evidence to House of Commons home affairs committee. Pic credit: BBC

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My colleague Tim Wood reveals on the Exaro website today a damning story about how a victim of historic child sex abuse was failed by the Church of England because it took more notice of its insurers than survivors of abuse.

Joe as he was publicly known eventually won £35,000 in compensation over a case involving abuse by a church official dating back to the 1970s.

As Tim Wood  writes on Exaro: ” Joe claims that the church initially put financial considerations above its duty of pastoral care when handling his case, and called on the Church of England to do more to help abuse survivors.

Joe told Exaro: “The church should stop seeing child sex abuse survivors through a corporate lens and start viewing us through a theological lens of healing and justice.”

In an emotional letter to the Right Reverend Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, Joe claims that the church played out a “monstrous charade” in initially trying to close down his case.

The letter, written in April and seen by Exaro, claims that the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG), founded by the church in 1887, administered Joe’s case and started what he describes as a “damage limitation process.” Joe also claims that Bishop Butler, the Church of England’s head of safeguarding, was complicit in the strategy and began “blanking him” despite appeals for help.

To his credit Bishop Butler  who is head of the Church of England’s safeguarding body has apologised to Joe saying : ” “I am also extremely sorry that when the solicitor’s letter arrived regarding a claim, I did not over-rule the legal and insurance advice I received regarding having no further contact with you. I should have made it clear it would have been better to maintain contact.”

And the insurance company has also said it was misunderstood and didn’t intend to interfere with pastoral care.

However there is a wider question about the role of insurance companies and suppressing allegations of child sexual abuse.

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Ann Clwyd, the Labour Mp for the Cynon Valley, has been campaigning for changes in the law to prevent insurers putting up road blocks in investigating child sex abuse in council run homes.

Last year she secured a debate in the Commons in  which she said that reports into abuse in homes run by the former Clwyd County Council had been “prevented from publication by the council’s insurers.”

Ms Clwyd said: “[The] council did not allow the inquiry to place a notice in the local press seeking information because this was considered to be unacceptable to the insurers. It’s interesting that the insurers of the county council were also the insurers of the North Wales Police.”

Describing how the report was then “suppressed”, she said only 12 copies were made and it was “virtually unseen by committee or council members”. She argued that if it had been published “it would have sounded alarm bells and things would have moved much faster”.

She added: “It was not until July 2013 that the redacted version of the Jilliings report was finally published after a request by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.”

So far ministers have not taken any action despite a recommendation by the Law Commission  way back in 2004.

This seems to be to be an ideal issue to be taken up by  the Goddard inquiry into child sexual abuse. And the Church of England case appears to be yet another example that should be investigated.

How the NHS wasted £16m of your money on a botched privatisation that collapsed within months

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Meg Hillier MP:,chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, condemned the failings in the scheme

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New ways of  helping the elderly and mentally ill survive in the community and not continually end up in hospital is a cornerstone of government policy.

So when a limited liability partnership offered a cash strapped  NHS commissioning group an initiative which promised better services for these people and could save them £178m over five years it sounded too good to be true.

The trouble is it was. As a devastating report from the National Audit Office reveals today the £800m scheme  ran into trouble just four weeks after it was launched and collapsed seven months later. You can read the full story on the Exaro website.

The scandal of the £800m scheme run by UnitingCare Partnership for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough clinical commissioning group may not be an isolated instance.That is why sources at the National Audit Office have highlighted it in their report – because it exposes an alarming lack of financial expertise inside the NHS and a flawed system to monitor whether projects like this are financially feasible  andcan  be properly checked.

The promised aim of the project was to establish  tapering payments to the partnership – with £152m up front and less money later, ¬ so that the financially challenged commissioning group could put money to better use.

But within four weeks of starting the contract the partnership was asking for an extra £34m, blaming a delay by the commissioning authority in starting the work. When the money was not forthcoming the scheme collapsed after eight months and the NHS was forced to provide services directly.

The NAO report reveals that despite employing reputable financial companies and lawyers, basic errors were made – including a failure to realise that sub-contractors could not recover the VAT from the partnership – a cost that had not been factored into the contract.

Auditors also report that nobody had overall oversight of the contract.

No wonder both Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, and Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee have been withering in their criticism.

Amyas Morse said: “This contract was innovative and ambitious but ultimately an unsuccessful venture, which failed for financial reasons which could, and should, have been foreseen.”

Meg Hillier said: “The result is damning: a contract terminated before the ink had even dried out, at an unnecessary cost of £16m.”

What is disturbing is that the NAO point out that Monitor, the body which checks health bodies, had no locus to check whether the scheme was viable and NHS England were too remote to act.”

The report says: ““No organisation was responsible for taking a holistic view of the risks and benefits of this approach, or considering whether the anticipated longer‐term benefits were sufficient to justify additional short‐term support.“

What is really disturbing  is that £16m was wasted -plus £8.9m  on setting up a complex tendering operation and start up costs.

Far better to have spent this extra money on patient and community care – instead of throwing our money down the drain on a scheme that anyone would have thought to be too good to be true.

 

Labour’s UKIP fear factor: A ballot box illusion

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Jeremy Corbyn ; Labour doing well in council elections as UKIP declines

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One of the reasons Labour MPs  are deciding to try and ditch Jeremy Corbyn is the fear that following the referendum result UKIP would become the official opposition by seizing swathes of Labour seats in the North and Midlands at the next general election.

Their ( at present) ex leader Nigel Farage boasted to journalists at a reception earlier this year that UKIP would win hundreds of seats from Labour in a Scotland style  melt down as the working class deserted Corbyn over immigration and leadership issues.

Since UKIP achieved its ambition for Brexit this month  one would expect them to be riding high every time voters went to the polls.

But the handful of council by-elections since Brexit are telling a totally different story with Labour actually increasing its share of the vote in some seats – and when under fire mainly losing votes to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Although these results are at present straws in the wind they seem to suggest that public is separating its vote to remain or leave the EU from its support for parties on domestic and local issues. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

By coincidence two of the first council by-elections  were in heartland UKIP areas in Kent and showed an increase in the Labour vote and a decline in support for UKIP.

In every other seat UKIP contested they lost their previous share of the vote and when they challenged Labour in a Luton ward for the first time came bottom of the poll with a derisory 69 votes.

The by- election in Welling in the London borough of Bexley was in a borough that voted to leave and in an unpromising ward  for Labour that included had one UKIP and two Tory councillors.

Yet the result last Thursday in St Michael’s ward saw the Labour share of the vote increase by 11.5 per cent to come a close second to defeating the Tory who recorded a 2.7 per cent increase in his share. UKIP’s share of the vote declined by 14.7 per cent.  Over 30 per cent of the electorate voted – one week after Bexley recorded a decisive vote to leave.

The second by-election in Newington in Thanet – a UKIP stronghold – saw UKIP just retain the seat by 14 votes. But the UKIP share was down four per cent and the Labour share was up 1.9 per cent. The Tory share was down 2.5 per cent.

Two other results in High Town, Luton and Leatherhead North in Surrey saw Labour lose a share of the vote but not at the expense of a declining UKIP. Leatherhead was a straight battle between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats who gained the seat with a 27 per cent  increase in the share of the vote.

In High Town the main challengers were the Green Party who clipped Labour’s majority and the Liberal Democrats who stood for the first time gaining 14.2 per cent. UKIP got 5.4 per cent of the vote. Labour’s share of the vote was down 13.4 per cent.

Conway in North Wales might be a example that detractors could quote. The Labour share of the vote in last Thursday’s by election in Mostyn fell 6.1 per cent. Local circumstances – the previous Labour councillor, a ship’s captain who hardly attended council meetings – may have been a factor.

The Tory share went up by 4.7 per cent and the Lib Dems by 4.9 per cent. But significantly the UKIP candidate – known in the area as he had stood as an independent – could only muster 75 votes -under 10 per cent of the poll. A full analysis can be seen on  this site.

Given the state of the Labour Party at the moment their performance in local councils is extremely robust. It still has to be tested in a by-election in the North and Midlands. But on the evidence so far the UKIP threat is a myth when it comes to the ballot box.

The mystery of the secret discovery of chemical WMD in Iraq which poses more questions than answers

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Sir John Chiilcot: Pic Credit: BBC

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It could be from the pages of a novel. But my colleague and co author Nick Kochan has an extraordinary story on the Exaro website this week just as the damning Chilcot report on the Iraq War has been published.

The essence of the story is a large cache of  chemical weapons  shells containing the nerve gas sarin were discovered and destroyed  by the Americans and British in a remote British area of Iraq in 2005 and 2006 long after the UN weapons inspectors had disappeared.

The source for the story has told Exaro about how the CIA using a front company purchased thousands of shells many containing the nerve gas sarin from an Iraqi war lord and then destroyed all the weapons.

Incredible as this may seem this story is stood up by information released in the United States under the US Freedom of Information Act and in the UK  to a lesser extent by the Ministry of Defence.

The US info which named the clandestine operation as Avarice  and the British operations were known as  Bedouin 1 and 2..

In 2015, the New York Times reported details of covert operations that involved the CIA, US military intelligence and the British Army.

The International Business Times, a US-based website, later revealed details of the British-led Bedouin missions.

What is curious is that neither  revelation made much of a stir at the time – even though it meant that chemical WMD had been discovered.

And this week’s Chilcot report makes no mention of the clandestine operations though it does reveal that later discoveries of chemical weapons was reported to the Joint Intelligence Committee.

This  raises loads of unanswered questions. The discovery in 2006 would have been very useful to Tony Blair’s case that  Iraq still possessed chemical weapons and you would have expected Alistair Campbell to have shouted it from the rooftops. But this information was either never used or never reached either of them.

The other question is more sinister. What was the use made by the warlords of the CIA money?

For soon after many British and US troops were killed by IED’s planted by war lords to get the UK and US out of Iraq. Exaro’s source is fearful that the money paid by the CIA may have been used to buy these weapons and to kill British and American soldiers.

Given Chilcot’s strong criticism of the inadequacy of equipment for the troops including snatch landrovers this is a highly damaging allegation.

“It is possible that western forces were killed by Mahdi army funded by the CIA. Nobody ever identified what happened to the [US] money and what it was used for,” the source claimed.

“The only people who could have moved those sorts of things around that area were involved in many nefarious activities.”

So far  even with Chilcot we are none the wiser.

IRAQI FREEDOM

As Coalition Forces respond to a car bombing in South Baghdad, Iraq (IRQ), a second car bomb is detonated, targeting those responding to the initial incident. The attack, aimed at the Iraqi police force, resulted in 18 casualties, two of which were police officers, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. pic credit:bbc

Chilcot and The Blair Rich Project

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Blair Inc: paperback version. Pic Credit: John Blake Books

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On Wednesday the  report into the Iraq War  will finally be published and Tony Blair’s role will be finally dissected by a top former civil servant, Sir John Chilcot.

Tonight (Monday)  at 8.0pm  I will be appearing in a Channel 5 documentary called The Blair Rich Project which will look at how  Tony and Cherie Blair have amassed so much wealth since he left office in 2007. You can link to it and view the episode here

The programme includes a number of stories which are covered in our book Blair Inc. The book came out  in paperback last week  and is co-authored by me,Francis Beckett and Nick Kochan.

The programme looks at the Blairs’ property empire, his deals abroad and both he and Cherie’s fascination with amassing wealth.

The book to remind you covers Blair’s former role as Middle East envoy, his failed bid to become European Union president, the Blair Faith Foundation, his deals with other  countries where he has been an apologist for dictators  and also includes a chapter on his close ally and friend Peter Mandelson, his lobbying empire and his relationship with Russian oligarchs. There is an attempt to prise open his far from transparent companies where he amasses his wealth.

As Blair faces questioning over his role in Iraq it is worth reminding people how far the Blairs have come since he left office nine years ago.