No reporter expects a warm welcome from politicians on the prowl for votes.
Especially not during this election, when the polls are so close that the phrase “squeaky bum time” doesn’t come close to describing the anxiety gnawing away at the heart of most candidates.
That said, the control exerted over the regional press during this time has been alarming.
The North East isn’t exactly the eye of the storm. It is home to some of Labour’s safest seats and that isn’t likely to change after tomorrow’s election.
The party machines calculate, perhaps understandably, it is only worth sending their high-profile folk to marginal constituencies, like Berwick Upon Tweed and Stockton South, where showing a well-known face could make a difference.
It is a state of affairs which has seen not one party leader venture into Tyne and Wear or County Durham since the dissolution of Parliament, bar Ed Miliband reportedly jumping off a train for a quick coffee in Newcastle Central Station.
But here’s an example of what it is like to cover the visit of a big hitter when they do grace us with their presence. On Tuesday, Baileys Cafe, in Alnwick, hosted one George Osborne for tea and cake as the senior Tory sought to drum up support for Berwick candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan.
A press officer asked me what questions I want to ask. I said I didn’t know (a white lie, told after an experience with the Prime Minister’s PR, which I’ll come to later).
Mr Osborne arrived to the sound of cameras furiously clicking, ordered food and spent 20 minutes dining with a select group of local businessmen, all of whom appeared to be Conservative supporters. I don’t know this for certain, mind, but deduced as much from snippets of the conversation, which included “hopefully with Anne-Marie in Parliament” and lots of warm smiles.
Journalists were invited take pictures of Mr Osborne’s supposedly impromptu encountering of the public, after which he would take our questions.
The Chancellor disappeared for a huddle with his press team while myself and two other local journalists were told to wait at a table – a bit like being sat outside the headmaster’s office when you are caught chewing gum.
When Mr Osborne re-emerged, his press officer barked: “One question each.”
I was last in the go-round so pushed my luck by asking a second question, as did one other reporter, much to the annoyance of his press officer.
Note that these are questions without a follow-up, so in reality you are afforded nothing but the stock party line and little opportunity to get under the skin of what information you get. If I wanted to read a manifesto, I would have stayed in the office and used Google.
Disappointing, to say the least. The press officer said she understood, jotted down her email and told me to send her additional questions, a phone interview having been ruled out, for some reason. This email was not acknowledged until 11.35pm, almost 12 hours after the interview and well past our newspapers’ deadlines.
Another example, in April, David Cameron visited the Icon Plastics factory, in Eaglescliffe, to support Stockton South Tory James Wharton. I was asked to email six questions the night before, then on the day was put in a pool of six reporters and given just two questions. No follow-ups.
I was, again, told to email additional questions. Press officers assured me a week later they were “still trying” to get answers. I gave up.
All parties are guilty of this kind of behaviour, though it has to be said Labour’s Ed Balls and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron found time to give us a phone interview when they visited.
This treatment of the press isn’t unfair on journalists. We’re used to no-one liking us all that much.
It is unfair on the people who read and watch our content; the same people, incidentally, whose vote decides whether or not these rather evasive politicians have this kind of power.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 06 May 2015
An election candidate has been advised to vote against himself by a former front bench spokesman of his own party.
Lord Oakeshott, who was Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman from 2001 to 2011, has sent a controversial letter to Liberal Democrats in the highly marginal Stockton South constituency, including the Party’s candidate Drew Durning.
The letter, which has been distributed by the Labour Party, has been condemned as “a bit grubby” by Mr Durning and “sneaky” by Conservative candidate James Wharton.
However, the Labour candidate Louise Baldock stressed the letter bore a Labour Party imprint and was “absolutely not misleading”.
The letter is on yellow paper, the Liberal Democrat colour, and proclaims Lord Oakeshott’s status as the Liberal Democrat’s Treasury spokesman for a decade.
Lord Oakeshott is now an Independent, and the letter explains he is an independent peer in the opening line. He left the Liberal Democrats after being involved in a controversy where he leaked a party opinion poll which showed the Nick Clegg as struggling and was accused of deliberately undermining his party leader.
He has donated to parliamentary candidates for Labour, Liberal Democrat and the Green parties and has declared he wants an anti-Conservative “progressive alliance.” Ms Baldock has received £10,000 for her campaign from Lord Oakeshott.
Mr Durning laughed off the fact the letter was sent to him and dismissed it as “bad organisation.” But he was upset about the use of Liberal Democrat imagery.
He said: “I am annoyed about the approach. It is in yellow and they’re dressing it up as if it’s Liberal Democrat. It’s a bit grubby.”
Mr Wharton said: “It a bit sneaky. It’s obviously misleading: it’s on yellow paper. But, to be honest, I don’t think a letter will make much difference.”
Source – Northern Echo, 30 Apr 2015
Ms Baldock strongly defended sending out the letter.
She said: “There is absolutely no intention to mislead. It carries my imprint. It is actually there on the letter, and it will be declared in my expenses. He wanted to write to people in this constituency to express his views and he can do that. This is common practice. Mr Wharton himself did it by distributing a letter from a neurologist.”
At the last election Mr Wharton won by just 332 votes over former Labour MP Dari Taylor and it is the North-East’s most marginal seat.
The full list of candidates are Louise Baldock, Labour; Drew Durning, Liberal Democrat; Jacqui Lovell, Green, Ted Strike, Ukip; Steve Walmsley, Independent and James Wharton, Conservative.
A leading Stockton councillor has thrown his hat into the ring at the last minute to contest the Stockton South seat at the General Election.
Steve Walmsley, leader of the Thornaby Independent Association (TIA), is running as candidate for the Party of Dissent.
Cllr Walmsley describes the newly registered party as “a party of independents against social injustice and savage austerity cuts”.
The former Labour councillor split from the party back in 2003 “because of disillusion with politics without conscience and having to tow the party line no matter what”, and set up the TIA with friends.
He said he didn’t take the decision to stand in the May election “lightly”.
“What really swayed me was the fact that mainstream parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, say much and offer little apart from a continuation of austerity which has brought misery to so many of the most vulnerable,” he said.
“And so this election should be about people making a choice about what kind of society they want to live in.
“If they want an uncaring, dog eat dog society where the poor, helpless and outsiders are stigmatised and blamed for economic meltdown whilst the greedy culprits continue to live in the lap of luxury, then they should vote for more of the same with any of the aforementioned parties.”
Cllr Walmsley believes Parliament should be “nationalised in the sense that those the public elect should work exclusively for the general public”.
He also believes that councils should be “localised, released from the stranglehold of political parties and handed back to the people who pay the bills and who ultimately bear the brunt of political folly and indifference”.
Immigration should also be “seriously and sensibly” tackled, he said.
Source – Middlesbrough Gazette, 13 Apr 2015
As the election battle begins UKIP seems a bit confused over its local geography – announcing two of its Stockton South candidates are standing in the “Grangetown” ward…
The blunder appears on UKIP Stockton’s website and should read ‘Grangefield’ instead of Grangetown – which is of course in Redcar and Cleveland.
The two UKIP candidates standing for Stockton’s Grangefield ward (or “Grangetown”) in the local authority elections in May are Michael Spayne and Aiden Cockerill.
After the transgression was pointed out , Alastair Coe, spokesperson for UKIP Stockton Branch, said the website would be corrected.
He said: “I’m sure if you were to look at the websites of most political parties you would find the odd typo.
“I’ll point it out to the people who do our website that there is an inaccuracy.”
Labour councillor Mike Clark, who currently serves the Grangefield ward alongside his wife Carol, was bemused by the UKIP error.
“I think this is a classic example of a campaign getting off on the wrong foot – or in the wrong borough.
“The extraordinary thing – apart from the shocking lack of local knowledge – is that this howler has been on their website now for four days, which tends to suggest it doesn’t attract a lot of readers.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 30 Mar 2015
North-East Tories were left red-faced after accusing one of their own MPs of failing to “fight for” his constituents in the Commons.
The leader of North Tyneside Conservatives attacked MPs who “short-change” voters by making only a small number of speeches in the chamber.
Councillor Judith Wallace produced a table claiming that such MPs were costing taxpayers many thousands of pounds for each speech they made.
And she said: “Politicians think that they can just turn up at election time, push a few leaflets through the door and think ‘job done’. Well it just isn’t good enough.”
However, the table – based on the number of speeches made during the 2014 calendar year – listed only two North-East MPs as “well below average”.
And one of those two was fellow Tory James Wharton, who faces a crucial knife-edge battle to cling onto the Stockton South seat, where he has a majority of just 332.
Mr Wharton spoke just 12 times last year, the Tories said – at an alleged cost of £5,589.17 per contribution – two more occasions than Tynemouth Labour MP Alan Campbell (£6,707).
Cllr Wallace added:
“Voters expect their MPs to be working hard for their salary.
“An MP’s job is to stand up in the House of Commons and make the views of your electors known to the executive – to challenge and to fight for your constituents.”
Tom Blenkinsop, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – second in the table (76 speeches) – pointed out that Mr Campbell was Labour’s deputy chief whip, so spoke very little by convention.
And he said:
“I’d like to congratulate the Tory party for highlighting how little James Wharton has done in his five years – and also for highlighting how much I have done.”
Mr Wharton did not return messages left by journalists, while a spokesman for Cllr Wallace insisted: “Judith’s comments are specifically about her sitting MP Alan Campbell, for Tynemouth.”
The list put Hexham Conservative MP Guy Opperman top (116 speeches), with Labour’s Ian Lavery (Wansbeck – 66) and Grahame Morris (Easington – 64) third and fourth.
Over a year ago we published an article Could claimants choose the next government? looking at the fact that working age claimants hold the balance of power in enough marginal seats to potentially decide who governs Britain at the next election, and yet they are treated by politicians with such contempt that you might imagine they had no vote at all.
The contempt has not lessened, but with an election just 100 days away the chance for claimants to exercise their influence is drawing near.
Below are series of bar charts, looking at a largely random selection of marginal seats – though most are currently held by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. We have compared the majorities at the next election with the working age claimant count in the constituency.
In some seats, such as East Dunbartonshire, claimants would be hard pressed to single-handedly wrest control from the current MP.
But in many others, such as Cardiff North, claimants have overwhelmingly superior strength of numbers.
The big question now is not whether claimants can make a difference to who wins the general election, but whether they will choose to.
Please feel free to share and publish these images elsewhere.
Source – Benefits & Work, 27 Jan 2015
The Liberal Democrat candidate for Stockton South says he is disappointed at Lord Oakeshott handing £10,000 to his Labour rival – but can understand the decision.
Labour candidate Louise Baldock has said she will accept a £10,000 donation from the former Liberal Democrat peer .
Matthew Oakeshott, who sits in the House of Lords as an independent after leaving the Liberal Democrat party last year, has donated £600,000 to Labour and Lib Dem MPs to fight the Conservatives in key marginal seats.
And he has identified Stockton South as a key target and donated £10,000 towards Ms Baldock’s campaign to unseat Tory James Wharton.
Now, Stockton South Lib Dem candidate Drew Durning has expressed his view on the donation.
“I can fully understand why Lord Oakeshott is doing everything he can to fight the Conservatives,” he said.
“But the way to give the best weight to Liberal Democrat values would be to support Liberal Democrat candidates.
“It is obviously disappointing.”
Mr Durning, 56, was picked to stand in the seat only this weekend.
He runs an organic food business in the area, and lives in the Oxbridge Lane area of Stockton with his wife Anna.
Mr Wharton won the seat with 38.9% of the vote in 2010, with Labour coming second with a 38.3% share.
The Lib Dems came third with 15.1%.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 22 Jan 2015
A major new campaign has been launched to hit back against any negative portrayal of Stockton from the controversial show Benefits Street.
The Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign is a light-hearted response to what is expected to be a less than flattering portrayal of the borough when the Channel 4 series airs next year.
And people across the borough and beyond are being encouraged to show their love for Stockton by sharing photographs, videos and stories.
A new website – http://www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk – and social media accounts have been set up to kick-start the campaign.
The decision to film the second series of Benefits Street in Stockton caused widespread outrage, with some accusing Channel 4 of using “poverty tourism” to chase ratings.
The first series made stars of some of its cast but was described by critics as “poverty porn”.
After the story broke , Middlesbrough FC fans at the Riverside Stadium unveiled a banner reading “Being poor is not entertainment”.
But despite the fierce local and national criticism of the show, Channel 4 chief executive Ralph Lee said the broadcaster’s output would not be “censored”.
He defended the channel’s right “to tell the stories of some of the distressed parts of our society”.
Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We did everything in our power to persuade the producers of Benefits Street to turn their attentions elsewhere. Sadly, you can’t win them all.
“What became clear, though, was that lots of people agreed with us that this is not a good thing for the borough.
“So, we’ve decided to focus our energies on turning a negative into a positive. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to respond to a series like Benefits Street is to celebrate, with good humour and quiet confidence, all that is great about our fine borough.”
The campaign will give people the opportunity to share their views on what they love about Stockton.
The council will support the campaign, but now want to “hand it over the public”, said Cllr Cook.
“This is a borough-wide campaign for the whole of Stockton-on-Tees. We’re delighted that our local media – The Gazette, Northern Echo and BBC Tees – are in agreement with us and have agreed to unite in their support of us.
“Whether you’re from Stockton, Billingham, Yarm, Eaglescliffe, Thornaby, Norton or Ingleby Barwick, we’d love you to get involved.”
Benefits Street is expected to be aired in March 2015 and the Positively Stockton campaign – also known as “Psst…” – features a major event that same month.
Billed as The Loudest Whisper, the event on Friday, March 13, will see a whispered message passed around the borough – starting and ending in Kingston Road – where the series is being filmed.
The message will be passed from person to person using human chains as well as all kinds of transport, from horses and rowing boats to buses and bikes.
The event, which will also raise money for Comic Relief, is being organised by Wildcats of Kilkenny frontman and proud Stocktonian Mike McGrother.
“There has been an assumption from the producers of Benefits Street that we’re a community that needs to be given a voice,” he said.
“To present this as ‘factual’ television designed to engineer some kind of social benefit is a bit arrogant I think.
“There’s an abundance of community pride in Stockton – it’s just not our style to go shouting it from the rooftops. But if we’re faced with a series that seeks to paint us in an unfair light on national television, we shouldn’t take that lying down.
“Through the Loudest Whisper event and the Positively Stockton campaign, we can dispel the myths that will inevitably be trotted out using the sense of humour, community spirit and understated manner people in our borough are renowned for.
“And it’s all for Comic Relief. Our voices, though quiet, will be heard!”
The new campaign also has the support of Stockton’s MPs.
Alex Cunningham, Labour, in whose Stockton North constituency Benefits Street is being filmed, said:
“There is much for us to be positive about our borough from the talent and resilience of our people to the powerhouse of the local council and other organisations doing their best in difficult circumstances to create jobs, improve our town centres and make life better for us all.
“It is tremendous that our community is reacting in such a positive way.
“Doubtless Channel 4 will claim our campaign would never have happened but for their unwelcome intrusion into our community, but they will be wrong again – there have been many positive initiatives over the years promoting our success, which is perhaps why the borough is seeing its population grow and why it was voted one of the best places in the country to do business.”
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, said:
“If you look around you in Stockton you see things getting better – more jobs, more investment, a town and community proud of its past and looking to its future.
“We need to talk up what makes us great and this campaign is a brilliant addition to that. Benefits Street will show what they want, we will show the truth and talk up Teesside.”
To find out more about the Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign, and how to get involved, visit: www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 Nov 2014
Stockton MP James Wharton received £22,000 in donations between July and September – the fifth largest amount donated to any individual MP during the period.
The donations amount to almost as much as the £29,400 received by the whole of the Plaid Cymru party in the same timeframe.
No other Tees MP received individual donations in that time period, according to the data collated by Trinity Mirror.
But several donations were made to constituency party offices on Teesside.
Mr Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, received two donations of £10,000 each and one of £2,000.
One of the donations worth £10,000 was given by former Conservative party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas.
The other was given by company JCB Research Ltd – owned by Anthony Bramford, a Tory life peer and chairman of construction equipment firm JCB.
The remaining £2,000 was donated by IPGL Ltd – a privately-owned holding company of a trading group, based in London.
Mr Wharton told The Gazette he would “not spend public money on my newsletters or leaflets”.
“I work hard to stay in touch with residents all year round – not just at election time,” he said.
“I am pleased to do this without spending taxpayers money.
“I am sure many taxpayers in our area will appreciate that too.”
> Perhaps they should withold judgement until they’ve seen what he claims on expenses…
The donations will help Mr Wharton, one of only two Conservative MPs in the North-east, as he seeks to defend a majority of just 332 at next year’s General Election.
He has previously received separate donations in 2013 from former Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall and Alexander Temerko, a Russian businessman.
Mr Temerko was allowed to stay in Britain after a judge ruled an attempt to extradite him to Russia on fraud charges was politically motivated.
As such, he is allowed to make political donations.
Mr Wharton has also received funding from the United and Cecil Club.
The organisation has come under the spotlight after supporting Tory candidates in a number of key marginals.
Under funding rules, wealthy supporters can give up to £7,500 without disclosing their identity if it is funnelled through a club.
Among other political donations on Teesside from July to September were:
:: £2,500 donated in Stockton South to the Conservative party from The Association of Conservative Clubs Ltd;
:: £1,700 worth of administration fees donated in Stockton South to the Labour party from UNISON;
:: £2,500 donated in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to the Conservatives from a Richard E Jones;
:: £1,200 donated in Redcar to the Lib Dems from the Redcar and Cleveland Lib Dem Council Group;
:: £1,000 donated in Redcar to Labour from David Blunkett (the Gazette was unable to verify if this was the former home secretary);
:: £2,500 donated in Redcar to Labour from the Communication Workers Union.
The largest donation received between July and September this year was to the value of £950,000.
It was given to the Liberal Democrats by a George G Watson.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 19 Nov 2014