Thursday, 30 April 2009

Sunday can't come soon enough

This Sunday, instead of delivering some of my chunk of the 25,000 Fiona Hall tabloids we are shoving through the doors in Darlington, I shall be getting up at 4.30am to begin the long trek to the Madejski Stadium to watch the mighty Royals attempt to bounce back to the Premiership by beating Birmingham (as long as Sheffield United fail to win at Crystal Palace).

Such is our rail system, I can't get a train via London to get to Reading in time for the 1.15 kickoff this Sunday. Instead, I have to drive to Leeds, catch a train at 6.40 to Manchester, from where a Cross Country train slowly wends its way south to Reading. The return journey to Leeds is via Birmingham, who, of course, we are playing that day. If Birmingham win, they go up. If they don't win, the journey back could be quite interesting!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

"Now you know what all the fuss is about"

Those famous (to a Reading FC fan) words spoken by Gary Lineker in the first Match of the Day following Reading's promotion to the Premiership three seasons ago, could equally be applied to the guest speaker at yesterday's Northern Liberal Democrats Spring Conference in Gateshead.

I'd never met, or even seen, our new Party President before, but Baroness Ros Scott came to Gateshead and opened Conference with a lovely speech about how she first got involved in politics, about her rise through the party and her experiences along the way.

As we trooped out of the Council Chamber at lunchtime I spotted Ros standing on her own, and went over to introduce myself. We joined the queue for lunch (why do local authority caterers assume we all eat in Gregg's and want corned beef in flaky pastry, fat laden chicken and quiche, all served up with enough salt to refloat the Titanic?) and chatted away about Darlington and local politics. What a thoroughly nice and ordinary person she is. No airs and graces: it was obvious why she became the first non-MP in a competitive election to be elected President. During the lunch break she sat on the sofas, chatting away to everyone. She understands what ordinary party members are all about and she knows about local politics and local government, which is where most of us operate.

Conference was well-attended and its focus was launching the campaign to get Fiona Hall re-elected as one of the region's MEPs. Dave McCobb explained what he hoped local parties would do during the election period. Alan Beith and Fiona herself spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing us as the Labour Party implodes and the Conservatives have nothing to offer (AB: "Does anyone wake up in the morning and say we must have George Osborne as Chancellor" was a line I may have misquoted, but you get the idea.)

Conference closed early, in time for some afternoon delivering. I went up to Kingston Park in our target seat of Newcastle North, delivering Fiona's tabloid and addressed envelopes from the PPC, Ron Beadle, in an affluent little housing estate with well-behaved dogs and manicured lawns.

Then there was still time to meet up with a friend of mine who lives locally before hearing the glorious news that Reading's quest for automatic promotion back to the Premiership remains alive thanks to Preston's defeat of Birmingham. Now it's down to the Madejski next Sunday for the final game of the season against Birmingham.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Dawn Drugs Raids

This morning I got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30am to join Durham Constabulary on a dawn swoop on addresses across Darlington, as part of Operation Nimrod. Cycling across a deserted town centre, I arrived at Darlington Police Station at 4.15, discovering no bike racks there.

Then into the station to join up with half a dozen local community activists and three other councillors (Fred Lawton, Gerald Lee and Bill Dixon). Apart from Bill, who is the relevant portfolio holder, the only other thing the three of us could find in common was that we had all been critical of some aspect of police activity, or lack of it, either by letter or in the press, over the previous few weeks.

We all trooped out to a waiting minibus to be whisked off to a secret location where something over 100 police officers were gathered. After a bacon sarnie and a scalding cup of coffee the briefings began. Two senior police officers spoke in general terms about the role and professionalism of the police and the need to correct the bad impression left by their colleagues in London at the G20 summit. I wondered whether this was purely for the benefit of the observers. Then a third briefing on operational matters from "Gold", the leader of the operation.

Then each team of officers were individually briefed on the locations to which they were going and the individuals who were their targets. While this was going on, the observers had a further briefing on what was expected of us, and had the opportunity to ask questions of the Inspector who was looking after us.

Operation Nimrod is an on-going operation aimed at public drug dealing. The targets are the street level dealers who sell drugs to strangers in pubs, clubs and on the street. The long-term aim is to remove the whole of this level of dealers. A beneficial side-effect of this would be to increase public confidence in the police and their drug-fighting activities.

The plan was to visit ten addresses in two waves, at 6am and 7am. We attended two of these visits. We set off in our minibus to the Denes area, arriving just as the heavily protected policeman entered the first house: without needing the heavy battering equipment - the front door was unlocked!

However, this is where the only hiccup of the day occured. The police were not expecting the house to be divided into flats and originally broke down the wrong door inside, much to the surprise of the young lady living there! They did get the right door on the second attempt and were successful in arresting their target, though the confusion inside the house meant we had to leave to go to the next house before they brought the target out.

We then set off for our second house, this time in the Neasham Road area. This was more like it! We waited in our minibus at the top of Brighton Street while one policeman went round to cover the rear of the house. Then four other officers, one carrying battering equipment, ran swiftly down the road as we sped along behind them in the bus. They reached the house at the same time as us and we were able to watch as they battered the door down and charged inside screaming "Police...police". Once again they found the target at home and within five minutes he was brought out in handcuffs.

Finally, we went Gladstone Street to sit in on the briefing given to PCSOs who were tasked with visiting houses in the area of those targetted, to explain and re-assure local residents about what went on near their homes that morning.

The police operation was professional, meticulously organised and highly successful. This was the police at their best: taking highly visible action against the drugs menace and carrying out their plan in a controlled and effective manner. The planning and execution was very impressive. It is a shame that the excellent crime-fighting activities of the police can sometimes be overshadowed by their less savoury activities as agents of a controlling state organisation intent on stifling legitimate peaceful protests.

It is legitimate to wonder, however, whether dawn raids of this nature were strictly necessary for low level street-based drug dealers. They were already all known to the police, with evidence against them for dealing. Operation Nimrod, with its community observers, might be thought to be more about improving the public's view of the police, and re-assuring the public about the police's activities, than with bringing these individuals to justice.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

In the Loop: a movie for our times

Going in to see "In the Loop" at The Gate, Newcastle, last night, I bumped into a group of the bright young things from the Durham and Newcastle Lib Dems coming out of the previous showing. "You'll love it", they said, and they were right.

Most of the favourites from the tv series were there, as foul mouthed as ever, though these days, knowing what type of people our Prime Minister surrounds himself with, it appears Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker is just not unpleasant, devious or poisonous enough compared to the real thing!

My favourite bit was a cameo appearance from Steve Coogan as a batty constituent at the MP's surgery. Angered at the imminent collapse of the wall, part of the local constituency HQ, running alongside his garden, Steve Coogan, wearing the same woolly hat we've all seen at surgeries, even managed to get the MP's advisor on his mobile in the middle of a conference in the USA. Genius.
Judging by the knowing laughs throughout the show, a good proportion of local politicos were in the audience. It won't have big box office appeal, so get along to see it while you can.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Miss Durham Pageant

The Echo fills a whole page with a story, and colour photos (thanks very much), about next week's Miss Durham beauty pageant. I thought these things had died out with Eric Morely, but no, here we have the 18 finalists ("whittled down from 80") in all their glory.

So: a bit of fun, or a demeaning spectacle which objectifies women?
If the contestants enjoy taking part who am I to criticise? Especially as in an hour's time I'll be setting off to watch the mighty Reading trying to actually score a goal at Blackpool. Even the most ardent Reading fan might describe this as a brain-dead activity at the moment.

The girls are described as "extremely attractive and classy ladies." Furthermore, this year they have introduced a "question and answer session", "so the girls can show how intelligent they are too".

Personally, having studied the photos carefully, I reckon the girls from Darlington must be in with a shout. So, come on Laura, Laura and Jodie!

And, for those of you who like this kind of thing, here's a photo I've just taken of one of my little beauties enjoying the morning sun in my garden...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Will's back from Afghanistan

It appears as if the vast array of responsibilities which fellow Darlington blogger Nick Wallis has to juggle with have finally caught up with him. It is exactly one month since his last serious post. Hopefully we haven't seen the last of him and he'll be back after the Euro elections. This is my first post for over a week: I do also get a blogging block (or a real life) from time to time.

But no politics today, just the good news that my 21 year old, Marine Barker, is back from the front line in Afghanistan in one piece: albeit a considerably bulkier and browner piece than when he flew out there six months ago. Carrying huge water bottles and thousands of rounds of ammunition on long patrols out into no man's land has given Will a physique like Arnie's. Will has had a few close shaves and, sadly, fewer Marine Commandos flew back this weekend than flew out all those months ago.

We now have his medal ceremony to look forward to in May. Will gets the best part of three months off before he begins more training, which he thinks will be in explosives warfare. He's also talking about applying for the Marines Special Forces. They're the real hard cases, God help us!