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Archives for September 2010

In the wake of the Connaught collapse

Deborah McGurran | 18:27 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

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Connaught vehicle 

When 300 staff working for Connaught in Norwich lost their jobs earlier this month there was, not surprisingly, a lot of anger.

They marched on the City Hall demanding the council helped them. On the face of it, it couldn't do very much. Connaught was a private company, its collapse had nothing to do with the council.

But behind the scenes councillors were determined to try to sort out the mess as quickly as possible. Talks have been taking place with several companies to try to find someone to take over the housing repair and maintenance work and re-employ those who'd lost their jobs.

Now the council has revealed that it had reached an agreement in principle with another contractor. It was prepared to take on a large number of those who'd lost their jobs.

It seemed the perfect deal and the council was about to announce it - and then the lawyers were called in.

"A QC has warned of the significant risk of a legal challenge if we were to transfer the contract without going to tender," said a statement. "We are very disappointed that legal constraints have prevented our preferred option from going ahead."

The lawyers warned that two other contractors may have mounted a legal challenge, arguing that awarding the contract without going to tender was a breach of procurement law.

"This is hugely frustrating," says Councillor Alan Waters, the chair of the contracts working party. "The money is there, the work is there and the workforce is ready to do it but we cannot go ahead with a common sense solution."

So now all the contracts will have to be put out to tender meaning more uncertainty for those who've lost their jobs. The first temporary contracts will be in place by the middle of November - the more permanent ones will take a year to draw up.

In the meantime the council is doing what it can to help staff. It's taken the names and contact details of 250 former Connaught workers which will be passed on to any future contractor.

For council tenants, life appears to be continuing as normal. Emergency contracts have been placed with firms to carry out repairs. 1,171 repairs have been undertaken this month.

But for those who've lost their jobs - the uncertainty continues.

David Miliband exits from the front bench

Deborah McGurran | 21:12 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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This Labour Party Conference has been a rollercoaster ride. Saturday's leadership contest should have been the high point of the week, descending into the settled rhythm of takeover.

The reality has been anything but, as Ed Miliband was controversially elected by the smallest of margins, triggering a sequence of events unknown in British politics.

David Miliband

Nerves have been tested to the limit as the new leader tried to make the speech of his life to win over a conference audience that had prefered his older brother - while all the time trying to keep his sibling on board.

The speech seemed to galvanise the hall. His "new generation" break with Blair was the new broom those on the left of the party welcomed.

Chris Mole, the former MP for Ipswich who lost his seat in May, told me he hadn't voted for Ed but he thought he'd made a good start.

"He attacked the Conservatives not the Lib Dems. In fact he could have teased out the praising of people like Lloyd George a little more, appealing to disaffected Lib Dems."

Charles Clarke, the former MP for Norwich South, had listened on the floor as Ed Miliband criticised the erosion of British liberties, condemned "the broad use of anti-terrorism measures" and 90-day detentions. The former MP Home Secretary remained tight-lipped as he walked briskly from the hall.

The white-knuckle ride continued as David kept his younger brother waiting to see if he would serve under him. Now the wait's over and Miliband senior is letting the bandwagon roll on without him in a front bench seat.

He says it is to minimise distractions from his brother's administration but his failure to endorse his brother's ending of the era of New Labour speaks volumes.

The delegates leaving Manchester have had quite an experience this week and will leave exhausted but I doubt if the majority are exhilarated after losing one of the Milibands along the way.

Speech Day encounters

Deborah McGurran | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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Much anticipation in the air coming into conference to hear Ed Miliband's first speech as leader.

The Right Honourable Tony Benn, still sprightly at 85, is keen to get inside the hall. He welcomes a comrade selling the Morning Star newspaper.

Labour veteran Tony Benn

"I expect you've got a copy," she says.

"No, I'll take one of yours," he answers, reaching for his wallet.

A few years ago as I queued for two hours for conference in Brighton, he was in front of me. He firmly refused to be jumped to the front and entertained us all with tales of government.

He was not the only one with a spring in his step.

I bump into Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North.

"This is the first leader's speech I've looked forward to in 35 years," he chortles. He orchestrated Diane Abbott's campaign but says he knew she wouldn't win, and Ed Miliband was his second choice.

Others looking forward to their moment in the sun while Ed Miliband delivered his message to the party faithful were the group of hip young things hand-picked to sit beside him on the platform.

Alas, one young pretender's hopes were dashed when a steward who was shepherding "the young ones" barred his way, saying "You're too old".

I imagine there were plenty of others in the hall who felt the same way as Ed the younger
repeatedly declared, Roger Daltry-like, that this was a new generation of Labour.

The East backed David

Deborah McGurran | 19:01 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

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We were aware that the east favoured David Miliband over his younger brother Ed, but the figures do show just how overwhelming that vote was.

The resuts for the contest are published in some detail.

Labour MP for Luton South Gavin Shuker had Ed Miliband as his first preference and Ed Balls as his second, deciding not to use his other preferences.

Richard Howitt, Labour's MEP for the east, put David Miliband first and his brother Ed second and also opted out of other preferences.

Kelvin Hopkins, Luton North's Labour MP, did use the full range of preferences and put Diane Abbott first, Ed Miliband second, Ed Balls third, Andy Burnham fourth and David Miliband fifth.

Of our constituency Labour parties, the difference between those that put David Miliband before the winner, Ed Miliband, was marked.

Only three constituencies - Basildon and Billericay, South Cambridgeshire, and Waveney put Ed above David and in Southend West and West Suffolk it was a dead heat.

All the others wanted David to win. Of course he didn't and now Labour in this region will need move on and unite behind their new leader. His first speech will be a test of how easy it will be to win them over.

Don't go left, warns Charles Clarke

Deborah McGurran | 13:20 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

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Charles Clarke

The former Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said that he is unlikely to ever be a Member of Parliament again.

"If the election is held in 2015, then I will be 65, and I don't want to be in Parliament aged 70," he said.

"But should there be an election in a couple of years time, then I wouldn't rule it out."

But with the 55% rule on a dissolution vote and the adoption of fixed term parliaments, the likelihood of an early election is remote, even if the coalition is feeling the strain, and so we may well be looking at the end of Charles Clarke's political career.

Of course he will be playing a role as visiting professor at the University of East Anglia and hopes to raise the profile of politics there. He also hopes to begin work on a number of books that he's been planning to write.

He denies that had David Milliband been elected he may have played a greater political role, even if he hadn't been an MP.

"I voted for David Miliband as my one and only preference," he said but he expressed support for Ed Miliband although he believes the new Labour leader will have to work fast to prove himself.

Charles Clarke also warned that the new leader should not to allow the party to swing to the left.

He is an intellectual man, a deep thinker and deeply immersed in politics. He says he's a Labour man through and through but it looks like he will now participate from the sidelines.

Students under his tution could learn a lot.

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Labour in the east salutes new leader

Deborah McGurran | 21:02 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010

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Joy and mirth at the East of England reception. The parliamentary party usually has a bash to thank its activists who do the work to get people elected.

Although the ranks were rather slimmed down this year, having lost a rash of MPs across the region, those who were there were in good spirits, bouyed by the outcome of the leadership battle.

We would have liked to have brought you some pictures of the event but high-handed officials banned us from any recording.

Several former MPs had made the journey north to Manchester, including Bob Blizzard, the former MP for Waveney, Chris Mole, the former member for Ipswich who was positively beaming, Ivan Henderson, who once held Harwich for Labour and then a smiling Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary and Norwich South MP, appeared.

They all looked well and more relaxed than they did when they were in parliament. There seems to have been some support for the full range of candidates. Gavin Shuker (Luton South) an Ed Miliband supporter, Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon for Ed Balls, Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) was orchestrating Diane Abbott's campaign, Ivan Henderson was an Andy Burnham man, while Sally Keeble (formerly, Northampton North) was a David Miliband fan.

But the overriding impression of support in the east was for David Miliband.

Then Ed, the younger, arrived with his deputy leader, Harriet Harman, to delighted applause.

He mentioned his older brother within two sentences and congratulated him and his campaign on their graciousness in defeat. We had heard earlier of the Ed Balls' camp's good natured thank you party last night.

Apparently the Shadow Education Secretary did a great impersonation of Diane Abbott, who thoroughly enjoyed it as she was there, but there was no such camaraderie between the brothers Miliband. We're told Ed Mili's supporters partied until dawn but David's went to ground.

The party leader urged everyone to recruit a party member: "I know we're an odd bunch but you must have at least one friend," he joked.

He told the eastern party members that the cuts did not need to be so deep or so fast and while in deep debt after World War Two we built the health service: "We need visionaries not accountants," he declared.

Then he went next door to a TUC reception where he told them trades unions are the bedrock of the Labour movement to rapturous applause.

They certainly got the leader they wanted.

Onwards and upwards for Baroness Smith of Basildon

Deborah McGurran | 14:09 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010

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Angela Smith

Baroness Smith of Basildon is expecting to be a front bencher now she's been "booted upstairs"

After being MP in Basildon for 13 years, Angela Smith has been "booted upstairs", as they say at Westminster, to the House of Lords. Of course, it isn't upstairs. It's just along the corridor from Central lobby, but you get the gist.

After a stint as minister in Northern Ireland and then two years under Gordon Brown as the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, she is happy with her new role and spoke darkly about the number of ex-MPs who have yet to find employment.

After accompanying Gordon everywhere, attending Cabinet meetings and acting as a key liaison between the executive and parliament, I am not surprised.

There won't be time to put her feet up though.

"Jim Knight (Lab, South Dorset) and I have been grabbed," Baroness Basildon tells me," We are expecting to be front benchers."

She says she likes the climate change and environment portfolio:"But we just don't know at present, maybe we will hear something this week."

Baroness Smith supported Ed Balls in the leadership contest with Ed Miliband as her second preference.

"So I'm one of the ones who has put him (Ed Miliband) into power," she smiled.

She's sanguine about the outcome, believing Labour had a very strong field even though it might be some time before the new leader is tested at the ballot box.

"This coalition might fall apart politically but it is very difficult under the new rules to get rid of it."

It looks like Ed Miliband will have plenty of time impress the electorate... or not.

A mixed reaction to Ed's election

Deborah McGurran | 19:34 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

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Outside the conference centre in Manchester where Ed Miliband was declared the new leader of the Labour party we met up with some of the east's Labour Party.

There was support for Labour's new head but it was by no means universal.

Gavin Shuker MP for Luton South
(voted for Ed Miliband)

"It's a good result for the East of England. Ed is really good at connecting one to one with people. He's passionate, has strong values and I think he'll be able to concert that into policy"

Sharon Taylor- Leader Stevenage Borough Council
(voted for David Miliband)

"I'm pleased we've got a new leader. We can now get on with opposing for the ConDem Government. Lots of us have been wanting to be out there in opposition but we've been busy talking to each other. Now we can get out there with a new leader and oppose the Government.


Julie Young - the only Labour councillor on Essex County Council
(Voted for David Miliband)

"I think we can now reunite as a party and work together to win the next election. I think Ed has wide appeal especially with young people and I hope he'll be able to motivate more support for us"

Tim Young - group leader, Colchester Borough Council
(Voted for David Miliband)

"Ed doesn't totally convince me at the moment but I hope he'll grow into the role. He's got to learn very quickly though. He's got to convince half the party who didn't support him that he's the right leader and then he's got to expose and oppose this Government"

Daniel Zeichner - Labour Candidate Cambridge
(Voted for Ed Miliband)

"In the election people were telling me that Labour had become too authoritarian and I think Ed Miliband gets that and I think he'll be a real change and I think people who voted Lib Dem will now find it easy to come back to Labour"

Ed is elected

Deborah McGurran | 17:34 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

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It is a moment in Labour history.

As the hall fills up we stare at the red background, none of the pink of previous years.

There's almost a carnival atmosphere with smiling faces and excited chatter.

It begins with the obligatory film lauding Labour successes like the minimum wage. Then a tribute to Gordon Brown and a film of his highlights, Heathcliffe-like in his youth.

The former Prime Minister takes the stage and declares;"I have come to be with the party I love". He thanked everyone, while hitting out at Conservative claims that he hadn't fixed the roof while the sun shined and pouring scorn on the Lib Dems, describing Labour as " the only progressive party this country has".

After a short lived ovation there was ..yet another film, to the dismay of everyone in the hall anxious to hear the result, before Harriet Harman got to her feet. She was warmly received and mercifully brief.

She revealed that there have been 34,7219 new members since May's election, a third of them Lib Dem, she claimed.

And finally it fell to Ann Black, the chair of the National Executive Committee, to announce the new leader of the Labout Party, and the next Labour Prime Minister she added.

But that chance appeared to diminish as she labouriously read though the results from four rounds of voting that first eliminated Diane Abbott, then Andy Burnham, next Ed Balls, leaving stomachs churning while the final results were revealed.

The votes are split into three categories, those cast by MP's and MEP's, those cast by members and those cast by affiliates, which are mainly unions.

David Milliband consistently did better among the MPs, MEPs and members; Ed Milliband consistently did better among the affiliates.

David's final total was 49.35%, and at that point it became clear, Ed Milliband had edged it, in the end he received more than 19% of his total 50.65% from the affilliated votes - opening the door to questions over his legitimacy.

To gasps or silence from some, Ed Milliband rose to embrace his brother while his supporters cheered.

Some couldn't hide their disappointment and the overriding feeling in the hall was shock and disbelief as Ed Milliband got to his feet and declaimed to David;"I love you so much as a brother," in soap opera style.

The new leader complimented his fellow candidates in a rather flat acceptance speech which was received with muted applause before the shell shocked audience shuffled away.

"Are you alright?", a man asked his dismayed partner on their way out.

It's a question the party will have to answer.

The leaving of Liverpool

Deborah McGurran | 15:37 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

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Simon Wright MP (Lib Dem) Norwich South

The region's delegates left the Liberal Democrat Conference with a spring in their step.

"It's been brilliant, it's been good to hear Lib Dem ministers telling us what they're doing in Government", said Norwich South's Simon Wright. "We know what we've got to do, we know it's gong to be hard, but I think we're more ready for it."

The leadership had two aims at this conference: to convince its members that the coalition was a good idea and to explain why the forthcoming cuts were necessary.

On both points they've succeeded. Every keynote speech contained assurances that the Lib Dems would not be merging with the Tories.

The final re-assurance came from the Business Secretary Vince Cable. The Liberal Democrats were a party created out a merger he said (the SDP and Liberal parties), "but we will never merge again" he declared to loud applause.

And members now seem clearer about what the coalition is about.

"I learnt more about what's actually happening in Government, the initiatives they're working on, the things they've already achieved" said a councillor from Essex.

"None of this stuff was coming through the internal (publicity) channels, I was quite surprised how much they'd done".

On the second aim, delegates are certainly clearer about the need for cuts but still worried about what impact it will have at the polls.

"Next year will be difficult, we'll be doing well if we just hold onto our existing seats" said a councillor from Bedfordshire.

"We've just got to try as hard as we can to convince people why we have to make these cuts - but it won't be easy. Justifying the scrapping of BSF (Building Schools for the Future, the programme to rebuild secondary schools) will be particulary hard".

"I think we as a party, can accept loosing seats for a few years but if the economy hasn't improved after 3 years, I think we'll be in big trouble".

Because they're in Government, there's been more media interest, more security and a more of a buzz to this conference and the delegates have enjoyed it.

They go home knowing that being in Government means making unpopular choices.

Bob sets out his manifesto

Matt Precey | 15:17 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

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Bob Russell MP (Lib Dem) Colchester

If anyone wants to know what Bob Russell really believes they should read the speech he made to conference.

The Colchester MP used the debate "Ensuring fairness in a time of austerity" to champion the cause of child poverty and explain why he speaks out against the coalition.

"A few days ago I read an article which said there is no future for the Liberal Democrats to the left of Labour. Equally there is no future for our party to the right of the Conservatives".

"It is vital that we retain our separate identities and in my own small way this is what I am seeking to achieve both through words and visually".

Mr Russell has been campaigning against child poverty for some time. It is a cause he passionately believes in. His motivation is his three grandchildren who he believes have had a lucky start in life compared with many others.

"Labour left 3.9 million children living below the poverty line - one of the worst records in Europe. It is not one to be proud of".

He said he had received emails from people across the country, many who were poor or disabled who were worried about the prospect of spending cuts. One woman, he claimed, had told him she was so worried she was contemplating suicide.

"I do not accept that cuts are fair - they are a contradiction in terms. We do have to recognise that 75% of cuts are Labour cuts ... but it doesn't make them fair".

And he was also concerned about demonising people who claim benefits:

"I would urge ministers to be very careful with the language they use. Welfare cheats are not people we can support but the language used is also tarnishing people who are in genuine need who are fearful of where the axe is going to fall".

It was a short speech but it left his audience in no doubt that he will continue to speak his mind and campaign.

"If we as a party, irrespective of the austerity and the spending cuts, if we could make it our mission to remove every child from poverty.

"That would be something we could be proud of as a coalition".

Lib Dems feel the difference

Deborah McGurran | 15:25 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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It is a very different conference this year for the Lib Dems.

Take the security. Not quite a ring of steel around the Echo Arena in Liverpool but nevertheless a surprise to many of the old guard.

One poor lady was peturbed by not being allowed to leave her suitcase with the stewards. "I could last year."

Ah, but what a difference a year makes.

I asked the new MP for Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert, whether he had expected to be in government when he was elected last May.

"Absolutely not but it was the only thing we could do.

"I was in the team trying to thrash out an agreement and it was made so clear that Labour simply weren't interested. They sat down and said 'sign up to our manifesto' - to tuition fees going up to £7,000, to ID cards, Trident and the rest. There was no give and take. A coalition with the Conservatives was the only viable option and it was in the national interest."

That was a sentiment trumpeted in Nick Clegg's speech. In a businesslike address, he defended the coalition and concentrated on the economic crisis in advance of what we expect to be a swingeing public spendiing review.

Mr Clegg's reception was warm but by no means ecstatic, leaving the impression that there is a distance between the leadership of this party and its grassroots.

Cambridgeshire councillor inflicts defeat over free schools

Deborah McGurran | 15:07 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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At quarter to seven this morning councillor Peter Downes was standing outside the media entrance to the conference hall, desperately trying to shelter from the rain while he waited to do another media interview.

"I never expected so much attention" he said. "I'm not against the coalition, I just feel very strongly about this issue".

The former head teacher from Huntingdon had been catapulted into the limelight because of his motion criticising Academies and Free Schools. It was the first - and possibly only - open sign at this conference that the Liberal Democrats don't agree with everything that the government's doing.

Academies are starting to spring up all over the eastern region and the first five Free Schools have also been given the go ahead. Ministers say taking them away from local authority control will drive up standards.

Many Liberal Democrats disagree.

"People need to be aware of the significance of schools opting out of local authority control" he says. "It may appear to be financially attractive but there are all kinds of implications not least for those in the area who don't become academies or free schools because they will lose money."

"Simply because we are in coalition does not mean that we have to agree on every bit of policy and in this case the coalition's policies are totally incompatible with all liberal educational values."

Mr Downes was well received by the delegates. The biggest laugh of the morning came when he said that Education Secretary Michael Gove was wrong on several fronts: "I will name just five".

And his motion was overwhelmingly passed, which sends a message to the leadership.

However, it won't change anything. Academies and Free Schools will continue to get the go ahead but Mr Downes feels that if parents are now more aware of the changes and ask a few more questions, then his fifteen minutes of fame will have been worth it.

What future for a Lib Lab pact?

Deborah McGurran | 14:09 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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It is widely accepted that most Liberal Democrats feel more of an affinity to Labour than the Conservatives.

It is also the case that quite a few Liberal Democrats fear their party will now eventually merge or be swallowed up by the Conservatives.

So will the dream of Liberal progressives ever be realised or has going into coalition with the Tories killed off for good any chance of Labour and the Liberal Democrats governing together?

The Centre Forum and Fabian Society fringe event was packed. All the seats were taken 15 minutes before the meeting began. So many people were standing at the back and stewards were posted on the door to stop anyone else coming in.

"Is the Lib-Lab coalition gone forever?" was the title of the debate and once again it fell to Norman Lamb - one of the most passionate advocates of the coalition - to explain his leader's thinking.

"Let's be clear, this is a coalition of independent parties. It is not a pact and it is not the first stage of a merger. Neither are we an appendage to any other party," he said.

"We are pluralist, we believe in parties working together, it happens all the time in Europe, we've got to get used to it."

He said that at this moment in political history there was "a convergence of views" between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Both agreed on curbing the power of the state, the wish to empower individuals and communities and the importance of getting the defecit under control fast. So it made sense to work together.

"But once we're through with that we will respect the result of the next election and if there is any potential for a coalition with Labour we would consider it," he added.

But in case his audience was about to go away and begin counting down the days to May 7th 2015 (the likely date of the next election) and the chance of a Lib/Lab coalition, Mr Lamb had some bad news.

If he had his way, Labour would have to pass a series of tests.

They included having to accept the aggressive pace of addressing the deficit, re-thinking the "cavalier attitude" that it had in government to civil liberties and it would have to agree to give real power to communities - to let them, rather than Big Government, make local decisions.

Only then, argued Mr Lamb, should a partnership with Labour be considered.

Sharing the platform with him was former Labour minister David Lammy. He spoke movingly about how he could see so many connections between his party and the Lib Dems.

"We have Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams in common," he said. "The big message of the general election was that the British public liked parties working together."

But he too was keen to dampen his audience's expectations. "Was going into coalition a price too much for a party which occupies a progressive position?"

"Is this still the party of progressive values or is it the party of a blue Nick Clegg?"

He said if Labour was looking for a coaltion partner in the future it would want to join with a party which could demonstrate that it had shown influence and independence on issues it believed in.

"At the moment from what I've seen, it's not there" he sadly concluded.

Brotherly love at the Lib Dems

Deborah McGurran | 19:50 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

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Lib Dem MPs, Bob Russell (Colchester) and Norman Lamb MP (North Norfolk)

I am surprised and yes, I admit, a tiny bit disappointed, at just how upbeat the Lib Dem Conference is.

They are absolutely delighted to be in power. And, in truth, why wouldn't they be? It's been long enough - with the exception of the wartime coalition, 88 years, and that's a long time.

Us journalists were expecting, some might say hoping, for a somewhat rocky ride for the leadership this week.

And yes there is a motion against the plans for free schools on Monday. It's been tabled by Cambridgeshire Councillor, Peter Downes, a former head of Hinchingbrooke school. It's caused a the biggest stir so far, the coalition plans called "divisive" in a fringe meeting on Sunday night.

You feel this is one policy that is really sticking in Lib Dems craws and there is passion over its opposition.

But in the main, the Liberal Democrats are thoroughly enjoying government.

When you speak to them individually there's a huge range of opinion. Simon Wright, the new MP for Norwich South, admitted: "No I'm not in favour of nuclear power. It's a very expensive way of generating energy, especially when you take decommissioning into account. It may be carbon neutral once it's set up but creating the material, transporting it and disposing of it are not."

Oddly, being out of sync with the party line seems to be de rigueur this conference. Dissent is merely "an expression of the soul of the party", as Norman Lamb put it to me.

Mr Russell, the Lib Dem voice of Colchester, says: "Free Schools are a barmy idea".

Mr Lamb may disagree but both claim that they support the coalition and each other's right to their own opinion.

There's only one difficulty with such a broad church - the electorate may not understand what you actually stand for.

For the moment, no one here seems to mind.

Europe: the Coalition's weakest link?

Deborah McGurran | 09:29 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

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With all the talk about cuts there's one inflamatory issue for the new Government which has been forgotten - Europe.

But the East's lone Lib Dem MEP believes it's only a matter of time before it comes to test the coalition.

"If the Tories and Clegg think they're going to have a quiet time with the European Union they're very mistaken," says Andrew Duff.

"So far so good (being in coalition) but the tough decisions are still to come".

"There are issues like Turkey's membership and Defence co-operation which are coming up the agenda fast and Europe dictates the pace - the coaltion won't be able to slow down these decisions."

Mr Duff is a passionate Europhile who promotes European integration (some might say control) wherever possible.

He admits to being "frustrated" that the Liberal Democrats have had to tone down their pro-european stance in public but claims the Conservatives have also been forced to soften their views.

"The coalition has obliged the Tories to accept the Treaty of Lisbon, they are no longer talking about repatriating power from Brussels.

"The right wing in the party has been constrained and it's infuriated that the Lib Dems have blunted the Euro sceptic drive that Cameron promised".

Europe has always been a big issue in our region. It caused big problems for the Tories 15 years ago - Mr Duff thinks it might do so again.

Fireworks at the Lib Dem Conference

Deborah McGurran | 09:19 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

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As you enter the auditorium of the Conference Centre in Liverpool there is a sign which warns members of the public that "special effects will be in use throughout this session including loud noises and explosions."

Not surprisingly, it's prompting a wry smile among many of the delegates to the Liberal Democrats Conference.

Yes they are in power for the first time in 70 years and that is something to celebrate, but there is also a deep sense of trepidation about the price the Lib Dems may pay for being in coalition with the Conservatives and putting their name to painful spending cuts.

"It's a bit like having a really good meal" says Mark Pack of the Liberal Democrat Voice website. "You want the chocolate pudding but you know you have to eat your broccoli first".

And in our region in particular there is a lot of unease. The Lib Dems are strong here in local Government and know they face a roasting at next year's local elections.

So the aim of the party leadership is to convince activists that being in Government will pay dividends, even if it means short term pain.

Norman Lamb, the MP for North Norfolk and political advisor to Nick Clegg was one of the first to address the conference. "Already we are making Britain a more liberal and fairer country," he said .

"This is a great opportunity for our party and one we should celebrate."

Expect to hear this message repeated again and again during this conference.

Bob Russell - defender of the poor

Deborah McGurran | 16:56 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

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Parliament is back and so is Bob Russell MP, the self-styled Lib Dem "voice of Colchester" and these days the voice of dissent in the coalition.

"The MP for Colchester is rapidly building a reputation as one of the most effective parliamentarians in the House". That's not our view - but the view of Labour's Helen Goodman, during a debate this week on low income households.

Mr Russell is a man who feels passionately about child poverty and is using every opportunity possible to raise the issue in Parliament - even if it means embarrassing the government.

When George Osborne announced plans to cut benefits last week there were many MPs who felt he should have told the House first. It was an opportunity that Labour should have seized. But instead it was left to Bob, a government MP, to raise the issue and force the Chancellor to come to the House and explain himself.

A day later Mr Russell was taking part in the low incomes debate, where he received that praise from Ms Goodman.

And he had a new statistic: "for almost one in three families there was no holiday away from home - not even a single day trip to the seaside. That is the reality in the UK, one of the world's richest countries, where the divide between rich and poor has widened over the past decade".

He claimed that under Labour child poverty had increased (a claim Ms Goodman went on deny) and he expressed his fear that it was getting worse.

"If people have to spend more money on rent they will have less money to spend on food, clothing and services.

"That is why 30 years ago in Colchester there was no such thing as a housing crisis but there is one now. That is why local churches in my town have had to start a food parcel scheme to help desparate people who need something to eat."

And just in case you were wondering what his motives are, he concluded by saying "my role is to try to influence the coalition government, to make the situation better, not worse"

Ministers are taking Mr Russell seriously. The Work and Pensions Secretary Maria Miller declared that "there has been an inability to tackle the issues of poverty...Labour failed to tackle the root causes of poverty, leaving a catalogue of entrenched social problems that the coalition government must now deal with."

She revealed that there is a cabinet committee considering social justice issues and she promised to stay in touch with Mr Russell.

The MP for Colchester may be seen as a trouble maker by some of the press but he's pursuing an agenda dear to his heart - and it seems to be working.


Jonathan Djanogly under pressure

Deborah McGurran | 11:43 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

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It can't have been an easy weekend for Jonathan Djanogly, the MP for Huntingdon. He and his friends were waiting nervously to see if there'd be any more damaging revelations in the papers.

They were also worried that his local association would call an extraordinary general meeting to make him explain himself.


Jonathan Djanogly MP


But he's made it through the weekend and it appears that, for now, Mr Djanogly is safe.

The feeling within Central Office and Downing Street is that, other than the original revelation that the MP used a firm of private detectives to investigate members of his association, there has been nothing too damaging that has emerged.

The feeling within the local association is that Mr Djanogly has apologised and there is no need to call an EGM.

Friends of the MP have told us that he was stung by the expenses scandal which included revelations about jam making equipment, au pairs and very expensive security gates.

Huntingdon was one of the few associations in the country to call their MP in to explain himself. Mr Djanogly survived but he felt, according to friends, that there was a small core of people within the association who had always had it in for him. Hence the private investigators.

When the newspapers found out, Mr Djanogly immediately apologised saying "the investigators have assured me that their inquiries were carried out in an entirely lawful manner. I am sorry if some people judge that I made a mistake. With hindsight I can see that I may have over-reacted, but I was being subjected to very malicious, anonymous attacks on my family".

The Prime Minister admires Mr Djanogly, thinks he is hard working and will make a good minister. "I will judge him on the work he does" is the quote given to us by Central Office.

The feeling within the Conservative Party is that the crisis has passed. But Mr Djanogly has "got to get down to work now and prove himself" according to one senior MP in the region, "and hope there's nothing else."

Both the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg have talked about ushering in a new kind of politics. Is the treatment of Mr Djanogly a sign of that new kind of politics?

Those close to the Prime Minister say that Mr Cameron doesn't like the idea of witch-hunts against MPs and ministers. He feels that if someone makes a mistake they should be big enough to say sorry and move on.

Mr Djanogly will be hoping that's done the trick.


Labour's night in Norwich elections

Deborah McGurran | 15:44 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

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Well, well, well. Labour wins in Norwich. Yes, I did say Labour and win in the same sentence. And no-one looked more surprised than they did.

At the beginning of the evening a downcast Labour were warning that if you had to lose an election, this was the one to lose. It would certainly save coping with the next round of cuts and the fallout from the Connaught collapse.

The Greens did well but not well enough. They never were going to take control - at best they might have become the largest party and they needed two seats to do it. In the event, the Greens held what they'd got and made one crucial gain.

But so did Labour. So the maths stays the same and the Greens remain two seats short.

Conservative bonhomie was punctured as Anthony Little, who polled respectably in the parliamentary elections earlier this year, lost his seat to Labour.

The Lib Dems had a bad night. Although they retained Eaton, they lost Thorpe Hamlet to the Greens and their share of the vote fell in nearly every seat.

It speaks volumes that they took comfort from moving up from fouth to second in one seat.

And they were adamant that being in the coalition was not a factor (despite it being only four months since their candidate unseated former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke).

Labour smiles began to appear as they fought off a Green challenge in University and Sewell wards. That set the scene for a night of surprise and delight among the Laboour ranks.

"It's too early in the political cycle to be winning like this," chortled Labour MEP, Richard Howitt, who had dutifully turned out to support the troops.

This is a council that has had 70 years of Labour rule, only interrupted twice, so a move towards them, albeit a fairly modest one, should not be such a shock.

The question is whether it's the beginning of something bigger.

Playground dreams dashed

Deborah McGurran | 23:41 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

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It is pouring with rain but that doesn't stop more than two dozen parents and children from coming out to talk about their plans for a new playground for the Norfolk seaside town of Mundesley.

As the children play, the parents produce drawings and plans that show new equipment and rides planned for the site in Gold Park.

"This was a huge deal for Mundesley," says Wendy Fredericks, one of the parents. "There isn't much for young people here. The existing playground is for very young children, we wanted to put in things for older ones, to get them outside and away from their Nintendos. There's also no disabled access at the moment"

The parents were promised £47,000 under the Playbuilder scheme, a project set up by Labour to improve hundreds of playgrounds across the country. But the Department for Education says the funding has been reviewed because the coalition had inherited 'unrealistic spending commitments'

"Play is important for children and families - but investment has got to be realistic and affordable," says a spokesman.

Mrs Fredericks accepts that times are hard but she still feels this is a very cruel decision.

"It had the fantastic effect of bringing the community together. We went into the schools and asked the children what they wanted to see and they helped design the new playground. I was able to go into the schools just before the summer and say 'look kids - we've got the money' and they were ecstatic. Now I've got to back in and say 'sorry it's been taken away'.

"If we hadn't been given the money we would have still tried to do this, but it was and then it was taken away from us. It makes you feel quite empty and forgotten as a community".

The parents of Mundelsey, though, won't give up. They've already raised £13,000 and they're scaling the project down.

They know it will take longer to achieve their dream but they're determined to do it - without government help.


New term starts but no new school buildings in Luton

Deborah McGurran | 11:27 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

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The staff and students of Cardinal Newman School in Luton returned from holiday this week braced for a term of chaos.

Special timetables had been drawn up to cope with the disruption which would be caused while the builders were in.

After five years of planning the 42 year old school, with its overcrowded and crumbling buildings, was about to be refurbished at a cost of £23m.

But the builders haven't turned up.

Cardinal Newman is one of 84 high school refurbishments across the region which have been put on hold because the Government halted the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF).

Ministers say the scheme was too expensive and bureaucratic and resulted in very few schools actually being refurbished. And they say, in the present climate it's unaffordable.

And that has caused real pain - particularly at Cardinal Newman.

"It was a terrible shock", says headteacher Jane Crow. "You just feel so helpless when you realise that so many people have put in so much work and its all been wiped away without anyone discussing it with you or explaining the reasons behind it".

"So much money has been spent on this already it seems to be a wicked waste not to let it go ahead".

The school does look old, with peeling paint and holes in some of the walls.

The classrooms and corridors feel cramped - one room doesn't even have any outside windows while another classroom has to be converted into a dining room every day.

There is no disabled access.

"Refurbishment was desperately needed", says Jane Crow, "the accommodation should be something that facilitates the learning of students, whereas here we feel it's something we have to work against all the time".

The school already contains 1500 students - the refurbishment would have allowed it to cope with 1800.

"Pupil numbers are rising in Luton" says Mrs Crow. "These are not projected figures, these people are already in the primary schools, they will be here in High School in a few years time and I don't know where they're going to go".

"I understand that Luton will run out of High School places by 2014, it's as serious as that.

"Luton has a slightly negative image. It's hard to attract good teachers to Luton when we can't offer them the kind of accommodation to work in that they can get elsewhere."

The school, though, is not giving up. Along with the council and local MPs it is trying to lobby the Government.

"We agree that there are things in the process which could be slicker and where we could be more efficient," says Mrs Crow, "so we've e-mailed suggestions to Mr Gove but no-one has got back to us".

The Government says it will still make money available for High School refurbishments, it's just not decided yet how much to set aside or what the qualifying criteria will be.

In this school they're desperate for change and after getting so close they now feel they're back at square one. Coalition warnings that the way ahead would be painful
hits home here.

Don't miss a Look East special debate about how this region could be affected by the government's spending review. BBC 1 at 10.35 on Thursday 9th September.

Connexions in Norfolk at the forefront of cuts

Deborah McGurran | 23:21 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

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Norfolk County Council met in sombre mood.

There was just one item on the agenda. A proposal to implement £10.09 million pounds of cuts from this year's budget with the loss of 88 jobs.

Every council is having to make emergency cuts but Norfolk is the first to actually vote them through.

In the public gallery were local union members who'd been demonstrating outside -including people who were about to lose their jobs.

They'd been telling councillors to look elsewhere for savings - how about management pay? Or council receptions? Or what about cancelling a few ceremonies ? But the appeals fell on deaf ears.

Councillor Daniel Cox, Conservative leader of the council, acknowledged that making cuts "was not easy or comfortable, there were no easy solutions."

But as the Government had withdrawn funding support from Education and Transport, that's where the axe should fall.

The list of cuts ran to 11 pages.

On page 1, a 50% cut to the Connexions service which provides careers advice and support to young people: 65 jobs will go.

Money and jobs are also being cut from school development support and the teenage pregnancy strategy unit. There'll be no more funded school holiday activites in the summer, no more grants to youth groups and reduced parenting support programmes.

And then there are 58 local transport and road safety schemes - junction improvements, new pavements and bus shelters which are all put on hold.

The opposition parties were angry, particularly about Connexions.

"The cuts to Connexions are more savage than anywhere else in the country" declared Paul Morse, the Liberal Democrat group leader.

"This is a false economy," said Jennifer Toms of the Greens. "You are slashing a service which improves lives and cuts crime".

Alison Thomas, the cabinet member for Children's Services said Connexions would still receive £2.8 million of funding and would still provide an important service for those who needed it.

"What we're doing is addressing the huge deficit the country is facing at the moment and we're having to make the hard decisions the previous Government didn't. It is painful and there'll be more to come".

And she meant it - as soon as the Council approved the cuts (by 45 to 18 votes) it announced that it was facing a spending shortfall of £155 million pounds over the next three years. Work will start next week to identify possible areas for savings.

"There is no doubt that the County Council is facing the biggest challenges since it was established in the 1970s" said Mr Cox, "but there is no point in putting our heads in the sand - that would be disastrous".

One council official put it a bit more bluntly: "I really don't think people in Norfolk know what's coming their way" she said.

Battle to lead UKIP

Deborah McGurran | 00:22 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

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There is just one main topic of conversation among the UK Independence Party delegates in Torquay: "Will Nigel Farage really be party leader again?"

The conference roared with delight when he announced he would stand again - a decision he says he only made at breakfast that morning - and they rewarded him with a standing ovation.

In the eyes of most people here he is the most charismatic leader they've ever had and his flamboyant - some might say off-the-wall - style of leadership peppered with the occasional publicity stunt has done more to promote the party than anyone else.

As one senior UKIP official put it: "Who else from this party has been invited to appear on "Have I Got News for You"?

So it may seem that his re-election is being taken for granted... but it isn't.

For a start, there are concerns about Mr Farage's health. He was badly injured in that plane crash. It was noticable that he didn't bound onto the stage but walked up the steps a little awkwardly. He has to have another operation in the next few months and whilst his supporters would love him to do the job, there are questions over whether he'd have the stamina.

And then there is the arguement put by Eastern MEP, David Campbell-Bannerman, that the party has to grow up and become more professional. His speech was seen as a criticism of Mr Farage's style of leadership and in a way it was. But it's more subtle than that.

Friends of Mr Campbell-Bannerman claim that members are becoming exasperated by some of Mr Farage's outbursts. One of them divulged that "several hundred" members complained about the speech in which he compared the new President of the EC to a Belgian bank clerk. Another claims that 30 or 40 members have left the party in protest at his leadership and that of his successor, Lord Pearson.

Mr Campbell-Bannerman says that getting publicity for UKIP is one of Mr Farage's strengths. What he sees as Mr Farage's weakness is his lack of interest in policy.

Nigel Farage, meanwhile, is being told by his friends that if he is going to be a leader again he needs to take on fewer responsibilities and delegate more for the sake of his health.

Perhaps the two would make a good double act? Oh, I forgot, before the general election campaign, they already were.

MEP tells UKIP to 'grow up'

Deborah McGurran | 13:12 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

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David Campbell Bannerman and former UKIP leader Nigel Farrage are at loggerheads

David Campbell Bannerman and former UKIP leader Nigel Farrage are at loggerheads

The UK Independence Party deputy leader and Eastern region MEP David Campbell Bannerman has been known to be unhappy with the way his party's been going for some time.

Today at the opening of UKIP's annual conference in Torquay he spoke his mind. As he launched his bid to become the party's next leader he told delegates to "grow up and professionalise".

"The public and media need to respect us," he said. "We need to act like a serious party, to become a party of action not talk and not be a party of navel-gazers."

It's a speech which will be seen by many as an attack on the former leader Nigel Farage. Mr Campbell Bannerman feels that the party has been involved in too many publicity stunts and too much name calling rather than promoting its policies.

"We should be winning the argument here instead of showboating in Brussels," he said.

"If our own party had a more professional approach to how it was run, UKIP could have one or two MPs in the Commons by now," he concluded.

Moments later, though, Nigel Farage addressed delegates and announced, to a standing ovation, that he would again stand for the leadership - despite having resigned a year ago.

"If you choose me I will lead from the front as a campaigning politician," he declared.

Mr Campbell Bannerman drew up the party's manifesto for the general election. He's a thinker who believes UKIP should be at the centre of politics and not on the edge. But some delegates have doubts over whether he's charismatic enough and could bring the party as much publicity as Mr Farage.

This now puts the two senior figures in the party at loggerheads.

Delegates are gathering in Torquay in sombre mood. When they were last all together at their Spring Conference in Milton Keynes, they believed they were on the verge of something big. They expected to benefit from public disillusionment with the main parties but it didn't materialise.

They increased their share of the vote by 50% in the General Election, didn't win a single seat - and their membership is falling.

The party is now well established as a credible European party, but it wants to be recognised as a major UK party and it points to successes in local elections as proof that it is possible.

Whoever becomes leader will have a lot of work to do.

MP wants green for traffic lights pilot

Deborah McGurran | 11:13 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010

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Conservative MP John Baron

Conservative MP John Baron believes an overnight amber lights system will help traffic flow

Billericay by night could become a traffic light-free zone, if its Conservative MP gets his way.

John Baron has relaunched his campaign to switch off traffic lights in the early hours and replace them with flashing amber lights.

He believes that would be sufficient to warn motorists to proceed with caution.

Surprisingly, it's not being suggested as an austerity measure but to improve journey times in the wee small hours for residents of the town (like me).

"Too often time is wasted at traffic lights," he said. "Replacing them with a slow flashing amber would not only reduce pollution but also speed journeys.

"Last year, the then Government refused to consider the idea, but not trusting motorists to safely embrace this idea is condescending. I am hoping the new coalition government will reconsider, and have suggested my constituency be used to pilot the idea."

As a resident of Billericay, the main problem appears to be the removal of traffic lights completely from the far end of the high street that has caused inexorable queues in three directions.

I will have to wait and see if I will be able to drive around in the middle of the night unimpeded by red lights in the future.

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