What I learnt about Russia in Kazan

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The centrepiece of the Tatar Sabuntuy Celebrations in Kazan

I spent two days at the weekend in Kazan which is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, which in turn is part of the Russian Federation. This does not make me an expert on Russia although I have previously spent a week in Ekaterinburg. It has though given me an insight into Russian society, a glimpse at how the system works and a belief that most of the problems faced by Mayors and councillors in dealing with the problems of their peoples are much the same as ours.
As a representative to a local government congress representing the world body of local government (UCLG) it was neither the time nor place to raise issues which I would otherwise have done as a politician. I made it clear to a number of people that the views that were being expressed by some of them over issues of international and personal morality were not the same as mine or those of my Country. I made a point of saying that I had not been in Kazan I would have been marching in Liverpool Pride celebrations because of my belief in a diverse society which delights in difference and recognises the rights of all.
What I found in the Congress was that the Mayors from within the Russian Federation were dealing with the same issues that we are. Their processes were very similar. They were trying to grapple with the development of a city in a rapidly changing society. They are as affected by changes in communications and the climate as we are. Like us they have problems caused by the demographic changes of an ageing population and are wondering how things will be paid for. They are looking to develop tourism; communications hubs; attract inward investment; provide adequate training; and keep the streets safe and clean. In fact their discussions mirrored those in the other regions such as North America, South America and the Middle East that I have already visited this year.
Kazan itself was clearly a modern, progressive well run city. I had the advantage of being there at the time of Sabuntuy which is a Tatar celebration. On Saturday we spent the morning at the show ground where it seemed that every village had their own exhibition area. They showed what their village did; the music of their village the business of their village. They enticed you in with little sweets or treats and you watched their musical and artistic acts as well as looking into the recreations of their homes and workplaces. It appears that it is a bit like the Notting Hill Carnival where the village spends the year working together planning and practicing for the big event. They were proud of their village and proud of their status as Tatars.
The centrepiece of the morning was a big celebration in the arena based on the rivers of the area. This was to commemorate the fact that taking place at the same time was an international swimming event run by FINA with swimmers, divers and synchronised swimmers from more than 170 Countries. Hundreds of young people from about 5 to 25 took part in quite a dazzling display. The singing was superb although I haven’t got a clue what they were singing about!
I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to any ‘ordinary’ Kazan residents but looking at them en-masse it reminded me of a big event in Sefton Park. Here we had people whose prime concerns were getting and keeping a job; bringing up their kids; having somewhere decent to live; and enjoying themselves whilst doing it. I suspect that their beliefs were no different to mine or yours in such regards. That is what got them motivated not the big stage play acting of Presidents or Prime Ministers.
But it was not all play! I took the opportunity to have discussions with a number of Mayors and staff of the President of Tatarstan. We concentrated on the areas where we could agree which was a vast area. In particular I spent time with Ilsur Metshin the Mayor of Kazan who had just been re-elected as President of the Eurasian Branch of UCLG. He wants that section to play a bigger party in the affairs of the World body and, crucially for me, wants to improve the work being done within Eurasia to help local government become better and more efficient deliverers of local and basic services.
Some who read this might think that I have become an apologist for a different political system. Not so! But I am aware as I go round the world that we can learn from each other. That different things happen around the world in different ways for different reasons. Sometimes it is that difference that provides a greater challenge to one’s own methodology than just talking to people doing the same thing in the same system as your own.
Kazan is a well-run city which is clearly thinking ahead and in Ilsur Metshin has a Mayor who looks outward at the potential role of his expanding city in the region; in Russia and the World. I believe that we can learn some things from him and he and his colleagues can learn some things from us.
To take that further I believe that creating a strong network of local players from around the world is the only way to eventually deal with the problems that we face. A thousand councils determinedly getting on with doing things about climate change is far more important than a thousand national politicians talking about doing something. 10,000 councils delivering services better because they have learnt from each other is better than the endless and meaningless prognostications of the G8 or the G20.
Two of the four principles of liberalism which make me a Lib Dem activist are internationalism and localism. I recognise simultaneously that there is only one world but that we live in communities where a difference can be made to people’s lives. I work, on a voluntary basis, for UCLG because this is the international body for local government. My aim is to increase its power and influence because it is at our level that a real difference can be made to people’s lives. By joining together we in local government can produce the actions that are needed to create a sustainable world while the big boys and girls produce only words and hot air.

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UBER should not come to Liverpool

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Hachney Taxis are safe, driven by people with knowledge and you know how much you will  pay for a ride

I have been concerned for some time about the possibility of the UBER ‘taxi’ service come to Liverpool. I listened to a presentation by one of their senior staff at a local government meeting in Washington in January and was appalled at their unregulated and to my mind dangerous approach.
I know that throughout the World many cities are either refusing or withdrawing Uber licences for this reason.
Rather than putting my own thoughts down I repeat below the thoughts of our Party President. She applies them specifically in the context of London but alklthe questions she raises here are equally applicable to London.
I believe that the Liverpool City Council should make every effort to resist UBER and if they are unable for legal reasons to do so should publicise the need to use registered Hackneys because they are reliable, regulated, knowledgeable and safe.
This is what Baroness Brinton says. What do you think?
1. All the adverts about never using non-registered minicabs for personal safety reasons fly out the window because Uber take no responsibility for minicabs being registered. In the event that an unregistered driver managed to access the App, and a passenger were attacked, they wash their hands of the problem. Minicab drivers do not have to have criminal records checks, unlike Hackney drivers. Would you want your teenage daughter to hail one late at night with no access to a reliable minicab firm taking the booking?
2. The fares are unregulated. Uber take 20% of the fare price, but you won’t be paying the TfL regulated rate that Hackneys charge, as – for the first time ever – a deal has been struck allowing them to set their own rates. I’m not aware that this is highlighted to the passenger at the start of the journey.
3. Worse than the unregulated fares, Uber are the first non-hackney company to be permitted to set a meter. This is a fundamental part of the regulation of hackneys since they were first licensed in the 19th Century, and there has been no public debate about this key change. And the rate is not regulated, so they can set it at the level that they want.
4. The minicabs are not subject to the same vehicle safety checks as hackneys, nor do the drivers have to do “The Knowledge”, so their knowledge of London can be minimal.
5. Uber is registered as an offshore company, so, guess what? They will pay as little tax as possible in the UK. Preferably none. Why on earth did TfL not insist that they operate through a UK subsidiary and pay tax locally? This will be a highly profitable business with minimal overheads. Given the high profile of private companies not paying tax, one that is regulated in the public realm should surely be asked to pay taxes.
6. And finally, a selfish note. I use a wheelchair, so I can’t risk using it (even if I wanted to most minicabs are saloon cars, and you won’t know until the minicab appears whether it can take you or not. With black cabs you are reassured that 99% have ramps, most of which are built in.

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Labour and its longest ever suicide vote!

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I cannot claim the credit for this headline so I immediately acknowledge the brilliance of the Independent whose idea it was! However it does seem to me to encapsulate the problems that the Labour Party do and will have and why there are major opportunities for the Lib Dems at present.
I believe that just 14 weeks into a 260 week Parliament there have already been two seminal votes and in 48 days there will be a third. Of course only one of these has been a parliamentary vote. But what an important one! It now makes no difference what the Labour Party do and say for the rest of this Parliament because for the whole of it their failure to vote against the Benefits Bill will hand like an albatross around their neck.
Already it has been mentioned more to me around the ward I represent by Labour voters than any other topic. It is a basic failure to stand up for the most deprived members of society that will be seared across the minds of many ‘left thinking’ electors no matter what the Labour Party do with the rest of the Bill’s progression through Parliament or for the rest of the Parliament. The reason is that it really showed up the Labour Party’s split between high minded but impractical idealists and people who think that principles don’t matter the only important thing is winning. More about Labour later.
Lib Dems were able to oppose the Bill on grounds of both principle and practicality. We’ve spent 5 years defending the poorest members of our society from vicious Tory attacks and were not going to change our mind on such an early crucial vote as this. However we were also able to oppose it on the grounds of it being unnecessary. Earlier in the year Parliament had passed a budget with many Lib Dem principles in them. The books balanced both to reduce the deficit in a reasonable time scale and continue try and minimise the impact on the poor. Tories have introduced the cost for ideological not fiscal grounds and all the Lib Dem MPs were able to vote against the Bill on that basis.
The second important vote was, of course, the Lib Dem leadership vote. What a pleasure to be able to choose from 2 outstanding liberals. 99.5% of the Party would have been happy to work with whichever Leader had been chosen. The contest laid out the direction of the Party as being both liberal and radical. Tim has made it clear that the Left-Right Continuum is of little relevance to him or the Party. We are a Party of social conscience that believes in a fundamentally different way of running our country. A country which is decentralised and more power put into the hands of local citizens and their communities and a much greater emphasis on the social and cooperative, mutual way of doing things.
There was a little discussion about Tim’s Christianity but most of this was conducted by outsiders. For most liberals a person’s spiritual beliefs are their own. We have no problem with understanding that anyone from a Judeo/Christian/Moslem background would want to carry their religious ideals into their political ones. So what? As a person of no religious faith I can support 9 of the 10 commandments and the principles in which the vast majority of Jewish and Moslem people carry out their lives and the role within society. We would have difficultiues with a sect like the Scientologists, although some would have a little sympathy with the idea that Prince Phillip is a lizard!
We will know soon in greater detail how Tim wants the mechanics of the Party to work. He has made a great first step in appointing Ben Rich as his interim Chief of Staff although I hope that there will soon be a removal of the word interim. Ben has long roots in the Party both as a theoretician – he played an important role in the Party’s policy making process – and as a grass roots campaigning members. Tim will appoint his wider team soon and give indications of how he wants the Party to be run including the appointment or election of a Deputy Leader which I hope will become a none-parliamentary role.
We are winning council by-elections and gaining seats in all but one of the 30 or some council by-elections that have been held. Our membership is still rising even after more than 18,000 people joined us in the 6 weeks after the election. We have come out of the General Election and Leadership election united and unbowed. Contrast that with the situation of the third seminal vote – the one referred to in the headline – the Labour Party.
In some ways it is now irrelevant who wins because the damage of the elections has been done in two ways. Firstly, as with 2010, the Labour Party have spent the first 6 months fighting each other and not the Tories. During that time the Tories have done many things which are wrong but have hardly impacted on the consciousness of a labour movement looking inward. Secondly the fault lines of the Party have been not only opened but opened in a way that will take years to either resolve or even bridge over. The fact is now clear that large elements of the Labour Party do not like large elements of the Labour Party.
Increasingly Labour reminds me of those very left wing splinter groups very popular in the 70’s. The Marxist-Leninists hated the Leninist-Marxists more than anyone else and the anarcho-syndicalists thought they were both corrupt! No-one else understood what they were arguing about but their arguments were furious.
Let’s take Liverpool. It was announced in the press today that a huge phone bank is being created in the City to promote Corbyn amongst Labour members. None of the 5 local Labour MPs are supporting Corbyn. The Labour Mayor of Liverpool has gone even further. He has told the World through the Guardian that if there was a ‘None of the Above’ box he would tick it. There is clearly a big disconnect between the Liverpool leaders of the Party and the rest of the membership. But there is an even bigger disconnect between Labour and a large part of its electorate. To be stopped and have to listen to complaints about the Labour Party is amusing but in the minds of many who voted Labour as recently as last may there is a clear understanding that they voted the wrong way.
Interestingly this is not because of what we are doing and saying although clearly we will take political advantage of this. People are reaching their own conclusions that the Rubicon has been crossed and they can never support Labour again.
Will this lead to an SDP type split as there was in the 80’s? I sincerely hope not. I am one of the few people around now who had to negotiate for seats, policies and authority. We got some really good people into our new joint Party such as Shirley Williams, Robert McLennan and Bill Rogers but many of the people who joined were not acceptable to us. They joined the new SDP because they thought it was their way to electoral success every bit as much as they believed in the principals of the SDP. They soon lost their seats and their way!
10 weeks I wrote a blog which suggested that in 10 years there might not even be a Labour Party but there would always be a liberal party. I hold to that belief. Of course there will be in existence something called the Labour Party but it will look nothing like the Party we have known for the past 50 years. It will either become a rabid left wing group or a bunch of technocrats. The original conditions for creating a mass labour movement have disappeared.
I face the future with confidence. For the first time in 5 years I am looking forward to local elections in Liverpool next May when we will move to a situation where the Lib Dem Council Group membership is in more than one ward and has only one surname! Onwards and upwards for my Party. Downward and depressing for Labour.

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A Most Peculiar Council meeting in Liverpool!

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Yesterday a most peculiar thing didn’t happen in Liverpool. Labour speaker after Labour speaker did not stand up to attack the Liberal Democrats for what we were doing in Parliament. Well they couldn’t really could they? There was an attack on duplicitous MPs who failed to support the needs of the people of Liverpool. Obviously though this was an attack by a principled Labour councillor on the 5 Labour MPs in Liverpool about them sitting on their hands on the welfare bill. Coincidentally one of them had just entered the public gallery two minutes before and was able to hear the onslaught.
Erica and I did not say a word on this issue. The failure of Labour MPs to vote against the Benefit Cuts is a canker which is working its way through the Labour Party and through the community. I have just been out delivering our Focus in the ward and two people stopped me with, “we now know what you stopped happening”, type conversations.
What we did spend more than half the time discussing was a statement from Mayor Anderson and a resolution that I moved which said more or less the same thing. The motion that I moved was eventually passed unanimously after I agreed to delete a small section. This is what Liverpool is now committed to:

Council notes the clear view from the Conservative Government that power will be given to city and county regions subject to them accepting elected city region mayors.

It believes that the prizes on offer of greater control over large amounts of resources should take precedence over concerns of people about the detailed form of constitutional change or their concerns about who might emerge as the ‘leader’ of the new body.

It therefore believes it vital that there should be an attempt to break the impasse amongst Council leaders by developing a discussion amongst all political parties in the City Region and amongst other players in the community including churches, community groups, think tanks and amenity groups about the form and function of a city wide administration.

It also recognises that constitutional change should not solely be the preserve of the Liverpool City Region cabinet.

Accordingly, Council requests the Mayor of Liverpool to convene a meeting of the leaders of all political parties represented on the 6 councils to consider a way forward that will:
• Maximise the involvement of all councillors and others that will take forward the City Region Constitutional agenda; and
• Minimise the concerns expressed by many over the details of change being imposed by the Government.

Cllr Richard Kemp CBE

I made it clear that the Liberal Democrats do not approve of elected mayors at any level but I also accepted the reality that this is the only option to us under the Devolution Bill currently going through Parliament. I was delighted that an amendment was passed in the Lords allowing local choice in the form of Government but the reality is that this will be reversed in the House of Commons stages where the Tories have a big English majority.

All the other 5 major English Conurbations have now agreed a way forward and Liverpool must not miss this bus which is a once in a lifetime opportunity to take powers from Whitehall and Westminster. I would prefer to see an elected city region mayor than miss up the chance of devolution.

The current level of devolution allowed in Manchester is control of national budgets of about £6.5 billion.Proportionately that would mean about £4.5 billion for the smaller city region. If we only spent that 1% better that would be the equivalent of £45 million across the city region. If we could only spend it 1% better we should all resign. Good estimates are that proper local decision making and enhanced service integration can lead to gains of 5% or more.

But it is not only the money. Enhanced freedoms would allow the Liverpool City Region to be much more imaginative, innovative and outward looking. Too much of our time and effort is spent seeking permission from or reporting to Whitehall and Westminster. That time and effort could be far, far better used.

Not every Lib Dem approved of our motion although it was discussed with the Liverpool Party and the other Lib Dem council group leaders in the City Region. But in Liverpool we believe it is the only way forward.

The other thing that is becoming increasingly evident and was on display in the Council yesterday is just how useless the Greens are. At one time they could not make up their mind how to vote on the devolution issue. Hardly surprising as the amendment they had moved would have had the effect, although they didn’t mean it, of stopping devolution in the City Region in its tracks.

I mentioned that they would be very good at a TV programme I had seen whilst on holiday where apparently you get points for being pointless. On that basis after moving two pointless amendments yesterday they could become UK champions of pointlessness!

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What is Education For?

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Two articles about education have caught my eye recently both in the Independent.

One, in today’s paper led with a story about OFSTED Inspectors coaching schools so that they could fiddle OFSTED INSPECTIONS! Well to be frank I’ve never been impressed with OFSTED. During the last decade I worked with them on about six projects whilst working as a Peer for the Audit Commission. Frankly it was like trying to work with a bunch of Muppets. To paraphrase a northern saying, “them as can do; them as can’t inspect!” For all the gallery of inspections and regimes there is little evidence that all these inspections have led to improvement. League tables which measure only certain types of actions and certain types of attainment distort much of our education system.

The other eye catcher was the one showing that most of the jobs that graduates were employed for did not need a graduate qualification. The qualification was used, apparently, simply to weed out a number of potential recruits. So you can end up massively in debt for a degree which might get you a rung ahead of others without debt.

If I was 18 now I simply wouldn’t go to University unless I was absolutely certain that I wanted a job where a degree was vital. I rather hope that brain surgeons and bridge engineers are suitably qualified for example! I link that with a discussion that I had in the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee before the debacle of the student loans of 2010. Why I asked did we accept a target of 50% of our young people getting a degree when there is no way that any economy will ever have 50% of jobs needing graduates.

As with society generally a lot of false assumptions have been made about what education is about. That set of false assumptions have led people to set a series of targets and ambitions for our education factories (which when I was a lad were called schools) which led to good outputs for the schools but not for their scholars.

If I was 18 now I would spend 3 or 4 years doing all sorts of things. Not wandering around the World in faux-charitable projects funded by the bank of mum and dad but real work. Perhaps with a charity for a while; then behind a bar; then learning something different overseas? I would want to try all sorts of things to find out what I was good at and what I wanted to do before settling down to anything that looked like a career. And do you if I was still an employer that is precisely the sort of person I would want to hire people who had learnt from life rather than learning from text books.

I believe that an education system should do 3 things:

  1. It should create in individuals a thirst for learning and knowledge. I am always amazed at the number of houses that I go into where there are no books. This is not because everyone now uses Kindle or other machinery but because so many people stop reading when they don’t have to do it.
  2. It should create a multiplicity of paths whereby people can use their aptitudes and desires to fashion a future for themselves rather than be sent down pre-destined routes.
  3. It should be available to people all the way through their lives and available in a variety of ways to suit part time or full time situations.

In short I believe that examinations and assessments are not the be all and end all for the education system. Now how do I avoid seeming patronising when I talk about all the other types of qualifications which this country needs and which are looked down upon by the educational establishment. We are desperate for young men and women to take up all the physical sciences. We need just about every type of engineer imaginable and particularly for us to end the inhibition amongst young women in particular to take up subjects like engineering.

We need to give far more weight to the concept as well as the practices of apprenticeships. Too many of our modern apprenticeships are rubbish. I don’t mean we should go back to 7 year indentures where you spent the first year making the tea but I do mean a very high quality of apprenticeships where practical skills are linked closely with theory but with the practice leading the theory.

Operating a modern lathe requires old skills of hand and eye and new skills of understating maths and computers. A long-term decently paid apprenticeship is so clearly important not only for the individuals but for the Country. Look at the thousands of top grade engineering apprentices being turned out by the developing work in countries such as China and India.

There are those who will say that these ideas are just pie and the sky and certainly far too expensive. I believe that these ideas will save money. For example look at the burn out in teacher training establishments before graduation never mind the number of people who graduate but don’t start teaching and the number of people who give up teaching after 2 or three years. If those people had had a year or two doing things before going straight on to study we would have people who knew what their vocation as and would stick at it. If we had people who could provide high quality vocational skills more companies would keep or bring their manufacturing here rather than send or keep them in other Countries.

Heaven forfend we might have our own plumbers, brickies and sparks instead of pinching them from Poland. We might have enough nurses and medical technicians instead of stealing them from Africa.

Whenever I have written articles like this before or made speeches on this subject the same tired army of educationalists has criticised me BUT organisations like the CBI and other business groupings agree with the paucity of our provision and the failure to turn people with the confidence and thirst for knowledge and innovation that our industry needs. So let’s have a real debate on this and try and end up with an education system that meets our needs and not those of the educational snobberati!

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So now its ‘Game On’ for the Liberal Democrats

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After a dignified and revealing election we now have a new Leader. Of course as most people know I voted for Tim Farron but it really would not bothered me one jot if Norman Lamb had won. What the election revealed was that both of the candidates were good ‘muscular’ liberals who believe a radical ‘earthy’, liberalism.
Just two months after a General Election in which we were nearly smashed the Party feels as though it nearly won! Rejuvenated by a necessary but unfortunate coalition with the Tories and emboldened by our leadership campaign we have left behind the barricades and are eagerly embracing our opponents with the consequences that they must face from the General Election.
As I consider the state of our Party we have been blessed by three things:
One; the influx of high quality new members who in Liverpool are already considering standing for election at a number of levels.
Two; the reinvigoration of existing and returning Party members who don’t have to await with dread the next newspaper or TV broadcast when Lib Dem Ministers were having to ex[plain away some things that they did not themselves believe.
Thirdly the absence of a policy split between the candidates or, what might have in the past be considered as, the wings of the Party. Orange-bookery is no more. The Party feels so much more like the one that I joined 48 years ago when we were still following Jo Grimond’s command and marching to the sound of gunfire. We believe not in a left/right continuum but in a very different sort of society than the state centralism of the left or the corporate centralism of the right. We are declaring that we wish to break the power of London; to embrace internationalism; to put the environment at the heart of our policies and to create real localist solutions.
Some sign of the movement in the way that the Party has already moved is the fact that a motion to not replace Trident and replace it with a much stronger defence policy linked to a proper foreign policy is to appear on the Conference Agenda for September. I believe and hope that it will be passed so we do not squander money on this outdated post war relic.

This may sound like an attack on what we achieved during the years of the coalitiongovernment. Not so. We did a lot of good and if a coalition had not been formed in 2010 there would have been no recovery. From the pupil premium and free school meals for all infants to proper inflationary increases in pensions for the elderly we did one hell of a lot of good. But it was never a Lib Dem government and some of the things they did were done willingly and not with the full support of our Party. Not least of these was an unwillingness to back the strategic role of councils in the field of topics like education.
As we now survey the political scene we can have even more reason to be confident. Let’s look at our competitors:
The Labour Party; Well they do have a leadership choice. They could elect a leader who will be as valuable for them in the teens as Michael Foot was to them in the 80s. Jeremy Corbyn has his heart in the right place but appears not to have it in gear with a brain. His simplistic nostrums can best be summed up in his belief that Greece’s debts should be written off. He had no idea that the debt is not owned by rich financiers on a tropical off-shore island but by you and me through our national debts; our pensions; our shares and our EU membership. This is a Party that knows exactly what it wants to do about fox hunting (where I actually agree with them) but splits at least four ways when confronted with an attack on the striving working citizens who cannot make ends meet. The other 3 candidates are wannabe Blairs without the charisma!
The Green Party; what a muddle they present! Great theoretical ideas about the future but not grounded in political or economic reality. They live in a “Tolkien-like” Middle Earth where you can easily tell the goodies from the baddies and where the goodies always win. If they were really looking for a good leader to represent their views they too should vote for Jeremy Corbyn!

What about our opponents?
UKIP are on the slide. Broke in wallet and belief their reason for existence will disappear with the EU referendum whenever it is hold.
The Tory Party; finally off the leash and revealed as the nasty party of British politics. Tax goodies for the rich masked by an attack on the none-doms but really not hiding the fact that the Party has slashed credits to the hard pressed working couples. Its cynical stealing of a Labour policy for a living wage disguising the fact that their proposed level of living wage is enough to enable people to err…. live!
The next two or three years will not be easy for our Party. We are in a low place. We will need to regain trust ward by ward, community by community, election by election but I know now that the Party is up for the challenge. When you are down as low as we are there is only one way forward – upward and onward – back on the streets as I will be when our July Focus hits the letter boxes in Church Ward on Saturday!

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P. P. 

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