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The frustration of travelling to and from the islands.

24 October, 2007

Half term provided a welcome break from the incessant political activity that has engulfed me since my selection.

 Up at 0330 for the drive to Oban to catch a ferry to the tranquil and starkly beautiful Hebridean island of Coll.

Yes, 0330: the unseasonable departure times for ferries to the islands was raised with me more than once during my visit. There is a ferry that leaves at 1500, but it is on a Tuesday: those with children at Oban High School (there is no secondary school on the island) have lobbied for the later ferry to run on a Friday, thus allowing them to see their children for more than a few hours; they arrive late on Saturday morning and have to go back to Oban early on Sunday afternoon. So far, it has proved beyond the capacity of the Scottish Government and Cal Mac to grant this request.

Ferries. Most of us mainlanders tend to think of ferry crossings in the context of a rather leisurely start to a holiday – whether to Normandy or the Hebrides – but for the islanders they are, quite literally, a lifeline. Without the ferries they wouldn’t survive, but I experienced – at first hand – the ludicrous level of inconvenience that is experienced by those who live on or visit these islands, thanks to our lack of an integrated transport policy in Scotland.

We took a German friend to Coll with us. Unfortunately, she was flying back from Glasgow on Thursday, so had to leave the island on Wednesday. Her ferry arrived in Oban at 1315. The train for Glasgow left at 1320. There wasn’t another one until 1630, which would have meant her arriving in Glasgow at past 9 o’clock. So, we looked for a bus, but the first one she could take wasn’t until 1530. Whichever method she chose, she had to kick her heels in Oban for at least two hours. For someone used to the smooth efficiency of the German transport system (there is always a train waiting for ferry passengers, a bus waiting for the train, a tram waiting for the bus) it was incomprehensible.

I spent my first year in Germany when I was a student in the 80s. My lasting impression was of transport providers who communicated with one another: night trams stood waiting for the last train back to the suburbs from town, and night buses were regular, clean, well-lit and safe. If they could do it then, why can’t we, 20 years later?

It isn’t necessary to re-nationalise the whole transport system, just for different service providers to talk to one another, in the interests of providing the best standard of customer service possible.

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Managing the NHS

11 October, 2007

Have you ever wondered how our soldiers manage to perform so well, despite the exigencies of not enough kit or armoured vehicles? Simple: the principle of Misson Command (well, that and excellent training).

Mission Command underlies everything that the military does, and it boils down to one word: trust. Put simply (and please, no contributions from graduates of the Defence Academy; I am simply using it as an illustration) it means that the person at the top outlines a vision of what he wants to achieve (and, at the moment, they are all ‘he’) and then lets his subordinates get on with it. They have to achieve the task, but no one tells them how to do so.

This continues right down the chain of command, to the order given to a young Corporal to secure a piece of ground or a building. It is he, therefore, who decides what each individual man in his team should do and he who gives the orders.

However, the crucial part of Mission Command is that everyone understands the bigger picture, but is trusted to take whatever action is neccessary in the face of changing circumstances to achieve the aim, even if this means having to take immediate decisions without reference to higher authority.

I am not suggesting that this could be implemented in exactly the same way across the NHS, but no general is interested in the detail of how his field hospitals are kept clean. Nor is the commanding officer for that matter: he expects them to be so and trusts the staff sergeant in charge to do his job properly.

This Labour government is far too keen on micro management from the centre, instead of giving freedom to its hospital managers to ensure that the overall aim is achieved.

We need to trust those who run our hospitals to do the job properly, without interfering in their operational management by setting prescriptive targets from Whitehall. We also need to start focusing on outcomes as a means of measuring success in the NHS; it is cold comfort, if you are re-admitted to a hospital within a week of surgery – because you were discharged too soon, or because you have contracted MRSA – to know that you were offered your operation within the prescribed waiting time.

However, we also need to take a good look at those who have been put in place to run our hospitals: they often appear more interested in counting beans than saving spleens.

It is time that clinical priorities dictated how our hospitals are run, not Health Secretaries. They are there to provide the vision, to give everyone a mission to achieve.

Then leave it to those who work at the coal face to achieve it.

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Inheritance tax is a route to profligacy

11 October, 2007

Yet another commentator in the Herald today, who seems to regard saving for your children’s future as totally unnecessary. Anne Johnstone wishes her father good luck as he ‘spends his way to penury’, and avows that she plans to do the same. And when the money runs out? Why then the tax payer will pick up the bill, of course.

 Some people, however, aim never to be a burden on the state – my own father is one of them. Unlike Ms Johnstone’s, he is saving his way to security. Not only does he plan never to be a burden on the tax payer himself, but he hopes to leave his children with a degree of security, so that they can leave the state to take care of those who have no means of helping themselves.

Ms Johnstone’s vision chills the blood: a brave new world in which anyone who has made some money through hard work aims to die a pauper, and the rest of us are left to pick up the bill. 

If the tax man threatens to take large chunks of our hard-earned cash, why on earth should we save it? Is it the duty of those who work hard and save druing their life to support those who don’t after their death? The state needs savers: it can’t afford to support everyone in old age.

I have a friend who owns her own business, a business that is now – finally – starting to do well. Don’t expect her to engage in a discussion about Big Brother, or Strictly Come Dancing, or any other television programme for that matter: when others have returned from work and sat down to a glass of wine and some downtime, she is still at her computer, doing accounts, sorting pay roll, researching products or tracking deliveries. Computers have replaced ‘doing the accounts at the kitchen table perhaps’, but the work needed to make a small business successful doesn’t change.

What is more, she started grafting at the age of 14: when others were out, enjoying balmy evenings with friends, she was indoors, studying hard for her O grades, and later, Highers.

She deserves her money; she has worked incredibly hard for every single penny, and she has an absolute right to decide what becomes of it after she has gone. The one thing that she wants is to know that her children will have what she never has: a safety net.

But a safety net that the state doesn’t have to fund.

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What Gordon Brown could learn from David Cameron

8 October, 2007

Well, well: he started out as Arachne and ended up as Jeff Goldblum; Gordon Brown certainly has been caught in the sticky web of his own spinning.

The weeks of fevered speculation (will he/won’t he pop the question) are now officially over, but our PM’s burnished image has dulled a little in the light of his repetition (at Bournemouth), deviation (via Iraq) and hesitation (habitual).

And for what? A wizard wheeze that got out of hand: what does that say about his judgement? A glimpsed chance of personal glory: what does that say about his statesmanship? A hope of ‘grinding the faces of the opposition into dust’: what does that say about his belief in democracy?

The PM revealed his true colours this week: vacillating and hesitant, a cynical leader with an eye to the main chance, not the main task.

It is up to the Conservatives not to let that image wane.

Perhaps Gordon could have benefitted from David Cameron’s much reviled classical education: ‘carpe diem’.

He might yet regret that he didn’t.

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Helensburgh by-election

5 October, 2007

A frustrating result last night: just 15 votes separated us from the Lib Dems in 1st preferences, but we lost out on transferrable votes.

It was no reflection on the calibre of the candidate, or on the extraordinary amount of work that the team put into delivering such a focused and high-energy campaign; I enjoyed every minute of it and was consistently impressed by the commitement of all those involved.

Although we didn’t win, we covered a lot of ground and built a good platform from which to launch our General Election campaign, whenever the PM chooses to name the day.

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David Cameron impresses me again

3 October, 2007

Dropping my children off at school one morning in 2005, I got back into the car to drive to work, and switched on the radio to the middle of an interview with a politician. His voice suggested that he was a Tory, but what he was saying stopped me in my tracks – literally. I turned the engine off, and sat outside the school gates until he had finished speaking.

 I had begun to despair of ever again being able to vote for a party that stood for the things that mattered to me: a party that believed in social justice as well as the right of parents to choose independent education for their children if they wanted; a party that supported those who have been dealt a rotten hand in life, but wanted to reduce interference by the state; a party that believed in individual freedom, as well as individual responsibility. Most of all, a party that didn’t believe it knew better than I how to run my life, but did believe in offering real help to those who were unable – for whatever reason – to help themselves.

And suddenly, there was a politician really speaking my language: I had never heard of David Cameron before that morning, I admit, but I found myself looking and listening for references to him from then on. So, when he stood for the leadership of the Party, I was one of those who hoped that he would win.

He didn’t just bring me back to the fold; it was his outlook and desire to move the Party back to the centre that first made me consider standing as a candidate.

His speech to Conference today did it again. There was no high-flown language, no recourse to periods of rhetoric, designed to have us cheering from the rafters; there was just a steely resolve, an underlying passion to put things right for the people of this country. In a masterly response to those who say that he hasn’t thought things through, he presented us, and the country, with a clear idea of what he would set out to improve, and how he would do so.

Some critics have said that his ability to speak without an autocue was merely a stunt: well, it was to be expected, as David’s deftness and mastery of his brief contrasted sharply with the laboured performance of the PM last week, relying heavily as it did on rehearsed periods and scripted reminiscenses. A clunking performance indeed.

Of course, what had me cheering loudest was the amount of time he devoted to our hard-pressed servicemen and women – unlike the contempt Mr Brown showed them last week, with his cursory pat on the head –  like Mr Grace in ‘Are You Being Served’ – “You’ve all done very well.” The Army Families’ Federation may have been saying for a number of years that the Military Covenant is being broken daily, but it gladdens our hearts when the cause is taken up by the Leader of the Opposition.

An increase in the size of the army, to take account of its operational commitments – at long last. Let us not forget that it was Gordon Brown’s squeeze on MoD spending that meant a moratorium on recruitment in 2002, which led – among other things – to the amalgamation of the Scottish Regiments. I won’t be the only Service wife giving thanks today.

Mr Cameron came across as relaxed (quite an achievement for any public speaker – I had to address members of the South Lorn Conservative Association at a lunch yesterday, and I found that my appetite had deserted me beforehand – let alone someone who has the hopes of his party riding on him, and a bank of press photographers to try to ignore) and confident; a man who knew what he wanted to achieve – within the Party and the country – and how he would do so. He looked like a PM in waiting.

Not cynical, not wooden, just believable.

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Labour, red in tooth and claw

1 October, 2007

Hazel Blear’s performance at the Labour Conference last week reminded me of P G Wodehouse’s memorable line about aunts, “At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.”

And so it is with Socialists: it doesn’t matter how many blue ties the PM chooses to wear, or how blue the background to his speeches, the true nature of his Party will always reveal itself through its members. We were treated to a display of good, old-fashioned class prejudice in Ms Blears’ impassioned and ill-judged attack on Boris as a “fogeyish, bigoted, upper class twit”, shortly followed by Jack Dromey’s incisive pen picture of a “tufty toff from Eton.”

 Ms Blears’ comment has been laughed off (uneasily) by the more on-message Brownies as mere ‘red meat’ for the Party faithful, but that is, in itself, a shocking indictment of today’s Labour Party: nothing New about it anymore now that Tony and Mandy have gone; it’s back to ‘auld claes and parritch’ as Gordon’s grandmother might have said. The fact that the membership regard such bigotry as entertaining says more about the Party than any number of new ties or old initiatives, presented as new.

Making value judgements about people based on what they have no control over: the colour of their skin; their sexual orientation; their country of birth, is completely unacceptable, but not, it would appear, when it comes to what their parents did for a living, or where they went to school. At least, not as far as the Labour Party is concerned.

When the PM quoted scripture and asked that the little children ‘come unto him’ (now who has the Messianic complex?) he obviously didn’t mean all children, just those the Government deems deserving.

The Quixotic nature of modern politics is surely highlighted by the presence of Quentin Davis on the platform earlier in the week: is the Labour Party turning the 18th Century idea of the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor on its head? Do we now have the deserving and undeserving rich?

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Gordon Brown’s magic wand

25 September, 2007

So, there we have it: with a swipe of his wand, the new PM will put right everything that his government has had ten years to tackle, but failed to achieve.

We will finally have clean hospitals: two years ago, I listened to a Norwegian microbiologist being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about how he had studied the work a British team had done in reducing hospital acquired infection. The Norwegians implemented the British team’s suggestions across their entire health service, and now have one of the lowest infection rates in Europe.

Unfortunately, the Dept of Health chose not to ‘roll out’ the programme across British hospitals, on the grounds of cost. Strange that Gordon failed to mention that yesterday. He might also want to ask himself why there are still no reported cases of MRSA in our military hospitals overseas or in our mobile hospitals in Iraq or Afghanistan.

What troubles me about this government’s record on the NHS is that not that money has been poured in to it – I am a passionate supporter of the NHS – but that improved patient care has not poured back out.

I was talking to an Edinburgh GP recently, who told me that the NHS provides ‘bean counter medicine’ – his expression. He pointed out that people look at the targets for all those who have been operated on within the required time, but no one looks at the incidence of ‘revolving door’ patients – those who are back in again within days/weeks, as they needed more care than is available now under our modern ‘in-and-out-and-put-the-kettle-on’ approach to surgery.

His words were backed up not two days later, when I was talking to an occupational therapist, who told me that she had asked repeatedly for a therapist’s couch for her patients, only to be told that the budget wouldn’t stretch to it (it cost some hundreds of pounds). What annoyed her was that the hospital managers had just enjoyed a complete make over of their offices, complete with deep pile carpets (they came up more than once: I think they touched a nerve) and totally refurbished executive shower.

What has gone wrong in our health service, when hospital managers spend our money on their showers and not on our families?

To add insult to injury, the same occupational therapist had to put in a request for a new roll of Sellotape via her manager, who then had to put it up to her line manager. In all, it took three requests and counter-signatures for one roll of Sellotape to make its way on to a desk. Stationery cupboard with a padlock? Too last century, it would appear.

This is the reality of Gordon Brown’s health service, with its centralist approach and manager-driven focus. 

No mention of defence either, I noticed. We are committed to two medium-scale operations, with stories hitting the headlines about under-resourced troops and appalling service accommodation, but our service personnel merited only a brief reference in passing. Nothing about the future.

How easy it is to make promises, but the Government should be judged on its delivery. We have already seen the difficulties that attend deporting convicted criminals from our shores: how will he ensure ‘any newcomer’ who sells our children drugs, or carries a gun will be deported? Not if the newcomer is from Europe he won’t.

I don’t disapprove of the principle (indeed, wasn’t that the purpose of the Conference address yesterday – bring in the moderate Tory vote), but how will he achieve it?

By judicious use of the wand, I suppose.

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Presenting a united front

24 September, 2007

Out canvassing in Helensburgh again on Saturday – this time in glorious sunshine. For the most part, a positive experience, but I was struck by the number of people who said that they saw little point in voting, as ‘all politicians are the same anyway, and none can really make a difference.’

Voter cynicism is a real problem for the Conservatives, as it preserves the status quo: ‘if voting for someone new won’t change anything, might as well vote for whoever is there at the moment.’

We need to challenge that view if we want to win seats, and we can only challenge it if we are seen to be different and determined to make a difference.

We are taking on a teflon-coated PM, who has emerged apparently unscathed from crises – in the health service, agriculture and banking – to which his government’s policies have contributed. It will take a powerful force to dent him and his party machine. Elementary physics tells us that the more concentrated the force, the greater its power, so why do we appear bent on dissipating that force through internal bickering and sniping from the sidelines?

It was noticeable that, when the tension between the then PM and the Chancellor seeped out of Numbers 10 and 11 into the public domain, New Labour’s popularity rating fell. People are not interested in parties that appear to be more interested in themselves than in the country at large. If we want to matter to them, then they must matter to us.

David Cameron has gone to great lengths to put at the heart of our policy making the issues that matter to people today. Everyone in the Party has to decide whether we want to win this election, or just pay off old scores.

One of the reasons for Gordon Brown’s apparent impregnability is that those with scores to settle with him aren’t prepared to jeopardize victory at the polls in order to do so.

We need to learn that lesson fast, and present a focused, united front to the people of this country: focused on them, not ourselves.

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Ming’s merciless approach to tax

20 September, 2007

It isn’t his age, it’s his policies we need to worry about.

Since when has having a household income of £70k constituted being in the ‘super rich’ bracket? That’s a department head of chemistry married to a senior firefighter, or an internal communications officer living with a recruitment consultant. Super rich? They hardly fit the image of city financiers with six-figure bonuses.

These are the hardworking middle classes the Lib Dems are talking about ‘hammering’. I can imagine the conversation, “I’ve been thinking about applying for the job of Head of Modern Languages; what do you think?” “Uh oh, that means that we’ll have a combined income of £69k; it’s just not worth it.”

A return to the days when women were discouraged to work, as their income, when added to their husband’s, meant that he ended up paying more in tax than she earned. 

If the tax levels of the 1970s proved anything, it was that punitive taxation doesn’t pay.