Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Get on your bike to live longer.

Cycling to work can cut the risk of developing cancer or heart disease according to a study conducted by Glasgow University.

Researchers followed 205,000 UK commuters for five years and found that those who traveled regularly by bike were 41% less likely to die of any cause, with the risk of dying from cancer falling by 45% and of heart disease by 46%.

Commuters who walked to work also showed better health, but only if they walked over six miles a week.

Dr Jason Gill of Glasgow University told the BBC ‘this is really clear evidence that people who commute in an active way, particularly by cycling are at a lower risk’.

Also speaking to the BBC Clare Hyde of Cancer Research UK said the report helped to ‘highlight the potential benefits of building activity into your everyday life.’

Cycling is seen as being better exercise than walking because the exertion needed is more intense.

As the country faces a surprise general election health and transport are certain to be major issues for voters. This report brings the two together in one neat package, as a country we drive too much and walk too little; our health and environment suffer as a result.

In cities like Stoke-on-Trent where air quality is a serious problem having a transport system that makes it easy to get around and is more important than ever.

Local green Party activist Adam Colclough said ‘Stoke needs a fully integrated transport system that brings buses, cycle lanes and even trams together to end gridlock and boost both the environment and the local economy.

The Green Party is committed to creating a transport system that is not dependent on car use and that makes it easier for people to cycle and walk safely. In Green controlled Brighton journeys by cycle rose by 11% between 2009 and 2012, there have been fewer road casualties and harmful emissions have also been reduced.

Those benefits and more could be replicated in Stoke-on-Trent if the city chooses to change its political course and elect a Green Party MP on June 8th.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

We need a politics of hope and inclusion to give real meaning to this snap election.

You’re joking! Another one? Brenda from Bristol the OAP door-stepped by a journalist on the day Theresa May called a snap general election could have been speaking for the nation.

After last going to the polls in 2015, the upheaval of the EU referendum and, here win Stoke-on-Trent anyway, a hectic by-election earlier in the year the public are more than a little battle-weary when it comes to politics.

The Downing Street line on this latest election is that Mrs. May has called it to bring some much-needed unity to the nation’s political life as we head for the door marked Brexit. Look a little closer and what you really see is some nifty, if risky, footwork in the curious quadrille of party politics.

There seem, to this observer anyway, to be two motives behind the decision of this most cautious of prime ministers to stake it all on a throw of the dice.

The first is a desire to destroy, maybe permanently, the Labour Party as an effective opposition. She is relying on Jeremy Corbyn leading them to the sort of drubbing Michael Foot did in 1983, with the resulting internal strife putting them out of the game for at least a decade.

Fighting and, she hopes, winning an election now will provide enough of a majority to secure her position if, or more likely when, things get rocky over the Brexit negotiations and Tory backbenchers start looking round for someone to blame.

Like juggling hand grenades, it’s an impressive trick if it works; but if it goes wrong, it has the potential to do so messily.

What is there in all this cynical positioning for the British public? The answer is more opportunity than at first appears.

However often it has been repeated before this really is a chance to bring about lasting change. The upheavals of the past couple of years have proved that in politics nothing is ever certain, even more so at a time when the staus-quo is something voters are no longer prepared to accept.

We need a new type of politics based around hope and inclusion, not despair and division; a view of our national future built around the shared values that make us strong.

In Stoke-on-Trent that means talking about how this city deserves better. Better jobs, a better transport system and a better, stronger health service. These are all things the Green Party has campaigned for over the past four years, speaking up for local people when other, larger, parties either took them for granted or ignored them entirely.

The tired old politics of business as usual is no longer good enough; the time has come for a politics of hope and inclusion that will change this city and our country for the better.

Adam Colclough is the Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party, the opinions expressed here are his own

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Public misbehavior gives politicians a bad name

It is, to anyone who has been involved with politics in Stoke-on-Trent little surprise that Richard Broughan, councilor for Abbey Hulton and Townsend, has wound up in hot water, again. This time for an, alleged, incident at a community event, for which he has been reprimanded and sent for ‘further training’ by the council standards board.

I have met him in person just once and, suffice to say, the experience was not an inspiring one. It was at a hustings event in the run up to the general election and, to use the polite parliamentary euphemism, he had ‘lunched well’; very well. It was past six o’clock and he was still higher than the International Space Station.

This latest incident including, alleged, inappropriate remarks made to someone dressed as one of Santa’s elves has more than a touch of Benny Hill about it. That might encourage some people to laugh it off; I’m afraid I can’t join in.

Life isn’t a Carry On film, the sort of remark Sid James might have made in the sixties and got a laugh now, rightly, is seen as disrespectful of the person at whom it is aimed. It is also deeply disrespectful towards anyone, whatever their party, position or gender involved with politics.

It gives credence to the tired line that all politicians are either fools or chancers. Having been involved with local politics for almost two decades I know this is a long way from being true. Whatever differences we may have on policy political people in this city are united by a genuine desire to do their best for our city.

He may have an eccentric, to say the least, way of going about it, but I should think that at some level is true of Mr. Broughan too.

I don’t know what his ‘further training’ will consist of, if they let me near to the blackboard for a moment I’d suggest it comes down to one thing; the bond of trust between the public and their representatives.

The public outpouring of grief last year following the murder of Jo Cox showed how deep respect for an honorable politician can go. Few of the people who laid flowers for could have met Cox during her lifetime, what they responded to was her entirely genuine and unselfconscious belief that politicians have a duty to serve the interests of their constituents above all else.

I can think of notable local examples of the same ethos set by men like John Beech, Mick Williams and Graham Wallace. None of whom could be described as having been compliant party hacks or stony faced puritans, what they did all demonstrate though was a commitment to and connection with the people they served that was truly inspiring.

The public recoiled in disgust over the scandal of MPs expenses not because they had stopped believing in politics; but because they still believe it matters. What, rightly, enraged us all was that a handful of privileged practitioners within the charmed circle of Westminster so clearly didn’t.

Nobody would want to be led by paragons who are perfect in every respect. What we value in politicians is that they have the same flaws and frailties as we do, but have chosen to set them aside, as best they can, in the name of the common good.

Acting out in public isn’t comical it is sad for the person doing it and suggests a self -destructive impulse deserving of sympathy not indulgence. It also makes it all the harder for the majority of politicians who are just doing their best to get a fair hearing.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Never mind a war with Spain, let's fight the battle for common sense.

The meeting between a former party leader and a microphone is seldom a happy one. If you don't believe me consider the case of Michael, now Lord, Howard.

On Sunday he told Sky News that, in his not at all humble opinion, Britain should go to war to keep hold of Gibraltar. Just to emphasize his point he drew compared the likelihood of the future of the rock and its monkeys with the Falklands war of 1982.

You don't need to be a psychologist to see where Lord Howard is coming from. He's reached the point in his political career where he has attained a certain level of prestige, but the power and purpose that made the job worth doing are a fast fading memory. What better way to grab a few moments in the limelight than by saying something controversial within earshot of a journalist?

So far, so predictable; the response though was as surprising as it was alarming.

You might have expected a little discreet eye rolling of the sort you get when an elderly relative says something inappropriate at a family gathering. Instead even though they didn't agree with him, publicly, the government didn't exactly slap him down either.

You could be forgiven for thinking that at some level Mrs. May and her cabinet like the idea of plucky little Britain squaring up to one of its oldest foes. Drake's drum is beating, the wind is full in the sails; let slip the dogs of distraction.

That, if we're honest is what this whole thing is, one big clumsy distraction. There is, of course, no likelihood of our going to war with Spain.

If the future of this historical and geographic anomaly enters into the Brexit negotiations it will be decided by just that, negotiation. Everyone's sword will stay sheathed and in all probability Gibraltar will stay British because that's what most people living there want.

Entertaining even for a moment an unlikely swashbuckling alternative serves as a wonderful distraction for a government that hasn't got a clue.

Last week Theresa May triggered Article 50 with indecent haste and nothing that resembles a plan. This is the biggest political event our country had faced since the war and the government are making things up as they go along. What could possibly go wrong; apart from everything?

If the UK is going to be a trading nation steering its own course through the world then we will need to make friends not enemies. Sadly that sort of common sense is missing from what passes for a large proportion of the government and media, not to mention the wider population.

Instead it is being drowned out by the din of patriotic music being played out of tune. People are being intentionally blinded with a rose tinted vision of a post Brexit Britain where all the passports are blue, the village clock is stuck at five to four and there is always honey for tea.

Behind it is a drive towards a hard Brexit led by the sort of right wing throwbacks who think the worst thing about zero hours contracts is that they're too generous. They will go to any length, even sabotaging whether we get a deal at all to further their interests.

Brexit is a reality, the people have spoken and their will expressed through the democratic process has to be respected. What we're going through has been likened to a divorce, unfortunately we seem to be being represented by a solicitor more used to doing a spot of conveyancing; who in turn has been landed with a fool for a client.

They say truth is the first casualty of war, it is starting to look like common sense is the first casualty of Brexit.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

It’s not algorithms that I fear so much as unimaginative managers.

Banking giant NatWest is to close branches in Stoke, Burslem, Trentham, Biddulph, Cheadle and Stone. Customers will be inconvenienced and the communities affected will be a little poorer; but hey, that's progress folks.

Speaking to the Sentinel on Friday a NatWest spokesman said they had ‘listened’ to feedback from communities and were aware that ‘not all of our customers are comfortable and familiar with online banking.’ The company has promised to put a ‘taskforce’ in place to help customers find alternative banking options.

Is there any problem these days that doesn't merit the setting up of a taskforce? It sounds good, but in practice means almost nothing.

As for listening to feedback from the community, I think NatWest are confusing that with hearing, which is not the same thing at all. You can hear something without paying it the least bit of attention.

NatWest, and all the other banks have been listening to communities in Stoke-on-Trent and countless other cities say they don't want their local bank to close, guess what happens next? They shut it anyway and the progress Juggernaut rolls on regardless.

George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm about sheep who like a ruminant chorus would bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad. They were a metaphor for the way a certain sort of communist would believe every diktat handed down by the party, however illogical or criminal it might be.

You can hear their echo whenever things like bank closures or the willful destruction of something else we the little people value is announced. It is the fanfare for a world view that sees humanity as only ever moving forward. The mere suggestion that a better route to the same destination might be the indirect one is classed as treason.

In an age when we are starting to become uneasy about automation and AI changing the world out of all recognition, what keeps me awake at night isn't algorithms with ideas above their station; its managers without a trace of imagination.

They are the sort of people who view the world through the screen of their laptop, in the way the rest of us do through a fairground mirror. The resulting distortions lead to them failing to understand some basic things about progress and human nature.

To them progress is a huge uncontrollable beast to which we can only cling helplessly as it stampedes to points unknown. The idea that in order to reach any destination someone has to take hold of the reins is lost on them.

As does the unavoidable truth that human beings often make their best journeys by following a roundabout route. Try to force change for ‘the good of all’, and you run the risk of getting mired in resistance or charging down endless blind alleys.

Just because we can do our banking and so many other things online, it doesn't necessarily mean that we want to, or that we should do so.

Change is inevitable, but continuity helps us to feel comfortable; machines have the power to make life easier, but human contact is what makes it worthwhile.

Balancing off those contradictions is going to become ever more important. Recognizing that change should never be an end in itself is a good place to start.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Labour’s entropy gathers momentum.

If it’s Monday, then it must be time for the Labour Party to tear itself apart, again.

Deputy leader Tom Watson took to the airwaves to mutter darkly about a ‘plot’ to destroy the party if, or when, things go belly up at the forthcoming local elections.

In the frame were far left group Momentum with trades union UNITE led by Len McCluskey lurking menacingly in the shadows. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, angry rebuttals and, by close of play a plea for party unity from Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

It would be laughable, if so many people didn't still place their trust in the Labour Party.

I don't know and don't much care if there really is a plot to destroy the Labour Party, as I see things its doing a pretty good job of destroying itself.

Momentum seem not too different to most other left wing groups. They have a ‘position’, a certain romanticized view of how politics work; but they're hardly agents of revolution.

Their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn is as touching as it is misguided. I retain the opinion of him I held when he won the Labour leadership against all the odds. He is a decent man motivated by principle, but he lacks the killer instinct necessary to win an election.

These days he looks worn out, far from wanting a praetorian guard to cement his grip on power, he probably longs to slip back into back bench obscurity.

Tom Watson’s claim that if McCluskey is re -elected as leader of UNITE the union will affiliate to Momentum and the fall of Rome follow shortly after seems less than credible.

Trades unions can and affiliate to all kinds of organizations, the influence this has on the voting intentions of their membership is minimal. To say otherwise is like putting two and two together and getting infinity.

The government is on the verge of leading Britain over the cliff into Brexit, austerity continues to bite and the NHS, Labour's greatest achievement is under threat like never before. Working people need a strong political voice, what the party many still turn to by default is providing instead is the din of a thousand private squabbles.

There are rumors that at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party MPs cheered Watson and booed Corbyn. A cynic might think the threat to King Jeremy comes from his deputy rather than than the Trots of Momentum; cynics are often right too.

There are, of course, alternatives to Labour, but the inadequacies of our voting system make it hard for them to gain traction. If this latest crisis is one more step towards the tar pit for the Labour dinosaur, though it may be sad for those people who are still loyal to a cause that stopped being loyal to them a long time ago, it could open the door for those parties who want to oppose the government; not engage in private feuds.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Is it time to bring back Sanity Fair?

In many ways, attitudes towards people living with mental illness have improved vastly in the past decade. Look beyond the surface though and a less pleasing picture emerges.

Lazy media stereotypes, deep-seated prejudices and the perennial struggle to access services, mean that people living with mental illness are still struggling for recognition of sometimes even the most basic rights. Popular culture also too often still presents them as a ‘problem’, rather than as members of one of the many communities making up our society.

Matters weren’t helped a couple of weeks ago by the comments made by Tory MP George Freeman that people with anxiety are just sitting at home popping pills and aren’t suffering from an illness that can be as limiting as any physical disability. Our sainted Prime Minister might talk about a ‘shared society’ where those living with mental illness are no longer excluded; it doesn’t seem like one of her pet policy advisors got the memo.

Individuals and charities do much to redress the balance, but there is a lot of needless duplication and when spoken by more than one voice at a time an otherwise strong message can end up being diluted.

What we need to do is celebrate in a positive way the possibility of living an empowered, productive life despite mental illness. One way of doing so could be to bring back Sanity Fair, the festival of all things relating to mental health held in the city up until a decade ago.

It could work rather in the way ‘Pride’ events have for the LGBT community, as a way for an unfairly marginalized community to say, ‘We’re here and We’re proud of who we are; get over it.’

The problem, of course, is how to pay for such an event. Council budgets are shrinking, so is that of the NHS.

The answer is to look to local employers, many of whom are slowly coming round to the idea that the mental health of their staff matters as much as their physical health and safety. Mental ill health in the workplace is a serious drain on productivity, profits and staff retention.

Concern for their bottom line, along with the slow realization that a good reputation is the best form of advertising should make business open to demonstrating social responsibility on such a major issue.

It is certainly an idea worth considering, if only because organizing a new Sanity Fair would bring the disparate mental health charities and support groups who do so much good work, often in isolation together to pull in the same direction.

It would also help to blow away with balloons, music and good spirits the clouds of stigma and suspicion that hold so many people back from reaching their full potential. Along the way, it would help to remind the wider world that Stoke-on-Trent is a modern and inclusive city, not the stereotype people locked within the embrace of the M25 like to think.