Threat of expulsion? It’s so much easier than picking up the phone

I was at the twinge conference fringe event last night, which was great fun, but I confess that all the talk of new media being used for political engagement rang a little false considering what happened to my wife, Jude, about two weeks ago.

Out of the blue she received a letter from the ‘National Compliance Office’ stating that a report had been considered by Labour’s National Executive Committee which included the recommendation that she take down a blog post from May 2008 or face expulsion from the party.

The blog-post in question related to a trip that our MP took to Africa – paid for by Nestle.

When the story about the Nestle trip first broke, local Tories seemed to think that this was an MP’s expenses ‘scandal’. Jude, quite rightly in my opinion, pointed out that taking a trip paid for by Nestle was perhaps a misjudgement given that:

* Ormskirk has many Labour voters who would understand precisely Nestle’s history of pushing baby-milk in Africa – breaking international rules
* Ditto in Skelmersdale, but which also has a low proportion of breast feeding mothers
* and that our MP was previously the Chair of the Women’s Hospital in Liverpool and should therefore understand these issues and the likely reaction by Labour supporters in West Lancs.

It’s fair to say that Jude’s language made it very clear that she was unhappy and might have mellowed following a sleep, but there certainly wasn’t anything that an MP ought to take offence at. UPDATE: Jude tells me that she can understand why Rosie might have taken offence, but I would suggest that an MP ought to have a thick skin.

As it is, Jude’s blog deals primarily with knitting, our children and our various attempts at grown-up domesticity. It is read by a handful of family and friends – and, I was darkly informed last year – monitored by some who we might not class as friends.

The blog went up and nothing was heard. I think one comment was made.

Move the clock forward fifteen months and we heard on the grapevine that an NEC investigation into allegations of bullying in the West Lancs Labour Group was taking place.

This wasn’t a surprise.

Debate at Group meetings can often be described as robust – and so it should be. These are Councillors standing up for their wards and they certainly didn’t enter politics for a quiet life.

Members of the group, plus ex-group leader Alan Bullen, were invited to a series of interviews as part of the investigation. Jude and I weren’t, obviously, as we’re not Councillors.

The surprise came in the report’s recommendations.

No acts of bullying worth disciplinary action were found (a sensible conclusion). However, it did find against Jude for blogging “personal attacks” on the MP – with the threat of expulsion; against Cllr Bob Pendleton for “personal attacks” on the MP being reported in the press – with the threat of expulsion and a ban on Alan Bullen being a candidate until 2012, because he might use the platform to criticise other members.

I will blog about Bob and Alan’s treatment in the future, as their judgements are even more bizarre than Jude’s.

Jude, understandably, deleted the post and is a little embarrassed about the whole situation.

One can’t help but wonder why someone didn’t just pick up the phone or drop her an email and ask her perhaps to ‘tone it down’ or explain why Rosie Cooper went on the Nestle funded trip in the first place.

If the investigation in West Lancs was into bullying, then I would respectfully suggest that the NEC look at whoever made the complaint in the first place.

To make matters worse, the letter from head office stated that the judgement had been shared with the current Labour Group leader (why?) and with Labour Group members (why?) thus throwing the whole thing into the public domain.

Jude has been a loyal, active and campaigning servant of the Labour party for over ten years – first in Twickenham CLP and later in West Lancs. It was perhaps a misjudgement to be so overtly critical of our MP – who we have both campaigned for and would again.

But to come down on her with the full force of the NEC instead of just picking up the phone – well, that’s just wrong, and shows a complete lack of understanding of not just new media, but of basic common communication skills.

Conference ’09 – pitchside reports – Sunday

First things first. I’m not staying in Brighton this year. I booked my conference tickets late and affordable accommodation was hard to come by. I’d also set my heart on camping after a number of excellent camping holidays since we went to Glastonbury.

However… it turns out that one doesn’t camp in Brighton – obviously not the done thing – and the one camp site close to the town has it’s tent field closed during conference week.

So, I had to look around and found a place down the coast in Seaford – quite a distance from Brighton, but on a train line and (crucially) with a relatively late service during the week. So you find me sat outside the tent at 11pm; above me a clear night sky with the stars nearly as bright as when we were in the Lake District, and the sound of the sea (I’m about 100 yds from the beach). Lily and Joel would be so jealous.

I wouldn’t call it ideal, but it’s probably saved me in the region of £600-ish. Plus I’ve done the ‘staying-in-the-bar-till-5am’ thing, and I don’t really fancy it this year. Too many things to do.

There isn’t too much to report today. The approach to Brighton was weird. I’d driven down so that I could bring the tent and I was interested to see that there were no signs on the A23 referring to conference. The last time I drove down to Brighton was when we lived in Twickenham, and there were banners on every bridge by the Countryside Alliance and other not-terribly-supportive groups. This
year there was nothing, just a poster by the Green party slagging off Labour between the train station and the conference centre. Ironically mostly hidden by a tree until you get close to it.

I assume that means that the likes of the Countryside Alliance have decided to stop campaigning because they assume that Cameron will give them back their hunts, slave wages, trespass laws and gun-totin-freedoms should he win the next General Election.

After quickly pitching the tent, I arrived in Brighton just in time for the North West reception and to catch up with some comrades who I’ve known for some years now.

One of the sad things about the Constituency Party not being active any more is that you miss the occasions to meet up with activists from neighbouring constituencies.

About half way through Gordon and Sarah Brown came in and gave a speech. I can’t help but feel for them (and to a lesser extent Harriet Harman). The whole conference week seems to be a rush from one gathering to another, saying basically the same thing in each meeting to rally the troops. Despite that, Brown’s speech was fine.

Better fun was meeting up with @msgracefm, @LaurenceDurnan and others from the Blackburn contingency (I’m told it’s the largest constituency group from the NW). We went for fish and chips, discussed blogging (local vs national) and android vs windows vs blackberry phone platforms – at which point Grace adopted a look similar to our Jude when I start talking about android vs windows vs iphone
platforms.

Yvette Cooper gave a lovely speech at the Young Labour reception which I was generously allowed into. It’s hard to believe that most of the people in that
room were in juniors or just starting secondary school when Labour won in 1997. Yvette managed to remind everyone of the grim days under Major without sounding patronising – a work of brilliance if you ask me – but then I wasn’t the target audience.

And so back to the tent. I didn’t do the things that I had planned (Compass rally in the evening followed by Welsh night or something like that), but much more fun and gossip-ey.

Tomorrow looks like it’ll be interesting. So I’m going to call it a day and climb into the sleeping bag. I might just stare at the stars for five more minutes though. You don’t get a view like that from a B&B room.

£30 million LSC investment confirmed for Skem College

It is reported that the Learning and Skills Council has confirmed that it will be investing £30 million of the £48 million needed for the Skelmersdale College redevelopment.

The Construction News article states:

The Learning and Skills Council has approved two more college construction projects in a shock move this morning.

As well as Manchester College – the last of the 13 shortlisted projects to be approved – it has found more than £30 million for Lancashire, Skelmersdale and Ormskirk College.

This is just brilliant news and now represents real money on the table, unlike the decision reported a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if the £18 million difference represents a shortfall in LSC funding, or if the college was expecting to get that from elsewhere, but that’s for another day.

Well done to Rosie Cooper and everyone else involved in getting this investment back on track.

Technical: WordPress RSS hack – resolved

A couple of times this year I’ve had to deal with a website hack that injects “spam” into the RSS feed. Specifically there were generic viagra related links and keywords placed into the first RSS entry when picked up by the google reader spider.

To be honest, I’d quietly put up with it and clear it in my own time, but I also host a friend’s blog on my server too (the internationally renowned Bickerstaffe Record). This had fallen to the same problem on a couple of occasions, so rather than just reinstall everything I thought I’d better take a look to see what’s happening.

I don’t normally delve into technical stuff here, but this should be quite quick and painless.

I knew that both sites were running the latest version of wordpress, so to be certain that everything was ok, I unpacked a copy of the latest wordpress into a new directory and ran a diff on both folders:

% diff ./wordpress/ ./www/

This reported that there were no differences between the distribution and the installed code. So the problem had to be with either the plugins or the configuration files.

Much of the research kicked up problems of iframe hacks and also remv.php files (check this). However neither related to the RSS feed being manipulated.

Finally I looked for hidden (dot) files with this:

% find . -name ".??*" -print
./wordpress-automatic-upgrade/js/.wp-wpau.cache.php
./akismet/.akismet.old.php

Running this on the second wordpress blog returned similar results – same file contents, but both in the akismet folder.

The files started with the following:

% head wordpress-automatic-upgrade/js/.wp-wpau.cache.php 
< ?php /*?#?#,,sess,XJyb3JfcmV
b3J0a
5nKDApO
0KJGFjdD0i
0FDVElPTl0iOyBnbG9iY

gJGFycl90bXBfc2hlbG
sJGJ1a
xkX3RtcF9zaGVsbDsgJGJ1a
xkX3RtcF9zaGVsbD0iMC4yIjsNCiRhcnJfdG1

and

% cut -c 1-400 ./akismet/.akismet.old.php 
< ?php (0xf7001E)?0x8b:(0xaE17A)?0xDEc52:(0xBfe8E)?0xFCD:
(0xE48a98)?0x1cDEe:(0x033A)?0xa1F:(0x8B953)?0xdAF6e80:(0x0c)?0xaFdD:
(0xdb2d3)?0x6D3:(0x4F60)?0xFd1f:(0xD63)?0xC1Cb46:(0x885d6)?0x5728:
(0xc78)?0xa9e:(0xC2Ad)?0xa17e6:(0xf963)?0x0Ce:(0xb8a94)?0xeC9fB:
(0x94B)?0xaDeF6B2:(0x9c64b4)?0x18a:(0xCCC6C)?0x1ab:(0xFdccD)?0x6E65:
(0x67Ee)?0x2A3c:(0xeB)?0xfCBfD:(0xcc62b)?0x5E1A50:(0x6c)?0x5eed:
(0x4F3f)?0xE1e

Deleting these two files stopped the problem, there's no other evidence of changes in either the database or in the wordpress folder.

Why did it happen? Well, I was lazy and wanted the wordpress automatic updates to work without too much thought - so I left the file permissions sufficiently open to allow web-based updating. Of course, this meant they were also open to be exploited, which is what happened.

Considering the location of the hidden files, I assume that there is a problem in one of the plugins.

I've changed both the ownership of the files and permissions as follows:

% cd /path/to/site/www
% chown -R steve:steve .       # basically any user not in the apache group
% find . -type d -exec chmod 755 {} \;
% find . -type f -exec chmod 644 {} \;

Let’s hope that’s the end of it. Hope this helps someone.

I’m not just sorry… I’m M&S sorry

On Friday night I came back from a family ‘do’ celebrating my cousin’s 10th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely occasion, but I had to leave early because I had the children with me. Not having eaten since breakfast I ordered a healthy chinese for home delivery.

Much to my amazement, the delivery man recognised me as the Labour candidate and asked why wasn’t I at Edge Hill University where there was a big Labour event taking place. “Gosh”, thought I – since I hadn’t been told that the event was taking place and, quite irritated, tweeted my frustrations.

Apparently there had been a fundraising event which was attended by Alan Johnson. Tickets were £35 per head or £350 per table of ten.

I spoke to a few comrades in the local party on Saturday who also hadn’t been invited – and I was feeling a bit peeved that perhaps only a select “few” had been invited. Peeved, because these events are usually very sociable occasions and a great opportunity to add to the coffers for the forthcoming general election. Ironically, I wouldn’t have been able to attend because of the earlier family and childcare duties that night.

While brushing the back yard this morning I remembered that there had been an email from the regional party advertising party printing services (Christmas Cards, Out Cards and leaflets, that sort of thing). I scrolled past the sales stuff to find a mention of the constituency dinner. So it turns out that I had been told that the dinner was on and simply missed it because I’d thought the message was about regional printing services.

On that basis I thought it best to apologise fully and unreservedly for even suggesting that I might not have been told that the dinner was on. Sorry.

Ormskirk roads – a review, but any public involvement?

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a Lancashire County press release regarding another road study for Ormskirk. I’ve been completely remiss in not posting this earlier.

Anyhow the press release states:

Lancashire County Council has drawn up a brief for transport consultants who are being asked to assess options and prioritise a range of schemes to tackle congestion and enhance people’s ability to travel more easily.

So, the Tories win control of the Council and the first thing they do is get in a bunch of consultants – at goodness knows what cost – to find out what the people in Ormskirk could probably tell them already!

Perhaps that’s what happens when we have a County Councillor from Parbold.

But, some of this should be welcomed. They say that some of the schemes to be evaluated are:

– Bus improvements
– Park and ride
– Rail service improvements
– Personalised travel planning
– Cycling improvements
– Pedestrian enhancements
– Improvements to the carriageway, junctions and pedestrian facilities on the A570
– Park Road to A59 County Road Link
Ormskirk traffic management improvements including, through traffic rerouting, HGV control, gyratory options and traffic speed controls

It is estimated that the study will take 3-4 months to complete.

During the campaign I argued for such a review and so I can’t help but welcome the fact that one is taking place, but I am critical of the fact that there seems to be no local input at all. We don’t know if this is going to be a relatively minor tweak of the road system or a proper re-engineering of the way the town’s roads work.

The people who live and work in the town have the best knowledge of the road problems, and as I’ve always argued, it’s not just about the Ormskirk bypass – there are problems scattered across the town. There ought to be some significant public input to the process.

Instead, we’re left in the dark and we’ll be told to just take what the Tories and their consultants insist in a couple of months time.

I will be pushing for a some public consultation and review once the consultant’s report has been produced.

National Debt vs GDP – Tories show Britain well placed for recovery

An excellent piece at Left Foot Forward drawing from research by the Tories shows that Britain’s debt to GDP ratio was relatively low going into the recession in comparision to other G7 countries.
Yes, a lot of debt has been taken on by taking the banks into national ownership – to protect the economy – but this debt ought to be relatively short-term. Indeed, if the process is managed correctly, the sale of shares back into the private sector will raise as much or more than was spent in the first place – reducing debt back to our original low position.
I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy, but as LFF explained, we certainly don’t have a debt crisis.
(HT to @tom_miller85 for this)

Skelmersdale College redevelopment – a positive step forward, questions remain

It was reported over the weekend that the LSC has been able to support the Skelmersdale College redevelopment. If it works out, then this is quite simply excellent news for Skelmersdale – promising the first set of redevelopment in the town centre since the Asda was built nearly ten years ago.

The LSC had managed to get itself into a terrible mess with the catastrophic mismanagement of it’s own funds. After over-promising funding to 144 Schools and colleges, it was forced to cancel projects leaving some colleges in a real financial mess. Luckily development work hadn’t started when it was announced that the plug was being pulled.

Some are reporting this as a u-turn by the LSC, as if they hadn’t wanted it in the first place. I disagree – if anything the LSC has always supported the redevelopment of the various colleges – they just ran out of cash.

Everyone involved in the negotiations on behalf of the college should be congratulated for getting the plans back on the table. That includes Newcastle College (the ‘owners’ of Skem and Ormskirk College), Steven Broomhead (Chair of the Skelmersdale & Ormskirk College Advisory Committee), the Borough Council and of course Rosie Cooper who was reported as personally intervening throughout the negotiations.

My only reservation is the following section, reported in the Daily Post:

In a statement the Learning and Skills Council said: “LSC will support the development of Skelmersdale and Ormskirk College in Lancashire which will go forward to the approval process.

The college’s project will be subject to submitting a business case to show it is value for money.

The extension work is obviously not yet a “done-deal”, and I hope that this announcement isn’t an exercise in over-spinning a bit of genuinely good news.

It is difficult to see who would actually be funding the extension. The implication in all the reports that I’ve seen is that it is the LSC who, having changed its mind, would fund it again. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The Daily Post report suggests that there will be a new approval process in which the LSC’s role is not actually to fund the extension but instead support the College’s bid. That’s a very different role for the LSC and also means that the scheme is subject to the yet another funding body taking a decision.

There are clearly unanswered questions over who will be taking the final decision, when it will be made and when the work on the college can begin.

Putting that to one side and taking the news at face-value, this announcement still represents a bit of good news for the wider Skelmersdale town centre redevelopment. The college work has always been independent of the St Modwens / West Lancs BC town centre renewal, but has been a key part of the town centre redevelopment as a whole. Any investment in the college could act as a catalyst for the rest of the town centre which has been looking precarious since the Knowsley Everton/Tesco development plans emerged.

Update: Since writing this I notice that Rosie Cooper is reported as saying that the LSC itself has committed the funding for the college:

West Lancashire MP, Rosie Cooper, is delighted with the announcement that funding has been committed by the Learning and Skills Council that will allow Skelmersdale College to go-ahead after it was earlier signalled that the college could not be funded for 2010.