Sunday, 29 January 2012

My week ahead 30 January - 5 February 2012

Monday 30 January 4pm - Culture Portfolio meeting
6pm Scrutiny Working group

Wednesday 1 February 5pm - Rushmere Youth Club, working group

Friday 3 February 7pm - The Ipswich Suffragettes – Talk by local historian Joy Bounds. The Reg Driver Centre, Christchurch Park - contact Ipswich Labour for more details and tickets.

Last Wednesday we attended the full Council Meeting and it was obvious from the first questions to the Executive right through to the vote on the Council rent rise at the end that the Tories and Lib Dems have no strategy on how to form an effective opposition. More on the Council meeting here.

Yesterday it was an Ipswich Labour awayday as we took the short trip to help our Labour colleagues campaign in Kesgrave. It is noticeable even outside Ipswich how unpopular the Tories are becoming, I expect Labour to increase their share of the vote in the the by-election that is to be held in Kesgrave on the 9th February.

This week though has been a sad week for politics in Ipswich, with the death of leading Ipswich Tory, Russell Harsant. As soon as I was elected I hit it off with Russell and loved to banter with him. It was always a pleasure to substitute on planning as you knew Russell would also be there. He will be missed by members from all sides of the political divide.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Opposition with no strategy

The Tories and Lib Dems in Ipswich seem to put little thought in how to be an effective opposition. This was highlighted again by their performance at the Full Ipswich Borough Council meeting that was held on Wednesday (25 Jan )

It started with their questions to the Labour executive, Cllr Stroet seems to be struggling to ask anything useful and has not yet learnt the art of not asking a supplementary if the answer to the first question has made it obvious there will no value in pursuing the matter. Even former leading Ipswich Tory Gavin Maclure seems to have the same view on Cllr Stroets’ performance so far.

I have asked a number of questions at Full Council but the Tories seem very loathe to allow their backbenchers ask any questions.

Then we had yet again an attack on Area Committees by the Tories – not only in the Council Chamber but also in the local media. Cllr Carnall and Cllr Maclure both had questions on Area Committees and both would seem to imply that the Tories have a negative view on their aims and chances of success. This may not seem strange to residents but it is to myself and other Labour councillors as we hear Tory Councillors in meetings saying that Area Forums did need replacing and also how keen some Tories are not only to make them work but also it is obvious that certain Tory backbenchers are very happy about the new set up as it will give them far more opportunity to discuss issues they are concerned with than when they were actually running the council.

Cllr Terry used the Ipswich Flyer’ to attack Area Committees (and to print a thinly veiled attack on myself) but in our first Area Committee she seemed keen to make them work and had a number of ideas on how they should go forward.

So where do the Tories stand on Area Committees?

The question that most highlighted the lack of any Tory policy on the matter was when Cllr Tanya Maclure asked Labour about the allowance that chairs of the committees would be paid, it became quite apparent very quickly that the Tories did not only know that their deputy leader had agreed to take the allowance but also was the first to get back to the officers to agree to the payment!

We then had the debate about the recommended 5.6% rent rise for Ipswich tenants, the chair of the Ipswich Lib Dems has been critical of the rise on Ipswich Spy but then went and voted for the rise! The Tories then attempted to portray themselves as ‘Friends of Ipswich tenants’ forgetting to mention the rent rise is not only below what the Tory/Lib Dem Government recommended but also below the rise that the Tory/Lib Dem administration in Ipswich imposed on tenants last year (again voted for by Lib Dem Ken Bates)

I can see it is hard for the Tories and Lib Dems in Ipswich to be an effective opposition at the same time their Government is cutting anything it can and must be even harder for the Tories when their colleagues at the Suffolk County Council still seem to see Ipswich as the poor relation in the County.

The lack of any thought to the questions put forward by Tory front bench was even more noticeable when Cllr Cenci criticised the increase in grant to Ipswich Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) without mentioning that we have decided to help ISCRE with an increase after they had their grant by the Tory Government reduced. ISCRE was even complimented on their good work by Ben Gummer MP but that still did not stop one Tory describing ISCRE as : stacked full of Labour cronies.

Do Ipswich Tories even talk to their own MP?

It seems rather than being an effective opposition, they are just interested in quick sound bites, decide to be negative on anything that we propose and at the same time be first in the queue for any extra allowance.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Gummer, Ipswich Hospital and the NHS

Today we have been told that the All Party Commons health select committee is expected to say that plans to scrap primary care trusts and other changes are hampering efforts to save billions

But Lansley has been nowhere to find and so Nick Clegg was wheeled out to answer the questions by Marr.

A national newspaper quoted the committee's report, due to be published next week, as saying: "The reorganisation process continues to complicate the push for efficiency gains."
"Although it may have facilitated savings in some cases, we heard that it more often creates disruption and distraction that hinders the ability of organisations to consider truly effective ways of reforming service delivery and releasing savings."
The committee is made up of MPs from all parties and chaired by ex-Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell.

The same time we hear of this attack on the Tory/Lib Dem plans we are also told that the Royal College of Nursing is also critical of the plan and it is impossible to find any Health Union, Health body or professional organisation who agrees with the Tory plans for the NHS.

But somehow every Tory MP wheeled in front of the cameras can tell you of a group of GP’s in their constitiancy who are very happy with the new plan!

Now where does Ben Gummer stand in all this, because as well as Lansley and his plan we start to hear rumours of Ipswich Hospital losing more services? Now I mentioned this on twitter and Mr Gummer was quick to answer and ‘have a slight go at me’ his tweet said: the trouble with you Alasdair is that you always confused noise with activity. Watch carefully and you'll soon see progress

Now that is funny as before he was elected we never went more than a couple of weeks before finding Mr Gummer in the Evening Star, criticising Chris Mole for not doing enough for our hospital, now I know Chris was doing his best and as a junior minister himself had a number of meetings with the hospital management and Heath Department ministers. But that was not enough for Mr Gummer who made plenty of ‘noise’ in the Evening Star.

Now he seems to think there is no need to tell the local paper what he is doing, funny how the MP for North Ipswich, Dan Poulter is in the paper every week on some issue with GP’s, the NHS in general or Ipswich Hospital. Is he just making ‘a noise’, Mr Gummer?

Now Mr Gummer is in the paper every week and even holding public meetings about the state of our railways – is that just ‘a noise’. Because over the first 20 months of the coalition I have seen no improvement to the service but have seen extortionate fare rises.

Mr Gummer, I care about not only the NHS but Ipswich Hospital, my late mother came here in 1959 to work at Anglesea Road as a freshly qualified Nurse from Birmingham. My father also worked at the same hospital as an optician, my sister is a nurse in Suffolk. Wonder why my parents joined the Labour Party? It was because they worked and believed in the NHS – the greatest social invention the world has seen.

The NHS is not safe under the Tories, as you can see from reading this post by a senior Ipswich Tory, so unsafe that even senior Tories and former Health Ministers are saying it.

The NHS is only safe and will only improve under Labour, many say what would Nye Bevan think of the latest Tory plan, I also think what would my late father and mother think of the way the Tories are trying to destroy the service they devoted their lives to. I know what they would do, they would get out in Ipswich and fight even harder to get rid of Mr Gummer and elect an MP who wants to defend the NHS not dismantle it and that is what I will be doing from now till 2015.

"It is time for David Cameron to listen to what doctors, nurses and now his own senior MPs are saying and call a halt to this reckless reorganisation”

Andy Burnham

Shadow health secretary

Saturday, 21 January 2012

My week ahead 23 - 29 January 2012

Monday 23 January 6pm - Labour Group meeting

Tuesday 24 January 5pm - Sidegate Primary School Steering Group
6pm - Culture and Leisure working group

Wednesday 25 January 6pm - Ipswich Borough Council- Full Council Meeting, Endeavour House

Thursday 26 January 5pm - Sidegate Primary School Finance Meeting

Saturday 27 January 10.30am - Labour Campaigning, North Ipswich

This week I seem to have spent most of my time in meetings and next week seems the same but not all bad as one of those meetings last week has had a positive outcome and it looks like we have found a number of residents keen enough to get a Youth club for teenagers up and running on Rushmere Estate.

On Thursday at the Scrutiny meeting we also heard some 'good news' as we were given the details of the joint Ipswich Borough Council/Ipswich Police project to help solve our 'Street drinker' problem.

I am sure most of you will have noticed that there seems to be fewer street drinkers in the town centre area with the old Odeon site now clear of them. the team works at trying to help the drinkers which then helps all of us in the town.

47 street drinkers have been identified and a number of them have now entered rehab- I left the meeting concerned that people are drawn into these chaotic lifestyles but also lifted by the fantastic work being done by the Council staff and the police.

Many of these drinkers actually started at the age of 13 and that is why the Council is also involved in parenting projects, trouble is for all the efforts of the Borough Council and charity organisations we are held back as the Tory run County Council continues to cut back on its social care programme.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Beating Berlusconi! back in Ipswich‏

I have seen some fantastic productions at the New Wolsey in Ipswich over the last two years but as a football fan as well as enjoying the theatre, the show that I have enjoyed the most has been 'Beating Berlusconi' and you don't have to be a Liverpool fan to appreciate the story.

Plus feel free to boo when Margaret Thatcher appears on the tv in the background during the play.

The show returns to Ipswich on the 2 and 3 February- go along, you will enjoy it.

My week ahead 16 -22 January 2012

Monday 16 January 2pm - North East Partnership Meeting

4pm - Culture Portfolio meeting

6pm - Meeting on Youth Provision on Rushmere Estate

Wednesday 18 January 5.30pm - Elections working group

Thursday 19 January 6pm - Scrutiny Meeting, Grafton House

Saturday 21 January 1030am - Labour Campaigning South Ipswich

This week we had our first Area Committee, the main aim of the Committee idea is to get more resident participation that we did have with the Area Forums.

Now only one resident turned up on Wednesday and she lived in the South East! Tory bloggers have jumped on this to say that Area Committee's are a failure.

The first committee meeting was to elect the chair and work out what we hope to achieve. So we were not expecting a large number of residents to turn up. The success of the Committee's will be down to how uch effort all councillors put into promoting the idea. the good thing is that the Tories on the council seem keen to get them working pity they can't get that message over to their fellow Tories who blog- the three who are so negative, one is an ex councillor and the other two are hoping to be candidates in May.

I have no doubt that they will be a great success and by the end of the Summer the resident participation will be far greater than the forums ever had.

The next North East Area Committee will be held on the 20th March and though the venue is to be confirmed it will be back in the North East of the town

Friday, 13 January 2012

Thatcher was good for the British Economy – Fact or fiction?

Thatcher was good for the British Economy – Fact or fiction?

Last night I attended a lecture organised by the Suffolk Fabians and the Ipswich Labour Party. The lecture was given by Dr Graham Gudgin who is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge University.

The title of the lecture was: “Can we continue with a Thatcherite free market economy”

As would be expected with a lecture given by the Fabians it led to a debate that included a number of superb contributions from both Fabian and Ipswich Labour members.

In Ipswich a number of our right wing bloggers have an almost unhealthy admiration for anything Thatcher. Gavin Maclure – probably the best of the Tory bloggers is probably the worst offender and believes Thatcher was behind all that is good in Britain.

Graham proved that is wrong- and that we were better off economically in the 30 years before 1979 rather than the 30 years afterwards. Unlike the Tory bloggers I like Graham accept that Blair and Brown are also to blame for some of the mistakes made over the last 30 years.

Here are some of the interesting facts that Dr Gudgin highlighted to show that Thatcher is to blame for the state we are in rather than praise:

From 1950-1979 the growth per capita GDP was at 2.2 % per annum whilst since 1979 it has dropped to 1.8 %

The economy was far more volatile after 1979

The Trade Gap has in almost every year been negative since 1985

Inequalities in income and wealth have grown considerably since 1979

Household debt has grown since 1979

Government Debt has also grown since 1979

UK share of World trade has continued to decrease since 1979

Positives since 1979

Inflation lower

Strikes are rarer

But Dr Gudgin also poured scorn on the current Tory plans for the economy – he believes the Government should increase spending on roads, rail and energy – this will almost certainly reduce Government debt rather than increase it as the Tories believe.

An insightful lecture and a stimulating debate.

Why we need a rethink on resettlement for the Armed Forces

Why we need a rethink on resettlement

I have always been a Labour supporter. Perhaps not surprising when both my parents were Labour councillors. But I also had an admiration for the Army that came through my late father who was proud of his time both in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where he served in the Korean war, but also afterwards where he joined the TA in Ipswich.

He was very proud of me when I joined the Army at 16 (though disappointed that I joined the Royal Green Jackets rather than a Highland regiment).

I went on to spend 24 years in the regiment, much of it under a Tory government. The Labour Party at that time was not popular in the Forces, mainly due to uncertainty about our aims in Northern Ireland. But let’s not be fooled into thinking the Tories were the solders’ friend.

A winter tour of the Falklands in 1988 saw most of us wearing uniform and using equipment that we had purchased ourselves. I remember the local East Anglian Daily Times journalist visiting us in West Falkland and surprised to see that other than my trousers and beret all other clothing and my boots had been purchased myself.

The end of my career saw a Labour Government win control and straight away a noticeable change when Labour Ministers visited military units. George Robertson, John Reid and even Tony Blair wanted to speak to military men and women. This was far different from when we used to have Tory ministers visit. A visit by Heseltine to Germany in 1985 led to a number of us being hidden away on some range in Sennelager in case we said the wrong thing, and the only chance of seeing Soames when Armed Forces minister was if you ended up washing up in the Officers’ Mess when he was having lunch.

But the Tories have learnt from Labour and now you will see Cameron mixing with Rifleman and others in the dust and the dirt. But I suspect this is just for show.

I went back to the Army in 2009 and had the honour to be part of 2 Rifles as we attempted (and succeeded) in making Sangin a safer place. Improvement came with a high penalty to pay in terms of those who were killed or badly injured over that summer of intense fighting, but what I saw was undoubted bravery and sacrifice of Rifleman who had not changed since when I was serving the first time.

I am still in touch with many who are still serving. When I speak to them I sense a fear – a fear of the unknown. Will their regiment even exist by 2020? Where will they be based? Will they have to uproot their family again? Will they be made redundant? Will the resettlement package enable them to make the transition back into Civvy Street smoothly?

For some it will be even harder. For example those who are suffering from injuries they picked up in Afghanistan or Iraq; injuries which can be physical and mental. Or those who have chosen to make Germany their chosen home, marrying Germans and even sending their children to the local German school.

The Government has made initial statements about which camps will close and where those soldiers will move to. So from a thriving and busy German Garrison town they may find themselves in a remote part of Norfolk on an old RAF camp, or in a newly built camp in Scotland which has no history or experience of having a military community on its doorstep.

My experience of resettlement in not a good one. The role of resettlement officer is just deemed to be a side-line for the education officer. The civilian advisers are no better – I was an infantry Warrant Officer when I left and as far as my adviser was concerned that meant I could be a warehouse manager! If he had asked my QM or even the Rifleman in the Recce Platoon of 2RGJ they would say the last job I should have is to be in charge of stores!

In 2002 the resettlement scheme had problems. I know the Government sought to improve these but I worry about how it will cope now, with thousands likely to be made redundant or leaving as they see no future for themselves in the Armed Forces. And how will the scheme cope with those who want to remain in Germany?

I am not sure the Government has not thought any of this through and that is why I am very glad that ‘Labour Friends of the Forces’ has taken resettlement as its first major campaign issue. If you have had an experience of the programme please do tell us here. Now more than ever, at a time of cut backs and redundancies, we need to get this service right.

The Coalition Government is just interested in cutting numbers and cutting costs, with no concern for those soldiers and their families who have to either move to a new home or leave the military. This is yet another betrayal of our Armed Forces by this Government.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

My week ahead 9-15 January 2012

Wednesday 11 January 5.30pm - North East Area Committee, Grafton House

Thursday 12 January 7.30pm - Fabians Meeting, Ipswich Library Lecture Room

Saturday 14 January 10.30am - Campaigning in South Ipswich

This week we will see the start of area committee's, it seems some Tory bloggers are not keen on the idea here and here but the Tories who attended the training last week seemed keen to make them work. In the North East we are keen to get them not only to work but also to hold them in our part of the town.

The first meeting at Grafton House will enable us to set targets and aims for this new idea and I know that we all agree that resident participation is one aim that we see to being the key to the success of the committees.

The two Tory bloggers who seem so set against Area Committees both live in the South West of the town. Pity their own Tory councillors from Stoke Park were unable or did not want to attend the training last week. If they had attended the training they may have been able to inform their fellow Tories that if we all work together, Area Committees will be a success.

Championship Cycling in Chantry Park, Ipswich

British National Cyclo-Cross Championship Sunday 8th January 2012
Chantry Park, Ipswich

Today I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Cyclo-Cross Championships which were held in the town.

I was also honoured to be given the task of handing out the medals to the winners of the women's race,

Even I get on the podium!

Local interest came in the form of Hugo Robinson who won his second GB Junior title, the is was also great for Steve Grimwood, of Elmy Cycles in Ipswich as Hugo rides for his team and it is Steve who has been the main person in getting not only the British Championships in Ipswich but we are also getting the European Championships coming to Ipswich in November.

The three highlights of the day (on top of the win for Hugo)
1. Witnessing the great Roger Hammond (in possibly his last race in Cyclo-Cross)
2. Meeting and listening to the commentary of the legendary Hugh Porter
3. The finish to the men's race where GB Mountain biker Liam Killeen fell at the last serious bend in a wheel to wheel tussle with eventual winner, Ian Field.

The legendary Hugh Porter with local lad- Hugo Robinson

Roll on November

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Life in Nahr-e-Saraj – Winter 2011

As most of us worry about a few extra pounds we put on over Christmas or sit here moaning about the football, many others will have far more serious things to worry about, debt, unemployment, poverty and then we also have those who are worried about their loved ones serving in Afghanistan.

To remind us of how these brave men and women were spending their Christmas, I attach an email that the Colonel of 5 Rifles ( a good friend and former colleague sent me yesterday)

Life in Nahr-e-Saraj – Winter 2011


Life has settled down into a sort of routine now, in the 6 weeks since we set up home here in Patrol Base 2 – a funny little community fashioned out of tents and sand-bags, countless ISO containers and a forest of radio antennae. We are in Nahr-e-Saraj District, which forms part of Helmand Province. On Google Earth you’ll find us just South West of a town called Gereshk, near a community called Paind Kalay, sandwiched between the Nahr-e-Bughra Canal and the River Helmand. Everything here is related to land and water, and the area that we are responsible for was first settled in the 17th Century, with water diverted from the River to our South, which created very fertile arable land where the Pashtun people found that they could make a comfortable enough life for themselves. To our North there is the Canal, built in the middle of the 20th Century and the area around it has been settled since then, with land claimed from the desert as irrigation ditches have spread out in a complex spider’s web. The people who control the water-flow in each community, called mirabs in Pashtu, are seriously important people. Alongside the mullahs, whose religious education and knowledge varies widely, and the senior Tribal figures and village headmen called maliks, the mirabs are essential to community cohesion and economic well-being.

The area is still overwhelmingly a farming community, with a range of subsistence crops grown – mainly wheat and maize, in terms of consumables. But the largest crop by some margin, and the primary cash crop, is the poppy, which is relatively easy to grow even in the areas with a very poor water supply. Poppy took over from cotton – previously the prevalent currency-earner – decades ago and it is now a central part of rural life in Helmand, which is one of the many different reasons that it is proving so hard to convince the Helmandis to stop growing it. Where there is plenty of water the farmers will manage to get two or even three harvests a year of different crops – there’s not much we can teach them about eking out growth from the soil, though we can help them with access to seeds that deliver increased yield, and of course they would all benefit from easier and freer access to markets so that they could get a better price for their crops. There are all sorts of ‘alternative livelihood’ programmes out here, which seek to find a viable alternative to growing poppy and selling the produce as ‘wet opium’; and as well as the ‘carrot’ of other crops, there is a fairly brutal ‘stick’ used by the Afghan Police to try and deter farmers from growing poppy. It’s an intractable issue which goes to the core of so many of Afghanistan’s issues – corruption, patronage, land rights, the insurgency, poverty and so on. But it is hard not to agree with the Afghan Government’s line that there will be no lasting security in Afghanistan as long as its major source of income (other than International Community funding) is from an illegal drug – you probably don’t have to be John Maynard Keynes to work out that this isn’t a sustainable economic base on which to build a cohesive country.

Families are large here, typically half a dozen or more children per household; marriage is often between cousins or with the children of neighbouring villages, and all of them tend to be ‘arranged’ in this rural area. Life is tough; violence, brutality, death and injury are part of people’s lives from an extremely early age. I visited a school the other day with the senior UK diplomat in Helmand, and was surprised to see the older kids (10 or 11 years old) casually whipping the younger kids into line with 3-foot lengths of rubber tyre. What was extraordinary was the ease with which this was taken by the other kids; they don’t cower or flinch, it’s all part of the routine. And the people have to be tough because the environment is incredibly harsh. During my recce visits this summer I was sweltering in the mid 40s Centigrade; now winter is here the nights are below zero, made much colder by the days rising to 20 degrees Centigrade…. quite a temperature range and it is bloomin’ cold. So the locals are hardy people; almost inured to physical hardship; immensely conservative religiously - and therefore socially. Women are veiled and kept out of sight behind compound walls except when working in the fields. You do not engage with women here at all unless you are yourself female and even then it is done with immense circumspection. Children, of both sexes, are a different matter – huge brown eyes, incredibly cute, inquisitive, wearing brightly coloured mini shalwar-kameez and pyjamas, the girls often with levels of kohl eye-shadow that would credit TOWIE. They are incredibly accurate with stones (Afghanistan has just won the Asian Cricket Cup, though there’s not much played down here), which they will throw at a heavily armed and armoured vehicle just for the pleasure of hearing it ‘ping’. Always asking for ‘chocklat’, they run alarmingly close to the side of the road as you drive past (picking up a stone to chuck as they run…). On foot patrol they will come and stare and walk alongside you, asking ‘Are you Commander?’ – which doesn’t (always) mean that they have been put up to it by the Taliban, but it still puts the willies up everyone, especially the Commanding Officer who starts to wish he wasn’t wearing his rank badge……

Our camp is austere, and there ain’t many luxuries – but we do have warmish showers, albeit of the most basic variety. Ablutions come courtesy of a ‘Portable Restroom’ – surely one of the great inventions of the past few years. It’s a foil bag with a larger fold-out plastic bag with a drawstring, in which one does one’s business and then it’s all sealed in the foil with a zip-lock before being burned (the unique and lingering smell of burning poo-bags is one of the memories that will never leave those of us who serve in the forward areas here). Loo-paper and one of those sterile towelette things are also included and they should really be compulsory for picnics, long car journeys and shooting parties the world over. In the smallest checkpoints the facilities are even more limited; there is still hot water for shaving and showering, but it’s a case of pouring hot water into a shower bag and standing under the dribble until you’re damp all over. But food is plentiful and the chefs and 'hobby cooks' do a fantastic job of making it all as exciting as possible. At larger locations there is an adequate supply of ‘fresh’ – including fruit and vegetables – but at many of the more remote checkpoints, of which we have a large proportion, the blokes are mainly on boxed rations, which whilst packed with calories are a bit monotonous. We all much enjoy our boxes sent from home with little treats in them to add some spice and variety to an otherwise healthy but slightly tedious diet. And there is a fantastic initiative known as ‘Come Dine With Me’, where one of our most senior chefs, with an assistant, flies into a remote base by helicopter with a rucksack full of steak and fresh vegetables, cooks the chaps a slap-up meal, and flies out again. It’s a real morale-booster, however infrequent.

In their tents, the Riflemen get a camp-cot and a large mosquito net that covers it and provides the same width again as private space and in most places they will at least have one of those Ikea-style hanging shelves to put some kit in. But that’s about it – they survive on the contents of one large rucksack and a big holdall and whatever extra is sent out from home. We’re either in uniform or occasionally PT kit, though with the cold weather you now find a range of ‘pyjamas’ being sported at night – some have flowery and fancy purpose-built numbers, others tend towards the issued long-johns, which aren’t quite so sartorially elegant. Personally I favour the White Company creations that my clever wife sent out in spite of my protestations that I never wear pyjamas – that macho pretence lasted until the water in my tent started freezing every night…... There’s a wide range of other warm kit out here – down jackets and polar fleeces of every sort, and enough merino wool to repopulate New Zealand with sheep, but there’s not much chance of keeping the chill out completely until one gets back into the sleeping bag at the end of the day.

The trip to the shaving and shower area in the mornings is a particularly bleak one in the winter – but it sure does wake you up. Shaving is done in the open air, albeit with hot water, and there is a shower tent that is basic but worth its weight in gold. The girls have a little sign that they hang outside to stop the blokes from stumbling in, but apart from that there is little concession to gender out here and the dozen or so female soldiers that are here at PB2 do a fantastic job of mucking in with the lads whilst retaining, each in their own way, some trace of femininity amongst all the drab khaki and camouflage. On a serious note, in a conflict in which killing people provides only a very small part of the solution, having a diverse community from which to draw ideas and inspiration is pretty important. There is a real danger that any Western Army, predominantly led by ‘middle-aged white men’, can quickly drift into groupthink – which usually means reverting to our comfort zone of ever-increasing doses of organised violence. I have come to really value having some other viewpoints to draw on out here. Some of our most important injects have come from the least likely sources; and keeping heresy and lateral thinking alive is a critical element of framing and solving the sort of wicked problems with which we are confronted.

The work we do is incredibly varied and deserves a PhD thesis all of its own; but in essence our task here is to protect the Afghan people and help to connect them to their Government (in full, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – or GIRoA). The first bit is tough – but in a land where violence is common currency and has been for at least the past 40 years (and arguably 400…), the people are well and truly sick of being fought over. Most would accept any form of governance that gave them a steady life where they could tend their crops and bring up their children; what they have had for the past 2 generations is a succession of rapacious warlords, militias, invaders, fanatics and self-interested, corrupt governors. I’m sure that some would place us in one of those categories. Although there are some real signs of progress, albeit slow, this level of instability cannot fail to shape the people and they are well and truly traumatised, at least down here in Helmand. But as I found in Iraq, the weird thing about extreme violence is how quickly it becomes utterly normal; the speed with which humans adapt to a new environment is pretty astonishing - it is how we survive. As a result, many ‘ordinary Afghans’ are now part of the violence that they all want to put behind them; it is part of the fabric of society. Young men join the insurgency or the Government’s security forces because their fathers, uncles and grandfathers fought in their time – for the Russians, for the mujahideen, in the civil war, against ISAF, against the Taliban. In many Helmandi families you will find one or more sons joining the Government forces and others joining the insurgency; in a society like this, hedging ones bets is a fundamental tool of group and family survival. We are not, in the main, fighting ideological fanatics – though there are a few of them. But they are committed; and they uncomplainingly suffer and die for a cause that may be no more than a misunderstanding of what ISAF is doing here; a deep mistrust of central Government; a poor comprehension of Islam and its tenets; or because there is no other prospect for employment.

The insurgents are good at what they do; and their mid-level leaders tend to have come through a fairly Darwinian process of selection. If they’re still alive then they are either pretty good; or they’re sitting in relative safety out of reach of Afghan and ISAF forces. The lower-level fighters are less experienced and capable, but even they will have been around guns and explosives since they were teenagers, so they are pretty dangerous and know their business. But even the good ones are fallible and so far we have had some significant successes against their middle tier of leaders. When you kill or capture a couple you do see a noticeable drop in capability for a number of weeks – they are replaced but it takes some time for their successors to get into the swing of things. It is in these gaps that we can achieve some real progress – the real value of our targeting operations is in buying the time and space to bring Afghan governance a step closer to the people. It might provide an opportunity to bring a District Governor into the area to hear people’s complaints and concerns, or it might allow us to set up a new ‘Afghan Local Police’ programme, which will prevent the vacuum being re-filled by the insurgency. This is where GIRoA has a serious advantage - the insurgency has very little to offer the people. There's plenty of intimidation, at best protection of the poppy crop and the cash that comes from it, but nothing in terms of a better, fairer or more peaceful life. So it is these ‘soft’ activities that provide real advances here, rather than the ‘hard’ activities that we are more familiar and comfortable with as soldiers. So, much of my time out here is spent ‘drinking chai’, in endless rounds of discussion with local governance figures, village elders, Afghan Army and Police commanders, and the various International Community representatives who are here to help the Afghans bring some development to the farthest reaches of the country. The talking I find easy; the chai is very pleasant; what is hellish is the attempt at sitting cross-legged for hours on end….. seventy-year-old Afghans can do it but this forty-odd-year-old Brit fails miserably; luckily they find it amusing rather than insulting and, as in all these matters, they are grateful that one at least makes the effort.

The blokes on the ground do a fair bit of tea-drinking too, but typically it’s a bit more testing than that. Almost all of our patrolling and operations out here are on foot, sometimes following a helicopter drop-off. It is a thoroughly gruelling process, with the boys carrying upwards of 40 kg in body armour, radios, weapons, ammunition and water – that’s not far off 90 pounds and when I first saw that written down I thought it was nonsense too. They are in an out of irrigation ditches, across water-logged fields, over compound walls, and all the while straining their eyes for the tell-tale signs of an improvised explosive device planted in the earth. We have taken an equal balance of casualties from IEDs and gun-shot wounds. It’s a miserable part of our business but the blokes cope extremely well and are incredibly resilient. The medical care is quite literally better and quicker than you could hope for if you were shot in Central London. Our medical helicopters come with multi-disciplinary Consultant teams on the back of them – and several of our blokes have been on the operating table in our hospital back at Camp Bastion in under 30 minutes from point of wounding - truly remarkable. Sadly some are less fortunate and we have lost two very good men to IEDs – Private Tom Lake and Rifleman Sheldon Steel. They were both exceptional soldiers, in their prime and surrounded by friends, doing a difficult job in a tricky spot, and doing it very well. We'll not forget them.

We run a slightly sombre but very touching Vigil Service for our Fallen, back at Camp Bastion, which the dead soldier’s immediate team and closest friends are usually flown back for, and the hundreds of soldiers of all nationalities based at Bastion also attend. It is a chance for tributes to be paid, formal and informal, and for prayers to be said. And then there is an even more moving ceremony during which his closest mates carry the coffin onto a waiting aeroplane to begin the journey home to UK. These events are truly cathartic, and do a huge amount of good for the immediate team members who were part of the incident in which he was killed. For those who can’t get back to Bastion (the vast majority of the Battlegroup) we run a parallel service in all of the forward locations, so everybody gets a chance to say farewell. It does the trick; and lets people move on, or at least to put it all to one side for the rest of the tour so that we can press on with the task at hand. Fortunately the Padre doesn’t just do the sad bits; he’s constantly travelling all over the Battlegroup, doling out his never-ending supply of sherbet-lemons and listening to the fears and fancies and hopes and dreams of the old and the young, the faithful and the notso – everyone values a Padre out here.

On a lighter note, we’ve just had a surprise visit from HRH The Earl and Countess of Wessex, who are Royal Colonels for 2 and 5 RIFLES respectively. They were in great form, as always, with the Countess looking impossibly elegant in her camouflage kit, in spite of less than 3 hours’ sleep and a pretty adventurous helicopter ride across the desert. The blokes were delighted to see them; to be able to show off their kit; and tell a few tales of their scrapes over the past weeks. The Royal protection officers were understandably a little less relaxed about the whole situation, but all went off smoothly and with a minimum of fuss and bother. And luckily the whole visit was complete before the dust-storm arrived that has kept the Prime Minister stuck back at Kandahar.

Christmas will soon be on us and we have made some preparations that I won’t go into here and now. We’re entirely ‘dry’ out here, so Christmas spirit will be of the ecclesiastical variety and the Padre will be doing his rounds. But the important work will continue, albeit with a brief moment to pause and reflect on what we are doing, rejoice that we are here, and remember our mates who are not. It’s not a great time to be away from our husbands and wives, our children, our wider families and friends, but there is a pretty special shared bond in being far from home and in a difficult and dangerous place at Christmas. So we’ll hold onto that feeling, secure in the sense that we are doing something that is selfless and honourable and something to tell stories about over future pints, and keep warm in the knowledge that most of us will be home next year, and some other poor bugger will be ‘stagging on’ in a bleak sangar on the other side of the world. And two weeks of ‘Rest and Recuperation’ won’t be far away now for most of us, and before you know it Spring will be here and we’ll be cursing the heat and wondering if it really was so very cold……

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year and My week ahead, 2 - 8 January 2012

Wednesday 4th January 2012, 4pm - Area Committee Training, Grafton House

Saturday 7th January 10.30am - Campaigning in East Ipswich

Sunday 8th January 10am - British Nation Cyclo-Cross Championships at Chantry Park.

A quiet week politically (Christmas and football getting in the way!)

This week will see the start of training for councillors that will help ensure that the Area Committees are a success - interesting to see how many Tories attend the training!!

For many of us 2012 will all be about the Olympics and for those who can't wait till July, I urge you to join me at Chantry Park on Sunday (or Saturday) for the British National Cyclo-Cross Championships. Even better we have a chance of a local rider winning this prestigious event. Get along and cheer Hugo Robinson.

To have a look at what is involved have a look at the website or watch the video with Hugo testing the track.

Ip-Cross 2012 from Carl Thompson on Vimeo.