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Andrew Buncombe's Asia Diary

The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.

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It's been a shamefully long time since I voted in an election. Truth be told, the last time I actually crossed the ballot box with my pencil was 1997, the year of the Blair landslide, when I was living in Cardiff and working for a regional newspaper. During the last two previous elections I was out of the country, in the US, and the result appeared such a foregone conclusion that it appeared, frankly, to matter little. But this time it was clearly different, this time there were issues at stake and this time there was a real battle underway.
 As a result I'd planned to vote either by proxy or post in the Weston-Super-Mare constituency where I grew up and where my folks still live. The current MP, a Conservative, has a majority of 2,000, but in 2001 the seat was won by the Liberal Democrats - the first time in generations that Weston did not go to the Tories - by just 300 or so votes. It is a constituency considered a marginal.
In order to inform my decision, I decided I would email each of the candidates, without revealing I was a journalist, and ask them their views on three issues - one question on foreign policy, one question on domestic issues and one specific to Weston-Super-Mare. For that last question, my question was about the long-running saga over the demise of a seafront swimming pool called the Tropicana and the failure - now lasting more than 15 years - to build a new one.

I also sought the opinion of a popular local blogger, WestonsuperMeh, who told me: "The top three issues in the town are:
1. Drugs. Lots of rehab centres, lots of recovering addicts, lots of drug dealers. You see the dealers operating openly in the town centre, sitting outside cafés, meeting in the parks. They aren't hard to spot, yet nothing seems to be done about it. The rehab centres are many and once the addicts 'finish' their treatment they're out on the streets.
2. Junction 21 of the M5. It has been branded 'Malfunction Junction' as it's so poor. The queues to get out of Weston in the morning at rush hour are horrendous and the junction is too small to serve the surrounding population.
3. Jobs. There are very few jobs for professionals in Weston. Unless you want to work in caring for the elderly, of which Weston has plenty, you're looking at a commute to Bristol."
 In the end I ended up sending my three questions to the candidates for the Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, English Democrats, UKIP and BNP. I am afraid that I could find no email address for a sixth candidate, Steve Satch, who is standing as an independent.
After doing all this, I sadly discovered that I am only eligible to vote in Cardiff - the last place I voted. Given the slowness of India's postal system it was impossible for me to register, receive papers and then vote in time. I am therefore voteless again today. However, the exercise in reaching out to the candidates and their responses - or lack of them - was very interesting. For what it's worth, here are my three questions followed by the replies.

1. Looked at from abroad, the decision to support the invasion of Iraq looks like an utter disaster. Britain was dragged into a potentially illegal war that not only led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, but which damaged Britain's reputation. How can your party ensure that Britain makes its own foreign policy decisions rather than being led by our more powerful friends?
 2. What is your view on immigration control?. I like the idea of a multicultural Britain but many people say the numbers of people coming into the country has soared recently. When I was last in Weston, I
noticed that many east Europeans were working in the hotels. Is there a danger they are taking the jobs from local people?
 3. The disaster that is the abandoned Tropicana resort has been an eye-sore on Weston's seafront for far too long. Why is it apparently impossible for the elected leaders of Weston-Super-Mare to find
someone prepared to build a simple covered swimming pool? What would you do about this?

And the answers:

Mike Bell, Lib-Dem.
 Many thanks for your message.
Iraq has been a disaster. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to oppose the invasion on the basis that it was illegal under international law, diplomatic and economic measures had not been exhausted and an adequate long term plan had not been developed. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that we have been proved right. Countless lives have been lost to create, at best, a politically unstable and barely democratic nation.
Ultimately, Tony Blair chose to follow the Washington line and this proved to be wrong. As Liberal Democrats we believe in a strong Atlantic relationship, but like our relationship with our European partners, it must be a relationship or critical friends, not lapdogs.
Liberal Democrats would ensure that the law was changed to ensure that no war could be started by Britain again without a debate and free vote in Parliament.
 On immigration, the issue is complicated. There is good immigration and bad immigration. There are parts of Britain crying out for economic migrants (both skilled and unskilled) to do work that locals cannot or won't. There are other areas that are overpopulated.
We support the creation of a border police force, so that we can take effective control of our borders again, counting people in and out and helping to prevent illegal immigrants from entering Britain. We would established an Australian-style points based system to regulate immigration to ensure that only those with the skills we need could enter the country.
Many of the people eastern Europeans who have come to Britain in recent years have done so under European Union rules on freedom of movement and work. In Weston, they are largely filling low paid, unskilled jobs. In my discussions with hoteliers, they have welcomed them. They work hard and are filling jobs that previously were difficult to fill. It is fine balancing act to get it right.
 On the Tropicana, I have campaigned for many years for a council-funded covered swimming pool to be built on the site. I was born in Weston and have lived here almost all my life. I remember when the old Pool was open air, with diving platforms etc. When the revamped 'Tropicana' opened in the 1980s, it was exciting and new. It is a scandal to see it neglected and boarded up as it is today.
I opposed the deals that the council signed with private developers for massive schemes with hotels and cinemas. As a councillor, I proposed that the council should just show the courage to get on and rebuild itself.
Today, Liberal Democrat Councillors have a funded £10m plan to rebuild a covered swimming pool on the site. This would be paid for using some council reserves and through reductions in the pay of councillors and senior staff. I would be equally content to see a local business person to lead a development project with similar objectives.
All that is required is a little leadership to make it happen. If I am elected as our MP, I will make the Tropicana scheme a top priority and will demanding answers every day from the council.

David Bradley, Labour.
Failed to respond to two emails.

John Penrose, Conservative.
 Thank you for contacting me about all the issues that matter to you as we go into this election. I’ll try
to take each of your questions in turn and give them a straightforward answer – I only wish more
voters would take the trouble to write in the way you have!
I completely agree with you that it is vital that we learn from the mistakes that have been made in Iraq. We still haven’t got to the bottom of the ‘dodgy dossier’ scandal, or Dr Kelly’s death, and the results have damaged trust in the political handling of world conflicts. I quite agree right that a proper inquiry is vital. The Conservatives have been calling for one for some time, but I’m afraid the Government has tried to neuter the process by setting conditions and a format which help Labour Ministers in particular. To have real credibility, it should be open to the public whenever possible and have a wider and more diverse membership. Unfortunately, the Government has made no attempt to reach a consensus with other parties on any of the details. As a result Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague tabled a motion calling on the Government to hold the Inquiry in public whenever possible and widen its membership. New terms of reference should be agreed by Parliament after a full debate and proper scrutiny, rather than be decreed unilaterally by the Government.
 On immigration, the sad truth is that Labour has little or no idea how many migrants (whether legal or not) are living and working in Britain today. They’ve let the entire system get completely out of
control. It doesn’t assess applications properly, reaches decisions too slowly, is riddled with errors and loopholes, and doesn’t impose any overall limits on the total number of people we should accept. The Government has been far too slow to introduce an effective border police force, and is completely  incapable of deporting migrants who are proven to be here illegally. Currently just 3% of claimants leave the country within three months of their case being decided, and almost a quarter of cases are reversed on appeal. Many applicants end up working illegally to survive, and some are left in limbo for years. Instead, we need a properly controlled system which sets a limit on the total number of people we will admit. That means granting a small number of visas to migrants and refugees, twinned with a proper border police force to secure our borders against terrorists who threaten our way of life. Labour has, at last, started to realise the problems they’ve caused and are moving (a bit slowly) towards the kind of system we’ve been proposing for years. But I’m afraid the emerging cross-party consensus doesn’t stretch very far because the Liberal Democrats are in favour of ‘earned regularisation’, which basically means granting an amnesty to immigrants living illegally in this country. When this policy has been used previously, it hasn’t solved the problem at all. In fact it can encourage even more people to sneak into Britain in the hope of being ‘regularised’ when the next amnesty is announced. I’m extremely saddened that this highly sensitive issue can’t be dealt with through a cross-party consensus where everybody speaks as one. But since there are real differences between the parties on this issue, I believe you’ve got a right to know about them before you go to vote in this election. 
Finally, on the Tropicana, I completely agree with you that it is high time that something is done about
it, and I’ve been pushing the Council hard both publicly and privately to get on with it quickly (some
of them have started to flinch when they see me coming!). The latest news we’ve heard – about a new bid from potential developers – should make us a bit more hopeful about its future.
Like many people in Weston, I felt frustrated that the plans drawn up by the developer Henry Boot had fallen through (although to be fair many other projects across the country have fallen victim to the
recession too). Everybody I speak to wants to make sure the new Tropicana contains a swimming pool but the practical difficulty, I’m told, is that every public swimming pool loses money (even places like Sedgmoor Splash and Hutton Moor). That means that any future owner taking on the project would have to put other facilities like cafes and shops around the pool to subsidise it and make it pay. Providing those facilities are reasonable and not too large, I think most people in Weston would see it as a price worth paying to sort the problem out once and for all.
Now a variety of possible projects – including one from Richard Nightingale, a local businessman –
are apparently being developed, which sounds like long-overdue good news for our seafront. I
supported Mr Nightingale’s original plans back in 2005, even though the (then Lib-Dem) council
decided to give the contract to Henry Boot instead, because I thought it was wonderful that a local
businessman was willing to invest millions of pounds of his own money in Weston’s seafront – we’ve
already seen what a committed local resident can do with the Michaels’ plans to rebuild the Grand Pier after the fire. That said, all the new proposals will obviously have to measure up to public scrutiny and, in meantime, the Council has to go through a frustratingly lengthy tender process because of EU rules applying to large public. Let’s hope that, once the process is complete, we finally get the right plan for Weston. I promise I won’t give up!
Yours sincerely,
John Penrose

Paul Spencer UKIP
Failed to respond, though I was copied in to an email asking someone to respond from the party's head-office.

Peryn Parsons, BNP.
Failed to respond.

John Peverelle English Democrats.
 The English Democrats main platform is an English parliament, so as we English can have a say in our future! We are losing sovereignty to the Scots/Welsh and becoming second class citizens in our own country.We believe we should leave the EU asap, but do it democraticaly by a referendum. Mass immigration should stopp asap, and replaced with a points system for posotions that cannot be filled by people living in the country. Refugees and asylum seekers should be looked after in neighbouring countries, rather than miles away from their homes. The present war and the war in Iraq were both wrong for us to be involved in. USA stopped us in Suez and since then we seem too keen to join then in their war ventures.
Sorry the delay in reply.

So who should I have voted for? I thank all those who bothered to take the time to respond. For those who did not, perhaps you should not put up email addresses on official websites if no-one is going to answer. Here's hoping whoever gets elected does a decent job for Weston and gets that darned swimming pool sorted out.

UPDATE: John Penrose won with an increased majority, beating the Liberals by 3,000. 


super not Super
weston2wingrave wrote:
Thursday, 6 May 2010 at 03:48 pm (UTC)
Good article - but surely you should be able to write the name of the town correctly - Weston-super-Mare. Especially if you really did grow up in Weston.
Re: super not Super
abuncombe wrote:
Friday, 7 May 2010 at 05:52 am (UTC)
Haha. Apologies, Latin was never my thing. And I actually grew up in a village, Banwell, which is included in the Weston constituency. Thanks for reading.
Best wishes,


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