Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fomenting Ferment

Mess wi' we, would thee?

Alistair Darling has created quite a stir by upping the tax on our cider. Facebook's 'Leave Our Cider Alone!' group, created only yesterday, now has approaching 30,000 members. The Wurzels have pledged their support and the race is on to get 'I am a Cider Drinker' to No. 1 in the charts.

David Cameron has got in on the act, claiming that the Government "doesn't understand the West Country". In fact, media analysis shows that the Government understands only too well. With Labour support in the South West the lowest for any of the Prescott zones, the Government knows it has nothing to lose by hammering cider. You wouldn't expect it to go after whisky now, would you? But with House of Commons catering subsidised by the taxpayer, do any of them, whatever their party, understand anything?

A vote for Cameron is not a vote for change. The Tories stubbornly oppose the kind of constitutional reform that would place Wessex beyond Labour's grasp by returning to us - permanently - the power to shape our own lives. No matter how long they hold office, the Tories must lose again one day and Labour's votes, piled up in the nations and regions beyond Wessex, will again determine our fate. Until we vote for the one party truly committed to ending the see-saw for good - the Wessex Regionalists, the party for Wessex.

First Impressions

Colin Bex, WR Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, was out in Witney today testing the ground for a possible challenge to David Cameron. No final decision has been made on the choice of constituency to be fought but the Leader of the Opposition does make a very good target. Voters who've had enough of the Government's voodoo economics will be thinking twice about an alternative out to outdo it in nastiness.

We met at the Angel, a pleasant pub in the Market Square, chatting to locals about their discontents before we got down to the main business of the day. Down on the High Street, with myself waving the Wyvern flag to attract interest, Colin handed leaflets to passers-by and engaged with their reactions.

The idea of Wessex was clearly attractive, especially to older folk who feel robbed of history itself by the Blairite project of 'modern' Britain. Being lumped in for regional purposes with Kent - on the other side of London - was unpopular too. There was some puzzlement over boundaries from those whose idea of Wessex is shaped too sharply by Thomas Hardy but once the local background was explained all doubts were dispelled. Oxfordshire was where Wessex started, where its first capital is recorded and where the Wyvern itself first flew as the battle standard of our kings. The town of Witney owes its existence to the Bishops of Winchester, who built one of their 24 palaces there in the Middle Ages.

Older voters and first-timers alike welcomed the possibility of a WR candidate, whose presence would at the very least widen their choice and at best provide real colour to what was expected to be a generally drab election campaign. David Cameron was seen as pre-occupied with posturing at Prime Minister's Questions and far too busy to be an effective local representative with time for his constituents, their problems or their views. Life-long Labour voters promised 'never again' and grasped at the opportunity to back a fresh alternative. With its Leveller, Chartist and William Morris connections, the Witney constituency has a radical heritage second to none. The WR message of local self-determination and freedom from London diktat met with particularly strong approval from all sides.

Heavy rain after lunch forced a change of plan. The afternoon was spent in Chipping Norton and Burford collecting local information, such as town maps and bus timetables. If Witney is the chosen seat, Colin intends to campaign by public transport, speaking to voters on the move. And in stark contrast to David Cameron's token greenism, there won't be a chauffeur-driven car coming along behind.

Review of 2009

Every year when we submit our accounts to the Electoral Commission we are also required to provide a 'Review of Political Activities' covering the year just gone.

The 2009 Review has recently been forwarded to the Commission and here is what it says:

During 2009, thoughts again turned towards preparations for the forthcoming General Election. The Wessex Regionalists did not contest the European election in June – for which Wessex is sawn in two by regional constituency boundaries and then the pieces lumped in with other areas – but were pleased to see from the results that the unquestioned dominance of the three larger parties is on the wane. In Cornwall, Mebyon Kernow polled very well and in November two WR members attended the MK AGM and picked up tips on how they did it.

A general disillusionment with politics arising from the abuse of Parliamentary expenses has created a rare opportunity for smaller parties to gain a sympathetic ear. Nevertheless, we remain concerned that the media - particularly the broadcast media - fail to provide the balanced information about the contesting parties that legal equality on the ballot paper ought to suggest.

We continued to monitor dissatisfaction with Labour’s plans to impose over half a million new homes on Wessex, principally to accommodate London overspill. These homes are not wanted in Wessex and do not address our region’s housing needs. Our executive meeting in February was addressed by the Chair of the Shortwood Green Belt Campaign, one of a network of local residents’ groups opposing tens of thousands of homes planned for Green Belt land around Bristol. We are pleased to see that all these plans are now mired in doubt following a successful legal challenge to the Government’s approach.

Letters to the press continued, including an attack on the South West RDA for its abuse of the former Morlands factory at Glastonbury, occupied in January by local people opposed to unimaginative plans that treated their views with contempt. However, a bigger effort this year went into upgrading our presence in cyberspace, where we are able to present our case unfiltered. In the course of the year we launched our new web domain – – and a WR page on Facebook. By the end of the year the website had attracted over 1,000 hits. Additions to the WR blog – – have continued to be made (a 50% increase this year over last), as well as an opening contribution to a new blog,, which promotes the regionalist political philosophy.

The Party returned to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in July 2009, providing a busy stall on both
Saturday and Sunday. The Festival was the first outing for our new recruitment leaflet, 'Who Cares About You?' We also took the opportunity while there to publicise other causes that we back, such as the campaign to re-open the Somerset & Dorset Railway, and to raise awareness of Wessex history and culture. The Government’s supporters at the Festival begged the electorate to vote negatively against the Conservatives, however disappointed with Labour. It was a poor defence of a dozen wasted years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Keep Off the Cider!

Alistair Darling’s last budget before the election took a widely predicted swipe at cider drinkers. This afternoon he announced plans to raise the excise duty on cider by 10% over inflation, singling out our region’s choice for special mistreatment. Taxes on beer, wine and spirits will rise by just 2% over inflation, so Labour’s champagne socialists will be raising their glasses to the Chancellor tonight.

We already have some of the highest rates of duty in the world and the latest increase is bound to cost Wessex jobs. A 47% increase in cider duty in 1984 resulted in the loss of more than 500 jobs industry-wide and duty increases remain a threat to the success of cider sales today. The cider industry, as one of the few to have achieved growth through the recent recession, is a true success story. Today’s duty increase will undo much of this good work and the impact of a significant price increase to the consumer will probably also be counterproductive in raising revenue for the Government. Currently cider and perry contributes around £370 million annually, or more than £1 million a day, in excise duty and VAT to the UK Exchequer.

Duty on a pint of cider has been traditionally low - around 18p on average compared to 46p for a pint of beer - despite cider's popularity with problem drinkers and the young. There has been intense lobbying to raise its price. Yet alcohol consumption is falling at the fastest rate for six decades, with pub closures the most visible sign – running at 52 a week. In truth, there are no problem drinks, only problem drinkers, and making everyone else drink less is not the solution.

Cider is much more expensive to produce than other drinks and it helps underpin the economy in many rural areas. Raising the tax on cider will make beer more competitive, to the advantage of the big foreign breweries. David Sheppy, of Sheppy’s Cider, from Bradford-on-Tone, near Taunton, said: “We are not pleased. A 10% increase is quite devastating news. A lot of money has been put into investment in the cider industry, and we don’t now want to see that investment wasted.”

John Sheaves, Chief Executive of the food and drink association Taste of the West, described the proposal as "a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut. Because of the nature of the industry, we're not talking about big companies, we're talking about small producers who often employ very few people and have fixed overheads and small avenues by which they can increase prices.

"To slap a tax on sales would impact on those businesses' profitability and ability to thrive. The Government is meant to be trying to encourage home-grown production and sustainable food and drink production as well as trying to encourage rural economic development. That doesn't square with this proposal."

Simon Russell, spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers, said: "This is entirely the wrong message. It puts at risk the very businesses that are doing so much to bring investment to the rural economy and to use the countryside in a positive, agricultural way including helping with carbon emissions."

It has to be said that not all ‘cider’ sold in the UK is truly worthy of the name. Some of it is just cheap strong alcohol which is called ‘cider’ for tax purposes. It could be made out of corn syrup or anything, with flavouring and saccharin added. A more discriminating approach to definitions could help Wessex a lot.

Tackling ‘alcopops’ by taxing cider will not deter those with disposable income who are determined to drink. They will find substitutes or else pay more. Or steal more, in some cases. Chris Coles, managing director of Topsham-based Green Valley Cyder, stated: "The supermarkets are frequently discounting lagers which you can buy for 25p a can – that's almost criminal, it's encouraging people to drink without encouraging them to make a sensible choice."

Instead of punishing the responsible and irresponsible alike, the Government should enforce more firmly the existing laws on sales and on-street behaviour, adopting a policy of zero tolerance towards those who go beyond their limits.