This is traditionally a time for reflection; for thinking of the highs and lows of the past year and also focusing on the year to come, making plans and resolutions.
In some ways 2014 has been a challenging year for the people of Stockton South.
Despite talk of a recovery, most people aren’t feeling better off as prices have risen faster than wages. In May I revealed that 1 in 5 local workers earn less than £7.65 per hour, considered a living wage while bills continue to rise for us all, creating a real cost of living crisis.
Many of our public sector workers have seen another year of pay freezes, redundancies, and unwelcome reorganisation leaving them struggling and worried about their futures.
Only 100 of the 550 npower workers in Thornaby were able to make the switch to Sunderland, leaving hundreds desperately looking for new jobs.
Unfair and unjust sanctions have bitten. The bedroom tax has continued to put terrible pressure on hundreds of local families, including one 60 year old woman I met in Thornaby living on £1 day.
Many of those who have found jobs have taken part-time work on temporary and zero hour contracts, instead of the full time permanent work they have lost through no fault of their own. One family man I met said he was made redundant from a 37 hour job and could only find 12 hours of work, he is now heavily reliant on the state to make his money up yet he longs to keep his family through his own hard work.
We have seen passengers stranded and isolated across the constituency through the withdrawal of bus services – Kirklevington, Thornaby, Stockton, Ingleby Barwick, Eaglescliffe, nowhere has been unaffected.
I have also been inundated with responses to my survey on GP appointment waiting times showing how much of a problem this has become – and of course you won’t have missed the many stories about people waiting hours for ambulances.
However, all is not doom and gloom, there has been great community achievements too.
People have come together throughout 2014, with real spirit.
In Thornaby, the new hub at the Baptist Church, along with the Community Hub feeding school children in the holidays and providing fellowship and company for older people throughout Christmas are great examples of solidarity. They are joined in their efforts by Teesside Credit Union, the Moses Project, the CAB, Five Lamps and a host of other great community organisations who serve our people when they need help.
The commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War brought people together in a host of activities, particularly in Yarm where the finale saw the names of the fallen read out as poppy candles made by local school children and prisoners were sombrely snuffed out. The Riding of the Fair civic lunch saw praise from all sides for these efforts and for the great improvements around the Town Hall too.
Our beloved National Health Service was centre stage this year as hundreds marched from Jarrow to London to bring attention to its current ill health. I was proud to address a big group of Stockton South patients and health workers on the leg from Darlington to Northallerton in August.
Hundreds more campaigned against creeping NHS privatisation, particularly in Hartburn where streets of neighbours displayed signs in their windows and gardens pledging their commitment to a free NHS.
Our small businesses have increasingly come together during 2014 to give themselves a stronger voice. The InShops traders in Thornaby were facing a bleak year 12 months ago, locked out of their units, now they are looking forward to a new future together in the town centre, working co-operatively. The Stockton Business Women’s Forum has involved many more female entrepreneurs this year, supporting and encouraging one another to grow and find new custom.
Our school children have had great results this year despite what seem now like unnecessarily worrying OFSTED reports at some of our schools, there have even been national awards for some. They have worked very hard, supported by excellent teachers, governors and dedicated parents.
By working in partnership with our town and borough councils and councillors, residents in Ingleby Barwick have won many battles against house builders during 2014; our fight goes on despite Government efforts to wear us down.
On a personal note,
My campaign team has grown in strength and numbers. In January I was pleased to welcome our 100th volunteer, by December I was delighted to meet our 250th volunteer as we passed a key milestone of having knocked on 30,000 doors. It is important to me to meet as many residents as possible, in person, face to face, so I can learn what really matters to them.
Our successful local campaign for the European elections saw two Labour MEPs returned for the region for the first time in ten years. This has given us a real voice in the European Parliament and already we have seen some great work to combat tax dodgers whilst bringing a fresh focus on youth employment.
I have also enjoyed visiting many local schools (including Conyers, my old school) to listen to teachers and young people about their ambitions, hopes and dreams and how a future Labour Government can help to deliver for them.
2015 brings a General Election and a choice.
As Ed Miliband said in his own New Year message “This is a moment of possibility for Britain. We have it within our grasp not just to see out the old year but to see out the old ways of running the country.”
In early January I will be hosting a manifesto launch and then publishing Labour’s pledges for Stockton South – and the country – on these pages. I have listened locally, Labour has listened nationally and I sincerely believe we have the policies to address those issues our communities face today. I look forward to discussing them with you over the coming months.
As 2015 dawns, I stand ready to serve; to work with you and on your behalf to deliver the change we need.
May I wish you and your families a happy and peaceful New Year.