Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Final Debates

The series of Sittingbourne and Sheppey debates came to an end this week.

Firstly, on Monday, Gordon, Angela and I went to the Isle of Sheppey Academy to meet 16-18 year olds where we were questioned about local issues and politics in general.

Then in the afternoon Gordon and I met again at Highsted school in Sittingbourne for a discussion about school transport. Contrary to my last entry, Labour did indeed send a representative in the form of the legendary Roger Truelove, a well-known and very experienced local councillor, and we were joined by a representative from Kent County Council and the police.

I found this second debate quite tough – the subject matter was rather narrow and were with matters primarily relating to Kent County Council. Hence Gordon and Roger are much more experienced than I on local county issues and were able to give better answers. I got in our party policy on public transport and policing however.

The final debate was the Churches Together event at The Church in Hope Street, Sheerness. This was advertised and open to the public. Issues raised included Trident, the rights of Christians, hung parliaments, human rights, drinking hours and our local ambitions as an MP. To my surprise, immigration, the most common issue raised on the doorsteps, did not come up. Sitting next to the chairman, I could see a question coming about energy to which I would have had a great answer but, alas, we didn’t get to it.

This was a good debate. Heated discussions went to and fro, the audience got their say and generally we all answered the questions. It was also well conducted and chaired.

Gordon was less dominating than previously and came across well. I even found myself agreeing with some of his answers – which is a worrying precedent. Angela had her best debate of the series also with some good answers. As neither Europe, immigration nor the economy came up then Ian of UKIP didn’t really have much to bite on, but fended off the BNP. David Cassidy, an Independent of whom I know nothing, showed an independent spirit.

I managed to answer the questions without too many problems but, as I am not used to addressing 200 people, had to resort to the microphone to be heard.

The BNP candidate and three colleagues were present but of course were not invited onto the panel. We were anticipating some sort of onslaught but instead they carried out a rather weak attack on Ian regarding an email he is alleged to have sent.

That’s all the debates. Six in all, five of them alongside Gordon, four with Angela and three with Ian, so we have got to know each other fairly well. They have all been fun but also hard work. And we will next meet on Thursday at the count!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sittingbourne & Sheppey - has Labour given up?

I took this last week off work and a very busy week it has been too. More media interviews, lots more delivering of leaflets, and lots more canvassing, around Sittingbourne and on the Isle of Sheppey – as well as catching up (slightly) on the emails. I am also delighted to have found many new members and supporters. We are all being exceptionally busy spreading the message as far as we can – and generally are getting a good response.

Labour’s campaign is rather puzzling. We were to have a church debate in Milton Regis, but the Labour candidate, Angela Harrison, refused and so it had to be cancelled. This disappointed a lot of people, many of them Labour supporters, who wanted to meet us, ask us questions and see us discuss the issues. This may have cost Labour 100 votes or so, which, when you are defending a majority of 79, makes a difference.

Tomorrow we are getting together for a discussion chiefly regarding public transport (although I am sure other issues will crop up). Gordon from the Conservatives, Ian from UKIP and my good self will be there – not only no Angela, but no-one at all from Labour! The invitation was declined.

I hope Angela will be at the church debate in Sheerness on Wednesday – as this is home territory for her.

In Faversham the safe-seat Tories have the luxury of refusing to meet people (as in the environment debate). I'm not so sure about Labour here. I would have thought they would be keen for every vote.

The local Labour party has released a statement insisting it is still a two horse race. As the saying goes, they still don’t get it! Who do they think those poll numbers which are not red or blue are for? And how do Labour think they can win if they are turning down chances to meet people who want to meet them?

Unlike Labour, we in the Liberal Democrats haven’t given up. After all, someone has to challenge Gordon Henderson and the Conservatives.

We are fighting for every vote in this seat and will continue to do so to the end!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sittingbourne & Sheppey - second place?

We’re in second place!! This could be our best result since this constituency was formed in 1997 - as the recent total of our data shows we have overtaken Labour into second place. How did we reach this possibility?

For three months we have been door canvassing and phone canvassing and hardly found any support for Labour. People who had voted Labour before informed us that they felt betrayed by Gordon Brown’s government and that the party had left its roots. Most of these were going to give us a chance as we were listening more to the concerns of ordinary people. Vince Cable, especially, was much admired. Other Labour supporters said they would not vote at all, with a few opting instead for UKIP or BNP.

Now we have started working in some more traditional Labour areas we have found a similar pattern. It is surprising to find that, apart from Sheppey, Labour’s support seems to have melted. And even in the Isle of Sheppey many Labour supporters have told us how they feel so let down by the government.

This trickle of support increased after Vince Cable’s debate performance – and is now a flood following Nick Clegg’s showing. I am struggling to keep up with the emails (apologies to those who I have not yet replied to – I’m getting there!)

There is a cloud however. Many people said they would vote Labour anyway because they believed, in error, that was the only way to stop the Conservative candidate, Gordon Henderson, from becoming our MP. So we still have Gordon as the odds-on favourite. And we think that both UKIP and BNP are also heading for a reasonable result.

Of course we have still done nowhere near as much work as I would like. And there are still a lot of don’t knows. But we can be optimistic at the moment.

Considering our tiny resources compared to the infinitesimally greater amounts available to the big two, if we finish second it would be a huge achievement.

However we must not be complacent. Two weeks are a very long time in politics and there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

Neither of the tired old two parties will like the possibility of a Liberal Democrat making progress so will come at us locally as they are nationally. We must stay alert, stay focussed and keep getting that message across. And maybe on 6 May we will surprise a lot of people in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sheerness and Sittingbourne - on the high streets

We have just completed two very successful high street sessions. Last week we were in Sheerness by the clock and this weekend we set up camp in Sittingbourne. On both occasions we were fortunate with the weather and were armed with policy statements, balloons and literature.

Throughout these sessions I met many people, discussing with them the wide variety of issues they are concerned about, which were mostly local, but also touched on national issues, such as tax and immigration.

Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey has suffered badly as a result of Gordon Brown's recession so there was a lot of concern about jobs and businesses and how to revitalise the high street and the island overall. The area we were situated in was next to three empty shops as an example. People wanted to know our plans as a party and what would I, if I was the MP, do about it.

There were a lot of people who were understandably anti-politician but I was pleased to see some support for us and that Labour’s support is not as strong as we might have expected. There was a general feeling of being let down.

Then in Sittingbourne there was much positive feedback about Nick Clegg after his debate performance and people telling me that they have never voted Liberal Democrat before but were now very tempted. Again, the local economy was a subject of concern as well as schools and the commuter trains.

In both towns, the behaviour of MPs and our politicians was also discussed. And there was a lot of concern about the Conservatives getting back into power - especially in Sheerness where cuts in investment and even higher unemployment were the last thing they wanted.

Sadly every silver lining has a cloud. Half an hour after we set up camp in Sheerness, along came the Tories and set up a stall right next to us! Then half an hour after we were in Sittingbourne, what do you know, here they come again. Not further down the high street, you note, but again adjacent to our stall! Before they turned up, I had a queue of people wanting to talk to me and keen to discuss things but as soon as the blue balloons arrived, that was it, the streets got much emptier.

I have to confess blame here because I publicised the fact we would be in those places – but you live and learn.

Anyway, that was just a minor grumble. I found both sessions to be very rewarding and enjoyable. It’s always a joy to get out on the streets and talk to real people.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Friends of the Earth - debate report

This time I visited the constituency next door in Faversham to take part in a debate on the environment hosted by Friends of the Earth. Faversham is a beautiful old English town with lots of history and has a small town centre with many small shops. It's a nice place to wander about on an afternoon.

I was quite pleased with how the debate went – this was probably my best performance so far – and of course we Liberal Democrats are quite strong on the environment.

We were each given five questions to prepare answers for and then the questions came thick can fast. We discussed what challenges face mankind, climate change, alternative fuels, public transport, renewable energies, local businesses including small shops, sustainability, what councils can do now, and education.

Liberal Democrats control more major cities than any other party and numerous towns as well so there are plenty of examples of initiatives from these councils to help the environment which I could quote. I was able to answer all the questions that came my way, get a few nods from the crowd, and slip in a few party policies.

I had three sparring partners on the panel. Firstly there was a spokesman from the Greens, a nice chap who made some good points. On environmental issues, we often agree with the Greens but we differ on the economic side of things.

Then there was a spokesman from UKIP who dominated the debate. Everyone soon lost patience with his argument that everything was the EU’s fault and that, in the face of crumbling small businesses and failing local transport, the government and councils are helpless,which seemed a cop-out to me. But it was good of him to come along and liven up the evening.

Finally, there was Ashok Rehal, the Faversham candidate from Labour. Another nice chap who performed well in a quiet sort of way.

What’s that I hear you say? No Tories? Well, the Faversham MP Hugh Robertson was invited but declined. That’s fair enough but he didn’t even send a representative like UKIP and the Greens did.

The Conservative blog’s own poll of their own candidates, when asked to list issues in order of importance, put the environment 19th out of 19. So when many members of the likely next government refuse to admit there even is an issue, then we are in trouble indeed. Understandable in difficult times but even the Lab-Con governments won't make a recession last for ever and we are talking about the long term future.

Despite that, I was pleased with how the debate went and am getting to improve these skills. Unfortunately two debates which I agreed to join (hosted by the business park and a church) have had to be cancelled so maybe others don’t find them so enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

They're off!

Here at Millbank Tower in Westminster (where I work) there has been much excitement amongst the Tories downstairs in their headquarters at the sound of the starting pistol. Extra security (and extra heavies) are present and in the lift we overhear people talk about what they will say to ‘Dave’ when he visits today. The Tory press conferences are going to be taking place six floors underneath me.

But at last we’ve got lift off – and I’ve been checking the BBC and SKY election pages to check they have spelt my name right. We’re away – exciting stuff.

The polls, as always, make interesting reading. The Guardian have the Tories in a four point lead which, oddly, would leave Labour with most seats – yet another fault with our election system. But generally the Conservatives seem in a comfortable lead.

We’ve been campaigning in Sittingbourne and Sheppey for over two months but now we have the date and can accelerate accordingly. Let the games begin!