Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Keeping busy in England and Wales

Things are quiet at work at the moment but the Liberal Democrats and the church are both keeping me busy.

On becoming membership secretary I was sent a list of the local party members, many of whom I did not recognise. So, along with Elvie, our local leader, I am going ‘on tour’ around the constituency to hopefully meet a few members and/or supporters each week. This weekend, bank holiday, was a bad one to start with – as many people were away – but hopefully on the next few Sundays I can meet a few new friends to say hello.

Unfortunately I wont be able to make it to the conference in Liverpool (a shame as it promises to be a lively gathering) but I am hoping to attend the regional conference in Eastbourne.

I am on the shortlist for consideration to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Welsh Assembly seat in Ceredigion. Hopefully I’ll be invited to a hustings over there. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I spent some happy years living in Aberystwyth, and it would be a pleasure to represent and campaign for the people of Ceredigion in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff.

Like many parts of the country, the area has suffered as a result of the recession with job losses in agriculture and manufacturing. There are many self-employed businesses so a priority would be to reduce red tape to allow them to expand and develop, and also to protect the area from any cuts coming that way – especially as, according to the Centre of Economics and Business Research, unemployment could hit Wales badly – up to 10%.

Other issues include the provision of health care (including the future of Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth), public transport and tuition fees – so there will be plenty to campaign about if I am selected.

Meanwhile I am also co-organising a Forties Night for 11 September for my local church – with authentic wartime food, music and raffle. The Britain at War Experience at London Bridge kindly donated some tickets as prizes. Hopefully it will be a good turnout.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

IFS Report: Must Do Better

Just before the election debate with my fellow candidates in April, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report in which, although criticising all three parties, praised the Liberal Democrats for being clearer than the other parties about where cuts could come and plans for government. Naturally I gave this report a mention during one of my replies.

Hence we can’t really now criticise the latest report which says the budget will hit the poorest hardest. Instead we should welcome this word of warning and see what we can do about it.

Of course as the junior partner there is only so much influence we can have – but we must not be afraid to speak out. We should greet this report with alarm bells, and ask ourselves what can we do about it? We have made some small steps but can we do more? Can we move quicker towards that £10,000 threshold (which was popular on the doorsteps)? Can we clamp down further on tax avoidance by increasing capital gains tax on higher incomes? Can we increase the tax rates at the top end and use the money to invest and create jobs?

The Conservative party aren’t bothered about the report. Looking after the status quo, keeping everyone in their place and protecting privilege is what they are there for, after all. And, over the last 30 years, this has essentially been a conservative country. Labour could only get in by ditching socialism and becoming more ‘Tory’ – as soon as they tried to be Labour again, the sky fell in.

The Liberal Democrats are the only hope for those on lower incomes and those who may be suffering hardship. We must use what influence we have and get more progress made because, at the moment, we are letting them down.

FUNNY BIT AT THE END: It has been suggested to me that, to work towards my political ambitions, it might be a better idea to defect to Labour. I only mention it to show we have not lost our sense of humour. Like Mr Kennedy, I will have my Lib Dem membership card buried with me. And, despite what Ed Miliband may say, somehow I don’t think I will be welcome at the next Sittingbourne and Sheppey Labour get-together.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In Law, 'A' level is for All-Important

The recent coverage over A-level results prompts me to tell a tale. A few years ago, I studied law part-time. I got my degree and then the Legal Practice Course. All I needed was to find a two year training contract and I would be a fully qualified solicitor. As anyone working in law knows, finding a contract is not easy – and it was made even more difficult by the first question I always got.

What were your A-level results?

I would point out that my A-levels were taken in 1987, that since then I had a degree upper second class, a Masters degree, a law degree with distinction, and 16 years full-time work experience including ten in a management position.

Yes, they would say, but what were your A-level results?

At the reply of three C’s I would get a shake of the head.

Some firms recruit on-line and this is often the first question. If you haven’t got AAB then it’s ’sorry but we wish you every success’ etc and you don’t get any more questions.

In 1987, getting CCC was not great but OK – it was good enough to get me into university. But it has always struck me as unfair that I should be judged by exams I took 23 years ago and that the wealth of experience and qualifications I had accumulated since then did not count. Of course most applicants for training contracts are aged 19-21, hence the question, but the legal profession were clearly unaware of the presence of mature students or career changers.

I was even asked for my positions of responsibility at school. Isn’t ten years as a manager running a team responsible enough?

To be fair they were not all like this and I did get a few interviews, twice I was the reserve candidate, but a very large number of law firms would look with blinkers at A-level results.

I considered going to evening classes to take more A-levels to try to get some As but was advised against it – and as the recession came along, training contracts dried up and the competition got even tougher. Hence three years after completing my law studies, I have had to abandon my legal ambitions.

So a word of warning to anyone at school out there – work hard and take your A-levels seriously – as like me you may still be judged on them when you pass the age of 40.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The party goes on

Time to get busy on our local campaigns. Since the election we have gained quite a few new members but, with my membership secretary hat on, I am hoping to get some more. We have a busy year ahead of us – there will be the 2011 Swale Council elections and the Alternative Vote referendum to campaign on.

Overall we have increased our membership but sadly we lost a few. I guess this is understandable but we did say we would talk to whoever got the biggest mandate, and the public decided that would be the Conservatives. Some preferred Labour but the maths was not correct. And I think one or two of my former colleagues were very happy in opposition. One said to me he was so disgusted by our grab for power that he has joined the Greens! No worries of power there then.

I have some ideas to increase our membership and we are meeting soon to discuss these. I was grateful for the help and support I got during the election campaign and hope we can turn this into more longer term assistance. The more members we get, the more money we can get from central office for local campaigning.

The 2011 council elections:
At our strategy group meeting I had some suggestions about wards we could target and how we could fight them. Unfortunately my plans appeared to be too ambitious – but we have, subject to agreement from our executive committee, placed seven candidates and, as it stands, will be fielding about 20 in total. (There are 47 council seats – the council has had for a long time a very comfortable Conservative majority – which explains a lot about Swale’s problems). It would be great if everyone in Swale has the chance to vote for a Liberal Democrat. We must work towards that.

I am hoping we will be able to do more work on the Isle of Sheppey which, unfortunately, we had to neglect in the campaign for the reasons given in my ‘memoirs’. I think our brand of liberal democracy based on fairness and social justice could appeal there. We might be in a national coalition but the more Liberal Democrat votes, the more liberal democrat policies, the less Conservative policies – and that sounds good to me.

The referendum campaign:
I did have the idea of maybe getting some sort of local all-party group together. After all, it is not just a Liberal Democrat campaign, there is cross-party support for a change in the electoral system. Labour were the only party to include AV in their manifesto. However I am not sure if this all-party idea is a starter. The Conservatives will obviously be against change and Labour might be waiting for the new leader to tell them what their policy is. We might get agreement with UKIP and the Greens. Anyway, that’s an idea to put to one side for now.

Members again:
It all comes down to members. More members means more party money and hopefully more candidates and hopefully more success. It’s up to us to get the message out there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Polls: how low can you go?

With our declining poll ratings, we Liberal Democrats are cheering ourselves up by trying to think of when our support was at its lowest. Chris Huhne said he remembers it being less than 1% although, according to UK Polling Report, the recorded lowest is 1.5% in 1955.

The lowest in my own memory was the period after the 1987 general elections (at which the Alliance got 25.4%). The subsequent merger process and ‘discussions’ of 1987-8 saw our poll rating at 4% – a drop of over 21% in a year. In the 1989 European elections, the ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ polled 6% - in fourth place behind the Greens.

The main trends recently, as well our reduced support, have been further increases in the Conservative rating and a slight recovery for Labour. I have seen some speculation amongst Conservative bloggers that there might be a good time for a snap election which might give the Conservatives a majority government and the chance to ‘free’ themselves from the Liberal Democrats. That time has not yet come though.

So oddly a recovery for the Labour rating is good for Lib Dems – because it would deny the Tories of the lead that they would require. As the new leader emerges and the cuts take hold, Labour’s rating will doubtless continue to improve and by next spring there should be a healthy lead.

Of course, under the current constituencies, Labour don’t need to get more votes. They can get more seats with a few percentage points less. One MORI poll had the Tories on 40% and Labour on 38% - this would give Labour 50 more seats than the Conservatives. The forthcoming bill to equalise constituencies should resolve this.

Hopefully by the next election the public will clearly acknowledge the contributions we have made even if the media do not – especially in political reform, lower taxes and the soon-to-be-introduced pupil premium. And I’m sure we would rather be in government with a low rating than have high ratings and perpetual opposition.

To finish off, the latest polls averaged over the last few days read: Conservatives 42%, Labour 36%, Liberal Democrat 14%, others 8%.

With the help of the BBC Election Calculator this works out as Conservatives 314 seats, Labour 289 seats, Liberal Democrat 20 seats, others 27 seats. So still a hung parliament.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trident - a sign of weakness

During the campaign, one gentleman on his doorstep told me he was going to vote for us but had now changed his mind and will vote Tory. The reason, he said, is that ‘they will keep our defences strong’ because of Trident. David Cameron, in his ‘offer’ speech, also referred to strong defences and Trident. The very first question at the Churches Together debate in Sheerness in May was directed at me on this topic and keeping our defences strong.

So clearly there is public concern on the issue of Trident and our defences and how the perception is that we must have Trident so we can be strong.

I am reminded of the scene in Yes Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey patiently explains to Bernard that the point of Britain’s defence policy is not to defend Britain – but instead to make the British believe Britain is defended. With Trident in our hands, we can all walk about, reassured that we are safe.

Yet it seems to me that a defence strategy which bases itself almost exclusively on nuclear weapons is not strong – in fact, it is very weak indeed – and this is something we should all be concerned about.

Trident is back in the news because of who should pay for it. George Osborne and the Treasury argue that the Ministry of Defence should foot the £20bn bill because it is a military weapon. Liam Fox and Defence, on the other hand, argue that as nuclear weapons are ‘political’, they should be paid for by the Treasury. (It was President Truman who established the principle that civilian politicians, not the military, should control the use of nuclear weapons).

The bill is twenty billion pounds and this may rise to one hundred billion and beyond in the years ahead. At a time of massive deficit, when our military are crying out for modern equipment and vehicles, when our troops are moonlighting to save up to buy battle armour, when our forces are using equipment designed for Northern Ireland in the mountains and heat of Afghanistan, does it make sense to spend this money on a system we don’t need and can’t use?

We have seen British troops fight in the Falklands, in Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and presently Afghanistan. Nuclear weapons were useless for these conflicts. In fact, the Falklands War was the first time a non-nuclear power has attacked a nuclear power, knowing full well there was no risk of ‘nuking’ Buenos Aries.

Equally there have been terrorist activities such as the IRA and Al Qaeda for which modern counter-terrorism resources must be provided.

It is concerning to read that our defences will now be cut even more to pay for Trident severely further reducing our capability to fight a modern conventional war. Would we be able to liberate the Falklands if Argentina walked in tomorrow?

We must have an overhaul of our defence strategy and ask ourselves where do the threats to our security come from and how can we meet them?

To keep our defences strong we need highly trained and efficient conventional military forces, with the necessary modern equipment and facilities to do what they do so well. We need our forces to have the flexibility and mobility to fight wherever we send them – whether it is Europe, the desert or against terrorists at home.

That is what we need – strong defences to protect our country and our people. Not a weak defence based on Trident.