Thursday, September 30, 2010

Interview with 'Your Swale'

Keith Nevols, the Liberal Democrat who ran for office in Sittingbourne and Sheppey in the last general election, talks to Jill Hurst about the campaign, what he has been doing since May and what his plans are for the future.

-Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I have lived in Sittingbourne with my wife, Mary, for six years. I’m 42 and work in Westminster in local government. I enjoy watching football, films, history and travel. I am also involved with church activities as a member of the social committee.

-You ran for MP in the last election in May. There’s been a little bit of time for reflection since then. What are your conclusions?

Despite our very limited resources, we had a good campaign, which increased our vote to get our best local result since 1997. I especially enjoyed meeting people on the doorsteps and the debates with my fellow candidates.

The major issues we came across were the local economy and concerns about immigration. While we came up with a workable policy about illegal immigration I felt we did not put it across very well and should have had a non-policy like our two opponents.

The Conservative win was no surprise. We found that the Tory vote was holding firm while the Labour vote was collapsing.

I hope to stand again at the next election, although I am not sure where.

-How did you get involved in politics and what keeps you interested?

I was first involved in the 1980s with the then SDP. I saw the injustices of Thatcherism all around me while the Labour party were more interested in fighting each other. I also felt (and still do) that the entire political system was in desperate need of modernising.

The SDP offered something new and fresh and policies that I generally agreed with. I am kept interested by the variety of the topic and the motivation that there must be something better for people. I especially want to see a more fair political system and hope the AV referendum will be just the first step.

-What’s your view on the coalition Government – do you think it will last?

I am pleased to see Liberal Democrats in government and that some of our policies are being put in place. We must however ensure our distinctive voice and position get across. Like many Lib Dems I was unhappy with the VAT rise and the free schools policy, but then we are the junior partner. I would be opposed to any form of electoral pact with the Conservatives.

I think the coalition will last at least until 2014, as it is in the interests of both parties to stick together.

-Are you disappointed with party central?

No, the central party were a great help during and since the campaign in keeping candidates informed. Simon Hughes is an excellent deputy as a sort of ‘leader outside the government’.

-The whole of Swale council is up for re-election next year – do you think the Conservative stronghold can be broken?

We will be working as hard as we can and I hope the local Labour party will as well. Unfortunately I think the Conservatives will retain firm control of Swale Council up to 2015 but I hope that the opposition parties will at least make some progress and that we see more Liberal Democrats in the council chamber.

-Will you run for local office yourself?

Yes, I am running for the double-seater ward of Murston with Cllr Dave Banks.

-What are your hopes and fears for the district?

I hope that a rejuvenated council will work at regeneration in the area, encouraging development, and that in a few years we will see a vibrant local economy.

My fears are that the council will continue to stagnate, businesses will continue to close, and the people of Swale face a long and grim future.

-And finally….anything you want to add?

Politicians have a bad reputation but it is a subject where you can do good and make a difference. I would encourage everyone to get involved. A healthy democracy is one in which as many people as possible participate.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Congrats to Ed - here's to fair votes and the triumph of youth

‘A horse is a horse of course of course .. ‘ yes, here comes Mr Ed.

Congratulations to Ed Miliband on being elected as the new leader of the Labour party – and use Google if you don’t get that last reference – I am sure you’ll be hearing it again.

Two things come to mind with Mr M junior’s success.

Firstly, had the Labour party used the first-past-the-post system then it would be David Miliband who would be celebrating tonight. Using the Alternative Vote method has ensured that the winner has a majority of the votes unlike over two thirds of the Members of Parliament. I hope that Ed Miliband now joins the referendum campaign so the rest of us can work towards fairer votes as well.

The second important point is that, for the first time, a leader of a major UK political party is younger than me. Ed Miliband is 40 years old, whereas I am 42. Not only that, but Nick Clegg is only nine months older than me. And David Cameron only three months older than Nick.

At the next election in May 2015, Cameron and Clegg will both be 48 while Ed will be 45. However the ‘youngest’ general election was in 2001 when Tony Blair (48) took on William Hague (40) and Charles Kennedy (41).

If, as they say, policemen look younger every year, what’s the expression when all the political leaders are?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Any Labours of Love?

Tomorrow we will know the new leader of the Labour party. From an onlooker’s point of view this has been the most interesting Labour leadership contest in years – because of the range of candidates and that, unlike the contests with Kinnock, Smith and Blair, we don’t know who will win.

My money is still on David Miliband. However I am swinging to Ed Miliband who has had an excellent campaign – he would be a difficult opponent for us, the main advantage would be any grievances David would feel working under his younger brother. Andy Burnham has had a good campaign and Diane Abbott has been endearing. Ed Balls has been his typical bullying self but would be useful to his boss.

Mrs Thatcher famously said ‘Every Prime Minister needs a Willie’ referring to Whitelaw. Under the same principle – every Labour leader needs Balls.

Locally, I have appeared a couple of times in the press (Your Swale) on the local recovery and on votes for prisoners – and have been in agreement with the Labour view. The local Labour party and ourselves agree on a lot of things – no surprise when we have such a dire Tory council in place. Labour are actually very good when attacking the Tories but unfortunately they spend most of their time attacking us and giving the Tories a free run – as we saw in the general election campaign.

It’s a shame we can’t do a deal with Labour for the council elections to try to knock a few Tories off. Labour will probably make progress next May but leave the Tories firmly in sole control for another four years - and that's bad news for Swale. But I have to admit to being tempted to enter a team in their upcoming quiz to try to improve anti-Tory cross party relations. But somehow I don’t think we will be allowed.

And we all wait to see the new Labour leader’s view on the Alternative Vote referendum. I have been in contact with the Take Back Parliament group to see how we could help but I want this to be a multi-party campaign not just Lib Dems.

The Tories will obviously be against any change. All the other parties are in favour. So Labour’s view will be crucial.

If the new Labour leader is prepared to break down the Con-Lab coalition which has consistently blocked genuine reform since 1945 – then at last we could be on the road to genuine change for a modern democracy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When the going gets tough, the weak go running

Maybe I’ll get in trouble for this entry – but then this is my blog and my views, so here goes.

Today I am angry. It’s our conference and I am angry. What is the reason for my anger?

Here in Sittingbourne and Sheppey we have a small local party. Like many of our local parties we are extremely short of resources, of money, of manpower. We have an entrenched solid Conservative council to fight and the local Tory and Labour parties have wealth we can only dream of. We have very few council seats. We have a referendum to work for in which our MP has said he would vigorously campaign against us. These are indeed difficult times. So I am trying to involve and increase our membership and profile across the constituency.

This week I was informed that two of our long-standing members, both former councillors for many years and well-known locally, both experienced campaigners, exactly the sort of chaps we want out knocking on doors and running for council, have both decided to quit the party. Why? They are unhappy with the coalition – so they have chosen to withdraw any help. I believe this scenario has been repeated around the country.

Sometimes you really want to get hold of people and give them a good slapping – it makes you so angry. OK, many of us are not happy with some of what the coalition is doing – so as a result you want to punish the local party and bring us closer to extinction? You want by your actions to help strengthen a Tory council which you are supposedly against?  We criticise the media and the Labour party because they lack the maturity to accept the concept of coalitions which is the norm in most of Europe (and Wales), and indeed in many councils. Yet we find this same sort of immaturity within our own party.

It seems the fact of power has made many of our members run for the hills – scared stiff at the responsibility and of the possibility we might become unpopular. They much prefer sitting in opposition with clean consciences, or leaving the party so they can smugly cleanse themselves and watch the local party struggle. It seems with many Lib Dems, when the going gets tough, the weak go running.

The election result meant we did not have the numbers to do a deal with Labour (and did we really want to keep Gordon Brown in Number 10?) so the only alternative to the coalition was a minority Tory government which would result in another election.

We have no money left, so with Labour in disarray, the Tories would have an open field and romp home with a big majority – then there would be no Lib Dems in government, no referendum on the voting system, no reform of the House of Lords, no tax cuts for the lower paid, no freedom bill or local enterprise partnerships, no banking levy etc. But there would still be high VAT and spending cuts.

Let’s get some things clear – none of us are happy with the 20% VAT rise, none of us are happy with the spending cuts programme, I wasn’t happy with the daft immigration policy we adopted at the election, or the equally daft ‘free’ schools or ‘big society’ policies that are now in place. But you don’t just walk off in a sulk. What’s that going to achieve? In our case, a very difficult local campaign becomes even more difficult.

Instead you stay, you fight and you campaign within the party. For this I congratulate our MPs Charles Kennedy, Bob Russell and our excellent deputy Simon Hughes. They have made it clear there are aspects of the coalition they are not happy with – but I know that if they lived in Sittingbourne and Sheppey they would be out campaigning with us for Liberal Democrat votes.

The coalition won’t last for ever – and if, one day, we get fair votes than coalitions might become the norm here too. We might find ourselves in a coalition with Labour – I wonder how many people we would lose then?

I congratulate and thank all the members who have stuck with us and are showing great maturity in difficult times. I urge them to keep battling, keep campaigning, both locally and nationally, for Liberal Democratic principles of social justice and fairness in society. If necessary we will campaign against our own government but we should certainly campaign against Tories (and Labour) wherever they may be.

If our weaker members want to run away then so be it – but let the rest of us keep up the good work and, at every level, let’s fight hard for every vote.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Swale estimated to recover by 2025

A recent report from the South East England Development Agency shows that, while the global and national recovery continues, the area of Swale, which includes Sittingbourne, Faversham and the Isle of Sheppey, will see a much slower pace taking up to 15 more years!

Some parts of Kent will reach a full recovery over the next year or two. For Swale, however, output is estimated to return to pre-recession levels (2007) in 2015, while the level of employment to recover is expected to take until 2025!

These are, of course, estimates but what is clear is that the area is recovering much more slowly than the rest of Kent and desperately needs help. The local economy and jobs were issues raised with us time and time again during the election campaign. Sheppey especially has amongst the highest levels of unemployment in Kent.

So what does Swale Council plan to do? Does the Tory-dominated council plan to take advantage of the government’s schemes to set up Local Enterprise Partnerships which would encourage business to invest and create jobs? Er, no. The government received 56 proposals, including one from Kent and Medway. From Swale, not a whisper - despite the obvious need.

OK, so what have the Council done instead or are intending to do? The answer seems to be absolutely nothing. The Council continue to sleepwalk happily oblivious to the problems of Swale. The Sittingbourne ‘Masterplan’ continues to be awaited while shops and businesses continue to close. I mentioned in a previous entry that the local transport plan is scheduled for 20 years. One wonders how badly the situation has to get to inject some urgency into the Council.

We can only hope that our new MP brings this report to the attention of his colleagues and tell them to get a move on and do something. Otherwise, the future does not look bright.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Letter to East Kent Gazette

Next year there will be a national referendum on the way we elect our MPs. The proposal is to replace the current 'first-past-the-post' system with the 'alternative vote' whereby voters can list candidates in order of preference. I hope we can have a debate about this important subject.

In my view, Alternative Vote (AV) is a superior method. Every candidate will have to win the support of the majority of their voters, and not just a fraction as is the case in many constituencies. AV encourages voting positively thus eliminating 'tactical' voting. Above all, AV reduces the number of wasted votes and makes every vote count. Currently, the vast majority of our votes make no contribution at all.

Candidates would have to work much harder for our vote, including those in 'safe seats', and not just those in marginals. The voters, all of us, would have greater choice and power over our elected representatives.

That's my view. What do others think?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tony Blair: brilliant politician who changed politics

In one way, Tony Blair was the most brilliant politician the UK has ever had. That is the way in which, during his time, politicians became more anonymous and less in possession of character. He won three general elections, was Prime Minister for ten years – the fifth longest unbroken stretch of any Prime Minister – yet I always felt we never really knew him. He threw up a mask and has kept it to this day.

In the case of his predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, whatever you thought of them, you knew the sort of people they were even if you had never met them. You knew the issues they cared about, the issues they didn’t care about, and their position on most topics.

Yet whenever I watched Tony Blair being interviewed, including his interview with Andrew Marr, I always got the impression of a pre-rehearsed script, that he would never be caught out because we could guess his answer to every question. He was very well prepared for every interview he ever had – and as such I felt we never got to know the real Tony Blair - and probably never will.

In British politics, principles and courage tend not to get you very far. Enoch Powell and Tony Benn are just two examples of highly intelligent, highly capable people who stuck with their beliefs regardless of the party line – and neither ever got near Number 10. In the current Labour leadership race, Diane Abbott is another example of a principled politician who can be popular with the voters but has absolutely no chance of the top job.

Tony Blair took this to the next level. In taking his party away from socialism and moving towards the centre ground, he successfully removed character from our politics and our politicians. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell became household names more than the cabinet, because of expert media manipulation. David Cameron is the natural heir to this in becoming Prime Minister while portraying only the image not that we see but that we ought to see and keeping most of his colleagues anonymous.

Gordon Brown moved away from this. As a strong character, he re-introduced principles and beliefs to the top job. Yet much like John Major, the one we knew was dumped for the one who we only knew as much as we told. (And we only knew of Gordon Brown’s colleagues when they were plotting against him. Had anyone heard of David Miliband until the banana?)

Some may regret the decline of the character politician. The days of Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Healey, Whitelaw and so on. But let’s face it – we liked the fake image of Blair and so maybe we have got what we deserved. Also, of course, by removing character, politics became even more boring, turnouts decreased, less people were interested, and hence the Blair government was rarely in danger of toppling.

As ever, popular culture has it right. The Thick of It is a brilliantly updated version of Yes Minister with the added factor of public image management.

And Spitting Image was cancelled mainly because of the lack of characters. In the 1980s we had Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and of course Norman Tebbit with his leather jacket. Now in the cabinet, of the same rank, we have Andrew Lansley, Michael Gove and Caroline Spelman. Never mind the puppets, would you recognise the cabinet ministers if you met them in the high street?