Monday, November 29, 2010

My Welsh Assembly Campaign - Part One - The Background

While browsing the 'Liberal Democrat' newspaper this summer, an advert leaped out at me – candidates wanted for the Welsh Assembly elections in May 2011. One word came into my head – Ceredigion. My campaign had begun.

I spent some happy years as a student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and have frequently gone back to the area. Ceredigion is a beautiful part of the country and is well recommended for holiday breaks – whether you like walking or cycling, driving around the area or just lazing on the beach. It is also an excellent place to study.

‘I’m applying to be a Lib Dem candidate for the Welsh Assembly’, I told my wife.
‘How much money do they get?’ she replied – which I guess most wives would ask if one is contemplating a career move. Having looked it up and satisfied her that we would not go broke, I put my application together.

There was a long road ahead, of course, but there was nothing to lose by trying. Having now wound down from the general election campaign I had itchy feet to get moving again.

Welsh affairs are shamefully ignored by the London media so a bit of background. The National Assembly for Wales opened for business in 1999 and has 60 Assembly Members (AMs) and, like the Scottish Parliament, is elected every four years by a form of proportional representation (PR).

Why PR? Because otherwise there might be no Conservatives at all – there were no Tory MPs in Scotland or Wales after 1997 and even now they only have one in Scotland. (PR to benefit the Tories? Oh, the irony!)

Since 2007 Wales has been ruled by a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. The First Minister is Carwyn Jones (Labour) who answers every question with ‘it’s the UK government’s fault’. The leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is Kirsty Williams who is a very impressive campaigner and constantly has the First Minister on the run during questions. And the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly are far more polite and professional than the House of Commons (which isn’t difficult).

Ceredigion has a Liberal Democrat MP (Mark Williams) who had a tremendous result at this year’s election increasing his majority from over 200 to just over 8,000. Ceredigion’s current AM is from Plaid Cymru.

I obtained and completed the application form and off it went. Two questions came to mind for which I would need answers – one, why should Ceredigion’s voters elect an Englishman to represent them and, two, how could I lead a campaign while living elsewhere? (My answers in the next chapter).

Initially I also applied for the regional list of Mid and West Wales (these are the ‘top-up’ AMs to ensure a proportional balance in the Assembly) but decided to withdraw as it became impractical and I wanted to concentrate on Ceredigion.

The regional list selections were all carried out first and meanwhile I kept in touch with events and what was happening in Ceredigion.

Finally I was delighted to get the invitation to the hustings. I was on my way.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Millbank Tower - The Day After

I am sitting here at my desk on the 11th floor of Millbank Tower where I work each day – except yesterday when, in my absence, my workplace became the subject of headline news.

I refer of course to yesterday's riots following the student demonstration against tuition fees in the Millbank concourse where there are two main buildings. One is Millbank Tower, which is 32 floors high. Next door is 30 Millbank which is six or seven floors and is where the students got on the roof. This building suffered the most damage.

Although not at work, I managed to keep in touch with my colleagues. There is an emergency evacuation procedure for fires and bombs but we don’t have one for riots! It was all a scary experience apparently, especially for the reception staff on the ground floor, and took a while for the office to be closed down and everyone to be evacuated down the stairs at the back of the building.

There were continuous alarms and regular security alerts and, when you halfway up the building, you can’t see too clearly what is happening on the ground floor. People were phoning home to ask people to watch on BBC News or getting news by contacting friends on Facebook.

While everyone is cleaning up downstairs, a few thoughts occurred to me.

Firstly I had kept in touch with the organisation of the demo as I was intending to participate. (In the end, illness prevented me from going anywhere).

But, during the preparations, never once did it say the march would go near Millbank Tower, which is ten minutes walk along the Thames from Parliament. The focus was to be Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. So did someone, as some stage, say, come on chaps let’s go down the road to storm Millbank Tower, and everyone went along on a whim?

We all knew that the demonstration was scheduled, but up the road in Westminster, not outside our front door. The shock of my work colleagues, and those in other offices, testifies that this was a completely unexpected turn of events. It is difficult for us to blame the police who must have been as surprised as anyone.

Secondly, the anger of the students is directed at the Liberal Democrats – in my view, understandably. So why then attack the HQ of the Conservative party? Is it because no-one knew how to get Cowley Street?

Tories are no friends of students, less still of those on lower incomes. They are there to protect the rich and a pure Tory government would have put fees up higher and higher to keep the poor kids out and make it easier for rich kids to get in. As the Tories were behaving entirely in character, why attack them?

Thirdly, the riots took the attention away from the main event – a well organised, largely attended, mostly peaceful demonstration. All the TV pictures were of the Millbank area.

One could argue that had the demo been entirely peaceful, it would have been ignored by the media and politicians – at least this way it gets noticed. But on the other hand it does the cause far more harm than good. But I was pleased to see Aaron Porter of the NUS condemn the trouble so quickly.

I am informed that it was a spontaneous riot when demonstrators, walking on their way home, suddenly realised that they were walking past the Tory headquarters. Another possibility is that the demonstration was hijacked by those with other motives – to discredit the students and the intentions of the protest.

As a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, I signed the pledge to oppose tuition fees – and I intend to continue to campaign against tuition fees. I think we have let the students down and should admit to it (see my earlier entry). This could be a setback but we must continue and lobby all our MPs to vote against any fees increase.

For now, though, it’s back to work. We are open for business as usual. Life goes on.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Swale Council elections 2011 update

It’s now six months to go until the 2011 ‘all-out’ Swale council elections – the most important local elections for many years.

I have suggested to my colleagues that we put together our manifesto. We should ask ourselves – if the Liberal Democrats won 24 council seats (!) and took control of Swale council, what would we do? I would like us to produce a short document setting out our ideas. (Ideally this document would go through every door in Swale but of course that won’t happen).

Naturally we won’t win 24 seats – it’s proving difficult to get 24 candidates – but a document of ideas will show we have the energy and enthusiasm to get our message across.

The idea of a manifesto is shamelessly stolen from Swale UKIP (link below) who have come up with the interesting proposal of a devolution of power to Sittingbourne, Sheppey and Faversham and greater influence for parish councils. This division of power down to another level is, dare I say it, quite liberal, and I think is one we can support. My main reservation is that Swale already has a large number of committees (29! For only 47 councillors!) and I hope this would not mean three planning committees, three standards etc unless we offloaded some of those in existence.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey Labour meanwhile are dozing along, happily celebrating Lib Dem setbacks, yet to wake up to the fact that it is the Tories who are in control. Labour would be very happy if they wiped us out – even if it meant sitting in opposition surrounded by Tories for another four years.

Labour need to win 14 seats to control the council. They will make some gains but I don't think they will make enough. If we were to work together, then we might pick off enough Conservative seats between us to deny the Tories a majority and set up a Lab-Lib Dem administration. Unfortunately that won’t happen.

I expect the Conservatives will repeat their ‘no campaigning’ policy which has been so successful in recent years. And, let’s face it, with Labour unwilling and the rest of us unable to provide strong opposition then Conservative control for many years looks assured – and that is bad news for Swale.

But let us not be downhearted. We few, we happy few, (we very few) will give it our best shot. After all, six months is a long time in politics.

STOP PRESS: As I was typing this, I am happy to report that I have been invited to Ceredigion to a Hustings in a few weeks to find a Liberal Democrat candidate for the Welsh Assembly elections. I am now busy preparing and am very much looking forward to my visit.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Out with the old. In with the new.

(An edited version of the letter below has been sent to the magazine, Total Politics).

One aspect of the Liberal Democrats in recent months which deserves a mention is how the party membership has transformed to be better able to face its future challenges. It is out with the old and in with the new.

Some Lib Dem members became deserters. They lacked the stomach for power, responsibility and unpopularity and, instead of fighting for the party’s values locally and nationally, decided it was easier to head for the hills.

Some Lib Dem members became defectors, mostly to Labour. Obviously these people were never Liberal Democrats in the first place, have been wasting our time and resources, and we are better off saying to them good luck and good riddance.

But these weaklings and cowards have been more than replaced by new and welcome members, attracted by the fact that the Liberal Democrats are now a party which is serious about its politics and is prepared to form working relationships with other parties – as in Scotland, Wales and various councils and now the UK – in order to work together to solve the various problems we face.

The Liberal Democrats are still its own distinct party, of course, and will campaign for its own policies – and the best way to get more of these policies in place is to get more votes, more councillors and more MPs. Running away like a spoilt child will not help towards this.

No longer the party of permanent opposition, the Liberal Democrats have displayed the ability now to get policies in place and make a difference.

The decline in public support is more serious, but with welcome new and strengthened membership and the chance of making changes based on fairness, the future of the party looks good to face the challenges of the years ahead.