Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And that was 2011

This is my last entry of 2011 to conclude another interesting year.

The coalition government is generally on the right path. We are seeing more liberal democrat policies coming in – raising the tax threshold, the pupil premium, political reform, green investment etc – as well as maintaining our interests in other areas such as the NHS where we were able to make some, but not many, modifications to the Conservative programme.

No single politician has ever been so hated by the media, but Nick Clegg stands firm. They will never forgive him for winning the first debate, nor for getting in the way of a right-wing Tory agenda – but he deserves admiration for sticking it out whereas lesser men would have crumbled under the daily pressure.

I think David Cameron also deserves some credit for, most of the year, keeping his more ‘loony’ segment of the party at bay. For example, he has so far resisted the usual Tory desire to cut taxes for the wealthy. However, the black mark is his blunder at the European talks recently and the choice to isolate Britain within the EU. I fear we will see the repercussions of this throughout 2012.

There have been other mistakes, of course. The tuition fee blunder rumbles on, the attack on public sector pensions was petty, and I would like to see more to encourage growth within the private sector. Unemployment is far too high, especially youth unemployment, and I hope we see more to address this most major of issues.

We got an expected bashing in May, losing nearly 700 councillors, including both our Sittingbourne representatives, and the AV referendum resulted in a convincing defeat. My second attempt to join Swale council saw me come last - a poor reward, I felt, for my hundreds of hours work in Murston over the last two years. We must be prepared for similar bashings in the next few years while we remain in government.

Blog-wise I was delighted to make my debut in the Total Politics top blogs lists. OK, it was only Number 54 in the Lib Dem blogs, and 62nd Lib Dem blogger, but I was pleased with my first appearance.

Two of my entries made the weekly Lib Dem Voice Top of the Blogs list. One was my last entry ‘Welcome to the year – 2030’, in which I told of a gloomy future for England following an isolationist policy. The other ‘We need a different ‘Lib Dem Voice’' from April where I criticised the lack of debate within the party – this was my mostly-read article of the year.

I would like to give an honorary mention to ‘Human Rights for Pot Plants’ in October which was my response to Theresa May’s daft use of a cat to promote repealing one of the most important pieces of legislation. I enjoyed putting that one together.

The personal low of the year has been the situation with my best friend of 23 years, who has been seriously ill with liver disease, and in and out of hospital throughout the last few months. As I type he is once again in intensive care. There is also my cousin, and a friend at work, who have both been having treatment for cancer, although thankfully both seem to be on the mend. And I have a minor eye operation coming up which promises not to be much fun.

In 2012, we have the Olympics, the diamond jubilee and the European football championships – and doubtless more news stories and political events to keep us all occupied. Much to look forward to.

So I conclude by thanking you all for reading my blog – and, whatever your party, whoever you support, I wish you all a happy Christmas and a good new year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to the year - 2030

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

As King William V prepares for his coronation, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on a couple of tumultuous decades in the history, not only of England, but also of the former United Kingdom. Following the difficulties the country has had, politically, socially, economically, and, of course, with our football, the coronation presents a rare opportunity for the English to let their hair down and forget their troubles for a few days.

The happiest amongst us are, of course, the Conservative party and its supporters having won yet another general election. Removing the seats of Wales and Scotland from parliament hit the opposition parties hard, and, despite a scarcity of Tory MPs in the north, political commentators conclude that, by retaining first-past-the-post, and a plentiful supply of safe seats, it is hard to imagine anything other than a Conservative majority government in England for decades to come.

It is well over a decade since England and the European Union parted company, and remains a hotly debated topic ever since. While the EU struggled in the 2010s, England’s self-imposed isolation saw her miss out on the subsequent economic recovery and boom that the European countries continue to enjoy. Reminders from the media about Churchill and who-won-the-war-anyway seem to grow more hollow each year.

It is of course a different story for Scotland – now celebrating ten years of independence followed by a timely re-entry into the EU. Access to the wider markets, without tariffs, and considerable goodwill from the major EU states, meant Scottish industries soon boomed and the loss of trade with England was soon replaced.

Edinburgh continues to enjoy a cultural revival, its universities overflowing with students from all over Europe enjoying subsidised fees (except those from England, of course) and the wealth generated has ensured the Scots continue to enjoy a first class health and education system.. The Prime Minister of Scotland is looking forward to welcoming the new King to its opening of parliament at the Salmond Hall.

Once Scotland got independence, that of the other nations was inevitable but so far not as successful. Northern Ireland remains mostly dependent on their cousins south of the border, while Wales continues to struggle. (After changing to first-past-the-post, Wales is now permanently Labour-run much as England is permanently Conservative-run). However, it is still early days for Wales, having only recently re-entered the EU and adopted the Euro.

Having left the EU, the then-UK continued to trade with Europe but of course there now existed extra expenses across the EU-boundary. This meant the price of imports went up which was passed to the customer and hence fuelled inflation. Increases in fuel prices were a bitter blow. And the export market reduced as European countries found alternative sources within the EU. Trade continues of course but at a fraction of the rate that we saw in the 2000s.

Economic experts continue to question the wisdom of breaking off from the EU at a time of economic difficulties – and point to the fact that the unemployment figure has never gone below three million ever since. Cynics point out, however, that while the bulk of this unemployment is in areas which do not tend to vote Tory, there should be no danger to the Conservative majority.

On the more basic level, many people bemoan the loss of skilled help and relatively cheap labour from eastern Europe. Once the government imposed work permit requirements on all non-UK citizens, the exodus began but left the country critically short of skilled labour in agriculture and the NHS. Complaints about builders and plumbers have soared to record levels, and, despite the high level of unemployment, many employers say they struggle to get willing applicants to do the most basic of jobs.

(You may recall the scandal of the northern MP who smuggled a Polish plumber across the border from Scotland – using the excuse that he felt British plumbers did not provide sufficient skills and customer service. The Sun’s constant accusation of being ‘quisling’ and reminding him of Poland’s war record forced him to step down).

While the countries of the former UK continue to have different fortunes, mass apathy continues to remain. Political party membership is at all all-time low, turnouts for general elections are down to 40% with others in the 20s. And the restrictions on party funding make it virtually impossible for anyone, other than the Tories, to mount any sort of campaign.

Some would argue that football is more important, and we well remember the rejoicing in 2022 as Scotland qualified for their first world cup in 24 years. On the other hand, having left FIFA at the demands of the government and the media, England are, of course, ineligible for such events.

As for the continent, there were very difficult times in the 2010s, the Eurozone crises, the constant relaunches of the Euro - but they got there at last. The continent may be dominated by the larger powers, but all 35 states within the EU are enjoying continued growth and prosperity, the Euro continues to hold its own against the dollar, the yen and others, and the social unrest is just a memory.

Because of the waiting list, there are even suggestions of renaming the European Union to incorporate those countries from western Asia and north Africa who wish to have some sort of associate membership.

So King William may reflect on the contrasting fortunes of his commonwealth. Canada, Australia, Scotland, and, above all, India, continue to soar. England and Wales continue to struggle with seemingly permanent recession.

But the new King will no doubt hope that his reign will be far more peaceful than that of his father – so let us rejoice in his coronation, let us look forward to the new age, and let us pray for a new beginning and a break from the mistakes of the past.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why I am pro-EU and pro-referendum

One afternoon, as I was strolling though Westminster, I was approached by a smartly-dressed young lady who was holding a clipboard. She explained they were collecting signatures for a petition to demand a UK referendum on membership of the European Union.

‘Do you think the UK should leave the European Union?’ she asked me.
‘No,’ I explained, ‘the EU is far from perfect but I think it is in our interests to stay in.’

She then politely thanked me and wandered off – no longer interested in my signing her petition. Presumably she thought I would not be interested in calling for a referendum – and in this she would be wrong.

Like most Liberal Democrats, I think the UK should be an active member of the European Union. The EU is a bureaucratic monster, a complete shambles, in dire need of cost-cutting reform – the Strasbourg building can go for a start – and we, the British, should be in there kicking backsides and rallying the members in sorting it all out.

However, I also believe we should have an immediate in-out referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Eurosceptics assume they have the monopoly on such a demand (a Facebook campaign for a referendum bombards me with anti-EU propaganda). But in this they are wrong.

There are many who would welcome a referendum and then to campaign to stay in. Paddy Ashdown, then Lib Dem leader, called for a referendum on the Maastrict treaty in 1992. Nick Clegg, at the time of Lisbon 2007, called for an in-out treaty. In both cases, the Conservative and Labour parties closed ranks to shout down such ideas. Presently Labour’s Keith Vaz is a prominent MP calling for a referendum – and defied his party whip to do so – even though he would support staying in.

There are many problems in today’s society where we need international co-operation – terrorism, organised crime, drugs and the environment are just some examples – no one state can effectively fight these issues on their own. And there are case in worker’s or minority rights where the EU has protected those that the state has let down.

It frustrates me to see the Eurosceptics leading the EU debate and that we are in but not in. Every time there is a new treaty or initiative we follow, we do not lead.

So why are pro-EUs calling for a referendum? My reasons are as follows.

1. The topic is far too important to be just another issue at general elections. During canvassing, hardly anyone referred to it with the main issues being prices, jobs and immigration. (The immigration issue is, of course, an EU effect despite impressive Tory slight-of-hand at the election).

2. There was a referendum in 1975 on the then-EEC – but this was 36 years ago, and Britain and Europe has changed much since then.

3. The domestic split weakens any British Prime Minister. Whereas Angela Merkel can carry the full weight of the German people, a British PM lacks this authority because of constant snipes amongst his own domestic front. A solid Yes vote from the British people would give the PM greater authority to battle for Britain’s share of the EU cake.

4. Once the Yes vote is carried, we can then get to the business in hand – we can all think of how we can make the EU better, less bureaucratic, more streamlined, and how it can work better for us. We can take the initiative instead of just following along.

5. A Yes campaign would make people more aware of the benefits the EU gives us. At the moment, the only information they get is from the newspaper media – hardly a balanced view. The EU is in desperate need of a good PR campaign.

6. If the vote is for No, then we give our two years' notice (as per Lisbon) and make preparations accordingly. This would be preferable to the ‘in-out-shake it all about’ situation we have the moment.

7. Whatever the result, it would be the end of UKIP. If we vote to stay in, then UKIP have lost the argument. If we vote to leave, then UKIP can say they have won, but then there is no point in carrying on.

Europe is a minor issue for the British people. Whereas other countries send their top people to the EU, we instead send rejected politicians and civil servants, and have a very low turnout in European parliament elections. How many people can name their MEPs? (The majority of whom have decided to exclude themselves from the centre of European policy).

People need to know that the EU has a great effect over their own lives. A national debate and a referendum will give them that knowledge – and further referendums over future treaties will increase that public participation.

So let’s back Britain, let’s back the EU, and let’s back a nationwide referendum.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Preparing for the day of action

As I type, I am currently making plans at work to cover my absence on Wednesday when I, and most of my colleagues, will be out on strike. In a previous blog entry in June, I had mentioned this as a possibility, and, indeed, there was a strike ballot and I voted in favour.

Four of my colleagues have moved on recently, so, because of the recruitment freeze, I am now doing three jobs. We have not had a pay rise for three years. Many positions, including mine, are due to disappear over the next year or so. And now the government have decided that the deficit is all our fault and we’ve got to pay for it, either by losing large chunks of our pensions, or pulling out of the scheme completely. And they wonder why morale is low.

But, I hear many of you say, things are much worse for the private sector. Indeed they are! Only a third of private sector workers have made provision for their retirement – a frightening figure. But instead of wanting everyone to ensure that we are all suffering equally, does it not make sense to raise the private sector levels of pensions? Maybe some sort of compulsory insurance scheme? There were all-party talks last year about the future funding of elderly health care until the Tories pulled out. I would like to see these resumed.

Over the weekend, we’ve seen stories about how the improved offer will be withdrawn unless we play ball. However, I am not sure if this ‘offer’ has actually been made – which does make it difficult to accept. Presumably a government PR game for the benefit of the media.

One disappointing aspect of the whole saga was the turnout for the strike ballot. Only 29% of Unison members could be bothered to vote in a free postal vote. This gives ammunition to those amongst the Tories who are advocating passing a law to say that strikes are only valid if a majority of the members approve it (as opposed to a majority of the voters) which would effectively outlaw strikes forever.

This measure presumes that those who have not voted must therefore be voting against a strike – and I would be concerned about any electoral method where the views of those who didn’t vote are counted one way. Introducing strike ballots was one of the few good ideas of the Thatcher government – but even she did not go this far.

On top of this, some in the Conservative party are advocating methods by which it would be easier to offload people, such as ending maternity cover and limiting access to tribunals. Although Vince Cable and Danny Alexander are wrong about the pensions dispute, at least one can be glad Liberal Democrats are in the government to attempt to keep such daft ideas at bay. At a time of high unemployment, reducing the rights of workers is not what is needed.

Research shows that productivity is highest when employees are happiest - not when they are constantly in fear of unemployment. And, in difficult times, we need greater productivity.

So there is much at stake in this dispute. The government, the media, even the opposition parties, are all joining in the campaign to make the public sector workers into the villains – but trust me, folks. Nurses, teachers, dinner ladies, office workers and so on - we are the good guys! And, as I said in June, much of the public sector is ‘magic’.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The economy comes home ... again.

The country’s economic situation got closer to home recently with the news that my job is likely to disappear sometime over the next year. Most of the public sector has been ordered by the government to make cuts in spending, and, for me, a draft plan involves staff cuts. It is only a draft for now but any refinement is not likely to be in my favour.

The silver lining is that I have plenty of notice – many have little or no notice of redundancy – once I turned up to work to be out of a job by lunchtime. But as one enters his 45th year, it does give pause for reflection.

It was in August 1992 when I left Aberystwyth with my shiny new Masters degree to add to my upper second graduate degree, and I settled back in with my parents near Portsmouth ready for the next chapter in my life and to continue the job search. I was then unemployed for the rest of 1992 and then for all of 1993.

This was a very depressing experience. A recession was in full swing and Norman Lamont was in Number 11 with his famous statement that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’. Businesses closed everywhere, unemployment hit the roof, times were hard all round. And as for us graduates, my counterparts were either with me on the dole, or were doing low paid job in burger bars and supermarkets. I travelled around, had a few interviews – but getting that final handshake remained elusive.

I well recall one morning, having been notified of a new vacancy, getting on the phone and being told that 600 (!) people had already called so they had closed the vacancy.

When Nick Clegg said recently that Labour must never again be trusted with the economy, I remember similar thoughts in 1993, as I walked down Commercial Road in Portsmouth, to the job club, past numerous empty shops and closing down sales, and thinking that the Tories must never be trusted with the economy again. In fact, as soon as Chancellor Lamont moved on, the country began to recover. Coincidence? (He is now Lord Lamont – so clearly he was not one of those who had to pay the price).

In my lifetime, it is clear that both major parties have mismanaged the economy. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, at least one has to be trusted with it!

I recall a statement by Tony Benn, who said that capitalism needs unemployment – it keeps the workers quiet and the unions inactive. At the time this was dismissed as leftie-rubbish, but now one does wonder. Earlier this year, in fact, Oliver Letwin said that public sector workers needed ‘discipline and fear’. Is low growth and unemployment a ploy by the ruling and political classes to keep the status quo in place? Are workers more motivated and productive when fearing for their futures? I guess that is a topic for others to discuss and theorise about.

In my case, I eventually got a job in the summer of 1994 working for a political magazine and have managed, more or less, to stay employed in various roles ever since. But now it is time to dust off and update the CV and see what jobs are out there. Hopefully this time it won’t take me so long.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Human Rights for Pot Plants!

Yes, it’s true. A violent criminal was saved deportation because he successfully argued that without him around there would be no-one to water his pot plants. Oh, and he had a cat too.

OK, I made that all up although one cannot rule out the possibility that a story like this will be on the front pages at some stage. But this does show the ridiculous level of debate that human rights in this democratic country has sunk to - especially when even our Home Secretary has to resort to a kitty story to play to the crowd. Cats don't have human rights, Ms May, because, er, well, they're not human!

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is quite a small document. You could read it in under 15 minutes. The purpose of the Human Rights Act (“the Act”) is to install it into UK law. Human rights, and the rights of the individual, have historically been of prime importance to British society, and so you would have thought that this issue would be of such importance that it would be above party politics.

We all have the right to hold different political views, to criticise the government without fear of arrest, to practise whichever religion we want, and to live peacefully in our own homes without interference from the authorities.

Hence people all over the world, especially in eastern Europe who had to fight for decades for their human rights, and many across Asia and Africa who hope to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted, must be amazed to find that a major British political party, and large sections of our media, want to do away with an Act which enshrines us with that most basic of protections.

Let’s get one thing straight – the ECHR says nothing about not deporting criminals and it says nothing about cats. In fact, I find it amazing that the Home Secretary, of all people, has not read it! What she, and others, refer to is how judges have interpreted the law, not the law itself.

For example, Article 3 bans the use of torture. The British authorities should not practise torture. Surely we can all agree with that. Judges have taken that to say that if the government were to deport someone to a country in which they would be tortured, they would be guilty by association, and hence breach Article 3.

We have a free and independent judiciary – and they interpret the laws as they will. That’s how it should be. Yes, they make the odd daft verdict, and say the oddest thing, but would we have it any other way? Should the judges have to base their judgments on what The Daily Mail will say in the morning? Dozens of criminals get deported yet the one that does not is guaranteed to get on the front page.

It may be the case that the Act does not work as well as the government would wish – in which case, the Home Office should provide advice and guidance to the judiciary. But can we really repeal the Human Rights Act, at a time after the Arab Spring and when millions still dream of having one of their own?

The Conservative proposal of a British Bill of Rights may be a reasonable idea – but it should work alongside the Act, to further clarify and reinforce our basic liberties. It would also be helpful if the Tories published a draft of what they had in mind.

Not for the first time, the people have more sense than the politicians – in three years of door knocking, not one person has mentioned the Human Rights Act to me as a major issue. And polls show no eagerness to repeal the Act.

So let’s stop the headline grabbing. Britain has always been proud of its human rights record and of opposing injustice and tyranny around the world. Let’s keep that pride and keep the Act.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Now it is Labour's turn (again) to kick the students

When I entered university in Aberystwyth, many years ago, the then Thatcher government had just ended housing benefit for students, were bringing in the poll tax, were slashing grants, and introducing student loans. We thought things could not get any worse. How very wrong we were.

This weekend’s announcement by the Labour party that they would have tuition fees of £6,000 completes the circle. Student grants are just a memory, the Labour government introduced tuition fees and then ‘top-up’ fees, the Conservative party want unlimited fees, the Liberal Democrats backed a policy of trebling fees, and now Labour are back saying that instead they should be doubled.

It seems that no-one is prepared to back the students. Even former NUS President, Aaron Porter, who initially impressed last year, has now abandoned his opposition to raising fees and is backing the new Labour party policy – perhaps putting his own ambitions before principles (ironically something Lib Dems are often accused of).

The years of higher education are a great experience. For many, it is the first time they have lived away from their parents, where you can meet new friends, enjoy studying topics of interest, and get a sense of independence. Students make mistakes in life, as do we all, but most former undergraduates look back on those years with very fond memories – especially if you went somewhere as nice as Aberystwyth.

Student life is not for everyone, of course, but it should be an option for those of any background who is prepared to work hard enough to get there and stay there.

The country, in return, gets a generation of graduates whose talents and skills have been proven and developed by study and academic qualifications – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, even politicians, all go on to play their part in the country’s future.

Fees, simply put, are a deterrent. £3,000 a year with a final debt of £9,000 to pay off does not sound too much – but remember you also have your living costs, hall fees, books, food, bills – and that is before anyone thinks of any socialising.

The priority should be simple – the best potential students should not be deterred from entering university whatever their background.

The short term aim should be to freeze tuition fees at no more than £3,000 a year.
The medium term aim should be to abolish tuition fees completely.
The long term aim should be to restore some sort of maintenance grant.

The question that we should be discussing is: how can we as a country find the money to invest in our future? Not to compete with each other, or play party politics, by discussing how much debt with which we can lumber the brightest amongst our future generation.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Number 54 - Thank You

This is to thank all of you who voted for my blog in the Total Politics Blog awards 2011. I was delighted to make my debut in the lists and come in at Number 54 in the Lib Dem blogs – thus allowing me to use the button on the left.

The approach I have taken on my blog is not to repeat Lib Dem policy, indeed I have often disagreed with it, but simply to put forward my opinions.

Others will, of course, have their own opinions – that’s what makes politics so interesting. I am simply a Liberal Democrat because their views are the closest to my own.

For example, my interests are:
- Mass political reform, including a written constitution, voting reform and an English parliament.
- Fair taxation for all – with cuts in VAT and the top rate of tax when feasible (i.e. not now!)
- Investment in higher education – the abolition of tuition fees across the UK and, in the long-term, the return of a maintenance grant.
- An active and positive involvement in the European Union (but not to include a single currency).
- Pro-family, supporting measures to strengthen marriage and the family unit, including restoring the marriage tax allowance.
- Pro-Clegg and pro-coalition – agreeing with the equidistance principle that we should be prepared to work and co-operate with any other party. Power is not a dirty word, we should not be here just to run a few councils.
- Opposed to everything the Daily Mail says (this is the national paper I read more than any other for sheer amusement value).

Thanks again for voting. To those of you who agree with me, I hope you join the cause. To those of you who don’t, please feel free to comment. And I would encourage everyone to join a political party, whichever is closest to your views, and get involved.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

After the coalition - some thoughts for the 2015 election

Some Tories have turned their thoughts to the next election and are putting ideas on paper to open a discussion about how David Cameron can win a majority government. Of course it would be a brave man to predict events of the next few years, but this seemed to be a good idea so these are my own thoughts from the Lib Dem point of view.

Many in the party are dreading the next election. Our poll ratings are in single figures, we will be losing many councillors over the next few years, and we will be hit by boundary changes. The media are hoping for our MPs to be reduced to at least the six the Liberals had in 1970. But I think there are some reasons for optimism.

So let’s assume the coalition lasts its full term and we prepare to do battle on Thursday 7 May 2015. I think there are two main points to make.

Firstly, for the first time since the 1920s, we will have a record of government to defend. We need to produce a list of achievements and how much of our manifesto has been successfully implemented (which will be about 75%). Examples will include taking the lower incomes out of tax, the pupil premium, the green investment bank, linking pensions to earnings – and so on. You know the list.

We must hammer at this list again and again. This is what we have achieved. It would not have happened without us. (For example, at the time of writing, many Tories seem more interested in reducing the tax of the higher paid rather than the lower). Hopefully by 2015 the economy will have recovered and we will have returned to growth and job creation and take the credit for that.

Secondly, our 2015 manifesto assumes greater importance. Never again can anyone say that Lib Dems can promise the earth because they will never be a position to put it to the test.

Of course we aim for sole government, but it is possible that after the election we may be in coalition or some sort of agreement with either of the big two. We can put across the message that the more votes we get, the more policies we will be able to implement.

Thus in our next manifesto we need some new and exciting ideas to build on to capture the public's imagination. Further development of the economy, improvement to the public services, and continued job creation will be the main topics – and we mustn’t forget our old friend, political reform and moves towards a fairer voting system.

What we have done – and what we will do. These should be the two pillars of our campaign.

And what of our leader? No-one can have had such a spectacular rise and fall as our Nick Clegg has over 2010. But as deputy Prime Minister for five years he will have grown in stature, if not in popularity. (Mrs Thatcher was never popular but it didn’t stop her winning three elections).

There have been some who have suggested a change of leader before the next election but I disagree. I am sure in the debates that Cleggy will be able to out-debate Cameron once again and he can return to being an asset to the party.

The 2015 general eletion will be a big test, certainly the party's biggest test in the history of the Liberal Democrats. It is also a challenge, one we must not be afraid of.

Overall, if we can fight an active campaign, be proud of what we have done, and put forward a positive programme for further change and fairness, then I think we have nothing to be afraid of.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Our mistakes in government - a personal view

As we end the summer break and approach the conference season, it is an appropriate time to give ourselves an assessment of what has gone wrong and how we can improve. Recently ConservativeHome ran a piece on David Cameron’s ten biggest mistakes – an article which caused much debate. In the same sense, I would like to list what were, in my view, our biggest mistakes over the last 18 months.

Tuition fees:
No problems identifying the biggest error. This will rank alongside the poll tax as one of the greatest political blunders of our time.

We had rightly made this a flagship issue during the campaign, and got a great deal of support from students and their families as a result. We could have nurtured that confidence, maybe even developed it into the presence of new young members and campaigners. And then, at a stroke, an entire generation of potential supporters was wiped out!

Given the economic circumstances, and the fact we are in coalition, I think we would have been forgiven for putting the timetable back a bit – we could have frozen the fees for now with the intention for at least a partial reduction by 2015. But to see the fees triple, and our guys leading the way in defending this, gave rise to the belief that the Liberal Democrats are a party that breaks its promises – a belief the media will only be too eager to perpetuate and will take many years for us to break down.

Yes, the resulting system is a fair one and many students will benefit, but we cannot get around the fact that fees have been increased. Many members of the party, including myself, were very unhappy about this.

The National Health Service:
It is a well-known fact that you cannot trust the Tories with the NHS – so there must have been particular care at negotiating this part of the coalition agreement. It was a bombshell therefore when the proposed NHS changes were announced to let the market into the system.

What for me was a sickening spectacle was the immediate photo call – where we had our leader, Nick Clegg, join David Cameron and Andrew Lansley on a televised walkabout of a hospital – thus implying that they were at one with the proposals. This gave us a few arguments during the canvassing earlier this year.

During the election campaign, nurses told me about the bureaucracy and over-management of the NHS, so reductions here were necessary – but to jump on board the Tory plan so quick is blunder number two. Fortunately, the party members and the admirable Shirley Williams are leading the way in calling for a rethink, so this cause is not yet lost. But it would have helped if we had not been so eager to endorse the reforms in the first place.

Public sector pensions:
The Tories do not like the public sector or those who work in them. That’s OK, as we don’t like them much either. However it was a mistake for Danny Alexander to join in the attack on public sector pensions – again it is us doing the Tories' work for them. It is agreed that the funding of pensions need to be looked at, especially in the private sector, but we must seek a fair settlement here. When I see the Daily Mail congratulating Liberal Democrat ministers, then I get very worried.

Boundary reviews:
I think agreeing to this concession will come back to hit us very hard. If you look at a map of England coloured by constituency, you will see swarms of blue and seas of red, with a few dots of yellow here and there. These are areas where local Lib Dem parties have gradually built up constituency support over a period of time primarily on local issues.

However, boundary changes will result in blocks of Tory or Labour voters being moved onto these areas and upsetting the balance. The last estimate is that we would lose a quarter of our seats on these moves alone. Sarah Teather successfully held off a fellow MP but are others prepared to work just as hard?

People will always choose to have fewer politicians – but I fear such drastic changes will hurt us.

AV referendum:
In return for an agreement to equalise the constituencies, we got a possibility of a voting system we didn’t really want. Not a fair exchange.

Anyone who follows European politics knows that referendums are never reliable and are inevitably decided on completely irrelevant issues (as became the case with the AV referendum).

Our Scottish colleagues demanded STV for local council elections in return for a coalition with Labour. As many council wards are multi-member, this would have been possible to implement. I think this should have been our demand in England. It would benefit us, further our representation, avoid having councils with over 90% from one party, and get people used to voting 1-2-3.

Finally this was one from the campaign itself. Immigration was one of the most common issues raised on the doorstep, and we adopted a good workable but politically disastrous policy. The words ‘illegal’ ‘immigration’ and ‘amnesty’ were enough to have the media screaming. The Tories ‘cap’ (although not possible) won them support while we should have adopted Labour’s no-policy policy.

This is an entirely personal view of our mistakes. The decision to form the coalition, however, was correct given the result of the election. There is 75% of the manifesto in place and no longer can people dismiss Lib Dem policies on the basis they will never be put into practice.

Nick Clegg and the party leadership still deserves much praise for the successful work they have done over the last 18 months. But we can do better, and must do so, to recover the trust of the electorate.

Monday, August 15, 2011

No, let's not abandon fairness of taxation!

One of the media’s favourite themes is to promote and foster the notion that the Liberal Democrats have broken all our promises. This is obviously because of the tuition fees saga and despite the fact that 75% of our manifesto is in place. However I am concerned that another of our key promises is on the way out - which will further this perception.

Fairness in taxation is one of our biggest flags. Moving the burden of tax away from the lower and middle incomes and further onto those with the broadest shoulders and ability to pay. During the last campaign, I discovered that the tax policy, of no tax paid on the first £10,000 earned, was very popular.

So it is with complete dismay that I learn that the 50% top rate of tax is under consideration. The media, Boris Johnson and the Tory right wing are all in favour of this notion (obviously) but in my view, not only would this be wrong, but it will be another shot-in-the-foot disaster for us.

In happier times, I would have no problems with reducing all the tax rates – indeed a 50% tax rate in the long term is unsustainable. But presently the public sector are on a three year pay freeze, the public sector are losing jobs and business, prices of fuel, travel and goods are rising faster than we would like, the economy still struggles to grow, and we have yet to do anything about banks.

Is anyone seriously suggesting that now is the time for a tax cut (and hence a pay rise) for the very-wealthy – while the standards of living for most people are being reduced?

If the media are correct, negotiations are going on about a quid pro quo – a mansion tax, for example – and I am aware of the argument that a lower rate might bring in more money and allegedly make London more competitive – but the bottom line is that the media and the Labour party will point at us and say that, despite our promises of shifting the tax burden, we gave more money to the rich while many of the poor are worse off – we were not all in this together after all - and we can’t say no.

Here and elsewhere I have been critical of those former members who have deserted our party at its hour of greatest need – but it does get more difficult every day.

Danny Alexander is right to say that those who want this are living in cloud cuckoo land - and I hope that he sticks to his guns.

If the Conservatives want to cut taxes for the wealthy there are other ways of doing so – for example, the threshold at which the 40% comes in is, in my opinion, too low. And of course we gave way on capital gains tax, a good way for the wealthy to avoid tax.

But we must not give way on the 50% rate while so many are still struggling. We should make a clear signal that it is our intention to scrap the 50% rate, but only when the recovery puts us in a position where we can reduce ALL rates - and we can keep working towards genuine fairness of taxation.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Total Politics Blogs - Vote for Me!

I have now returned from holiday (has much been happening over the last week?) and noticed that the Total Politics Blog Awards are in process - hence my plug to vote for me!

If you have liked reading my views over the last year, whether you have agreed or not, please click here and your vote would be much appreciated.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is it time to say 'au revoir' to the Euro?

During the election campaign last year, a lady angrily approached and accused me of wanting to ditch the pound. I calmly explained that, while it is Liberal Democrat policy to join the Euro, this would only be when the economic circumstances were correct and after approval in a referendum. The lady considered my words and then decided the best option was to hit me with her umbrella.

Being a major trading nation, we in the UK cannot ignore events elsewhere in the world – but I sometimes feel our xenophobia prevents us from rational discussion. Depending on which paper you read, the EU is a German plot to succeed where the war failed, a French scheme to cover up for their inefficient farmers, a Spanish intention to grab the UK fishing grounds, or a combined European ideal to keep those British in their place. No-one actually wants to discuss how to make the EU work, let alone refer to the benefits of our membership. That lady obviously felt that even the thought of joining the Euro made you some kind of traitor.

While all our attention has followed the hacking scandals, the Euro is heading for yet another crisis. At the time of typing, Greece are set to receive a huge rescue package, Ireland and Portugal have had their problems, Italy and Spain are on the brink of joining the queue, and Bulgaria have decided to delay their entry.

Many in the UK , especially the media, look on, with barely concealed joy, at the troubles our EU partners are facing, smug at the fact we stayed out of the scheme, and, in a few cases, even praying and willing for one or two states to go bankrupt to confirm our feelings of superiority.

As I said, this kind of attitude makes discussion difficult. It is certainly not in our interests to see Europe go under – the knock on effects could result in destroying our already frail economy leading to business collapses and massive unemployment – not to mention having unsavoury elements on the rise throughout Europe. Having the southern states becoming virtual colonies while the northern states fund them will cause resentment amongst all peoples.

Despite its many faults, I have always favoured membership of the European Union. It is however a huge bureaucratic mess and we should be more involved with a positive approach, using our weight to reform and streamline and turn the EU into the powerful internal trading bloc we know it can be.
However I have been a bit unsure about the Euro as I was never sure how you can have one common currency and one common bank across national borders. When troubles strike in the past, a government has the option of devaluing its currency to make its exports more attractive. But how can you devalue your currency if it is not yours to do so?

I cannot claim to be an economic expert, so am not qualified to offer a detailed solution, but it seems to me that the problems hitting various European countries are because their currency was locked in to a certain rate and not able to float to find its natural level. Therefore would one solution be to temporarily break-off membership of the Euro for various states, introduce a ‘Greece Euro’, ‘Portuguese Euro’ etc, and then in the future, once things have calmed down a bit, put it all back together again?

I don’t think a two-speed Europe is the answer – (i.e. those in the zone speed up their integration) – as this would virtually permanently lock out those who are not currently a member. We have to think long term. If and when it will be to our advantage to join the Euro, as with other states currently outside the zone, then it must be made feasible to do so.

Whatever the solution it is clear that Europe, ALL of Europe, is in crisis. If we are to move towards a cross-European currency, there should be in place measures to allow such temporary suspensions to address specific problems – and this is an area where the UK could come forward with ideas and reforms.

If it is time to say au revoir to the Euro, however temporarily, let us put that case forward and get back on track to the Europe we want to see.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Prime Minister's Questions - 50 years old - and the scores are ... ?

This week is the 50th anniversary of Prime Minister’s Questions. Over the years PMQs has seen many controversial moments and gladiatorial contests – but many argue that it shows the best and the worst of British politics.

I have decided to score the various contests. They are from my own impressions since the Commons was heard (from 1978) and seen (since 1989) and, earlier than that, I have had to judge from other accounts. The below scores are my views alone and are just for fun – and I am only counting the leaders themselves rather than stand-ins.

Harold MacMillan 1-0 Hugh Gaitskell
A far gentler duel than what we are used to now, but old Mac was confident he could hold off Gaitskell's attacks – (hence the introduction of PMQs in the first place).

Harold MacMillan 0-1 Harold Wilson
Gaitskell’s sudden death gave rise to the great debater, Wilson. Just eight months opposite each other was enough to see the confident Harold gain an edge over a government weakened after Profumo and the Long Knives.

Alec Douglas-Home 1-2 Harold Wilson
Harold again confident over a typical old-school Tory. However he did not have everything his own way, Home was able to lead a late spirited Tory fight back.

Ted Heath 3-6 Harold Wilson
A contest lasting ten years – hence the high score as many points were scored. There was great disappointment in Tory ranks at Heath’s early appearances when Wilson easily outmatched him but Ted made some advances at the time of Labour’s troubles in the late 60s. However Heath was never confident at either side during PMQs.

Margaret Thatcher 0-1 Harold Wilson
Like Heath, Mrs Thatcher struggled at first to deal with the slippery Wilson – but they only faced each other for a year.

Margaret Thatcher 2-2 Jim Callaghan
From 1978, the Commons could be heard, and a now confident Mrs T was up against the old warrior James Callaghan. A well-matched contest as both in turn faced economic difficulties as PM.

Margaret Thatcher 3-2 Michael Foot
Michael Foot was a master of the Commons, a ferocious debater, but became leader too late in life. Although he often scored during the difficult times of the early 80s, he was let down by his own party troubles. A post-Falklands Mrs T rapidly grew in confidence.

Margaret Thatcher 6-0 Neil Kinnock
Over seven years, this was a complete mismatch. Mrs Thatcher was full of confidence and dominated the Commons in the mid-to-late 1980s, and Neil Kinnock just could not compete. Even open goals such as Westlands were missed.

John Major 0-0 Neil Kinnock
A bore draw. John Major had little of Mrs T’s dominance and both sides were just marking time until the election.

John Major 1-2 John Smith
Major now with his own mandate and more confident but bested by the former QC who sadly died too early.

John Major 0-3 Tony Blair
The start of the unstoppable force. John Major was often weakened by revolts from his own side while Blair and the confident ‘New Labour’ party began to dominate.

William Hague 3-3 Tony Blair
Blair was now a confident PM with a huge majority but Hague was able to match him all the way – this was an excellent contest.

Ian Duncan-Smith 0-3 Tony Blair
Oh dear oh dear. The quiet man unable to cope as Blair regularly won the day.

Michael Howard 1-1 Tony Blair
After the invasion of Iraq, Blair looked as if he could be on the ropes but Howard’s support for the invasion weakened his position. The two leaders looked too alike in a quiet contest.

David Cameron 2-2 Tony Blair
The fifth opponent for Tony Blair became his most formidable. Best known for his opening line ‘you were the future once’, Cameron looked confident – but Blair still able to defend himself.

David Cameron 4-1 Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown, at last the PM, started well, and had his ‘Brown bounce’ as Cameron suffered a lack of confidence. However as the troubles began, Brown struggled and Cameron triumphed regularly.

David Cameron 1-0 Ed Miliband
This match has only just started but Cameron has won the opening exchanges. However at the time of typing, Ed has the ball in his opponent’s penalty area. Will he be able to hit the back of the net?

Concluding, the most effective at PMQs that I have seen is Tony Blair, who saw off a succession of opposition leaders and always maintained his confidence. Margaret Thatcher, like Blair, was able to dominate the Commons but she was fortunate that, for much of her premiership, she was facing Neil Kinnock. As for Harold Wilson, this relies on the accounts of others, but most testify that he was formidable at one-to-one debating in the bear pit of British parliament.

But, as I said, this is just my opinion. What do you think?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Swale Campaign 2011 - Part Two

On 1 March 2011 the campaign proper began – and I settled into the routine of an evening’s canvassing after my day’s work in London. It certainly became very tiring.

Far from the aggressive campaign I had originally envisaged, we were conducting a defensive campaign aiming to protect our two seats on Swale Council. The wards in which we spent all our efforts were Murston and Milton Regis. They were both double member wards, both where we had one councillor in place, both where the councillor was in place for a long time and had gained a good personal vote, and both amongst Swale’s poorest areas off the island.

In Milton Regis, my own local ward, the other seat was held by Labour – a well known councillor who also had a good personal vote. The picture was very different in Murston, where the other seat was held by the Conservatives for only a year, a seat they were surprised to win last year, and which subsequently their councillor had been virtually invisible leaving our guy to do all the work.

There was never any danger of Labour losing their seat in Milton Regis but it was obvious they would aim to win both. The Conservatives have never won a seat in that ward. Murston, on the other hand, was Swale’s only three-way marginal, with two parties holding a seat but with Labour not far behind. Curiously the Conservatives only put up one candidate in Murston. In both wards the Tories put in minimal effort.

Our top non-Councillor candidate (me) was selected for Murston – mainly because I had stood for the ward last time and had done a lot of work there over the last two years. We also judged the ‘other’ councillor would be easier to unseat.

Both wards hence were a straight fight – the Liberal Democrats campaigning on the record of their local councillor versus Labour’s campaigning on national issues. History shows that national issues usually win out but we’d have a go.

Every evening, our very small team would be knocking on doors in either of the wards. At first the response was ‘what elections?’ but as the date got nearer people seemed generally a bit more clued up. There were some who knew and had been helped by our local councillor, others who raised valid local issues, some who were dedicated supporters of someone else, and of course some who were unhappy with the coalition.

And of course the occasional oddball that makes canvassing so worthwhile. One lady voted Labour because red was her favourite colour, another was convinced that David Cameron was standing personally, and a chap who said he would wait until the day for how The Sun told him to vote. One lady said she had voted for me at the general election last year because I was the best looking candidate – well, I wasn’t going to argue with that.

We didn’t forget the referendum and held two Saturday morning stalls to promote the Yes vote – in Sittingbourne and in Faversham, where we generally got a good response. This was before the campaign descended into farce – but more on that another time.

The results from the canvassing were similar – Labour were doing well, our vote was more or less holding up, there were very few Tories.

Labour were of course working hard as well. In Milton Regis we often found ourselves canvassing streets that they had canvassed the day before – and probably vice versa. In Murston, they held an ‘action day’ where about 20 of them were out and about. I was very envious seeing them all, when we could, at best, get five out in one go.

The last few days were very busy – I spent many hours delivering the eve of polls and the final canvassing. The day itself was up at 4am, and getting the Good Mornings out. During my wanderings I came across fellow blogger Ashley Wise, who I could see had a bundle of leaflets with Nick Clegg on.

In the evening it was then knocking up time and then finally at 9pm, time to call it a day. Another campaign was at an end.

I had not enjoyed this campaign as much as last year – mainly because the climate last time was more favourable, and also, last time, I was the ‘star’, shall we say, the parliamentary candidate! But this year my summing up was that I did not think I was going to be a councillor and felt our best chances were in our two guys holding on.

The following day, at the count, to our surprise, the Conservative vote held up well in those wards and, as in my earlier entry, we lost one seat convincingly and the other on a random draw. As for the referendum, the less said the better.

So what lessons could we learn? Apart from getting more people out to help, I am not sure there was much more we could do. We did a full canvass of both wards, several leaflet drops, identified voters and possible voters, had tellers in position, and the few of us worked exceptionally hard. If just one more Lib Dem voter had bothered to go to the polling booth in Murston, we would still have a councillor. But the bottom line is the overall tide was against us, as we saw nationally.

There are now no more elections to Swale council until 2015 (apart from any by-elections) which, annoyingly, might coincide with the next general election. If the national party then goes into opposition, as I think we will, then we may have to wait until 2019 for a revival – if we still have a local party by then.

Overall, the results were good for Labour, and UKIP did very well, but the results were best of all for the Tories. There are many parts of Swale where only the Lib Dems have been able to challenge the Tories. With no Lib Dem activity, the Conservatives can look forward to enough safe seats to control Swale council for 20 years or more – and, who knows, by 2031 the Council may even had made a start on developing the town centre.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The 'Magic' of the Public Sector

A friend of mine used to own what he called a ‘magic basket’. He was very proud of this magic basket which was in his bedroom. At the end of each day he would put his shirt in this magic basket and, the next time he saw it, it would be cleaned and ironed and hanging up in his wardrobe – all by itself.

Of course this was all in jest. His wife washed and ironed his shirts for him. But I was reminded of this tale by the latest attack on the public sector workers – of which I am one - whose work, like my friend's wife, is mostly unseen.

The media lead the way with regular reports on how many public sector workers there are, although for a nation of 60 million there are not that many, and then casts doubt on what they actually do. People will believe this thinking that we all get generous pensions and salaries and that we all sit with our feet up all day. Meanwhile, roads magically mend themselves, benefits are mysteriously paid, and children venture into schools and come out strangely knowing things they didn’t know before.

Public sector workers are very easy to attack – because people simply don’t see what they do, nor do they realise how many jobs (e.g. nurses, teachers, librarians) are actually part of the public sector. So when a government decides to hit ‘the public sector’ they get glorious approval from the media and much of the population. ‘We pay your wages’ is an expression that every public sector worker has heard countless times.

This is not to say the public sector is perfect. There are too many quangos and, especially, too many people earning too much money. Reforms are certainly necessary. But when the sector is attacked in this way, it is not those at the top who suffer but always the vast majority at the lower end of the scales.

Now the latest attack comes from the coalition government in terms of hitting pensions. The plan is to increase workers contributions to the pension scheme and increase the retirement age. This is on top of a three year pay freeze (which would be OK if there was also a freeze on food prices, fuel costs and travel commuter fares) and also a recruitment freeze, which makes sense in some cases, but is so inflexible that it often means one person doing the work of two or three people.

The result will be to force people out of the pension scheme because they can’t afford the contributions. This would reduce employer contributions but leave many facing an uncertain future. This won’t of course affect the overloaded top end of the sector who can afford to make alternative provisions.

At this point, I should correct two myths. Pensions in the public sector are certainly no more generous than the private sector, and there is no more job security – as dozens of my former colleagues made redundant can vouch for.

I have great respect for Vince Cable and Danny Alexander, two talented Liberal Democrats who have much to offer the party and the country, but on this occasion I think they are wrong, and I hope they have the good sense to retract these intentions and hold talks instead of threatening and frightening people. I am sad to say this threatens to un-do much of the other good work our party has done in government. And if I hear Vince threaten the bankers one more time instead of actually doing something …

Of course the unions sometimes don’t help themselves. Talk of ‘the biggest strike action since the general strike’ just winds people up – nor does it help when unions such as the RMT hold regular strikes on the underground for the most obscure reasons. I hope there will be common sense on both sides in this dispute.

Yes, the last government left the country with a massive deficit and an economic crisis. No-one can deny that. The last Labour administration expanded the public sector far beyond what is justifiable. Cuts and reforms are necessary and times will continue to be tough. But I cannot agree with the attack on the pension rights of the lower paid workers within the public sector on top of the changes that have already been made over the last year. I find it at odds with our belief in fairness.

Although I find it hard to say, if the government carries out its threats, if I am on the opposing side to a government of which my party is a part, if my union asks me to vote for industrial action - then I will be voting Yes.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Swale Campaign 2011 - Part One

I first started thinking about the Swale ‘all-out‘ elections of 2011 during the general election campaign last year. The awareness brought about by the campaign, plus the effects of ‘Cleggmania’, had resulted in a number of new members and interest and I was receiving many emails from people wanting to know more about the party both locally and nationally.

I was especially pleased to get some interest from younger people in the Isle of Sheppey – both young people and Sheppey members are a rarity in our local party – which even gave me the idea of setting up a branch of Liberal Youth on the island.

Swale council is Tory dominated and, as of the start of 2010, we only had four seats. The strategy I had devised involved certain targets we could aim at and the ultimate ambition of getting about 8-10 councillors in Swale’s council chamber. That would double our numbers and give us a good presence to build on. However I had made one rather large miscalculation.

I had assumed that the Conservatives would win the election – either with a small majority or by winning a second election in October 2010. So that by May 2011 they would be at each others’ throats over Europe and that the policy of starving the area of investment would increase unemployment, stagnate the economy and cause hardship all round. The Conservative party would be unpopular and this, coupled with the fact that the local council is famed for its dithering and inactivity, meant that their council seats would be ripe for the plucking.

What I did not envisage was, of course, the coalition. The national party making a deal with the Conservatives, along with the dropping of the tuition fees policy from the coalition agreement, meant, at a stroke, we had lost virtually all of that interest I referred to earlier. Subsequent events, with VAT, child benefit and increased tuition fees, saw the rest of our local work completely undone. We were firmly back at square one - or not even back at square one but further back if possible, maybe square minus ten. From increasing the party’s profile in the constituency, the emphasis was now on the local party merely surviving.

Swale Council crosses two local parties – ourselves in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and our neighbours in Faversham. Here in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we had two councillors to defend in the wards Milton Regis and Murston and these would be our priorities. I was, again, to run in Murston to build up on my campaign last year. But I didn’t want to just aim to sit still – I also wanted to move forward.

I drew up a new strategy with some ideas to take in the revised circumstances and put it to my colleagues at the next Executive Meeting. In order for the Tories to lose control they needed to lose ten council seats. As I thought no individual party could do this, I put forward the idea of approaching other parties with some sort of deal. This proposal went down like a lead balloon. There was a preference for going down fighting (although my preference was not to go down at all) and, as time went on and our poll ratings sank, it was clear the idea was a non-starter anyway as we were too weak to offer anything.

It soon became obvious that Labour would make our seats top of their target list and give the Tories a free ride. They correctly understood that we were weak and that, in Swale, the Tories were virtually untouchable, so the best Labour could hope for was a small gain of seats. However I noticed in council by-elections around the country that, while we were getting a thumping from Labour, we were holding our own against the Tories, even winning a few seats in surprising areas. So as well as defending our two seats I wanted to attack where possible.

There were two areas I had in mind. I wanted to campaign on the Isle of Sheppey and so looked at the triple member ward, Minster Cliffs – we had success there in the (distant) past and, with the principle that islanders will only vote for islanders, also had three good local candidates.

Unfortunately one of these candidates was a student (need I say more?) and the second decided to withdraw his help in protest at the coalition with the Tories – thus helping the Tories (doesn’t it annoy you when this happens?). So, unable to fight such a large ward with only one person, that was the end of the Isle of Sheppey campaign.

The other ward I had in mind was St Michaels. This was a double member ward where the Tories had won one seat narrowly from us while the other was a Lib Dem hold (although our councillor had defected to Labour). As Labour were unlikely to figure, and again we had two good candidates, I fancied our changes in a straight fight with the Tories.

But .. again circumstances worked against us. Our top candidate for the ward withdrew from the party in protest at the child benefit changes (which I thought a little unfair as they were a surprise to us as well) – and we had to move our second candidate. That was the end of the St Michaels campaign. Although we did find a paper candidate to run, we put no effort in and were well beaten anyway.

It felt like every time George Osborne spoke, or Nick Clegg appeared on TV alongside David Cameron, we lost members. It was ironic that our attempts to fight the Tories were being undermined by people who don’t like the Tories.

Equally, on a larger scale, my attempts to campaign against the tuition fee policy were not helped when people who agreed with me kept leaving the party so I found myself in a minority.

Eventually we dusted ourselves down, gathered who we had left, and said, right, what’s in the pot? The agreed campaign was to concentrate everything we have on Murston and Milton Regis. Of the active widespread campaign I had hoped for, it was all we could manage. And of course we are always short of funds - a problem not shared by our two main opponents.

As we prepared our schedule I heard stories around the country of people refusing to canvass – for fear of receiving a hostile reception. That wasn’t a problem with us, as we hardly had any people to go out canvassing anyway.

But on Tuesday 1 March, two months before polling day, I came home from work, and then went over to Murston at about 6.40pm to knock on my first door of 2011. The campaign had begun!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Muscles!! Flexed or strained?

Defending the latest soundbite is always difficult. After a long and bruising local election campaign, what do I see in the news? The advent of ‘Muscular Liberalism’. ‘Muscular’ seemed appropriate as my first reaction was ‘give me strength!’

At first I thought it might just be a term which the media invented – but now see that Nick Clegg used the expression in a speech to mark one year of the coalition.

‘You will see a strong liberal identity in a strong coalition government’. Yes, no problems there but I take an issue with the sentence before that. ‘We will stand together, but not so closely that we stand in each other’s shadow.’

I admire Nick Clegg and always try to defend him. Nick Clegg has shown remarkable resilience against the biggest onslaught against any politician in recent years. Many of us would have folded under the pressure – but Cleggy goes on. However sometimes I feel he is his own worst enemy.

After talking about a distinct identity, what do I see? A joint appearance with David Cameron – where they continue to joke with each other like old mates. This, to me, looks like standing ‘in each other’s shadow.’

I wish, time and again,that he wouldn’t do these joint photo ops. The 'Cameron and Clegg show' just looks ridiculous. I was particularly angry a few weeks ago when Nick toured a hospital with Cameron and Andrew Lansley at a time when we are trying to save the NHS from the latest daft Tory ideas. Even the expression ‘muscular liberalism’ was used by David Cameron not so long ago.

There is nothing wrong in a close personal relationship with business partners but, in my view, this contradicts talk about maintaining one’s own identity.

I want to see Nick Clegg away from the Tories and pursuing our agenda on his own or with Liberal Democrats. I want to see him talking about things that matter to Liberal Democrats, such as political reform, civil liberties, fair taxes, the environment, and social mobility. If we make it clear that we still believe in the things we stand for then, in time, our supporters will come back.

But for now, please, no more soundbites, no more grumbling. The elections are over, the referendum campaign is finished. We took a beating but it’s done for another year.

Let’s stop worrying about opinion polls and just get on with the job. Let’s see our ministers get on with it, keep a stable government in place to ensure recovery, keep aiming for growth and jobs, keep pursuing our initiatives in education and the environment, and keep working towards fairness in society.

Respect will be regained by less soundbites and more action on the issues important to liberal democracy. That is the best way to flex your muscles.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Voting reform - where now?

The referendum was a clear rejection of the Alternative Vote method. The No campaign convinced enough people that, although they can set their Sky+ box, work out housekeeping budgets, set out saving and pension plans, and download apps to their phones, that when it comes to voting, they are only capable enough to mark an X with a pencil tied to a string.

So where does the campaign for a fairer voting system go now? We must bear in mind the following.

Firstly, voting reform is no longer just a Liberal Democrat issue. UKIP, the Greens, the Nationalist parties, even many in the Labour party, campaigned for a Yes vote. As more and more parties arrive on the scene, they all recognise that an electoral system designed for two party politics is way out of date.

Secondly, the First Past the Post (FPTP) system remains a bad voting system – which is why all new democracies over the last 30 years have kept it at arms’ length. Having minority rule and domination is, in some cases, something the new democracies have been trying to get away from for decades.

Thirdly, let’s not forget that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and the London Assembly, are all new bodies set up over the last 12 years and all stayed well away from FPTP. Many British people are at present using other voting methods and using them well.

Fourthly, the Conservative party will NEVER accept voting reform. They have fought against every political reform since 1832 including votes for women, the House of Lords reduction in powers, and the regional assemblies. With their allies in the media, this presents a formidable obstacle. Although we would like the Tories to participate in the debate, we may have to go ahead without them.

Hence the question is – if AV is not the answer, what is? The Liberal Democrats policy is for Single Transferable Voting (STV) as used in Northern Ireland and for Scotland’s councils. Other parties might have other views.

In the 1990s there was a Scottish Constitutional Convention – involving people from various parties and other groups such as the church and unions - to discuss Scotland’s future. This helped lead to Scotland’s parliament.

As voting reform is now a multi-party issue, I would like to see something similar set up, with representatives from all parties and parts of society, to decide, once and for all, which would be the best and fairest system to elect our parliamentary representatives.

In the meantime, our only hope is for a hung parliament at the next election. As I’ve mentioned before, David Cameron deserves great credit for being the first Prime Minister to voluntarily give up the right to call an election whenever he chooses. Having fixed terms, along with the increase in votes for ‘other’ parties (13% at the latest poll), make hung parliaments all the more likely in future. And Lib Dems should argue for more this time, such as STV for council elections (which would be easy to set up as most council wards are multi-member).

If first-past-the-post fails, again and again, to produce a single party government – then even its biggest supporters will struggle to defend it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Swale Borough Council - my result

Swale Borough Council:
Murston ward - two councillors

Nick Williams (Labour) 482
Ed Gent (Conservative) 420*
Dave Banks (Liberal Democrat) 420
Paul Williams (Labour) 369
Keith Nevols (Liberal Democrat) 236
(Nick Williams and Ed Gent elected)

*settled by drawing of lots.

A very long election day was followed by a longer than expected day at the count which started at 9am and didn’t finish until gone 6.30pm. Murston was the last result to call mainly due to the fact that seven (!) recounts were needed to decide on the second place. Firstly, Ed Gent was one vote up, then Dave by one, then it was even. Then another table took over. After three more counts showing the vote at 420 each, the returning officer declared a tie and put two names into a box – and drew out Ed’s!

This was a very disappointing way for Dave to end his eight year tenure as a Murston councillor and the good work he has put in over the years. We concentrated the campaign on local issues but sadly it was national issues that decided – Labour focusing a negative campaign around Nick Clegg, and too many people unable to tell the difference along with the Conservative vote surprisingly holding up. This was a pattern repeated across the country where good councillors were lost because of the national party’s blunders (of which more another time).

As for me, considering the many hundreds of hours I have sent in Murston over the last two years, talking to people, helping Dave on local issues, leafleting, canvassing, attending meetings, helping where I can etc, I was very disappointed to come fifth with barely a third of the votes from last year. I can safely say that I won’t be working in Murston again and hope that over the next four years that Nick and Ed take care of Murstonians at least half as well as Dave did.

The Swale elections overall were also disappointing. Virtually all Swale’s councillors retained their seats, so the Tories kept their healthy although slightly reduced majority. The main exception was that we lost our leader, Elvie, after 24 years in the chamber – all sides agreed she had been an excellent councillor over the years and her loss is a major blow. The final scores were Con 32 (down one), Lab 13 (up three), Lib Dems 1 (down two) and one Independent (no change). The Conservatives look set to dominate Swale council for many more years to come – which is bad news for all of us.

Coming soon: my story of the campaign, the highs (if I can remember any) and the lows.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Election day tomorrow - and a good week so far for people in yellow

Another election campaign nearly reaches its end. This has been a longer than expected campaign, we have been canvassing for over two months now and the good weather has meant we were out almost every evening. As always it has been an enjoyable experience, discussing politics with people, and as always there have been some surprises.

At the very start, we were told by the media and others that everyone hates us, Nick Clegg is the most unpopular politician since Oswald Mosley, and that we should go canvassing with crash helmets on. Naturally this was all nonsense – canvassing in 2009 during the expenses scandal was much harder – and there are always people who hate all politicians regardless of party.

Where we have sitting councillors, the reception has been good mostly based on the personal vote (and some people feeling sorry for us). Of course some Liberal Democrat voters have switched to Labour but, to my surprise, some Labour voters have switched to Lib Dem – they argued that they had never taken us seriously until we entered government. One lady told me she had voted Lib Dem last year but, because she was happy with the coalition, she is voting Tory this time (oops!).

In Swale we are only defending three seats, which does make the allocation of resources much easier, although we had some other targets in mind – but that’s a story for later.

Tomorrow then it’s an early start, a long day and a late finish, as local party activists all around the country will be getting their voters into the booths. The results will be on Friday and then, well, who knows, I may even be a councillor by then!

Everyone, regardless of who you support, get out and vote!

Footnote: being born in Norwich, I have always followed the Canaries so the week has got off to an excellent start with City’s promotion to the Premier League. At Fratton Park on Monday the yellows beat the blues – let’s hope it is a good sign. On The Ball, City!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We need a different 'Lib Dem Voice'

It is ironic that the party which has a long reputation for distrusting its leaders, and is most democratic about letting members choose its policies, should also be the one where there is so little debate about its recent activities. Over the last year there has been much for party members to discuss but in the excitement of government this all seems to have been forgotten.

For example, the 2010 general election was a failure for us. We had a great bounce with the debates and a lot of interest in our policies, but we were unable to deal with the inevitable media smears, failed to get across our message, and in the event made a net loss of seats for the first time since the party was founded in 1988, also losing some good MPs like Susan Kramer and Julia Goldsworthy.

We should be asking ourselves what went wrong and discuss what lessons we should learn for next time.(After all, the Labour/Tory strategy of just waiting for your turn is not open to us).

At this stage we should be discussing how we can make our presence felt in the coalition, get our message out there, the fact that we are not a ’human shield’ but a party of government with over 60% of our manifesto being put into practice.

One of the best blogs I read is ‘Conservative Home’ – here there are a series of well written articles often presenting good arguments. And of course the ‘nasty’ party is not afraid to turn on its own – nobody gets more flak than David Cameron. I disagree with most of what is said, of course, but admire the way the discussion is carried out.

'Labour List' also puts forward some interesting views about how the party should move on from its defeat and the New Labour era, and provide an effective opposition to keep the government on its toes as well as formulating an alternative strategy ready for the next election.

'Lib Dem Voice', on the other hand, with some exceptions, is quite dull. Some carefully chosen writers putting out selected articles which more often than not closely follow the party line and just act as cheerleading rather than frank debate.

Equally the party’s official newspaper, ‘The Liberal Democrat’, while often a good read, also contains very little debate about the party’s future and strategy and instead trumpets the triumphs of the coalition. All very laudable – but we were going to vote for us anyway.

Whereas any Conservative and Labour leadership critics stay within the party, and often have entertaining conferences as a result, Lib Dems who are unhappy with the leadership’s actions seem to leave more often than not – and this can’t be healthy for the party. For example, how I can continue the fight against tuition fees if those who agree with me have left us and so I am now in a minority? It can't help if members feel they can't convey their unhappiness to the leadership and their party colleagues.

We need another 'Lib Dem Voice'. We need somewhere where we can have frank discussions about what we should be doing better, what went wrong at the last election, why our poll ratings are in single figures, how should we approach the next election, how can we make the coalition work and our own role within it, and, above all, where we can criticise our party’s leadership and have a proper debate and exchange of ideas?

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Battle of Murston

Apologies for the lack of blogging lately. This is due to a number of factors. I have been very busy in the local election campaign, work has been very busy because we have implemented a new database, on which I have taken a lead role in its development and training. Worse of all, I then get ill – of all the times to get unwell, mid-April is the most inconvenient. Having said that, I was once ill during Christmas and that wasn’t much fun.

Having now recovered I have resumed my election campaign in my efforts to be elected to represent the good people of Murston in Swale Borough Council. This ward has attracted much attention from the local parties – not because it will decide the election (the Conservatives will remain in firm control) but because it is Swale’s only three-way marginal, will be a good test of how the three parties face up to each other, and forms part of Labour’s strategy to wipe us out.

Indeed Labour had an ‘action day’ last Saturday and I met two groups of Labour people as we were wandering about. They seemed to recognise me and we exchanged cheery hellos.

Murston is situated towards the east of Sittingbourne – in fact, true Murstonians consider themselves a separate town. The main issues we have worked on include the problems of incorrect road signs, small roads and insufficient parking, a new estate nearby, relief roads, and crime and anti-social behaviour. I have enjoyed meeting many people over there in the last two years and hope I can work for them in the council chamber.

There are five candidates on the ballot paper for this double-seater ward. We have a good team of an experienced local councillor, with a good personal vote, and our parliamentary candidate (me). Labour are putting up an ex-Lib Dem (who went over to the dark side in 2009) along with his son. The main surprise is that the Conservatives are only putting up one candidate – the other defending councillor. Maybe there was a mix-up in their nomination papers rather than some subtle strategy.

Overall, in Swale, in two of our three seats, Labour are the main challengers, while in the third, Labour are aiming to pick up enough Lib Dem votes to allow the Tories to win. Can’t blame them for targeting us, of course – if the tables were turned we would do the same – and as their resources are enormous compared to ours, then they probably have good chances of closing us down. It is up to us to continue to work hard so that whatever happens we can say at least we did our best.

Meanwhile the AV campaign continues. Sadly I think we are going lose this as the combined power of the establishment, the mass media and the Conservative party looks like it will be too strong. The argument about every MP getting over 50% of the votes has been lost amidst a fog of bulletproof vests, the BNP and coalitions.

The No groups’ tactics, not to defend FPTP but to make the issue confusing, seem to be working. After all, what Murdoch wants, Murdoch gets – including every PM for the last 25 years. But the battle must go on. Maybe there will be some surprises to come.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will compulsory voting set us on the way to reform?

In the 19th century political reform was a hotly debated topic that often captured the imagination of the public. The various reform acts, the Chartist movement, the suffragettes etc all played their part as Britain’s political system attempted to transform itself into a modern democracy.

The establishment and the Conservative party resisted every change but step by step, through genuine people power, change gradually happened. By 1928, every adult over 21 had the vote and the powers of the unelected House of Lords were restricted.

The most alarming aspect about the recent political system is the now complete disinterest shown by most of the electorate.

We have an electoral system where most people’s votes do not count, where the majority of seats have been held by the same party for over 40 years, where a government with a large majority can be formed with 36% of the votes (2005), where a party can get nearly a million votes but nothing to show for it (UKIP), and where the votes of 1.6% of the electorate can decide the entire election (IPPR) – but people don’t care.

Turnouts for general elections are going down, those for other elections are usually around a third. Even the recent Welsh referendum, the most important vote in the history of Wales, only got a turnout of 35%.

And of course the upcoming AV referendum – a recent poll shows that while 84% are aware of it, only 46% know what it is about. And while I am campaigning for the Yes vote, I fear that on the day the combined power of the mass media, the Conservative party, the remnants of old Labour, and the apathy of the electorate, will win the day to get a comfortable No vote. The establishment will be overjoyed and voting reform will be put to bed for 20 years or so.

How did we get to this state of affairs? Why is it that people will rush to vote in the X- Factor and Strictly Come Dancing yet can’t be bothered to make important decisions which will affect their lives? If they abolished voting tomorrow, how many people would be marching down Whitehall in protest?

Part of the problem is of course with the politicians themselves. People are generally disenchanted with politics. ‘You’re all the same’ we often hear on the doorsteps. All the main parties report reduced membership. Communication and spin is carefully managed whereas one small slip can end a career. People feel distant from politicians. As the saying goes, whatever the vote, the government always wins.

There is also the disinterest and selfishness of modern times. As Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ – and she is right. Not only in politics - all voluntary, charitable and church organisations report a lack of interest and participation. Many people simply want to shut the front door, switch on the TV and hope the world leaves them alone.

Many times I have heard that people are angry about the expenses scandal, angry about getting a Council full of Tories with only a fraction of the votes, angry when their preferred party has no chance so is a wasted vote. Yet when you mention changes to the voting system, the reply is ‘oh, it’s all right as it is’.

It is a vicious circle. We can only win back people’s interest in politics through wide political reform. Yet major political reform won’t happen because of people’s disinterest.

So I have a suggestion. For a one-off experiment, let’s make voting compulsory at the next general election.

Each ballot paper can have an extra option ‘no vote’ for an abstention, and we must bring in ways to make voting easy by post, by phone and internet. If we can make the census compulsory, why not the ballot paper?

With the aim for as close to a 100% turnout as possible, the disinterested and apathetic will have to give it some thought, even if it is to spoil their paper. And some of those may develop an interest, join a party or campaign.

This may speak off interest amongst others – and what we all want to see is greater political involvement amongst communities, a greater quality of debate, more ‘real’ people rather than professional politicians, and higher membership of all political parties. And hopefully, we will eventually see some genuine political reform.

This way, we may finally break the circle to bring politics back to the people – whether the people want it or not!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya - am I wrong?

Over the last couple of days, Libya has grabbed our attention. Allied coalition forces are enforcing a no-fly zone, actions which have been approved by the UN. British forces are in action, our Prime Minister solemnly told us,  Gaddafi must be stopped from killing his own people, all the political parties are behind this action, the media are generally in favour, and a rare air of consensus has reached our political scene.

So why am I uneasy? I feel I cannot join in this general air of using military force against an evil dictator. There is no argument that Gaddafi heads an appalling regime and is guilty of crimes of sponsoring and supporting terrorism throughout the world, and attacking his own people. But surely a golden rule of military strategy is that you don't start a war without knowing how you are going to end it?

The Kuwait war 1990-91 had a defined objective. It was to liberate Kuwait and push Iraqi forces back to the borders. This was successful. However British forces have been in Afghanistan for nearly nine years now - with no idea of how to get them out. Wouldn't it be nice for a Prime Minister's question time not to begin with a sad note on the latest casualty?

So what is the objective of this action? Is it to overthrow Gaddafi? How will you do this? With the exception of a well-aimed bomb, the only way is either to invade the country or rely on the Libyans to overthrow him - and someone who has exerted a tight grip for over 40 years won't go quietly.

Let's say coalition forces bomb the country for six weeks. Then what? Keep bombing? What if the coalition forces say the lesson is learnt, all go home, and then Gaddafi waits for a few weeks before attacking the rebels again?

Question one is what's the objective? Question two is what is the post-war strategy? If Gaddafi is overthrown, is there an alternative to take his place? Will this a stable regime or will it have to be propped up by Allied forces as we saw in Iraq?

Either way, I can't get over the certain scenario that, sooner or later, there will be British forces on the ground in Libya - they will be attacked, and some will be injured and killed - and will be there for longer than we intended.

Very well, I hear you say, what would you do? Would you leave Libyan people to their fate? This is a very good question and I can't pretend I have an easy answer. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Gaddafi will be overthrown soon, a stable democratic regime take his place, and then all will work out well. But Gaddafi is not the only evil tyrant out there.

Britain cannot afford nor should it desire to be amongst the policemen of the world. In Afghanistan and Iraq it was Britain and the USA which led the way, and suffered the most consequences. And now here we are leading again. By all means we should support the action - but not by involving British forces.

My main question is - am I wrong? I have not found anyone who agrees with me. As I said, all the political parties and most of the media are raring to go. Lib Dems were right to oppose the Iraq war, but I think we might be incorrect to do so here.

In the 1960s, the then PM Harold Wilson got great criticism for not involving British troops in the Vietnam campaign. With hindsight, we might say that he was right to keep out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it provides lessons - my worry is that these lessons are being ignored.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spreading the word - canvassing and AV

The early stages of our local election campaign are going smoothly. We’ve knocked on many doors in the cold and dark nights and we are looking forward to when the clocks change and it gets bit lighter.

We’ve found support for us and also support for Labour but the biggest response is ‘don’t know’ or ‘oh, is there an election on?’

We haven’t yet found any support for the Conservatives – but then we didn’t find much in the local election canvassing last year – and that didn’t stop them winning everything. (Voting Conservative is a bit like watching adult films, or gorging a huge bar of chocolate in one go. There’s nothing wrong with it – but you would not admit it to a stranger).

Of course there is the usual anti-politician, slam-door-in-the-face types, but contrary to my last post, people have generally been polite, including those who were unhappy with the national coalition.

Many, of course, are unable to tell the difference between local and general elections. I had a long conversation persuading one lady that David Cameron wasn’t a candidate while another gentleman was angry that ‘you and the Lib Dems have taken us back to the days of Neville Chamberlain’ – a reference I am still unsure about. Tuition fees have not come up at all but the NHS changes and fuel prices are frequently mentioned.

As usual, though, it is enjoyable talking to real people about their concerns and questions. Despite what the media say, there are some people who still like us, and those who don't like us are still generally happy to chat. Whether all this will turn into votes, we’ll find out soon.

This last Saturday we decided to do our bit for the Fairer Votes campaign and set up a stall in Sittingbourne High Street to promote the Yes to AV cause in the upcoming referendum. This went surprisingly well. We received a lot of interest, ran out of leaflets and pens to give away, answered some questions and discussed the options.

There were some who were not interested and some who did not agree (although no-one raised the £250k myth) but overall we raised awareness of the campaign so hopefully some people will give the topic a bit of thought.

We are now planning a second stall with our colleagues in Faversham down the road.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Back on the doorsteps

This week we will be back on the doorsteps for the May 2011 council elections. A rather later start than last year, but then I’ve only got one ward to work on instead of the whole constituency.

I have been looking forward to knocking on those doors again and seeing if we are as unpopular as we keep being told we are. There are stories around the country that some Lib Dem activists are refusing to canvass for fear of the reception they may get from previously loyal supporters. Well, I’ll guess I’ll find out – but two years ago, when we were canvassing during the expenses scandal, there were some fairly hostile receptions then so it can’t be much worse.

It is only ten months since we were last knocking up – and a lot has happened since then.

Last year the main complaint was having an election! People were not happy that their news was full of elections. One person suggested we abolish all parties ‘except the big two’ and let them take turns for five years each. Then we ‘won't need to bother the people with elections.’ I don’t think I’ll campaign for that.

The main issues raised with me last year were immigration, the local economy and Gordon Brown. Well, Mr Brown has moved on. And our cause was not helped by adopting an immigration policy which, while workable, was easy to shoot to pieces and, in my view, was a major cause in our fortunes falling away in the last few days. It would have been wiser to adopt Labour’s policy of not having a policy.

I anticipate that raised with us may well be the fact we went into coalition with the Tories, the tuition fees saga, and possibly the health service. None of these are local council issues, of course, but many people can’t tell the difference. Local elections nearly always reflect national showings, which can be a shame for good councillors of all parties.

We can’t do much about anyone who is angry about the coalition – after all, there is no coalition in the council, the Tories are in firm control, and we are fighting them as best we can. As for tuition fees, we can’t defend the indefensible. We got this badly wrong and have to hold up our hands and say so.

Where possible, I will aim to stick to local issues. We are defending two very experienced hard working councillors who have done a lot for their wards. We are also putting in the field a number of experienced ex-councillors and, of course, me! And I think I am good! We are hoping to get as many Lib Dems into the council chamber as we can to fight on local issues.

And we are opposing a lethargic and apathetic council which regularly releases long term plans which get quietly dropped before the next plan comes along. I make no apologies for repeating the fact that Swale is predicted to return to its pre-recession levels of employment in 2025 – far later than most of Kent – and the Council’s disinterest doesn’t help.

So off we go onto the streets in good old-fashioned political tradition. It will be much easier once the weather gets warmer and the clocks go forward but for now we’ll venture out in the cold and dark to seek every vote we can.