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.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The AV referendum - the stakes have never been higher!

We are currently preparing our local campaign to promote the Yes vote in the upcoming Alternative Vote (AV) referendum and hoping to counter the apathy and negatively that the No side are attempting to foster.

There is no doubt that our electoral system is woefully out of date. It was designed for a two party system – and there has never been any change because the two parties have both done very well of it.

But in last year’s general election, over a third of the vote went to other parties. There are now ten political parties represented in parliament, and three others outside who got a sizeable vote. Our system desperately needs updating to cater for the people’s wishes.

AV is not the final answer – it is not proportional and doesn’t get rid of safe seats, although it does reduce their number. However it is not as bad as First Past the Post (FPTP) and has some advantages (see below). It also opens the door to other systems.

There are some, including many Lib Dems, who say they will vote no to AV because they support proportional representation or other systems. But this makes no sense. If FPTP wins the referendum then that’s it, the end of the debate – we’ll be stuck with the system for 30 years or so – and a very large chunk of the electorate will remain disenfranchised and resentment of politics will continue to increase.

We badly need a system that connects the people with their representatives so they feel their vote makes a difference – and for now voting Yes to AV is the best option.

Those who love a good political debate must be disappointed at the antics of the No2AV camp. They could campaign for, defend and argue the merits of FPTP and ask the public to back their case. Instead they have resorted to negative spoiling tactics such as attempting to sabotage the referendum in the Lords, making claims about the cost of AV which have quickly unravelled, and focusing on Nick Clegg. Whatever you think about Cameron, Clegg and co, politicians come and go very quickly (remember Gordon Brown?) – it is the system itself that must be looked at.

The Yes camp is leading in the polls at the moment but must not be complacent. The establishment and the mass media are all on the No side – they hate the idea of letting ‘people’ having more power instead of keeping it with the political classes – so the Yes people must keep getting the message out there.

So why is AV an improvement on FPTP? I will use three main reasons.

1. Every MP can stand up in parliament and say ‘I have the support of the majority of voters in my constituency.’ Presently only about a third can say that. Under the current system, with more and more candidates, it is quite possible to get elected with around 20%. (This is why the BNP support FPTP).

2. Under FPTP, voters tend to be negative. We heard last year ‘I will be voting Conservative to get the government out ‘ or ‘I’m voting Labour to keep the Tories out’. People are not voting for who they want – they are voting for who they don’t want! AV allows you to vote positively – this is my first choice, this is my second etc.

3. Above all, for the first time in our history, a majority of the voters can say ‘my vote counted!’ Presently most voters are wasted, they needn’t have bothered turning up (and many don’t). But if votes were thought to make a difference we would see an improvement in turnout.

AV puts more power in the hands of the voter and away from the politicians. It reduces the numbers of safe seats, making the candidates work harder and become more accountable. If FPTP wins then most MPs can continue to sit happily in their safe seats for as long as they wish.

Hopefully AV will win the day, we can then extend fairer voting systems to council elections in England and Wales (Scotland already have) and FPTP will finally be finished.

The stakes are that high! If AV does not win, then it will be final. Nothing will change! Ever!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Oh Lordy. The Establishment Fights On.

In all my years following politics, I can’t say the House of Lords has ever grabbed my interest. It’s a bit like Morris dancing – a national embarrassment that we would rather do without, but is somehow comforting to know it is there. It is the bumbling old uncle you only ever see at Christmas soundly asleep.

It is quaint, historical and very British. After all, how many democratic countries have a non-elected legislative chamber consisting of bishops, failed and has-been politicians, and descendants of men (and women!) who did favours for various Kings?

There have been attempts to reform the House, but, as the Lords so often cry in triumph, they are still here. The Blair government, to its credit, made a start on reforming the House by getting rid of most hereditary peers, but then they didn’t see further reform through!

What has got my anger now is the recent deliberate attempt by the House of Lords to interfere with the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum – for example, in specifying there must a turnout of 40% to be binding on the government. Most council and European elections rarely get about 33%. If it is a yes without such a turnout it goes back to the Commons for the MPs in safe seats (the majority) to wait for a convenient moment (e.g. a big news story) to quietly vote it down.

Overturning this amendment, as well as the other filibustering the Lords have attempted, may well mean that the referendum is delayed – and holding it at another time will be much more expensive.

Some argue that the Lords object to the constituency size element of the bill. I can sympathise with that – but why all the amendments re: the referendum? If certain Lords are opposed to AV, why don't they just campaign for a No vote?

My objection to this 40% stipulation is that people should have the right to say ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’. Under this amendment, if they don’t vote, it is assumed they are supporters of First Past The Post (FPTP).

It is a typical spoiling amendment deliberately designed to sabotage the people’s right to be able to choose their own voting system. What is wrong with just Yes or No?

It is sad that defenders of FPTP are not able to defend the system but instead seek to get their way by such tactics or by posters having a go at Nick Clegg. I can respect anyone who wants to defend the present method on its own merits but not if their campaign takes on these tactics.

The Lords’ defenders argue that is a chamber that can leisurely consider the actions of the government on a non-political basis – especially as there are so many crossbenchers. This argument has been blown out of the water by recent events. It’s actions may well lead to the end of the coalition, a general election, and a Labour government. Of course, Labour supporters will applaud this – but it could be their turn next time round.

It has historically been an ambition of the Labour party to abolish the House of Lords. Proposals for an 80% elected house will arrive soon and I hope that Labour will support these.

What replaces the Lords is the big question but the bottom line is that the Lords has lasted too long for its own usefulness, it is an anachronism in the 21st century, and it is about time it was consigned to the history books.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Swale Elections - Preview

A member of Plaid Cymru once criticised my blog for saying too much about ‘a tiny part of Kent’. Maybe so but I did run for parliament in that ‘tiny part’. So here’s my warning – this entry is all about Swale in Kent.

In May, we have the Swale Council ‘all-out’ elections. Both the Conservative and Labour groups decided to move to all-outs rather than thirds in terms of electing the Council. This of course gives the Liberal Democrats and other small parties a lot of difficulties (probably not a coincidence) who don’t have the resources of the big two – hence can only run very limited campaigns.

The current composition of Swale council is Conservatives 33, Labour 10, Lib Dems 3 and Independent 1. There are 25 wards returning one, two or three councillors. For the Conservatives to lose control, they need to lose ten seats.

The Conservatives are mainly strong towards the Faversham area and rural parts of Swale and have controlled the council for many years now. They have not impressed with lethargy combined with long-term plans lasting a short while before the next long term plan comes along.

The local party may well repeat their ‘do nothing’ campaign which has been very successful over the last few years. They have every county councillor, dominate the borough council and won the parliamentary seat (to be fair, our new MP did work very hard in the election campaign last year – but no other Tories were seen).

If the Tories do have a strategy, it will be to hang on to their many safe seats. They can expect to lose a few marginals that they were surprised to gain - but can plan for governing with a reduced majority.

After a quiet general election campaign, the local Labour party are expected to campaign hard across the area. They’ve started to knock on doors already!

Labour are strong on the Isle of Sheppey and the town areas of Sittingbourne. To get control, Labour will need to gain 14 seats. There are areas where they will comfortably regain seats, and they will no doubt target the Lib Dems, but to get control of the Council they will need to work in some Conservative strongholds as well.

Around the UK, there have been some strange by-election results lately, with Tory votes crashing, the Lib Dems holding their own against the Tories and collapsing to Labour, and Labour’s candidates winning in places like Gloucestershire and Cornwall. Ed Miliband’s future as Labour leader is often debated but the votes have definitely been going his way. Labour may well surprise all of us (and themselves) in winning some unexpected seats.

The Liberal Democrats’ three councillors each have the advantage of a personal vote gained over many years of work locally but the disadvantage of the national poll rating. Our strategy will simply be to battle hard and defend the seats. With a bit of luck, we will add to our total, but I think it is fair to say we are unlikely to be the biggest party!

Other parties will put up some candidates – we have an active UKIP party buoyed by the recent visit of Mr Farage himself, the BNP are about, and there is a rumour of a Green or two. The local Loonies and their bananas will be present. But of course all small parties are punished by the electoral system. Under any other system, UKIP might get a few seats.

So what will the result be? My money is on a reduced Conservative majority.

However if Labour do well against the Tories, and the Lib Dems can hold on, then there may be a hung council! Then there is the possibility of a Lab-Lib Dem administration and the Tories gone at last. (Although it is possible that Labour would prefer to see a Tory council than do any deal with the Liberal Democrats).

My own campaign will be in the ward of Murston, a two-seater ward to the east of Sittingbourne. The current councillors are my colleague Dave Banks and a Tory but last year Labour were only just behind – so Murston will be interesting as it is Swale’s only three-way marginal. I am looking forward to talking to the voters again. We will do our best in this campaign and see how we get on.

On top of that, we have the AV referendum so there is much to do!