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!!