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.