Monday, 31 March 2008

Political Animals or Party Animals? Heck, we're both!

The contrast could hardly have been greater: While those Liberal Youth were rocking their socks in some cool venue in London’s East End, I was up West in an oak panelled office, interviewing one of our MPs about... pensions!

We were in the Leader’s Office in Parliament. In fact the original plan had been to interview Nick Clegg himself, but youngster that he is, he’d found the lure of 93 Feet East too much to resist. So in his absence, last Tuesday night saw our little bunch of bloggers sneaking into Nick’s office with our cuddly toys and chocolate, to stage a sort of “We’re not old just yet” sit-in. Danny Alexander MP clearly knew where to find Party Central and came in for a chat with us.

To be fair, we covered other subjects besides pensions. In fact we bloggers had a quick heads-up in Central Lobby just beforehand. We’d been delighted to find that between us, we had prepared questions to cover all aspects of Danny’s work, namely: Lib Dem Work and Pensions spokesperson, Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee and Chair of the Lib Dem Manifesto Group.

As Jo Christie-Smith pointed out, “A manifesto needs a good narrative”, well so does a blog, so I’ve decided to structure this post around the themes which emerged during our discussion. (Fuller accounts of Danny’s interview are also available, and I warmly commend to you the blogs of Jo Christie-Smith , and Millennium Dome.)

Our discussion can be summarised under four main headings so here goes:

Our messages

Throughout the interview, Danny was bang on-message; in fact, I’d sketched out a rough little game of “Key Message Bingo” in the corner of my notebook. I was ticking them off with silent glee as sure enough, Danny peppered the conversation with...disadvantage is inherited, we are the anti-establishment party, power in the hands of people, Nick’s Town Hall Meetings, we are engaging with people from both inside and outside the party, the majority of people share our liberal values, but don’t yet vote for the Liberal Democrats. Finally he said that “politics is broken” and I was ready to leap up and shout, “Full House!”

Just then I remembered that we aim to double the number of Lib Dem MPs over the next two elections, and so we are still some way from achieving that Full House. Although my celebrations were a little premature, I was encouraged to see Danny so in charge of his facts and statistics, and able to field even our curve-ball questions with positive stories about the Lib Dems. As any good campaigner knows, we have to keep repeating our key messages, otherwise they won’t sink in.

Alex and Jo were keen to know about the more formal way of communicating our messages: the Manifesto. Alex asked Danny how long he thought it would be before we would actually need a manifesto. Danny admitted that it wasn’t clear, but then went on to talk about the future, the past and the present, which left me with the comforting image of someone who is constantly watchful: he said “looking at the long haul, we may not need one until 2010”, that a lot of groundwork had already been put in, during the run-up to “the election that never was”, and finally that we didn’t want to be caught out either, so plenty of work is going on right now.

Jo talked about the need for a manifesto to have a good narrative, and wondered about the look and feel of the future, as promised in our manifesto. Danny said that he didn’t want to pre-judge the discussions of the Manifesto Group and the FPC before Conference, but offered that, for any real change to happen, politics itself would have to change: “People want a system that responds to them and what they think.”

Prompted by this, I asked Danny what he thought of the noises Labour had been making recently about voting reform, since they appear to have at least flicked through the Power Report, (something which is also of great interest to the Lib Dems). Danny dismissed Labour’s soundings as kite-flying, seemingly by junior ministers, with no proposals from the Government.

So I asked him how we could persuade apathetic voters to vote for the Liberal Democrats, rather than the “Stay at Home Party.” Danny said that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics, just from “the formal Westminster process”. He pointed to people’s growing involvement in single-issue groups, civil society groups, and local campaigns. To which I replied, ”Some people are saying that the Party’s over, you know, the Party with a big ‘P’ is over, so what do you say to them?”

After all, here we were, sitting in Party Central itself, and if the Party was over, we wouldn’t want to be the last ones to find out. Recently I had visited an exhibition in Portcullis House, “Connecting Parliament with the Public” which was full of excellent ways to demonstrate the work of Parliament... for those interested enough to make the effort to look. I had come away from that feeling there was still a gap to be bridged.

For the Liberal Democrats, at least, Danny’s reply offered some hope and a challenge: “In 1951, 2% of people voted for parties who were not Labour or the Tories, and last time round it was 32%. We have to try and capture the votes of those people who are liberal, but who we haven’t yet managed to attract or motivate to vote for us.” So, Party on!

In that case...

How are we different?

Alex referred to the doorstep lament that politicians are all the same, so, “How are we different and why should people vote for us?” Danny sat in productive silence, before saying, “It’s an important question. In this country, people’s lives are governed by vested interests, by powerful people over whom they have no say. Liberal Democrats exist to put power in the hands of people.” More silence, as we bloggers eagerly scribbled.

Then Alex asked how we can distinguish ourselves, not only from Labour and the Tories, but also the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. They tend to occupy similar political ground to us, in terms of having a lot of similar policies, though not philosophy. So how do we persuade people to vote for us rather than the nationalists? Speaking as a Highlander, Danny replied that even power from Holyrood is considered to be remote. “Ultimately there’s two big differences between us and the SNP. One is that nationalists are about building up barriers between peoples, and Liberalism’s about breaking those barriers down. And secondly, that we want to hand power to people, and they want, just like Labour and the Tories, to grab power in their own hands and concentrate it in the centre.”

Our policies

A couple of the policy areas we touched on, demonstrate the Liberal Democrat desire to empower people in their own lives:

The Tories have been talking of expensive (and literally nannying) proposals to provide maternity nurses at home for all new mothers. However, I hear nothing from any party about the higher priority need for NHS antenatal classes for all pregnant women. These are becoming scarce, and that will have a huge impact on a mother’s preparedness for birth and motherhood, her mental health and risk of post-natal depression, and on good health outcomes for mother and newborn baby.

As a mother myself, I could have talked about it all night, but I was particularly concerned at the Tories’ idea of offering such an imposing amount of supervision after birth. They are neglecting the need for antenatal care and advice, which is foundational to the post-birth outcome.

Danny is a new dad, so how did he feel about this lack of classes? He agreed that they were rare, free or otherwise. His wife had been to classes, and he had even been able to attend a couple of them. “Antenatal [care] is as important as postnatal.”

He did not know details of policy discussions on this, but said that the Health Team must be thinking about it. Danny also agreed that the mental health issue tied in with Nick’s concerns in that area.

Then we talked about pensions, and wondered whether there’d be a keynote speech on the subject at the Liberal Youth launch. While conceding that it wouldn’t be much of a crowd-pleaser for them, Danny was ready to answer my question, “Why should young people be interested in pensions, especially when they have more pressing concerns about servicing their debts, or getting on the housing ladder?”

He talked about the Lib Dem proposals for a universal ‘Citizen’s Pension’ which would pay a more realistic amount. Also he spoke of “the power of inertia” and the benefit of leaving it to people to opt out of non-state pensions, rather than opting in, in order to boost private savings. Danny said that the “low levels of financial literacy in Britain” would need to be addressed with advice and information. I suggested as a very good place to start.

A serious point wrapped up in a “fun” question

Richard is good at these, and asked them most disarmingly:

Is the Chief of Staff role a bit like being Leo McGarry from the West Wing? (That one was on behalf of Stephen Tall.) Danny’s answer: not really, in fact Nick’s staff are much more talented than that, and that his job is an administrative and advisory role.

Richard also asked about Nick’s first hundred days as Lib Dem Leader, “What’s gone really well, and what’s gone really badly?” To which Danny replied with a smile, “Well, I’ll focus on the first half of that and Nick can do the second half when he sees you!” [The Bloggers will be returning to interview Nick on 7 May, so watch this space.]
He went on to say that the party is really united behind Nick, who is working hard to articulate our position, that Spring Conference went well and had a record attendance, that Nick’s speeches have been well-received and that the party has a renewed sense of direction under Nick’s leadership. Danny did mention “the Europe thing” but stressed that it was further proof of Nick’s anti-establishment credentials.

The fact that Danny was happy to answer questions of all shades of seriousness, and occasionally to admit that he didn't know all the answers goes to show what a good sport he is. He even agreed to pose for photos with two other political animals, Millennium Elephant and Ron, the Duffett Family Mascot.

So: Party or Politics? Danny Alexander seems to be saying, “Do both.”

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Is there a doctor in the house?

I was at a party the other night, to celebrate the election of Lib Dem Councillor Rachel Allison in Highgate. Among the guests was Dr Mark Pack, Lib Dem electoral mastermind, with a PhD in 19th Century elections.

You know how it is with doctors at parties: you know you really shouldn't, but before you know it, you're running symptoms by them, or asking them to have a quick look at this...

But when Mark came over and said, "How's the election going, Helen? What is it you're standing for?" I couldn't resist it.

In the scheme of things it’s not huge: an election for Parent Governor at my local Junior School. However, elections are unusual for this sort of post as few people tend to apply. This school benefits from many committed and enthusiastic parents and this one is sure to be a three-horse race!

So before I could stop myself, I was telling the Doctor all about it. Quick as a flash, he asked me for my three key messages, whether I'd be canvassing at the school gates and what my agent was like.

Finally, he prescribed that I go to the count, to make sure that the ballot papers were being counted the right way up.

(Mark had been subjected to a midnight phonecall from the Highgate count, which was halted by a dispute about which way up the papers should face. Upon Mark’s word, the count could resume, correctly this time.)

So that’s twice now I’ve witnessed Doctor Pack working out-of-hours. Maybe he should consider relocating? Roding Ward doesn’t have a single Doctor’s Surgery, and I reckon a long white coat would suit him.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A crater in the heart of Roding

In the centre of Roding Ward is a huge traffic interchange where the M11 meets the A406 North Circular Road (and others) in a car-crash of a planning failure. Many of you will know it as "Charlie Brown's Roundabout."

Today's Wanstead and Woodford Guardian carries an interview with a grandmother who lives close to the junction. She is concerned about the air quality, as are most of the nearby residents whom I surveyed over the Easter weekend. Others mentioned the inadequacy of the noise barriers, the danger of the traffic, and the blight of the graffiti.

So the heart of Roding isn't exactly beating with pride.

Here's my response, sent to the paper today:

"Charlie Brown’s road interchange was a Seventies environmental disaster which has left a crater in the heart of the Roding community.

It’s ironic that this road system was intended to unite people speedily, which is all very well for motorists passing through. For our neighbourhood, it has had the opposite effect: the scale of the ugly concrete alienates pedestrians. Nearby residents suffer dreadfully from air and noise pollution.

Many of the pillars are covered in graffiti, adding to the general atmosphere of neglect. While there is no excuse for criminal damage, this shows that vandals feel there is nothing of beauty worth respecting here.

Councillor Bond has rightly said that the whole area needs to be re-landscaped. Unfortunately when it comes to major outdoor space, many of his colleagues on the Council prefer to spend our money on projects such as “Unity Square” in Ilford.

This week I wrote to the Council to ask when one large piece of graffiti would be removed, but merely received the reply that my query has been “logged”.

Charlie Brown’s needs its own Area Action Plan, and serious money invested in its regeneration. The time has come to clean up and green up."

[Councillor Ian Bond is one of the Liberal Democrat Councillors for Roding Ward. Unity Square is a project of questionable necessity being planned for Ilford Town Centre]