Thursday, 29 May 2008

Henley-on-Tenterhooks...

Back in October David Cameron made reference to Gordon Brown losing his bottle by failing to call a General Election. But are we now seeing "blue bottles" over Henley?

There has been indecision for the Tories in selecting their candidate, and this week's Parliamentary Recess has helped them buy a little time. Cameron has personally visited the local party to try to override their choices, leading to a split among them and a meeting scheduled for this Friday to have another go.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat team are more than prepared for the Henley by-election and declare themselves "Ready when you are, Dave."

Campaigning is well underway from our HQ in Thame, and I've been working with the candidate, Stephen Kearney. He's wasted no time in getting out to meet voters and listen to their concerns. His background in farming and agriculture means that he really knows where they're coming from. He will be a much more engaged and informed MP than Boris Johnson, who has been charmed away by the bright lights of London. No wonder it's not been easy for the Conservatives to find someone who's a match for Stephen.

In the words of Mr Cameron himself, "Bring it on."

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Friday, 23 May 2008

The first loose rocks in a landslide?

For the second time this month, I've stayed awake until the bitter end of the election night results, watching Labour lose to the Tories. Many hope (and plenty fear) that this is the beginning of a pattern of loss for Labour that will culminate in a thundering landslide at the next General Election.

While not buried beneath the rubble last night, the Lib Dem vote in Crewe and Nantwich escaped with a grazing, down to 14%. Once again, this election was seen as a chance to send the Government a message. Votes cascaded straight from Labour to Conservative, just as they did in 1978, for the Ilford North by-election (in the constituency where I live). Rather puts me in mind of the recent landslide in Dorset, the biggest in decades, where nature's steady toll became suddenly apparent in a single day.

Other events attending a landslide include hopeless attempts at shoring up defences, and of course, fossil hunters eagerly descending as relics of the past are uncovered. The fossils of past Tory failures are now coming back to light as the layers of the Labour years crumble away. That's no bad thing: have a good look, Britain! This is a great time to ask yourself whether a Conservative government is really what you're after.

Have you forgotten Thatcher? (Even if Cameron pretends he has.) Better to consign those days to a museum than to breathe life into old Tory mistakes.

I listened in surprise to Eric Pickles being interviewed on the BBC's results programme last night. He seemed to be using bizarre "disrupt and reframe" tactics: he said that people were realising that in order to get Liberal Democrat policies, they would have to vote Conservative: a non-sequitur so baffling that I concluded it must be the tiredness talking. I mean, which policies would these be, then? Scattering people's data like confetti? No, definitely not one of ours. Entrenching inequality? Theirs. Breaking the link between earnings and pensions? Theirs. "A concerted programme of road-building"? Dave's. Making the NHS more centralised and less accountable?... Flip-flopping over Post Offices?... You get the idea.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats (especially with Henley on the horizon) is to be distinctive, to get noticed, to communicate personally. Nick Clegg has already pointed out that "the Prime Minister has got no principles and the Tories have got no policies."

We need to chip away at the trend of the Tories winning votes by default.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Boris: “The more Deputy Mayors, the merrier!”


I was in the Chamber at City Hall in London this morning, for Boris Johnson’s first Mayor’s Question Time. (It was also Caroline Pidgeon’s, and I have to say she had a lot more poise and grasp of the facts than BoJo did...)

Boris was leaning forward on his desk, and dispensing all sorts of witticisms, as befits a panel show host. He even invented two new words in the course of the session, “factitious” (anyone got any idea?) and also said that he wants the River Thames to be “Oysterised” which I did not take to mean he wanted water quality and fish stocks to be improved.

Yes, it was all very entertaining and there was plenty of laughter, but if you were after straightforward answers you'd have been disappointed.

Whereas our own Vince Cable uses humour to illuminate and reinforce a point of fact, Boris was using witty ripostes as a smokescreen to disguise the facts, or absence of them. Especially on transport-related matters. At the start of the session, the Mayor confirmed that he would be assuming the Chair of TfL for the foreseeable future. Which is worrying...

For example, Val Shawcross asked the Mayor whether there would be a “pecking order” for road users of various types. Johnson replied that within the Congestion Charge Zone, “drivers who’d paid for the privilege would expect to have congestion alleviated.” So Ms Shawcross pointed out that Johnson had also mentioned making walking and cycling a priority, and that this might conflict with improving speeds for motorists. Johnson mumbled that for a Labour representative, she seemed “obsessed with hierarchy”!

At the suggestion of a new river crossing in East London, he said, “Do you envisage a kind of catapult?”

He fudged another transport question from the Greens' Jenny Jones: She had referred to a comment on banning HGVs from the Blackwall Tunnel to improve air quality for the residents of Poplar: Johnson had said that in any decision there would be “winners and losers” and that he aimed to maximise the number of winners and minimise the number of losers. When Ms Jones spoke of her concern for the losers, Johnson invoked John Stuart Mill and said that he didn’t intend to use “utilitarian calculus” in transport matters.

Caroline Pidgeon asked: “Please outline your proposals for implementing your pledge to phase out ‘bendy buses’ and replace them with a newly designed Routemaster staffed by conductors.”

Johnson gave a hideously long preface to his answer that “TfL would be pursuing that” and that there will be a competition to design a new generation of Routemaster bus. Caroline continued, “Since this is obviously a well-researched and costed proposal, [yet more laughter from the packed public gallery] can you tell us how soon we can reasonably expect the first Routemaster to be operating with conductors on London’s streets and at what cost?”

Johnson said that the “envelope cost” would be about a hundred million pounds but did not say when they might be rolled out. Caroline pressed him on whether these buses were a mere aspiration and warned that this might “demonstrate to Londoners that they cannot trust a word you say.” Johnson said that it was an aspiration, and that it also represented his most deeply-held convictions about what would be good for London, “and I’m determined to bring it about." (But with the caveat "not at any price and any cost.")

Still on a transport theme, the Mayor was asked, “Do you believe in a zero-tolerance approach to minor offences like riding bikes through red lights... using a mobile phone on a bike... failure to stop at zebra crossings, riding on the pavement” whereupon a bike helmet was produced and presented to the Mayor himself! He declared himself a “punctilious obeyer of traffic lights” and that if Ms Shawcross cared to follow him home [more laughter] she would see that he’d already equipped himself with a bike helmet. “Not as an act of capitulation to the forces of political correctness and health and safety,” but out of "a desire to be as anonymous as possible.”

As for anonymity, the two other Mayoral candidates could certainly not be forgotten: Brian Paddick was mentioned by one Assembly Member. (I had found my “I heart Brian Paddick” badge in my bag this morning, while fumbling for my Oyster card and couldn’t help feeling a pang). And (see my photo above) Ken Livingstone himself was present in the Chamber, sitting behind Dee Doocey and wearing a yellow tie (Did I miss something?) As Lynne Featherstone has poignantly put it, he’s like the ghost at the feast.

On the question of whether it is undemocratic to have unelected Deputy Mayors, Johnson said, “The more Deputy Mayors, the merrier!” So then he was asked whether there would be more Mayors, too, since he was creating extra posts. “I haven’t created new posts; I might have sprayed a few titles around,” was his reply.

Many other questions went largely unanswered, but two of wider interest went unasked:

1. When, oh when, is Boris going to resign as MP for Henley?

2. Is Boris going to attend one of several parties on the London Underground on May 31st? (Perhaps he’s in the Facebook group for this one, which announces "A dapperly dressed, terribly civilised, gin-soaked drinks party on the Circle Line, before BoJo bans us from drinking on public transport. Let's demonstrate how civilised and social drinking really is. Alert the press! Bring your friends! Wear your best togs! Everyone on your best behaviour!”)

But I guess we’ll shortly know the answers to both of those anyway.

When Johnson was reprimanded for taking too long with his replies in this meeting, he said, “Like the traffic, I will shortly come to a halt.” Prophetic words, perhaps: on my way out of City Hall, I overheard another member of the public saying, “He won’t last long.”

Let's see if the wheels are going to come off...



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Monday, 19 May 2008

Crewe by Cable Car

Elizabeth Shenton's campaign continues at a cracking pace here in Crewe.

Volunteers are coming from far and wide (and locally too) to help in these last few vital days. Many MPs and even a few Peers are slipping quietly into Crewe HQ, to help in any way they can. I can vouch for the fact that MPs do know how to operate Risographs and stuffing machines. They're also handy to have around when you need up to date policy advice. Yes, I know that's what the Extranet is for, but hey...

I nipped upstairs earlier to ask Chris Huhne a question about Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, pioneered by the Lib Dems in the London Borough of Islington. Yesterday I had a question about the Child Support Agency, so I went and found Danny Alexander wrangling a huge pile of envelopes in the clerical room.

Also yesterday, Vince Cable gave me a lift to Elizabeth Shenton's walkabout in Crewe Town Centre. What a great opportunity for a quick chat about the 10p tax issue! "Sorry, my dancing shoes are in the way," he said as I got into his car. Sure enough, there they were on the back seat - I wondered whether he was planning to pop them on for a quick dance around the shopping precinct! That'd draw the crowds...

Fortunately, Elizabeth was equally light on her feet and drawing a crowd of her own. Recognition for her was high and people were approaching her with all sorts of questions and comments. Elizabeth's a warm and natural communicator and she struck up some great conversations with passers-by.

Even Vince had to agree, she's got star quality - he didn't seem to mind a bit when a group of excited teenagers came running in the Lib Dems' direction, saying "I want to have my picture taken with that famous person." They went straight past Vince and were vying to stand next to Elizabeth for a photo!

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Hot stuff at Crewe HQ!

I’m back in Crewe this weekend, at By-election Headquarters.

It’s blistering here – not just the hot weather, but the speed at which campaign literature is being produced and then delivered. Despite the amount of work, or perhaps because of it, the time is flying by. I almost wish the days could be longer, as there’s plenty to do, and all of it very worthwhile.

The people here are excellent (always room for more, so do come and meet them for yourself) and the mood is buoyant. My favourite quote so far is from a hard-working member of the Media Team: “I smell of By-election.” A discussion followed about whether it would be worth bottling it! (Smells Like Team Spirit?!?)

The Casework system is up and running: we are collating survey results and answering problems which residents have brought to the candidate Elizabeth Shenton as she goes around the constituency. Patterns are emerging about people’s main concerns, which fits well with today’s visit by Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary.

Residents are understandably worried about crime in Crewe and Nantwich, and want to feel safe in their neighbourhoods and town centres. Chris himself sent me a casework form to action, which he had filled in during a conversation with a resident in Crewe. Both Elizabeth and Chris are taking residents’ concerns very seriously, about antisocial behaviour. They are speaking out against Labour’s cuts to the local police force.

Earlier today, Chris dropped into my office for a chat during his tour of the HQ. I told him about the casework Elizabeth has received already, and the casework plans for the rest of the campaign. I think he also appreciated lingering briefly by the fan which Judith, the wonderful premises manager brought in, to cool the room.

Talking of heat, a couple of us went on a late-night curry run last night: it was well past 11pm and most people here hadn’t stopped for an evening meal. There were so many hungry volunteers, the food nearly filled up the back of my little van (or “Committee Room on wheels” ~Jake Holland).

At the Indian restaurant in Crewe where we picked up our order, we spotted the local Labour Party tucking into their own meal. The owner of the restaurant guessed that we were also from a political party, as we said we were taking the food back to our workers at the office. He told us,“You obviously work harder than the other parties - those people have finished work for the day!” We left the Labour lot to enjoy their meal, pleased in the knowledge that the Lib Dems are turning up the heat…

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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Thinking inside the box?

I've had a hectic week and am still getting my head round most of it!

I was elected parent governor at Churchfields Junior School (I think I slightly alarmed the Head Teacher at the count with my rejoicing. I didn't start making victory speeches or anything, though I will admit to a modest amount of knocking-up the day the ballot closed.)

Then came the London elections, followed by another count. This time it was at Alexandra Palace and involved considerably more ballot papers than the school one: Probably about two million as compared with about two hundred at Churchfields. At school there was only one ballot box, while at Ally Pally there were hundreds, and the count took several hours longer than expected. The school election didn't have anarchic comments scrawled all over the ballot papers, either, but at least these livened up the task of the counting agents. They provided some humour amid the tension of the day's business.

Weekend in Crewe, then back into the school week and the "day job".

Yesterday lunchtime I was watching PMQs with my toddler (yes, he's having a tough childhood). He said, "That's Parliament, Mummy". "That's right, darling, and I'm going there tonight." "Will Nick Clegg be there, Mummy?" "Yes," I told him, "We're going to have a chat."

He said matter-of-factly that it would be very nice, and then turned to watch Cameron trying to tear strips off Brown. "Why are they all shouting, Mummy? We're not allowed to do that at Nursery."

This is the same small person who once asked me whether he could open up the television so that he could climb into the "Night Garden" - his other favourite show. I know how that might feel... Just a few hours later, and... who'd'a thunk it: there I was at Parliament, interviewing Nick Clegg, along with a fine group of bloggers. Of which more later...

But one part of our discussion with Nick got me wondering: How do "normal" people get their news? I mean the ones for whom politics is just a small part of life, rather than life itself.

I've been filling in a certain application form recently [boxes of a different kind!], in which one of the questions is, "How do you keep up to date with current political issues?" and I was pleased to hear that Nick, like me, is a magpie, gathering information from a variety of sources.

We discussed the influence of the media and its perpetuation of a two-party system (see: London elections). We debated the relevance of the print media and our need to bypass their biased view.

I've asked my friends, at least the "normal" ones, and many of them still tend to have a quick look at the newspaper, or the 6 o'clock news. They are not particularly fans of news nor politics, but just want to get a quick picture of what is going on in the world/the country/their neighbourhood.

Do others find that this is typical? Or are more people abandoning newspapers and TV news bulletins for other types of media? It would be good to compare notes/perceptions, etc.

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Sunday, 4 May 2008

Dog-whistle politics in Crewe and Nantwich?


I've fled the Capital for Crewe, but only for a couple of days. Firstly because having Boris Johnson as Mayor is pretty repellent in itself, but also because I was getting campaign withdrawal symptoms! I tried going cold turkey after the London elections but it didn't work...

Today I was out delivering in the beautiful floral market town of Nantwich. This makes up the rest of the constituency for the Parliamentary by-election on May 22nd.

Residents here take an obvious pride in their gardens, and the "floral" tag is well-deserved. It was really pleasant delivering to houses with such stunning front gardens, gorgeous planters of flowers, cascading hanging baskets and perfect, striped lawns.

It was in one picturesque cul-de-sac where something unexpected happened: the teenager who was delivering with me came down a drive, doubled up, with his hands over his ears. At first I assumed he must have met with an irate dog or possibly even a householder who did not wish to receive one of our tabloids!

He said he could hear an ear-splitting noise (I couldn't) and that he needed to get away from it. He pointed to where he thought the noise was coming from and I spotted one of these.

It was actually for deterring cats but it reminded me of the infamous mosquito device which is for deterring teens. The idea is that teenagers and young adults can hear sounds of a higher frequency than older people can, similar to the way dogs can hear whistles which seem silent to humans.

Now, I'm *ahem* not that old, and I reckon I could only just not hear it...

It also reminded me of dog whistle politics so back at my hotel I thought I'd better check the ether, to see if there was just the faintest sound of those in the air.

I followed the sound and sure enough, it finished up here, at Conservative Home. This is a letter from the Tory Parliamentary Candidate which complains about the selection of Gwyneth Dunwoody's daughter as Labour Parliamentary Candidate. Imagine that! Keeping it in the family - now the Tories would never dream of doing such a thing !?

But that strange undertone was coming from somewhere else, further down in the letter, where the writer had referred to the "rising population". Does the writer really mean the Tories will increase spending on public services, in order to "plan properly for increases in population" or is the emphasis on "reduce the overall level of net immigration"? To his readers, the further right they are, the more divisive will be the message that they hear.

The people of this beautiful town deserve better, and have an excellent new champion in Elizabeth Shenton. No dog-whistle politics for her, just a clear voice which speaks up for everyone.