Saturday 15 May 2010

Take Back Parliament: why such a militant-sounding name?

First things first - I'm getting sick of writing about nothing but politics on here recently, but it is an exciting time at the moment so I make no apology for another post, although I will start writing about some other things very soon. Today I wandered down to a political demonstration for the first time since 2003 - when I sank a bottle of port with a mate at the huge anti-war march. Good times. Today's was on a much smaller scale, and the only political issue that really gets my goat these days - electoral reform. About 500 people pitched up to a "Fair Votes Now" protest outside Parliament. But in truth, I have to say I found it a little limp.

Rallies and demonstrations are like peas in a pod. The samba band - check; the interminable list of speakers, consisting of eager twenty-somethings, unseated ex-MPs, and reform lobbyists - check; people trying to flog copies of Socialist Worker - check; rude anti-Tory placards - check; shrill whistles, exuberent teenage girls, bemused tourists and growling anti-politics passers-by - check, check and checkmate. The chants of "What do we want? When do we want it?" are ubiquitous to the point of being meaningless now. It doesn't matter what these rallies are about - they all tend to have a pretty vague message of "let's take over the world, starting here" and have a militant, anti-society, rebellious feel to them. Today was no exception, although the issue at hand was rather geekier than normal.

The core message was pretty clear - we need to keep pushing for a real proportional system although a Yes vote in any AV referendum is also desirable. The placards seemed to be pushing a different agenda - mostly complaining about the coalition. I was tempted to bring along one saying "STV is not an STD" but decided against it. Evan Harris, Ken Ritchie and the ubiquitous George Monbiot (does he do anything apart from the  rally circuit these days?) were among the speakers, with a young compere who whipped the crowd up nicely. at one point he managed to get a genuinely hilarious call-and-response of

"What do we want?"
"Electoral reform!"
"When do we want it?"
"Subject to a referendum!"

which sounded very slick indeed. Kudos. The afternoon concluded with a trip to Downing Street to drop off a petition.

Just a final word on nomenclature. I seem to be getting roped into more and more mailing lists besides my membership of the Electoral Reform Society: as well as the ERS, this event was run by, among others, Power2010, Take Back Parliament and Vote for a Change. All four groups seem to be campaigning for exactly the same things. Why the need to fragment things all over the place? Vote for a Change was a disastrous name to begin with, sounding identical to the Conservative election slogan, while Take Back Parliament sounds like a militant anarchist group. Someone banged on about putting purple ribbons on every street in the land. People need to get a grip; electoral reform isn't something you're going to get millions of people campaigning for - it's an issue that needs to be dealt with slowly and steadily. You can't explain the need for PR with a "Fair Votes Now" chant or bits of ribbon. Most people are interested in the best way to improve their health and education facilities. They need to be educated in the reasons why their vote is not currently going as far as it should, why a proportional system would ensure that they have their say in a meaningful way, and how that could affect those front-line services. None of the speakers dwelt on the reasons why or how electoral reform could affect voters, and why it is a Good Thing. The stomping of feet and chanting of slogans will be forgotten tomorrow. Will the 500 people who turned up all try to educate and convince a dozen people about the need for real reform tomorrow? Because if they do, it'll be much more valuable than the feeling of today's rally being another pea in another pod.

Monday 10 May 2010

Living in a marginal (4) - my final take on Hampstead & Kilburn

What a weird and wonderful week this has been. I still don't know what to make of the election results and nor, I think, do many far more seasoned experts. I sat up through Thursday night transfixed by what was going on but unable to make head nor tail of why the electorate had behaved the way they did.

The simplest thing to say is that it was a catastrophic night for the Liberal Democrats. The polling companies, who have supposedly perfected their "shy Tories" phenomena and other minutiae of their methodologies, got this one spectacularly wrong. Commentators who said that Twitter and the TV debates were having a massive effect on the voting may or may not have got things wrong. I think it'll take some pretty hefty studies to analyse exactly what the effects were. But ultimately, a lot of people claimed that they'd be voting Lib Dem on Thursday, and didn't. Maybe they thought they would at the time. Maybe they intended to and didn't bother. Maybe they just lied. Who knows. As for the Conservatives, the result is pretty much what they'd been heading for for weeks according to the polls, so they can hardly be too disappointed; that said, their biggest upset will come from not taking nearly as many seats from Labour as they would have liked. For Labour, this election represents relief. Dozens of seats which might have fallen didn't; and they managed to poach one or two back from the Liberals. We saw huge majorities for Lembit Opik and Peter Robinson - who both strike me as very decent people - toppled, while Julia Goldsworth lost her seat. At least Jacqui Smith is also gone, although it would have been nice to see the end of Ed Balls.

Hampstead and Kilburn was like a microcosm of the whole country. Labour hanging on grimly with Lib Dems and Tories breathing down their necks. The live twitter commentary from @whampstead was a joy, although by the time the result was announced I was on the tube in to work the next day. I've absolutely no idea what happened, so in a nutshell, a few brief points:

  • On a swing predicted by national opinion polls, Ed Fordham would likely have won comfortably - close for second between Glenda Jackson and Chris Philp
  • In terms of sheer volume of campaigning on the ground at local level, it would be neck and neck between Fordham and Philp, with Jackson miles behind
  • Glenda Jackson hardly has a reputation as a strong local MP. She could havrdly be described as having waves of local popular support
  • Putting those points together, a logical conclusion would be to assume that Fordham would take the constituency quite comfortably, with Philp in second and Jackson third
  • The bookies confirmed this, with PaddyPower giving odds of 2/5 Fordham, 5/2 Philp, 7/2 Jackson on the day of the election
 Quite simply, when I heard that Glenda Jackson had held on, I was flabbergasted. Despite occasional comments to the contrary, both Philp and Fordham fought relatively clean campaigns (anyone who thinks otherwise clearly hasn't been to many tight by-election fights). Labour simply didn't compete in the seat; I received one local communication from them in the entire campaign, there was an absence of social media activity, a dearth of advertising, and we got no "big guns" until the final week when we got Brown and Darling.

Yet somehow the Lib Dems failed to find the notional 474 votes to win that they required, and the Tories also failed to capitalise. What went wrong?

At a local level, I can only suggest that the "Lib Dems can't win here/Tories can't win here" material backfired spectacularly, and voters decided that voting Labour was the safest option. I suspect this, in particular, cost Philp, whose communications warning that it was "us or Labour" may have made voters think twice about voting Lib Dem in case the TORY got in. It's difficult to tell though.

Rather I reckon that H&K is simply an anomaly typical of what happened nationally on Thursday night: Labour managed to hold off some ferocious challenges and hang on to some seemingly impossible seats while haemorrhaging others. But I am very, very surprised that it happened here, given the effort put in by the other parties.

Good luck to both Ed and Chris in the future - both seem ambitious, personable chaps and are both young enough that they can do other things for another few years before trying again. And congratulations to Glenda who replaces Sarah Teather as my MP. I hope that the reputation which precedes her as lazy and uncaring of her constituency isn't the reality - my impressions of her at the hustings were very positive and if she can walk the wakl as well as she talks the talk, then she'll be terrific. I will make sure that I hold her to account - starting with her putting her money where her mouth is on full blown electoral reform before tackling her on localised issues.

Brown falls - who next?

What a few days these have been. This is high-drama politics at its finest (and I fully expect a stage/screen/TV version of what's happened in the last few days to emerge some time soon, as well as numerous books). The Conservatives have clearly given Nick Clegg and his advisory team of Alexander, Huhne and Stunnell some serious food for thought, but at the psychologically optimal moment, Gordon Brown has fallen on his sword.

This smacks of Mandelson, but it is the right thing to do. I personally like Gordon Brown, but as far as the press and most of the electorate are concerned, anything he touches turns to mud and he brings down the Labour party and anything that goes along with it (for example, a coalition with the Lib Dems). Word is that Clegg now wants to speak further with Labour. This isn't over yet.

So we prepare for a leadership election. Who would I like to see?

Ed Milliband ***** a serious intellect, a decent man, seems well liked within the party and not too divisive. I would have Milliband the Younger ahead of anyone else.

Alan Johnson **** I'm pretty indifferent to cockney cheeky chappy Johnson, but the one thing in his favour is his wholehearted support for full blooded electoral reform. I suspect many of the the Liberal Democrat hierarchy think likewise.

Alistair Darling *** I like Darling, but he's deeply unsexy as a politician and unlikely to win votes for them in this age of the TV debate (that said, you could say the same thing about Clegg). I'd be happy enough, but he's too close to Brown and it won't happen.

Peter Mandelson *** I wouldn't mind. He's the most brilliant political operator I've ever seen and who knows what would happen. I'm hypnotised by him already; could he hypnotise the entire country?

David Milliband ** the more I see of him, the less I like. Blair-Cameron-Clegg clone: slick suits and desperate to project being Earnest, Worthy and Humble.

Harriet Harman ** there's something about female Labour ministers that makes me want to squirm. Every single one of them has been a disaster. Jowell, Hewitt, Harman, Beckett, Smith, Blears, Kelly. All as awful as each other. I don't want to appear sexist, but come on - they have all been dreadful.

Ed Balls * vile, vile, vile creature. If this man comes anywhere near the premiership I will emigrate. Promise? Promise.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Living in a marginal (3): Hampstead & Kilburn - the final showdown

So, this is it. In 24 hours time, there will be little that any of the pretenders to the various thrones up for grabs across the country can do any more. Even now, much of the campaigning being done is too little, too late - there simply isn't enough time for any important messages to filter down to the mainstream electorate any more. Instead, the only effective tactics now must be micromanaged local efforts to get out the core vote, make last minute efforts to firm up any "soft" voters and perhaps tempt a few stray leaves in the wind to land on the right side. At this stage, that will depend almost entirely on having quality, comprehensive local canvass data and a well managed logistical plan for addresses to target, a plan for lifts to polling stations, and other things that may seem insignificant but could play a vital role in the overall election result.

Well, here in Hampstead and Kilburn, one of the tightest three-way marginals in the country and focus of not only a great deal of media attention but also visits from many political heavyweights, nobody will knock on my door to tempt me out to vote, because nobody has bothered to canvass my vote. Do I take it personally? Only a little, but it seems that I'm not the only person who hasn't had a knock. It strikes me that candidates' priorities have been slightly amiss in this constituency. I've had debates with people about these issues on other blogs, but I maintain that there has been an over-emphasis on social media with a limited audience (Youtube videos are all very well, but with only a few dozen views, are they worth it?), too much focus on West Hampstead, and a shortage of canvassing (admittedly, my only evidence for this is extremely limited and anecdotal!) Especially since the TV debates, there are suddenly hundreds, perhaps thousands, of potential voters sitting at home who would otherwise have abstained but are now prepared to vote, have maybe made up their mind, but are a very soft vote indeed. My feeling is that the candidates should have redoubled their efforts on actually speaking to these people face-to-face, and perhaps enticing people who otherwise wouldn't have voted - or registered - to do so, and to do it in that candidate's favour.

A quick further word on the social media aspect of things. As Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard correctly predicted at the Lewis PR Social Media Summit (where I came closest to meeting any of the candidates as I chatted to one of Tamsin Omond's team), this hasn't turned out to be the election where it was social media wot won it as I wondered in January, but locally I've really enjoyed keeping up with things via the active blogs and Twitter people locally. Special mention in particular to  Jonathan's West Hampstead Life blog or Dan's Kilburn-based NW6 blog, by the way, both of which are excellent and have provided me with much of my keeping up to date from an "outsider's" point of view (ie independent of any party). Both of those pulled off nice coups with interviews with the main characters, and provided a lot more since. In addition, there has been full-blooded banter on Twitter, some fairly robust debate on Jewish issues on the OyVaGoy blog, live Twitter commentary on hustings from the Ham & High, and some cracking Youtube work from Nathan Williams debunking the myths from ALL the parties about who can and can't win the seat (something that has enraged quite a few people, not least me). All put together, it's enriched the whole experience and so thanks to everyone who's argued and worried over the local issues, whatever side of the lines you fall on. And while  do feel that the candidates themselves might have spent their time more productively, I've certainly enjoyed having little Twitter tussles now and again with Ed Fordham, Tamsin Omond and Chris Philp.

What of the candidates themselves? I've been saying since the beginning that we're fortunate enough to have three individual candidates who are very strong in their own way and on a local level, I won't be unhappy to see any of them as my MP.

Chris Philp has run a straightforward campaign. It seems that with Chris, what you see is what you get - he has his core message and sticks to it. He comes across as strong, personable and dedicated. He also seems very committed to the Tory message; I have a strong hunch that he'll go far in the party - whether as MP for Hampstead & Kilburn from 2010, or somewhere else somewhere in the future, but my feeling is that he can really go places. It's been a campaign built on local issues, and his straight-talking approach will, I think, have impressed people on the doorsteps, especially the floating voters.

Ed Fordham's campaign has been more touchy-feely. He comes across as a sensitive individual, not afraid to explore a question when he's asked it and doesn't know the answer at first! He comes across as adaptable and flexible, and perhaps most importantly, the most natural and human of the three main candidates. His campaign has gathered momentum as time has gone on, gaining flattering reactions from both local media and, by the sounds of it, local voters. Chris Philp apparently thinks that local Lib Dems have rigged the bookies' odds by placing massive bets on their man in order to shorten his odds; I wouldn't go as far as that, although I would say that 2/5 is far too short a price and if you're into betting, there's better value to be had putting money on Philp, although I still expect Fordham to squeak home.

Glenda Jackson is an enigma. Derided as "London's laziest MP" and with no campaigning whatsoever, I knew nothing about her until my first hustings, where she came across as by far the most profound and thoughtful of the camdidates. I was really impressed. Her voting record (or lack thereof) and absence of local presence count against her, which is a shame, as her values seem spot on to me. I have no idea what the local party have been playing at; three days before the election itself I received my very first hand delivered Labout leaflet, which sems too little too late, as do the last-gasp visits from Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to the constituency (joining the illustrious ranks of heavyweights to visit the area: Osborne, Johnson, Clegg, Cable). Labour's resources have, understandably, been stretched with so many seats to contend, but these visits seem an afterthought and I'd be very surprised if Labour didn't finish in third in H&K, which would be a shame for Jackson, whose values and dedication to democracy impressed me greatly at the hustings and since.

Last word must be dedicated to the unexpected star of this area - Tamsin Omond. I must admit, when I first heard that she was standing, I agreed with an article describing it as "an act of epic narcissism" but have been proved wrong many times over. Reading her Twitter feed and occasional blog posts, you get a real sense of her joys and pains, the rush of jousting with opponents mixed with the depression faced after having a string of doors slammed in her face, exhaustion mingling with adrenaline. Her campaign has been unerringly positive, and, refreshingly, she holds no beef with any of her opponents. I hope that, after a break, she'll decide it's been worth the effort. I also hope that she'll carry on with politics in the future, but would urge her that while someone of her talents can clearly make big waves, she won't do it all on her own and while starting a new political party may have seemed like a fun idea at the time, she may be better, as she gets older, deciding to make compromises on her beliefs and join a larger, more mainstream group in order to try and change things "from within". Sharing her journey, albeit online, has been a pleasure though, bringing laughs aplenty and close to tears on other occasions. Good luck to her for the future.

As for my own vote. Well, I've tried, as much as possible, to give objective thoughts throughout, although I've known all along who will get my vote and it won't be hard to read between the lines to work out which box my cross will appear in. This election is the most exciting in my lifetime and it's going to be on issues different to the last elections. 2001 and 2005 were public services with a little bit of Iraq thrown in. In 2010, suddenly the goalposts have shifted. We have a clued up electorate who actually have opinions on taxation and public service cuts, in this era of financial uncertainty. This election won't just be about the economy though - since the TV debates, the polls at one point indicated that we could end up in the bizarre situation of the Liberal Democrats winning the popular vote, with Labour in third...yet translated into seats Labour would win the largest share with the Liberals miles behind in third.

Suddenly, decades overdue, the electoral reform bandwagon began to roll. Along with climate change, electoral reform is one of the few issues that won't just affect us, but will have a lasting impact in fifty years time. A fair voting system is something I've believed in since I was a kid, although I only became fully clued up since I became a paid-up member of the Electoral Reform Society at the start of the year. The ERS have been at the forefront of the calls for change and I applaud the work they've done, although "helpfully" pointing people to vote for a hung parliament at the expense of considering other local factors was a mistake. Even so, when we live in a country which is so hypocritical to invade Iraq in the name of promoting democracy while having an electoral system that is so blatantly and cripplingly unfair, then it's time to take a bold stand against the archaic system and move onto something fairer and more positive. For me, this is an absolute dealbreaker.  I can't think of any other issues that is so important to our country at this time. We'll ride out the economic storm - this may be our only chance to save the voting system. That is why, for me, only a party that can deliver electoral reform will get my vote.

The Labour Party is a funny old beast. It's by far the hardest to pin down. There are hoary old socialists, vile Blairites, some truly dire individual MPs and a core of fundamentally decent people who believe in the right thing for society. I believe that small group includes Gordon Brown. He's had a rough time since he came to office, has made some appalling decisions, and has terrible mannerisms which make him unsuited to this new era of TV soundbite politics. But of all the party leaders, he comes across as the most heavyweight. His economic pedigree, while not untarnished, is still strong and along with the brilliant Peter Mandelson (you can hate him, but anyone must respect that Mandelson the most glitteringly talented politician of our generation by miles) is one of Labour's best assets. He has the execrable Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and the not-much-better David Milliband around him, so his team stinks, but if Labour get a whipping, I hope Brown doesn't take all the blame (although he will).

The Conservatives are always a party who I think have some terrific local MPs, but the further up the party one goes the more rotten it becomes. The old schoolers - Ancram, Rifkind, Hague - are superb, and I am a fan of Michael Gove (although he has become unbearable recently; probably a consequence of shadowing Ed Balls). But for every Rifkind there is a Fox and for every Gove there is a Pickles. Their "Big Society" concept is admirable, even if it does feel like a panicking afterthought, and they have some nice touches on pensions and education. But their environmental record is woeful, their commitment to inheritance tax cuts for the wealthy are worrying and opposition to any sort of electoral reform most backward of all.

The Liberal Democrats are finally hitting the mainstream. Nick Clegg has ousted Vince Cable as the politician du jour and Ed Davey's star has risen significantly. Their economic policies are bold, they have consistently superior environmental policies and their pro-Europe stance appeals to me. Only blanket standing up for civil liberties, no matter what the cost, and the rather unworkable regional immigration scheme, seem suspect. Their lasting contribution to this election will surely be electoral reform and a fairer voting system, assuming the Tories fail to gain an overall majority. Once again Nathan Williams sums it up best, with this brilliant little video.

Can't wait for Thursday. I think I'll go for BBC TV coverage, with half an eye on a list of swing seats and another half eye on my favourite blogs (UK Polling Report, Iain Dale, Mark Reckons, Guido, and probably Left Foot Forward and Lib Dem Voice) and Twitter. And hope I don't fall asleep at the crucial 4am moment. I don't think I will.