Month: October 2012

Skyfall – A Review


Oh boy. This is going to be it. This is going to be the blog which gets me the truckloads of abuse, the death-threats, and all the rest of the creepy stuff.

Because I watched Skyfall today, and I wasn’t as blown away by it as everyone else seems to have been.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it. It was the best Bond film I’ve seen in a long while; better than Quantum of Solace, even better than Casino Royale. It had the action, the gadgets, the pithy one liners, the protagonist moving from girl to girl in a manner which would be insultingly demeaning without the suave 007 logo. It had everything that a Bond film needs.

But that’s just it. It was a good Bond film. But rated as simply a film, it felt a touch disappointing.

Skyfall, like all of the Bond series, occupies a strange world where people communicate in the sort of clichés that elsewhere would make me cringe and want to hunt down the script writer. Its plot hangs on the unlikeliest of coincidences, stretched thin like canvas over poles.

And yet I enjoyed it.

Part of that, I think, is the confidence with which it wears its outrageousness. The franchise has been doing this for fifty years now, and has shown itself to be surprisingly resilient — most notably with the Casino Royale reinvention for the modern age. It’s somewhat daft, but we collectively buy into it as audience. It’s why all the anniversary nostalgic crowd-pleasers (which I won’t spoil here) work so well.

So, despite my reservations about it as a piece of cinema, I did enjoy the watching of it.

A large part of that success has to be lain at the door of Javier Bardem, whose villain Raoul Silva manages to be both brilliantly entertaining and actually slightly scary. I can’t remember the last time that happened. The plot is wafer thin, but Bardem plays it with such raw and manic insanity and instability that it was hard not to like him.

Bond is never going to be a serious, gritty and realistic espionage drama (for that, see the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). What it is is a different kind of action film. I think Skyfall suffered from poor expectation management. There were a lot of people raving about how excellent it was, leading me to hope that maybe it had broken the mould. It hasn’t. Which is a good or bad thing, depending on your opinion.

I’m not a huge Bond fan. And I still think that Daniel Craig looks like someone shaved a gorilla and put it in a tuxedo. But I do think that Skyfall is worth a watch. Probably.

Thames Valley Police Commissioner Hustings in Wokingham


The most common thing I hear from people when I talk to them about the Police & Crime Commissioner elections —  now less than three weeks away — is that they have no idea who the candidates are, or what policies they are standing on.

It’s an understandable problem, really. The Thames Valley is a big area, and the elections have been both terribly timed and remarkably unpromoted, given that they’re for a major new public office. Unless voters have specifically gone looking for candidates’ positions (or maybe not even then) or they have been canvassed by activists then there is little chance they will have much idea what each candidate is proposing.

So local hustings have been of primary importance in this campaign. There have been several already, but Wednesday will see the candidates coming to Wokingham for a public debate. The Finchampstead Society will be hosting a debate at 7:30pm at the Memorial Hall (Wokingham, RG40 4JU) where the candidates will be speaking and available to answer questions.

As far as I’m aware, only the three main party candidates have confirmed attendance: John Howson (Lib Dem), Anthony Stansfeld (Conservative), and Tim Starkey (Labour). Which leaves the two remaining independents and the UKIP candidate may well not be there. But it’s better than nothing.

I shall be there, and I urge any residents of the Thames Valley area who can make it to join me. This is a serious and major public office, and we are running a real risk of allowing a candidate to sleepwalk into it with no real scrutiny or democratic process. Come along on Wednesday evening, and put your questions to the people vying to be your first Police & Crime Commissioner.

Wokingham libraries not to be sold off


A little piece of good news this weekend, courtesy of the folks over at Save Wokingham’s Libraries. They quote a press release (which I have seen, and can therefore vouch for, even if it’s not online for me to link to), which seems to indicate that Wokingham Borough Council have decided not to go ahead with the proposed privatisation of library services.

Which is excellent news, frankly. It was the libraries issue (primarily) which brought me into local politics a year and a bit ago, and it has been key to the two local election campaigns I’ve run. It would be churlish of me to claim that it was my efforts personally which have led to this change of heart, but I have no doubt that it is the tireless campaigning by the cross-party group Save Wokingham’s Libraries and also concerned local residents that we have to thank for this.

Cllr Pauline Jorgensen, executive member for common sense and disaster aversion (also, Internal Services), announcing the decision, said:

The council has been working with interested parties in a competitive dialogue process to see if there are ways that we can work with the private sector to improve the library service we offer. The result is that we haven’t been convinced there will be enough benefits for our library users to continue with the process. We also don’t want to take the risk the key objectives would not be achieved for our users.

Well done Pauline. I feel that this is the correct moment to point out that when she was appointed to the executive, I hailed it as a shot in the arm for sound politics and administration in Wokingham local government. And well done to the people of Wokingham Borough.

Now let’s hope for some headway on the bins next month.

Pinkneys Green: the winners and the losers


After the Pinkneys Green election count last night, the dust has settled, and in the cold light of day the results don’t look any better. There’s not really a way to spin it, there were distinct winners and losers here.

The winners were clearly the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Sadly, the losers were Labour and the Conservatives.

Firstly, Labour. I am disappointed with our results. We worked hard, canvassing widely and getting mostly good feedback. To come fourth behind a UKIP candidate who did very little campaigning (indeed, who turned up at the polling station yesterday morning and asked the tellers from the other parties “Why are you taking numbers? This is a local election, you don’t actually do anything. You’re not actually going to knock up, are you?“) is very disappointing. There’s no real way of spinning it as anything else.

For the Lib Dems, though, this will be a great encouragement. They won the election, so clearly they did well. But it goes a bit beyond that. They won this election despite polling ratings being in the toilet, despite having been all but wiped out in the 2011 local elections, and despite the local Tories throwing the kitchen sink at this election.

However, its worth looking at just how they won the election. Granted, they ran a good campaigning operation. But in the end it wasn’t that which won them the seat. The margin between Simon Werner and Tory Catherine Hollingsworth was eight votes. UKIP, in comparison, polled 152.

At the count, UKIP councillor Tom Bursnall (who, let us remember, defected from the Conservatives) joked with me that if UKIP won “we’ll be withdrawing Pinkneys Green from the EU“. A joke, but it shines an interesting light on the state of affairs: UKIP have nothing offer on a local level. They are a one issue party, and that one issue is irrelevant here. Those 152 votes must be for the most part disaffected Conservatives making a protest vote.

And this is why, although Labour came last, the Conservatives were the biggest losers of the night. They were denied a council seat by UKIP. Replicate this on bigger elections, across the country, and the Tories are in trouble. The left-wing vote has long been split between Labour and the Lib Dems, and now UKIP are doing the same on the right.

I was mystified that, with it being so close, Ms Hollingsworth didn’t pursue a recount. Losing the seat is immaterial in itself, as the Conservatives still hold the vast majority of seats. But losing as a result of UKIP is a major political setback. The fact that Tory councillors came out on mass to canvass the ward only makes it more humiliating.

UKIP now have a lot more leverage over the Conservatives on a national level. There have been internal forces pushing David Cameron to make a deal with the anti-EU party and those voices will only get stronger as a result.

So there we have it. A bloodied Conservative Party, Labour in the same place, UKIP emboldened, and a new Lib Dem on the council. Talking to Simon Werner, he seems like a nice guy — and is, apparently, on the social democrat wing of the yellow party.

But I still think Pat McDonald would have made a better councillor.

Vote Pat McDonald in Pinkneys Green


Pat McDonald campaigning with Labour PCC candidate Tim Starkey in Maidenhead high street.

It’s election day in the Pinkneys Green ward of the Royal Borough of Maidenhead and Windsor, and by now polling stations are open. They will stay open until 10pm, allowing some fifteen hours for residents to vote.

There are a few reasons why this by-election will probably have quite a low turnout (and they apply to next month’s Police & Crime Commissioner elections, too):

  • Poor promotion: a worrying majority of voters who I spoke to whilst canvassing had no idea that an election was even happening. The ballot hasn’t been terribly well promoted, and a large number of the electorate will have no idea about it.
  • Weather: it’s the middle of autumn. It feels, if we’re honest, more like the start of winter. This is not prime election weather. There is a reason that elections are most commonly held in May: because the weather is likely to be nicer, and thus more people are willing to walk down to the polling station. If it is (as weather forcasts indicate) grey and miserable and cold tomorrow, then a lot of people will simply think “Screw it!”
  • Apathy: Linked to both of the above options, many voters simply aren’t interested. Maybe it’s because they think that all politicians are crooks (unfair), or that their vote won’t make a difference (understandable), they have no intention to vote.

But in low turnout situations, unexpected things can happen.

The Labour and Co-operative candidate Pat McDonald is a long-standing resident and activist in Maidenhead. He has sat on his parish council, stood for parliament, and is heavily involved with Maidenhead United Football Club. He would be an excellent addition to the borough council and an excellent representative for Pinkneys Green.

I don’t know anything about the Conservative candidate, but there are more than enough Tories on the council as things are, and their policies are already failing the public both nationally and locally.

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Simon Werner — the former councillor who the electorate chucked out at the last local elections, and whose party is propping up the Tories in a national government which is failing on every promise it has made. They have also cost the local taxpayer some £3,000 to hold this by-election now, rather than coinciding with the Police Commissioner elections three weeks later.

I’ve already said on this blog that a Labour win at this by-election would be the only result which could substantially change the political situation in Maidenhead. For the reasons detailed above, I have to look at such a victory as a distinct possibility.

People of Pinkneys Green, please go out and cast your vote today. Vote for the candidate for change and a better future.

Vote for Pat McDonald.

What they don’t tell you about political blogging


Now this is the story all about how my day got flipped, turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I ended zipping across north London in a cab with the left-wing political blogosphere’s finest.

As a bit of background, the Chancellor of the Exchequer — George Osborne — was on a train from Wilmslow to London Euston. And he had a bit of an adventure, did our Gideon. I’ll let the original tweets from ITV journalist Rachel Townsend, who was on the same train, tell the story:

Oh dear! Osborne doesn’t want to have to sit with the plebs!

We did hear reports after that that Osborne’s aid was checking to see if they could get off before London, but sadly…

So the Chancellor had been caught out trying to blag a free upgrade to first class, and was on a non-stop train into Euston station in north London. North London, where the majority of major left-wing blogs in the country are based. North London where I was, working out of Political Scrapbook‘s offices.

Ooops.

So that is how I ended up in a taxi along with Scrapbook editor Laurence Durnan, newest recruit Dulcie Lee, and LabourList supremo Mark Ferguson. And the rest of the political press was also heading towards Euston.

We got there to find Harry Cole (of Guido Fawkes fame) toting a video camera, and had a bit of a stand off with both the station PR and the police about whether we were going to be able to film or photograph the disembarking minister. Sadly, when the train arrived the police closed off the gates to the platform, and smuggled him out the side.

We didn’t get a picture or video of Osborne. The one from the top of this post comes courtesy of ITV. What we did do is race across north London at a blinding pace, run all around Euston station, and get to see a very much The Thick of It story from the other side. No one ever told me political blogging involved so much running!

And then, of course, I got home to find that the Chief Whip, Andrew “f**king plebs” Mitchell, had resigned — which cements this as “the day all the news happened“.

UPDATE: It seems Osborne has form for this sort of thing:

Anthony Stansfeld’s first policy


With the general lack of awareness of the Police Commissioner elections, hopes of a high turnout are slim to non-existent. But there’s still a certain arrogance in anyone presuming victory weeks before votes are even cast.

And yet, that seems to be exactly what the Conservative candidate in the Thames Valley Anthony Stansfeld is doing.

Despite running a campaign apparently without any policy ideas, Stansfeld thinks he already has it in the bag. His website is a pretty clear indicator of his campaign: mostly empty, with a national news stream, and last updated over a month ago. Indeed, his primary selling point seems to be making a link between his sitting on the Performance Committee of Thames Valley Police Authority (which the Police Commissioner would replace) and an increase in crime detection.

Except, that the committee meets once every three months. Do we really believe that he is the sole driving force behind this?

But it goes further than that. The police are facing millions of pounds of budget cuts, cuts which are taking officers off the front line (in direct contravention of Conservative promises). Police pay is frozen and their morale is in the pits, and what is Cllr Stansfeld doing?

Brilliant. Anthony Stansfeld’s first actual policy of this election: a car and chauffeur, ready for when he is anointed Police Commissioner. He hasn’t even won the election yet, and he’s already spending police service money on himself — rather than fighting and preventing crime. Might I suggest, people of the Thames Valley, that you elect someone else? Someone who has ideas for how to improve policing? Someone whose ego isn’t the complete extent of their campaign?

Elect someone other than Anthony Stansfeld.

Voter apathy: a serious problem for the left


This weekend I was out and about in Maidenhead, canvassing for the Pinkney’s Green by-election next week. A  bizarre practice, canvassing, where we few political enthusiasts go door to door, bothering people who most of the time don’t want to be bothered in an effort to persuade them to vote for our candidate.

Like I said, a bizarre practice. But it’s one that forms the cornerstone of our democratic system.

And yet, knocking on doors on a brisk Saturday morning, I was alarmed at just how many people said that either they weren’t planning to vote or didn’t even know that there was an election on. The overwhelming majority of households showed a worrying disconnection and disaffection from their local democracy.

There are a number of reasons why this shouldn’t be surprising:

  1. Democratic involvement and thus electoral turnout has been down on trend since the 1950s.
  2. Turnout at the last local elections in Wokingham (the neighbouring authority to Windsor & Maidenhead) was only 30%, despite some serious local issues framing the ballot.
  3. After the expenses scandal, Nick Clegg’s u-turn on tuition fees, the hacking scandal, the Tories’ NHS u-turn, and a host of other incidents, the public’s distaste for politicians is higher than ever.

But still, if you were to ask most people they would probably say they aren’t happy with the government — local or national.

It’s never been any secret either that conservative voters are more likely to go out and vote. There are all sorts of reasons, but it gives right-wing parties an electoral advantage (remember that when you hear Tory MPs talking about boundary reviews and Labour advantages). Those who would naturally support the Conservatives are more likely to go down to the polling station on election day than those who would naturally support Labour.

Part of it, I’m convinced, is down to a sense of empowerment. The more affluent voters more inclined to vote blue feel that they have a stake in the system and that their votes count. The poorer, more vulnerable voters who would be most helped by policies of the left do not. In the words of one gentlemen I spoke to on Saturday:

Whoever I vote for, it makes no difference to me, it makes no difference to my life.

Whether or not that’s true is up for debate, but what isn’t is that him and a lot of other people like him feel that way.

The truth is that politics is often boring. For every exciting moment of heated debate, there’s a boring committee meeting about details which would bore the pants off most. This is doubly true with local government. And yet, this it is through these mechanisms which their lives can be enhanced and improved.

This is a serious problem for the left, although I don’t have a solution. But a turnout as low as (or lower than) one third is not accurately representative of the public view. The only real remedy to this that we have at our disposal (excluding making voting compulsory) is party infrastructure, “getting the vote out“.

In the longer term, though, we need to do something to make people, all people, feel that their votes matter and make a difference.