s4s blog

It’s only just getting off the ground, but “Southend For Stella” is now officially a thing. With a Facebook Page and a Twitter account.

This is a group of like-minded Southend Labour members, who believe that Stella Creasy’s community-based, grassroots approach to campaigning is exactly what the party needs. These are the same techniques which we have used to great effect in Southend, why we are now part of the administration running Southend Council, and how we held our own in a disastrous general election for Labour.

So like, follow, and let’s get Stella elected as the next Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Working hard for Blenheim Park: campaigning in five counties

blenheim park counties roads campaigning

Yesterday morning saw the Labour team, including myself, out in Blenheim Park ward putting the below leaflet out across the ward. It was a bright and clear day, but as with last week the wind was bitter and biting. Not that that stopped us.

Over a few hours, we covered five counties: Kent, Norfolk, Surrey, Suffolk, and Middlesex. I am, of course, talking about the avenues within Blenheim Park ward bearing those names.

The weather won’t stop us this morning either; there are more leaflets to go out, and only 102 days left until the election. Labour are serious, nationally and locally, about offering an alternative that will work. We’re working hard for Southend, and I‘m out every weekend talking to Blenheim Park residents, listening to what they want from their local representative.

Vote Labour for a better Southend. Vote Matt Dent for a better Blenheim Park.

Read the leaflet

The cold never bothered me anyway

blenheim leafleting

2014 is almost done, and the period between Christmas and the New Year is usually a time for relaxing and doing not much of anything. Not with Southend Labour, though. Continuing our streak of being the most active political force in the borough, it has been a very busy few days.

For some reason, the cold doesn’t especially bother me. Maybe it’s the doughty northern blood in my veins, or just as my Dad has always said, “No sense, no feeling.”

Whatever, both mornings in the last week that I’ve been out leafleting have been bright, dry, and a colder as hell. Perfect weather for it.

In Blenheim Park, Labour still seem to be the only party out working in the ward. Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Southend West, Julian Ware-Lane, and I made good progress on Monday around the Mendips estate. I have yet to hear any “choice words” from residents, sorry to disappoint Cllr Waterworth.

I’ve yet to see any sign of Cllr Waterworth out talking to residents, either, for that matter…

Elsewhere in the borough, I know that Julian has been very busy. I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but over the festive period he has been campaigning in Blenheim Park, Westborough, Prittlewell, and St Laurence. A Labour team was also out on Sunday in St Luke’s and Gray Sergeant has kicked off his campaign for Milton.

2014 was a great year for Southend Labour, seeing not only the fall of the Tory administration, but our own role emerging in the new joint administration. I am determined that 2015 will bring even better developments, and Labour alone are already out on the streets, knocking on doors and working hard for the people and future of Southend.

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.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, so I'm taking John Halsall's apparent conversion to my position as a massive compliment.

[UPDATE: Subsequently to publishing this blog, I have discovered that the premise of this blog is based upon a mistake in the Henley Standard article. As a result, I have published this correction of my own claims]

This week’s Henley Standard (published yesterday) contains a “Local Elections 2012” page, in which they give an overview of the candidates standing for election in the areas they cover. Since this includes Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, there are profiles of myself, Cllr Halsall and the Liberal Democrat candidate Martin Alder.

This is the first sign of direct campaigning from Martin, which is strange for a candidate who put out three leaflets at last summer’ by election. But since it’s been confirmed to me by a neutral resident this week that the Lib Dems haven’t even distributed a leaflet this time, I’m pretty confident that this is part of a strategic concentration of resources.

But it’s Cllr Halsall’s bio that interests me. It’s nothing particularly new or ground-breaking, but there is one line which particularly grabbed my attention:

Both [the bins problem and the libraries issue] show a dangerous disconnect between the council leaders and ordinary people.

Which sounds…familiar. Very familiar, in fact. And looking back through the archives on this very site, I come across this line, from the blog where I declared my candidacy back on April 6th:

At the moment, the Conservative elite who rule Wokingham seem completely disconnected from residents.

In fact, the fact that the council leadership isn’t listening has been the central point of my campaign. Time and again I’ve pointed out serious failings that stem from this simple truth. From the libraries, to the disaster that is the new bin scheme, to the borough’s development “plan”, the message has been clear: the Conservatives don’t care what you think. And it’s very odd to hear my songs sung by others.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m taking John Halsall’s apparent conversion to my position as a massive compliment.

John is a very smart man. I would never seek to deny that, and surely anyone who has spoken to him will recognise it. He’s clearly been knocking on doors, and been hearing the same views from residents as I have. He recognises that his party has a poor record for competence at the moment, both nationally and locally, and that clinging to indefensible positions will only lose him votes and support.

But this doesn’t escape the fact that John is a Conservative councillor and the Conservative candidate. He may well disagree with the actions of the leadership, and think that there is a disconnect. But he is an agent of that leadership, and his power to hold it to account is somewhere between slim and nil.

Re-electing John will send no message to council leaders to whom your votes matter and your voices don’t. Nice man though he undoubtedly is, John Halsall is not a credible candidate for change. But I am. If you want your council to change the way it operates, and to start to ask you what you think of its plans, then vote for me on May 3rd.

Vote for the original, not the tribute band.

T Minus One Week

Only a week left, until the polling stations open for voters.

This time next week, the polls will be open and ballot papers will be being filled out. Candidates and activists will be scurrying around, and voters will be wandering to their polling station. So as the home stretch looms before us, I thought I’d lay out a few points that have become clear through the campaign.

  • God hates canvassers. This might seem trite, but the weather has been almost singularly appalling. I’ve lost count of the number of leaflet drops and door knocking sessions that have been conducted in the rain. I’ve already blogged about this, but it’s left the whole campaign feeling a bit…soggy. Not to mention leaving me scornful of any concept of “drought”.
  • Some people think that rubbish collection is not an issue. Others disagree. I’m clearly in the latter camp, to avoid any doubt. Actually, most of the people I’ve encountered who think discussion of the bins is a silly issue have been the smaller households. For the most part larger households (three, four people) and those with children have been giving the same complaint: the 80 bags provided simply aren’t enough to last a year.
  • The local issue is king. I’m actually really pleased about this. Whilst there are numerous complaints about the cuts or the NHS reforms, and the occasional “It’s all Labour’s fault!“, most people have wanted to talk about local problems. Whether this is the bins, the libraries, the toilets, the schools or the parking, people want to talk about the things they think need improving- and it’s nice not to have to say “I’m sorry, that’s not something the council can change“.
  • People want a change. By and large, people are not happy with the status quo. That’s not to say that they’re flocking to my banner yet, but they are certainly sceptical of the lines being fed to them by the Conservatives. Neither nationally nor locally do the Tories exude an air of confidence, and the smell of uncertainty is beginning to foul into a stench of incompetence. Whether or not I can convince people of the change I can offer is another matter, though.
  • Mark Ashwell’s use of Twitter confuses more people than it impresses. The Tory candidate for Winnersh is something of a political curiousity, but his Twitter account has me stumped. I’m afraid when I can understand what he’s saying he seems hopelessly naive and bland, and that comprehension is a rarity. It’s even spawned an equally bizarre anti- account. And now he seems to be blocking anyone who questions him (not even disagrees- questions). Sad, undemocratic, and actually showing that he would fit in well with the council administration:
  • People don’t trust politics. Regardless of what colour rosette you’re wearing, the fact is that people aren’t quick to believe what anyone asking for their vote says. You can argue as to where the blame for this lies (Labour: “You crashed the economy!”; the Tories “You were supposed to fix the economy, not sell off the NHS!”; or the Lib Dems “Tuition fees”.) but the truth is the truth. I’ve been very careful not to promise things I can’t deliver: I know Labour cannot win a majority and take control of the council. But I’ve laid out what I stand for and what I will work towards, and I’d resign before abandoning those principles.

So there’s seven days left to campaign, which is plenty of time to win hearts and minds. If you want to get in touch with me, then please leave a comment below (or use the contact form if you’d prefer privacy) and I’d be happy to discuss any issue you like.

Wokyrubbish – Dull, but Important

The Wokingham bin bags disaster might not be as exciting as national political issues, but it's symptomatic of the problems at the heart of our local government.

I posted the below comment on a Wokingham Times story entitled “Rubbish a big issue in election campaigning“, in response to comments to the extent that the problems surrounding the new rubbish scheme were insignificant, and a silly thing to campaign on.

I’m sorry, but my experience from the doorsteps is that far from a minority, Damiano’s views [that the council’s actions show a disdain for the voting public] represent majority of public opinion.

I understand (and, to be honest, agree with) views that bin bags are a pretty dull subject, but the fact is that they are causing a lot of annoyance and inconvenience to a lot of residents. Local politics often isn’t the grand issues of its national counterpart, but rather the problems that impact people’s everyday lives. I am actually glad that this election is so focused on local matters.

Also, this isn’t simply teething troubles. The problems aren’t confined to the scheme’s execution (which has, inarguably, been woeful), but rather with the concept at its heart. The Tory claims of a council tax freeze sit ill with the stealth taxes they’re implementing. And the fact that they have done it without consultation with the public shows a dangerous aloofness.

The bins are a problem. But they are symptomatic of a bigger problem at the heart of the Conservative council administration.

Tweet for Victory

Twitter seems to have been setting the Wokingham local election campaign trail alight the last few weeks.

I nearly missed the Wokingham Times article this week about local election tweeting– but for, ironically, a tweet alerting me to it. I was interviewed for the piece about a week back, so the fact that I had forgotten all about it should stand as a testament to how busy I’ve been this week.

But yes, the local election has seen a surge of Wokingham borough’s councillors and budding politicians take to the internet and engage in a deep and passionate discussion of local policy. Or maybe not. Before I go on, here are my comments to the Times:

Twitter user Matthew Dent, who is standing for election in Wargrave for Labour, said while there are not many election candidates to communicate with on Twitter, the interaction with residents had been useful.

Mr Dent said: ‘It is about gauging people’s feelings on issues.

‘It is very hard to discuss policy in 140 characters, but issues such as the bins are easier.

‘The wokyrubbish hashtag is being used a lot and it allows you to have conversations with other Twitter users about what the problems are.

I was a reluctant Twitter user at first. It took me a while to get into it, and become the tweeting virtuoso I am now. To expand on what I said to the Times, Twitter has its uses and its problems in pretty much equal measure.

On the one hand, it’s a good way to reach local residents who might not be reached by traditional campaigning techniques. Over the couple of years I’ve been using it I’ve built up an interesting network of contacts, and it can make for some very interesting mass discussions.

The example of the waste scheme is a good one, to that effect. The hashtag, a creation of the Wokingham Times, linked together many people’s complaints and comments on the scheme and made it easy to get a picture (a partial picture, perhaps) of public opinion.

But one obvious drawback is that the picture is partial. In many ways, this is a drawback of any canvassing method. You can’t talk to everyone, so you cannot get a truly accurate version of popular opinion. And, indeed, Twitter use tends towards a certain type of social, tech-savvy individual- slanting the sample.

Another problem is the size limit. 140 characters is not much, which makes for a good deal of creativity. But it can also pare down discussions to their most basic level, which isn’t always…helpful.

There’s also the aspect of how you use it. Wokingham MP John Redwood is, for some reason unknown to me, considered a skilled user of Twitter- despite, as far as I can see, only using it as an alert system for new posts on his blog. Personally, I prefer to combine political discussion and blog-alerting with general life. “Tweeting human”, as the phrase goes. Canvassing people directly through Twitter can be an irritation and increase hostility- but using it to communicate with people can do just the opposite.

I don’t keep separate Twitter accounts for campaigning and personal use. I think that residents and voters being able to see me as a real person, not just a canvassing machine, will help them relate to me, and make them feel more comfortable talking to me about local issues. With the rubbish fiasco, that has really paid off.

So what is Twitter? Well, it’s a campaign tool. A very effective one, in the right hands and with the right strategy, but certainly not a replacement for good, old-fashioned pavement pounding.