Back in Blenheim (Park)

back to blenheim

We only ever see any of you at election time.

That was, if not the most common response on the doorstep, common enough to ring in my ears even once the votes are counted.

We are now just over three weeks since results were announced, and for the mad few of us who do this because we actually enjoy it, the itch to get back out pounding pavements and knocking on doors has set in. I wouldn’t so much call this the start of the Blenheim Park 2016 campaign, so much as continuing the job.

Following the lead of Julian Ware-Lane, I asked a number of those I spoke to why they thought Labour had lost the election. The SNP came up more than a few times. As did Ed Miliband. A good number said that they would be open to voting Labour if we had the right leader, the right policies. Differing ideas of who that leader was were presented.

It felt good to get back out talking to people. Too many think of politics as only happening once a year, or once every five years. But people’s lives go on all year round, and if politics is — as I believe it is — the engine for improving lives, then it too has to be all year round, not just at election time.

“Don’t Panic” Saturday in Blenheim Park

blenheim park canvassing

Yesterday was, apparently, “Panic Saturday”. That sounds, to me, like nonsense in the order of “Black Friday”. But whatever. I was, yesterday, not braving the high street, but getting started knocking on doors in Blenheim Park, where I am standing for election in May of next year.

I have been eager to get started on my campaign properly, after kicking off leafleting last weekend, before 2014 is out. So with Christmas only five days away, what else to do but put on a warm coat and find some pavements to pound?

Read on…

Cursed streets & new boots — weekend cavassing in Milton ward

Princes Street, in Milton ward, Southend-on-Sea, is cursed. I’ve decided. It’s just bad luck for political campaigners. Last week Julian Ware-Lane managed to turn his ankle on the terrifying slopes* of someone’s driveway, which he hobbled around on for the better part of a week before finally venturing to A&E to find, yes, it was broken. This week I stood on a leaf and, err, slipped. Falling flat on arse.

Nothing injured, fortunately. Just my dignity. And who needs that?

Read on…

That perilous campaign trail

Labour in Milton

Matt Dent, Tony Borton and Julian Ware-Lane out canvassing in Milton ward.

Milton massive“, indeed.

Once again the Southend Labour faithful were out on the streets of Milton ward this weekend, talking to residents and recruiting to the cause. Milton is such a varied part of Southend that it is always a pleasure to canvas, particularly when the weather is as cheery as it was this weekend.

Cllr Ware-Lane, though, befell the dangers of political campaigning. Not a rampaging horde of ‘kippers, but rather a treacherous, er, driveway seeing him hobbling the rest of the session… After election day knackered my foot for a good few weeks after, I am both sympathetic and admiring that Julian insisted on finishing off the canvas session even if he had to slowly limp the final stage (Which he did -Ed) .

One thing which was noticiable, though, was the absence of Tories — both voters and activists. All the more perplexing, given that they apparently selected candidates on Friday night. One might have thought they’d been keen to get into the flight. Perhaps it was too far a journey from Rochford.

Or perhaps they’ve all defected to UKIP…

A weekend of knocking on doors

matt, ian and anne in st luke's

If anyone wants indisputable proof that I am indeed mad, then may I present as exhibit 1, the fact that I spent both Saturday and Sunday mornings out knocking on doors and talking to strangers.

(There is an argument, and a compelling one I think, that by doing just such I am in fact the one who is stranger)

We are still some eight months away from the next round of elections, so most political parties in Southend are conspicuous by their absence on the campaign trail, and I suspect will remain so until January at the earliest, but I am glad to say that Southend Labour are out campaigning almost all year round.

Read on…

Out and About in Kursaal Ward


So after nearly two months in Southend, I finally ran out of excuses and found myself today canvassing with Southend Labour Party.

It rained — of course it did — but that didn’t stop us — myself, Councillors Ware-Lane and Jones, and Labour candidate for 2014 Chas Willis —  knocking on doors up and down the marginal Kursaal ward. Not how many people would choose to spend their Saturday mornings, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any sort of campaigning.

As I said before, after leaving Wokingham I drifted a bit from local politics, but I’m determined to get stuck back in here.

And Kursaal was a good place to start. Over the course of a couple of hours we spoke to residents about all manner of issues — with lack of parking a big issue. The parking in Southend is a huge problem, particularly given that it’s a hybrid of commuter and tourist town.

The other issue was around Christchurch Park. Residents were concerned that the shortage of children’s play equipment had led to it becoming a focal point for anti-social behaviour even down to drug dealing and use on a residential street.

The fact that the area has Labour representatives means that we can take some action immediately. But each additional councillor gives more power to deliver changes for the better more quickly; so there is real and tangible importance to each vote cast next May.

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.

Danger! High Water!

The flood risk for the Wargrave area is not yet anything like this bad (picture from 2008), but it still merits a bit of caution.

No one knows just how bad the weather has been lately more than the election campaigners who have been canvassing up and down the country. The irony of there being a drought and hosepipe ban at the same time as all this rain would probably be a lot more amusing had I not been out in it putting leaflets through doors and talking to residents. I strongly suspect that the occasional respites of blue skies and sunshine are just mother nature mocking me.

Today areas of Ruscombe where I was leafleting were largely submerged. London Road, on the way in from Hare Hatch was particularly bad, as were some of the roads around St James the Great church.

I’ve no objection to wandering around in the rain, really. It’s all part of the democratic process, and I actually enjoy talking to residents. A hot cup of coffee when I get home, and I’m happy enough.

But the downpour has a serious side. Yesterday, the Environmental Agency released flood warnings for the Thames around the Wargrave area. It doesn’t seem to be too serious just yet, and there hasn’t been any announced risk to properties, so there’s no real cause for concern yet.

When you live close to a river it makes sense to be careful, and floods are certainly not to be sniffed at (the devastating floods that hit the country in 2007 are testimony to that). But we’re a long way from any real danger. We just need maybe a pair of wellies (and an umbrella at this rate).

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.

The Word on the Street

So this weekend was spent on the campaign trail. It was almost a relief to, after spending a couple of weeks working hard online and in the papers, get out and start talking to people. After all, that’s what I’ve been intending to do from the start.

Truth be told, it was all very encouraging. I was fearful that I wasn’t going to receive a terribly friendly reception, this being Berkshire at it’s truest, bluest Tory. But actually, the more I spoke to people, the more receptive they were to what I had to say. Not that there weren’t some displays of staggering rudeness, but I’m counting only one door slammed in my face to be a win.

Proving me wrong, both the Tory and Lib Dem candidates were out canvassing on Saturday. I really didn’t expect it, but actually I don’t think it did me much harm. I covered Highfield Park in the morning, and then moved onto Victoria Road in the afternoon/evening, which meant that I hit it after both of the others had already done so. A lot of people were confused by the wildly differing accounts of the two, so were looking to me as the moderate, sensible alternative.

The lines the other two have taken seem broadly concurrent with what I’d expect. John Halsall is pretending none of the issues exist (with a particularly fine argumentative line blaming Cllr Stretton’s resignation on her having elderly parents, rather than her own political aspirations). The Lib Dem guy, on the other hand, is doing what Lib Dems do best: complaining in a shrill voice about everything that anyone mentions. They’ve been dropping particularly drab “letters” through doors. I thought my leaflet was fairly minimalist, but this looks like the kind of letter you’d get from a bank, explaining changes in interest rates.

The things people were concerned about fall, broadly, under a number of headings:

  • The Library- there’s a lot of love in Wargrave for what Ros Fernley, down at the library, does. And there’s a lot of concern about the privatisation plans. And John Halsall’s denial that anything is going on was blown clean out of the water by the Daily Express article claiming that LSSI are due to take over in May.
  • Litter – This comes under rubbish and general littering. Curiously, a newsletter from Wokingham Borough Council came through doors yesterday, neglecting to make any mention of the 80 bags per year limit. Now, this could be because the Council have been persuaded by opposition to it. Or they could be trying to pretend it isn’t happening, like with the library. My money is on the second. And there’s still a load of rubbish left at the junction of Purfield Drive and Blakes Road by contractors resurfacing the road. It’s been there for the better part of a month. Just saying.
  • Fuel hikes – Not a local issue, but still a bugbear for a lot of people. An 18% hike by British Gas is unacceptable, and will result in people encountering severe difficulties this winter. Something needs to be done.
  • “I’ll be voting for you, because all the others are bastards!” – Am I allowed to say that? Someone genuinely did say that to me, so really it’s a quote. Not my words. I do agree though (well I would, wouldn’t I?).

Reassuringly, one of the positives people have most commented on is the fact that I’m actually going door to door talking to people. Sure, some don’t want to hear it. Sure, sometimes I’ve been met with rudeness or hostility. But most people, even if they don’t support or intend to vote for me, appreciate the effort. Which is nice. Which is very nice.

And this is only the start. I feel like I’ve walked miles, but there’s still much to do. And that means more folding leaflets. Who said politics was glamorous?