As the dust settles, part 1: the national picture

ballot box

Well that, my friends, was an unmitigated f**king disaster.

I barely know where to start. There won’t be any glossing over on this blog, because frankly there is no glossing over this. Labour were preparing for government on Thursday, and on Friday the Tories have a majority.

I don’t really know what went wrong. Clearly the majority of the British people were not convinced by the policies that Labour were offering. Which, to be honest, is a shame because I do believe that we had the best ideas for the good of the whole country. But if we can’t communicate that effectively and convincingly then it’s worthless.

Read on…

Blenheim Park in 2015 is a two-horse race: Labour or Conservative

two horse race

There are 79 days to go until the local elections in Southend-on-Sea, 79 days left for the candidates from the various parties to sell their pitches to the voters, and lay out their vision for the future of the town and the wards which it comprises.

The curious thing is, though there are only 11 weeks left, in Blenheim Park it is a two-horse race.


The only candidates so far declared are myself and sitting Conservative councillor James Courtenay. Other parties are giving every impression of not being bothered.

Read on…

The lesser of two evils: coalition building in Southend

southend civic centre

In the jfilm Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, there is a terrible joke in which Russell Crowe’s character challenges Paul Bettany’s to pick between two weevils on the tablecloth. Paul Bettany’s physician analytically picks the larger if the pair, provoking gales of laughter from Crowe, who tells him, “Don’t you know, doctor, in the service you must always choose the lesser of two weevils!”

A terrible joke. But somewhat illustrative of the choice facing Southend Labour following the local elections.

Read on…

Whips and chains

southend civic centre

My apologies to anyone whose non-specific Googling has brought them to this page. This blog is, of course, about political whipping. Which is less kinky than what most of you clicked the link for. Sorry.

For the uninitiated, a party whip is responsible for keeping the party in line, and making sure that all of the representatives of that party follow the line set by the leadership. It’s a fairly thankless task, but it’s the cornerstone of stable governance under the political party system.

And, on Southend Borough Council, the Independent Party Group make a point of not using a whip. So, for that matter, do UKIP. They flaunt it on their campaign literature as some sort of badge of honour. If only it were that straightforward.

Read on…

Burger King leaving Maidenhead shows a failure of local government

The withdrawal of Burger King from Maidenhead high street represents another nail in the coffin of town centre retail, and shows how local politics is failing local economies.

A while back, it was all over the national news that McDonald’s had pulled out of Rochdale. This was mooted as an indicator of just how poor the economic situation is. The line of thought being that, presumably, if even McDonald’s didn’t think there was money to be made in Rochdale, the situation was fast approaching hopeless.

So what then of Burger King’s decision to pull out of Maidenhead high street? I doubt that this will be as heavily covered by the national press, this being Theresa May’s back yard, but it surely shows that the dire economic situation is far from confined to town centres in the north west.

Local economies are arguably as important to people’s lives as the national big picture, but somehow it never seems to get the same attention. If small businesses like McDonald’s and Burger King close, then it shows not only that there is little money to be made, but it narrows the opportunities available, chiefly to young people in the area. Customer-facing low-wage jobs like that are often the stepping stones for teenagers into work from full-time education. Getting a part-time job has been a rite of passage, but if there is nowhere offering such positions, what are they to do.

There’s also the wider impact. Fast food restaurants provide a barometer on the rest of the high street. They rely on passing footfall from other shops in an area. People will rarely go to town specifically for a burger, but are far more likely to take a break from shopping the locality for the convenience of fast food. If these places are failing, it can only really come down to a lack of footfall generally in the vacinity, which will amount to a failure of primarily retail.

The fact is that small town centre high streets, like Maidenhead and Wokingham, aren’t going to be able to compete with big out-of-town locations, or even the bigger towns and cities in the area. For that reason, proximity both to London and Reading is to the detriment of the smaller Wokingham and Maidenhead high streets.

Since neither are going to be able to compete, there seems little point in trying. Rather than going for big branded shops,  they should make for what is available to them. Local councils can make locations more attractive to small, independent businesses which would fit better into their market town locale, and cultivate a more secure, more unique economic base.

But, in both Wokingham and Maidenhead, the councils seem paralysed.  Both have solid Tory majorities, who seem afraid of looking in any direction but the past, and lack the drive to do something to actually address the problem. With central government’s continuing austerity policies cutting too far, too fast, 2012 is not going to be an easy year. The people of both Wokingham and Maidenhead need  more inspired leadership, if they are to weather this storm.

Labour’s Infighting Only Distracts from the Real Enemy

Whether you personally voted for him or not, Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader. Now we either unite behind him, or resign ourselves to the wilderness.

And it was all going so well. When Labour lost the 2010 election (along with all the other parties who fought it…) I held out hope because we seemed to have escaped the infighting which marred the Conservatives post-1997, and Labour post-1979. There were lots of competing ideas, lots of suggestions of the direction that the party should go in, but it manifested as helpful debate, amicable and above all civilised.

But now it seems we’re heading back to infighting. Since the last Prime Minister’s Questions of 2011, grumblings about Ed Miliband’s leadership have reached fever pitch, with the “Blairite” “right” of the party (read: David Miliband supporters) saying that Ed should be removed as leader. It culminated in spectacularly vain and vapid comments in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday by Tom Scholes-Fogg. The best commentary on this I’ve seen so far is from Owen Jones (a Labour blogger I respect far more than TSF):

Witty Kinnock paraphrasing aside, he has a point. Rubbish like this only helps the Tories, at the expense of Labour members and voters, and the ordinary working people of this country who we should be focusing on helping. Here’s a few of my views on the criticisms. You know, just to join in.

  • Ed has been leader for 15 months. Labour suffered a fairly catastrophic defeat in May 2011, and as has been pointed out by those more qualified than myself he’s fighting against the tide. The British press is mostly right wing, and the idea that they’d be more receptive to even David right now is pure fantasy. Any Labour leader would be struggling, under the weight of the repeated myth that this whole mess is our fault.
  • Ed is a different kind of leader. Ed is trying very hard to forge a new politics (pardon the phrase) and break with norms. He led the attack on the Murdoch press, despite the very obvious risk to the party. His unfairly-ridiculed conference speech earlier this year attacked the model of capitalism which has caused financial ruin. If we, rather than fighting with each other, spent our time working out political philosophies and directions, and a tranche of new policies, we could win the intellectual argument and return to power not on a wave of anti-Tory feeling, but a positive groundswell of optimistic change.
  • PMQs does not matter as much as you think it does. Yesterday Shelly Asquith tweeted: “Is performance at PMQs really the be-all and end-all? Most voters I know are at work on a Wednesday afternoon, not glued to BBC Parliament.” Quite. Sunny Hundal wrote a very interesting article calling on Ed to focus much less on PMQs, with which I agree.
  • What exactly do you think this makes the public think of us? When the Tories conspired to stab IDS in the back, do you think it made the party look like a model of competence? No, of course it didn’t. One of the things that did for us in the last election was the rumblings of rebellion against Gordon Brown. It confirmed to the public what the Tory press were saying, by giving an image that the party didn’t have faith in him either. How were voters supposed to have faith in us in those circumstances.

That I didn’t vote for Ed Miliband is a matter of public record, but the facts are still that on Thursday Labour held Feltham and Heston with a swing of 8% from the Tories. The polls oscillate wildly, and really don’t show anything useful at this stage in a parliament. But yeah, if you want to give an image of a party in chaos, unable to work together cohesively in a time of economic disaster, carry on throwing rocks at other Labourites. Meanwhile, the Tories will continue to play the “Labour can’t be trusted” card, and on the evidence we present the public will believe them.

Wokingham Borough’s Library Shambles

The shambles I witnessed at Wokingham Borough Council tonight only motivates me to fight harder for a local democracy that works for local people

Well that was certainly illuminating!

I am just now back from Wokingham Borough Council’s full council meeting, at which the petition to save library services from privatisation was presented and debated. Those readers who followed my twitter feed (using the #WokinghamLibraries hashtag) will know something of the debacle, but I’ll relate it in full here for everyone else.

The libraries debate came at the end of the meeting- though it was pointed out to me that it needn’t have, and that maybe the Mayor chose to leave it ’til the end in order to try and empty out the public gallery. Regardless, it didn’t work. Myself and Roy Mantel were there, along with Greg Bello from Woodley Labour, and various Lib Dems and other interested parties.

The Tories’ argument against the petition was chiefly that they were not, in fact, privatising the libraries. Their reasoning varied slightly, but seemed principally semantic. The word that they used throughout was “outsourcing”. This, we were told, was not privatisation as they would not be selling the buildings.

Now, this doesn’t hold water to my mind. I didn’t campaign in the Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe by-election to protect the library buildings, I campaigned to save the services. This is, as I understand, what the petitioners wanted. The argument that it isn’t privatising if you still own the physical assets is nonsense- the train franchises don’t own the trains and rails, but does anyone describe the railways as being “outsourced”?

Beyond that there was some quite spectacular rhetorical-nonsense-on-stilts, particularly from my old friend Keith Baker, who remarkably managed, in the course of a brief speech, to interpret a petition against the Tories’ plans as a ringing endorsement.

But the real fun came at the end of the debate. You see, once the speeches had been made, the council had to vote on a proposal. It fell to Councillor UllaKarin Clark, executive member for internal services, to put one forward. But unfortunately she was almost immediately told that it didn’t meet the requirements.

And then it all went a little bit mad. The Lib Dems, credit to them, had prepared a proposal in advance, and had it written up and ready to distribute throughout the chamber. Whilst Prue Bray, Lib Dem leader, tried to make herself heard, the Mayor pointedly ignored the opposition whilst the executive quickly tried to write a new proposal on the floor of the chamber.

Eventually, sanity prevailed; the Lib Dems’ proposal (that the executive reconsider their decision) was made, and voted down by the Tories (to cries of “Shame! Shame!” from the public gallery). Then, a slightly amended version of the same proposal was moved by a Tory councillor (that the executive reconsider their decision after the tendering process is completed), and passed unanimously.

The end result is that I’m not sure what has happened. Prue Bray is claiming victory on twitter, which is frankly a little optimistic in my opinion. The Tories run such a monopoly in Wokingham that they can do what they like, and something as ideological as the privatisation of the libraries is very definitely something they’d like.

But what I take away from this, the first council meeting I have observed, is the image of the council in chaos after Cllr Clark’s first proposal was found unsuitable. Such rampant disorganisation, from a major organ of local democracy, was a disgrace. The executive should have known what the borough constitution required of them, and their utter lack of preparation and competence is shocking- regardless of what the passed proposal means, I certainly don’t trust the library service in their hands.

I’m not sure who it was who said that are two things that you shouldn’t watch being made, but judging from tonight I’d have to agree. What an utter shambles!

In/Out, In/Out, Shake It All About

The EU has been a distraction shouting on the sidelines of more pressing political debates for too long now. Let's have a referendum and kill the issue for good.

The European Union seems to be the flavour de jour at the moment. It’s probably partly due to the fact that the eurozone (contrary to popular belief, not the same thing) is in meltdown. It’s probably also partly due to the fact that euroscepticism has become one of the principle markers of “right wing” now that openly hating poor people is considered uncivilised.

But whatever the reason, next week will see a House of Commons debate on whether there should be a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. It’s a backbench motion, so not binding on the government, but anyone who knows their political history will know quite how destructive Europe can be as an issue for the Conservative Party. It brought down Thatcher, proved a continual thorn in the side of Major, and left the public with a decidedly unsavoury impression of the Tories for years.

So I’m sure Cameron will welcome this motion like a hole in the head. They’ve even moved it forward, from Thursday to Monday, so he can attend. How generous of them!

Now, I should declare an interest: I’m (broadly) pro-EU. It’s far from perfect, but in a basic in/out referendum I would vote in. Because I genuinely believe that it’s in the best interests of the country. In a three-pronged referendum, offering choices of in/out/renegotiation-and-reform, or as I like to call it “shake it all about”, I’d probably lump for the hokey cokey option.

The fun thing about this motion is that it seems to be causing huge headaches for everyone who isn’t me. Allow me to explain the various parties’ objections.

Our (somewhat) eurosceptic Prime Minister and his government feels trapped between a hard place and a rock. It’s easy to be slaveringly eurosceptic and ally your party with “nutters, anti-semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes” when you’re in opposition, but when you’re in government you actually have to work with the EU. So he can whip his party to vote against a referendum, which a) risks pissing off an already pissed off Conservative right wing, and b) would make a referendum-winning rebellion. Or he could give his party a free vote, which would run the very real risk of passing the motion.

Rampant eurosceptics, too, seem to be hesitant about it. The thinking ones, at least. Alex Singleton, writing on the Daily Mail website, says that in just such a three-option referendum the “better off out crowd” would lose to the much more reasonable third choice. He’s right, in my opinion. Which is all the more reason to do it.

You see, I’d quite like a referendum I think. The eurosceptics, with UKIP at the head, have been screaming for one for ages. I say we give it to them. They would object to a three-choice referendum, naturally, but if they argued against it then the clear comeback is that they’re trying to use the question to influence the result. Also, when the majority chose to renegotiate/reform the EU, then we can actually move on and make a positive improvement to it. That, surely, is both in the best interest of democracy and the country.

The fact that it would split the Conservative Party, drive Cameron to the brink of nervous breakdown and put an end to UKIP’s bleating and raison d’être is just a bonus.

Boundary Changes and Fat Ladies

There has, for good reason, been a lot of excitement today about the results of the boundary review. Which isn’t surprising, given the implications for parliamentary politics in this country. What is a little surprising is that the review itself isn’t supposed to be released for another day.

It was always going to leak- traditional media might have agreed to an embargo, but the online political commentary scene doesn’t behave as if so beholden to the authorities. So it was Guido Fawkes who revealed the reports in full.

I haven’t read them all, focusing first on the ones which touch me directly. Maidenhead constituency will acquire two wards from Wokingham; Sonning and Coronation. Neither are exactly Labour hotspots, but there is certainly potential on Sonning. But overall the changes are fairly small fry. They won’t upset the cosy balance of Theresa May and John Redwood. And they won’t make my future task in campaigning easier.

Brighton, on the other hand, seems to have been completely carved up. The three constituencies of Brighton Pavillion, Brighton Kemptown and Hove are to be no more. Instead, we have Brighton Pavilion & Hove, Brighton and Hove North, and Lewes and Brighton East. Which is just unsightly, frankly.

BrightonPoliticsBlogger, who is a better blogger than I, believes this is orchestrated to ensure two Conservative constituencies after 2015, and to constrain the Greens. On the face of it, I find it hard to disagree, and if enacted it would be reasonably disastrous for Labour.

But the thing which people seem to be forgetting, is that this is far from final. The review has yet to be approved by parliament, and the doing so may not be as easy as people (and the government) are assuming. Let’s not forget, the plans will cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. I know the Conservatives are being told that this will hurt Labour the most, and the Lib Dems have bigger issues to contend with (such as widespread disdain). But when Tory backbenchers are faced with having no seat after the next general election, they won’t be so happy with it.

I have it on good authority that during the filibustering of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Lords earlier this year, Labour peers were privately offered support for their delaying tactics from Tory backbenchers. David Cameron can whip his MPs, representing safe seats, to support the breaking up of the NHS, the trebling of tuition fees, and all manner of regressive and unpopular cuts. But when it’s their own number that he puts on the chopping block? He may find them slower to swing the axe.

It is, as they say, not over until the fat lady sings. And there’s a worrying tickle in her throat.


Or, as is becoming apparent, vice versa.

Does anyone remember that poster that the Conservatives plastered over billboards up and down the country in the lead up to the 2010 General Election? The one with that airbrushed picture of Cameron saying that he’d cut the deficit not the NHS? Or maybe you remember the part in the coalition agreement where the government promised to “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS”?

Well, the first pledge has been broken; the NHS is being cut in real terms under the present government. And the second is being broken by the Health Bill currently going through parliament. Since it’s introduction, this bill has been one almighty headache for the government. There seems no end of problematic clauses within it, but the one which grabbed headlines first of all was the plan to allow “any willing provider” to bid for NHS contracts- essentially opening the NHS up to European competition law for the first time in the history of the health service.

This was diluted down to “any qualified provider”, after the Lib Dems found their backbone (only temporarily, and only after another slating by the media and pollsters). But the Bill is still dangerous. Between the plans to put hospitals in competition with each other, open the service up to privatisation, and turn your local GP into an administrator rather than a physician.

The NHS is, to my mind, the greatest achievement by any post-war government. It was introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, over the staunch opposition of the Conservative Party of the day. It seems that nothing has changed. Despite Cameron’s attempts to “detoxify” his party, it has only been a superficial change. The Tories still can’t be trusted on the NHS.

So today I joined other Labour activists (including a contingent from Maidenhead CLP) and trade unionists in Reading town centre, to

Maidenhead CLP defending the NHS, in Reading town centre. Myself with (left to right) John Healey MP, Patrick McDonald and Nigel Smith

try and raise the profile of David Cameron and Andrew Lansley’s devastating plans to destroy this British institution. We handed out informative flyers, and gathered signatures on a petition. We were even joined by John Healey, the shadow health secretary.

This is a very real threat. I am, like most people, firmly of the opinion that health is a fundamental right. I believe that healthcare should be available to everyone, not just the rich. This legislation is the first step in a conservative (big and little c) plan to privatise off the NHS, and move towards a situation similar to that in the US- where doctors will look for your wallet before your pulse, and where the poor suffer a vastly inferior standard of care.

If you agree that the NHS must be protected, if you want to do something to stop this bill, then please sign this petition. Beyond that, the only suggestions I can make is to write to your local MP, and to never trust a Tory on the NHS.