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The Common Ground – how a progressive alliance could transform our politics

July 16, 2016

These are extraordinary times in British politics. The second decade of the twenty first century is the most turbulent since a hundred years ago. After 1916 the Liberal Party was split and weakened, opening the way for the rise of the Labour Party as the main alternative to the Conservatives. Both the Liberals and Labour faced further splits and crises in 1931 but by 1945 politics had settled to a Conservative-Labour duopoly of parties of government, with the Liberal Party squeezed to a tiny rump by the merciless force of the first past the post electoral system. The main beneficiary of this turbulence on the left has been the Conservative Party, the most successful political party in Europe.

Liberal leaders in from the 1950s to the 1970s, Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe, talked about a realignment of the left, their hopes buoyed by shock by election wins. David Steel almost pulled it off when the Liberal Party fought the 1983 and 1987 elections in alliance with the new Social Democratic Party. I joined the SDP as a 16 year old just after the 1983 election and have been an activist ever since. My hopes of a breakthrough were dashed in 1987 when over 7 million votes translated into just 22 MPs for the Alliance. The messy merger of the Liberals and SDP and the theft of much of our social democrat language by Tony Blair in 1994 made me feel at the time that a realignment had indeed taken place but mainly inside the Labour Party. I very nearly joined Labour at that time but personal loyalties kept me in the Liberal Democrats.

Might 2016 have the right mixture of factors to bring about a union of progressives, liberals and social democrats currently spread among several parties? I think so but it all depends on whether the foundations of the Labour Party broad church have been shaken enough for the walls to come tumbling down. Much has changed since the Labour landslides of 1945 and 1997. Tribal support for both the Conservatives and Labour has been declining since the 1960s as the class based society has been eroded by social mobility and huge changes in our economic base. The political landscape has become more crowded as the Scottish National Party has surged, more successfully than Plaid Cymru in Wales. UKIP was initially a threat to the Conservatives but now is arguably more of a problem for Labour as white working class people respond to its simple messages about job insecurity and suppressed wages being the fault of the EU.

The 2015 general election was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, reduced to 8 MPs but still obtaining 2.4 million votes. In Scotland it was a shared humiliation with Labour as both parties were pummelled by the SNP and reduced to just 1 MP. UKIP polled 3.9 million votes, doing well in towns in the north of England. Labour had only 231 MPs from England and Wales, its worst result since 1987. Labour members chose Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The party suffered a further set back in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, reduced to third party status in a country where it had been the dominant force for fifty years. The result of the EU referendum, with many of Labour MP “safe seats” voting for Leave has plunged the party into crisis. MPs have no confidence in the Leader, who at the time of writing is still popular with Labour party rank and file members.

If Corbyn survives the forthcoming leadership election then it is very likely that the party in Parliament will fragment into several factions. So a realignment in 2016 depends on the fate of one man. The swift coronation of Theresa May as Conservative Leader and Prime Minister will keep pro EU, socially liberal Conservative MPs inside their party, at least until the Brexit crunch time arrives. But the break up of the Labour Party is a distinct possibility. The broad church could well be falling down.

Labour MPs who reject Corbyn’s brand of extra Parliamentary protest march socialism face three choices. First, I think most of them will sit tight, waiting for the wind to blow over. The Labour Party is their political home and in many cases they can’t contemplate life outside. Then there are those who feel that all is lost and Labour, robbed of its Scottish heartland and threatened by UKIP in many of its safe seats, is heading for electoral oblivion. They have nothing to lose by trying another path.

So a second group may break away from the official Labour party in Parliament and form a new group in the Commons and quite possibly in the Lords too. This new grouping, let’s call it the “Independent Labour Party”, will be a party without a base in the country or any party apparatus. Given the gulf between MPs and their Corbyn supporting members it is likely to be a party with lots of chiefs and no Indians. As the SDP showed in 1981, this is a massive risk. In 2016 there are lots of other options for progressives with a range of political parties and campaign groups, with less room for a new party than there was in 1981.

A third group of Labour MPs could simply defect to the Liberal Democrats. I know of many Labour MPs who have always had more in common with the Lib Dems than they care to acknowledge in public. They could easily have joined the Lib Dems at an earlier stage in their life but chose Labour due to family history and political ambition to win power. It would be a wrench for them to depart now and both defecting MPs and the existing Liberal Democrat MPs and constituency parties would have to show good grace, putting behind them past rivalries, arguments and personal slights.

The relative sizes of these three groups will have implications for the operation of parties in both Houses of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have 107 Peers so it would only take 52 of Labour’s 209 members to defect to make the Lib Dems the official opposition in the Lords. In the Commons there could be four party groups (including the SNP) on the opposition benches with more than 50 MPs, which would break the underlying assumption of business that there are only two main parties, one in government and one in opposition. This was a major problem for the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015.

If Labour does break up then the next general election is a great opportunity to put before the electorate a range of candidates from credible centre left parties. But if those parties compete in every seat then Theresa May will win the greatest Conservative landslide since 1931 when it won 460 seats. Such an outcome would be a catastrophe, propelling Britain out of the EU for good and emboldening the Tory right to shake up state services and welfare. Given that she is well aware of this opportunity it is imperative that progressive politicians in all parties act to mitigate the risk before it becomes a reality.

I propose that the Liberal Democrats and any new Independent Labour Party should cooperate on the ground to avoid clashes in Conservative facing seats. There could also be arrangements involving the Green Party and Plaid Cymru though neither of these parties is a serious contender in any constituency currently held or under threat from the Conservative Party. I see little scope for an arrangement in Scotland, such is the dominance of the SNP and weakness of the Tories.

The Lib Dems and the new ILP could fight the next election as separate parties with their own manifestos but would have a Common Ground set of objectives and principles. The first Common Ground objective is obviously the defeat of the Conservative Party, leading to a House of Commons with a progressive majority. All candidates fighting under the Common Ground banner would have to agree to a 36 month Parliament to allow time in both Houses for a programme of constitutional reform the most important of which would be a more proportional election system. It should be easier than in the past to agree campaign finance reform, on the assumption that the unions have stuck with the Corbyn led Labour Party.

The Common Ground would also set out some other basic principles such as maintaining the closest possible relationship with the European Union, retaining the integrity of the UK with full devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and greater power for local government in England. While the parties would have their own detailed manifestos it would be necessary to agree some broad tax and spend parameters for a Common Ground coalition government to operate within.

Common Ground candidates from the ILP, Lib Dems and possibly other parties would be chosen primarily on the basis of who was best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The criteria would include the electoral history of the constituency over the last four general elections and of course the attributes of an individual candidate who could be the sitting or former MP or a well known individual standing in a new seat. I would add a further factor, obtaining a measure of political pluralism even under the last election to be held under first past the post. So while it is likely to be the case that the Liberal Democrat candidate is best placed to defeat the Conservative in most of southern England there should be an ILP MP in Surrey or Cornwall. Similarly, it would not be right for there to be no Liberal Democrat MPs in Lancashire or the East Midlands.

This arrangement of giving the Common Ground coupon to Liberal Democrat or ILP candidates should be straightforward in most Tory facing seats. There would be other problems to iron out the biggest of which is what to do with constituencies with a Corbyn Labour sitting MP. It would be crazy for those seats to be handed to the Tories as a result of all of the Lib Dems, ILP and the Green parties fielding a candidate. The same would apply to the Green Party’s sole seat in Brighton Pavilion. There may be other seats where historically the Lib Dems and Labour have been in hot competition, such as Cambridge and Hornsey & Wood Green. These would have to be settled on a seat by seat basis and in some cases it would have to be accepted that the Lib Dems and the ILP would fight each other, with neither candidate having the official Common Ground coupon. I believe there are also some sitting Conservative MPs who might be tempted away from their party if they were guaranteed a safe berth with a Common Ground coupon.

This is a momentous period with a mix of factors that give Britain the best opportunity to transform its politics from the stale tribalism of two big parties that is now so unappealing to millions of voters and indeed non voters who think nobody listens to them. A pluralist political system of several parties, underpinned by a proportional voting system is potentially in reach. Achieving that goal will require MPs, Peers, councillors and activists currently in several parties to think differently about how they conduct politics. My excitement and optimism is only tempered by a knowledge that we have been here before and it didn’t happen. But given the extraordinary political events of the last 6 years, the Coalition, the Scottish referendum aftermath and now the Brexit aftermath, anything must be possible. If not now, then it is hard to see a better opportunity ahead to reinvent British politics.

Britain’s worst foreign policy disaster – Iraq or Brexit?

July 6, 2016

It’s hard to think of a more momentous political period in my lifetime than what we are experiencing now. The country is divided after the vote to leave the European Union. The party of government is rudderless and is concentrating on finding a new leader rather than guiding the country through dangerous times. The main opposition party has a leader trapped in his parliamentary bunker, deserted by his MPs but clinging on as the wider party still (he hopes) supports him. Today has seen the publication of the Chilcot Report, reminding us all of Mr Blair’s folly and re-opening political wounds. Corbyn got that call right back in 2003 while Cameron and almost every other Conservative MP backed Blair’s invasion of Iraq. The consequences of Brexit and legacy of Iraq now vie with each other for the worst foreign policy decision in modern British history.

I listened carefully to Sir John Chilcot’s calm delivery of the findings of his seven year long enquiry, with several quotes from Bush and Blair correspondence. Three words stand out as a condemnation of Tony Blair, when he wrote that he would be “with you, whatever”. Written in July 2002 it demonstrates that Blair committed Britain to war whatever the UN resolution, whatever the evidence on the ground from weapons inspectors and whatever might be the opinion of the British people.

Chilcot has concluded that the invasion and occupation of a sovereign state was not justified. In March 2003 all peaceful options had not been exhausted so war at that time was not the last resort. The evidence about weapons of mass destruction given by Blair to Parliament was presented with a certainty that was not justified. The war cost the lives of 179 British soldiers, a similar number of British civilian personnel and countless thousands of lives of innocent Iraqi civilians. The aftermath has been even worse. Chilcot has shown that the preparations for Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam were “wholly inadequate”. This failure to prepare for the aftermath has led to Iraq descending into chaos.

I believe that the Iraq war, based on what Charles Kennedy at the time called a “flawed prospectus”, has destroyed the confidence of many people of the case for a liberal interventionist foreign policy. This is shown most clearly by Syria. The collapse of order in Iraq enabled extremists to take root and then spread their poison across the desert into Syria. The Syrian civil war is a direct consequence of the destruction of order in Iraq. Our failure to intervene in even the most limited way in Syria is a consequence of over timidity after Iraq. President Assad really has weapons of mass destruction and he really has used them against civilian targets. The compelling case for intervention in Syria has been undermined by over-caution after the flimsy evidence for the war in Iraq.

The chaos on the ground in Iraq and Syria has bred terror groups that not only murder Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds but also pose a direct threat on the streets of London, Paris and Brussels. The awful truth is that while Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against Britain in 45 minutes, the likes of ISIS do have weapons and have indeed used them against us, without even a 1 minute warning. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 has made Britain less safe in 2016.

While Tony Blair will forever be associated with Iraq, David Cameron will forever be remembered as the Prime Minister who triggered the EU referendum that led to Britain dislocating itself from its closest neighbours. I believe that the potential damage to British interests from us leaving the EU will be far more serious than the security risks post Iraq.

Breaking apart from the EU will leave Britain with a smaller, weaker voice on the world stage. Our diplomatic clout was enhanced by EU membership, it will be diminished outside. Our trading position with other large world economies will be weakened outside the world’s largest single market. Our economic growth will be held back by a reduction in foreign investment and reduced opportunities for research collaboration by business and universities. A falling pound is no longer a spur to manufacturing exports as we don’t have the mass manufacturing capability to respond. Besides, we also have put up a “go away, not welcome” sign to the skilled migrants from Europe who could most easily move here to expand the workforce. Within a few years British businesses will face higher tariffs imposed on our exports, cancelling out any short term exchange rate advantage. British consumers will fare even worse, with higher prices on imported goods. Employment opportunities for them will be fewer as investment dries up.

All of these risks from a Brexit were spelled out by David Cameron during the referendum campaign. They were warnings, not scaremongering. Some are already hard facts. Given the stark risks it is all the more unpardonable that Cameron bet the country’s future in order to placate the Eurosceptic head-bangers on his backbenches and to stave off UKIP. Party advantage trumped the British national interest. Blair may have been wrong in his judgement but his motivations were perhaps more noble.

In my view the decision to hold a referendum on a highly complex mix of issues bound up in our membership of the EU was worse than the decision to go to war in Iraq, at least for the people of Britain. But they share a common characteristic in the failure of the protagonists to prepare for the aftermath. In Iraq we sent in troops to boot the door down, smash up the house, hang around for a while and then pull out leaving a country collapsing in violent chaos. Those British politicians that actually wanted (or so they said) us to leave the European Union failed to spell out what life the other side would look like. But their deceptions and simplicities fooled just enough people to force a Brexit. Now faced with the consequences, Boris Johnson and most of the rest of them are running away from responsibility for the messy task of uncoupling Britain from the EU.

Finally, a point from my own party political perspective. In 2003 Liberal Democrat MPs were united in voting against the Iraq war. We campaigned against military intervention from the outset, at a time when public opinion was still giving Blair the benefit of the doubt. For over 50 years we have been the consistent champion of Britain being a fully engaged member of the British Union. We have made some mistakes, indeed all parties when in government make decisions that annoy people. But in the two biggest decisions about the British national interest in my lifetime so far, our judgement was right. I’m thinking today of my late colleague and friend Charles Kennedy. He was the brave party leader who spoke against the Iraq war in 2003. He was a passionate advocate of Britain in Europe. How we miss his distinctive Liberal voice today.

Brexit – how on earth did we get to here?

June 24, 2016

Like all liberals and progressives in Britain today I am devastated by the country’s decision to vote to leave the European Union. I feared this outcome, having had many encounters with people over the years who believed even the most risible claims about the EU. Couple decades of negative stories about Europe with our political age of social media spreading of myths and a lowering of the reputations of political leaders and you have the ground prepared for a combustion of anger against the establishment.

Much will be written in the coming days and in future history books about this momentous decision. Here are my thoughts, written in sadness and after no sleep. These are the factors that occur to me now and no doubt I’ll think of more when my mind is rested and with more time to be reflective.

1 The referendum is a self inflicted wound by David Cameron. There was no pressing national need to vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. He held the referendum to honour a manifesto pledge he never thought he would have to carry out. I’ve painful scars of such pledges myself and the fact that coalition government ended a year ago meant that Cameron became a prisoner of his own eurosceptic backbenchers. The referendum was held because of the long running Euro psychodrama in the Conservative Party and too much of the coverage of the campaign was about the jousting between the two old Etonians who want the Tory crown.
2 The near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats as a Parliamentary force has robbed Britain of its most distinctive and authentic pro European voice just when it was needed the most. The pro Remain arguments from Conservative ministers relied heavily on fear and hyperbole. The Lib Dems wanted to make a positive case for Britain in the EU but were largely ignored by the broadcasters.
3 The biggest political failure was by the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn’s political history is strongly eurosceptic and his campaigning in the referendum was half hearted and mealie mouthed. Some of the biggest votes for Leave came from strong Labour areas. Places like Sunderland, Nottingham and Blackburn are one party states where only Labour MPs and councillors are in positions to give their communities leadership based on facts. Yet Labour MPs seem to have been scared of their own grassroots and for too long failed to answer their real concerns about immigration. The warnings about economic contraction from the government should have been amplified by Labour in their heartlands. In an economic downturn it’s the poor who suffer first and longest. Voting against the EU may be a kick in the shins for the London elite but it’s really an act of self harm. The positive impact of the EU on poorer communities with lower prices on everything from food to Easyjet flights barely featured in the campaign.
4 We are living in an age where it is easy for myth to triumph over reason. Humnanity may have largely discarded belief in omens and the words of soothsayers. But the thundering cascade of information in our internet and social media age has robbed people of the time to sift through the waters and separate the nuggets of fact from the pile of mythical sludge. Financial literacy is too boring for many people to see that Vote Leave’s claim that £350m a week could be spent on the NHS was both wrong and only a small proportion of government spending. Apparently most of our laws come from Brussels (I somehow failed to notice this when making laws for ten years as an MP) and are made by unelected bureaucrats in the EU Commission. Vote Leave got away with dismissing from minds the elected MEPs (like Farrage and Hannan) or the elected Council of Ministers, which include Gove and Grayling. Oh, in this country we usually call unelected bureaucrats who write laws “civil servants”. MPs and ministers who like me had voted on the accession agreements for Bulgaria, Romanian and Croatia told us that they had no say on Turkey joining.
5 Politicians blaming the media is like sailors moaning about the sea. But newspapers have deluged the public with lies about the EU for decades. Their owners (mainly foreign) have their own agendas. But the BBC failed us all by not acting as an arbiter of facts or showing clearly where the balance of opinion lay. Far too often the lies from Vote Leave were reported with a counterpoint from Remain, showing balance but leaving voters none the wiser and wondering who to believe. Remain was backed by huge numbers of business leaders, economists and other financial experts. But balanced reporting giving equal time to Leave’s tiny number of business backers (a vacuum cleaner designer, tractor maker and pub landlord) made it look evens.

So Britain has voted to dislocate itself from the world’s largest single market. We will now bob about between the U.S., China and the EU. We will have a smaller, quieter voice on the world stage. Decades of successful diplomacy building a Europe of 28 free democracies, most of which were fascist or communist dictatorships at our joining the EEC in 1973, has now been cast aside. The Leavers said that our isolation would be splendid. They now have to show us just how we can prosper in safety in a globalising world.
The most prominent Conservative arguing for a “no” vote in the 1975 referendum was Enoch Powell. I quoted him in my concession speech when I lost Bristol West, saying that all political carreers end in failure. David Cameron gambled the future of the country in order to placate his party. He’s lost his bet and will now lose his job. In coalition his government did much good and I think history will judge that period kindly. David is two days older than me. His premiership of a Conservative government will be remembered for making the biggest foreign policy mistake of our lifetimes.

5 good reasons for Britain to Remain in the European Union

June 13, 2016

After several months campaigning to keep Britain inside the European Union I have clear picture of what people say they want to hear before voting in the referendum. They don’t want scare mongering and are fed up with lies masquerading as facts. The BBC and other objective news outlets ought to deal with the veracity of facts. Both the BBC and Channel Four have their on-line fact checkers but they really ought to be correcting the exaggerations and downright lies during their normal news reporting. The voters also say they want some positive reasons to vote for Britain to remain in the EU. So I will set out my own positive reasons for voting for Britain to Remain in the EU.

We will all have our own reasons for wanting to remain in the European Union but I think there are five main ones:

Opportunity

Britain’s place in the world’s largest single market allows us to work, study and travel with minimal barriers. It’s a two way advantage, enabling Britons to carve out a career in Paris or Rome, with French and Italian workers bringing their skills to strengthen the British economy. That contribution is right across all sectors from retail to the most advanced manufacturing. Britain and my home city of Bristol are world leaders in aerospace. But that competitive advantage depends on French, Spanish and German engineers as well as the Brits who work for the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce. British universities are also the most numerous among the global top 100, after US institutions. Britain’s place as an innovation powerhouse, inventing the prosperity of the future, depends on freedom of movement for Europe’s brightest and best students and academics to study and research in Oxford, London and Bristol. The freedom to work and learn also applies to travel. We all benefit from visa free travel to 27 other EU member states, with low cost flights to Europe’s leisure and culture attractions. While on holiday in Alicante or Prague we don’t have to worry about the cost of emergency medical situations. I we need to phone home or use the internet then we now have reduced mobile roaming charges. This is the most recent benefit of EU membership and next year the charges are abolished.

Prosperity

Britain’s economy is stronger as part of the world’s largest single market. Our businesses, large and small, benefit from being able to export without tax or regulation obstacles to everywhere from Lisbon to Tallinn, across all of the other 27 member states of the European Union. The EU also bargains on our behalf with the world’s other economies. This is possibly the only area where we have more clout than the USA, the world’s second largest single market. By pooling our sovereignty we enable the EU Trade Commissioner to negotiate the best deal for British businesses and consumers. The EU has fifty trade deals with other large economies. By remaining in the EU we will continue to benefit from the existing deals and the new ones being negotiated. If Britain left the EU we would have to spend years renegotiating the existing deals and of course we’d need a new one with the EU itself. We would be negotiating all these new deals from a much weaker position than our present status as a member of the world’s most powerful trading bloc.

Sustainability

Pollution does not respect national borders. Creating a cleaner, low carbon future will depend on Europe working together, not pulling apart. Cooperation on energy is more likely to lead to reduced dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Everything from common standards in food quality and animal welfare depends on agreement within the single market. Europe’s high standards are a model for the rest of the world and can be protected and advanced in trade agreements.

Security

In an unsecure world, troubled by crime and terrorism, working with our closest neighbours increases our safety. Criminals do not respect national borders but the common European arrest warrant makes sure they have nowhere to hide. Conflict beyond Europe’s frontiers has potential to impact on all of us. Dealing in a humane and fair way with refugees will require cooperation across Europe, much easier to achieve from within the EU. Britain’s membership of both the EU and NATO makes us more secure. Those who would have us leave the EU often falsely attribute our security solely to NATO but overlook the fact that it requires a greater surrender of national sovereignty than anything contemplated by the EU.

Peace

The fact that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous part of the world is all too easily taken for granted. The origins of the EU were the desire of French, German and other European leaders to trade in harmony and remove the need for conflict. My father’s father served in the Eighth Army in North Africa in the Second World War. My grandparents’ generation would all have known someone who served in some capacity. Their parents would have experienced the First World War. The fact that neither my father nor me has had to seriously contemplate conflict in Western Europe is the major achievement of the European Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the EU has extended east and the Poles, Romanians and Estonians now enjoy peace and greater prosperity. Peace enables prosperity to grow and people that are prosperous will not risk their livelihood with war.

Whatever your preferred reason for remaining in the European Union, one thing is certain. The future of humanity depends on nation states working together to solve common problems. Working together raises living standards and lifts people out of poverty. Working together makes us safer in a world that has many sources of conflict and trouble. Global health problems are best tackled by the World Health Organisation. Our defence and security is more certain through both NATO and the UN. The European Union is arguably the world’s most successful international club. Most of the remaining small European nations not in the EU are in the queue to join. A British exit at this point in our history would be seen as an act of madness by our fellow Europeans. Britain’s future lies inside our common European home.
To support the cross party Stronger In campaign and volunteer for helping to secure a Remain vote go to http://www.strongerin.co.uk/
To support my own party, which has consistently made the case for Britain’s positive engagement inside the EU go to http://www.libdems.org.uk/europe

At last, some transparency on green capital cash

June 8, 2016

Bristol’s new Mayor has ordered the publication of a tranche of invoices held by the council, shedding new light on the secretive spending of green capital millions. After bumping into a 40 day legal deadline for a freedom of information request from my Lib Dem colleague and former councillor Christian Martin the council has published “about 600” invoices held by its accounts department.

I welcome this move but more needs to be done. The invoices have been published without any context. We don’t know how they relate to the broad account headings referred to in my previous blog posts and questions to the council. It’s like being given a big box of jigsaw pieces, without the lid giving you the picture you’re trying to put together. But it’s a start.

The invoices make for interesting and eye brow raising reading. See for yourself here https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/33519/Bristol+Green+Capital+Invoices+-+redacted+pt1.pdf/24afca97-afe7-4f5c-add9-cff42af0d047
Inevitably there will be lots more questions about whether some of the expenditure was good value for taxpayers’ money. Some of the projects have a tenuous relationship to making Bristol more sustainable and an exemplar for the rest of Europe. I thought the foggy footbridge in the harbour was pretty naff but am now outraged to see invoices from an organisation called In Between Time charging £41,000 for puffing some smoke.

The real scandal is the trousering of tens of thousands of pounds by lots of consultants on a variety of generous day rates. They also racked up quite a lot of car and taxi expenses, including one £50 taxi ride from a cafe on Whiteladies Road to Weston Super Mare. Presumably it was after the trains stopped running from Clifton Down…

There was also a media merry go round. Some media outlets were paid for their coverage and a London based agency was paid huge fees for monitoring the level of coverage.

Quite a lot of information is clearly missing. Personal details have been redacted from the invoices. So we don’t know the identity of some of the people who charged up to £5,000 for their motivational speeches on city governance…plus their 4 star hotel stays.

I’m glad Mayor Rees intends to appoint an independent body to review the year. We need to know the full story and there will be lessons for future big events. What is a real shame is that some of this wasteful expenditure could have been better spent on local projects that would have had immediate as well as lasting community impact. A lot of good work was done by schools and community groups and some more of that £8million of taxpayers could have increased their impact.

I am proud that my Lib Dem colleagues on Bristol Council put in place the policies on recycling, energy and transport that made a bid for green capital status credible. I’m glad we won and were able to showcase Bristol. But it’s a shame that some peoples eyes clearly lit up at the prospect of spending lots of free cash. This would not have happened if there had been an open procurement process and real time openness on spending. In future transparency and sustainability must go together.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Candidate

May 3, 2016

Spare a thought for the thousands of candidates up and down the country who are now in the final stretch of the race to election day. Some of them will have entered the race on nomination day three weeks ago with little expectation of success. Such paper candidates are just flying the flag for their parties, to give the voters maximum choice. Others will be foot sore and mentally wrung out after a four year marathon run for elected office as a councillor or mayor in England or for membership of the devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some candidates will be the defending champion, or incumbent in political speak. Most will be challengers, looking to topple the champions off their podiums. But most will, in the end, be losers. For there are tens of thousands of candidates in this race of democracy and there can only be so many winners for the just over 3,000 places available. They all deserve our thanks for stepping up, for without them we have no democracy.

It’s become fashionable to decry politicians. Journalists report politics as soap opera, with a cast list of tricksters, con artists, crooks and weirdos. The impression is given that they’re all in it for themselves, incapable of working together or taking long term decisions. This is all reflected back on the doorstep, often with the curious view that “you’re all the same” and equally bad. This set of poor opinions is mainly about the politicians who are actually in office and for challenging candidates the word “change” can be their most potent weapon.

To become the office holder the candidate must win an election. Most journalists, columnists and other critics of the political animal have no idea of the sheer amount of physical effort and mental endurance candidates suffer in order to cross the winning post. Politics, or at least party politics, is a team sport. The candidates are the elite athletes but they are joined in the race by teams of activists. Many of these supporters are just as engrossed in the race, willingly volunteering hours of their time to help their candidate succeed. Candidates and activists both spend a lot of their time on the staples of campaigning – canvassing and delivering. Both have their highs and lows.

The late and much missed Liberal MP David Penhaligan once told a party conference “if you’ve got something to say, put it on a leaflet and shove it through a letterbox” and delivering leaflets is a mainstay of campaigning for Liberal Democrats today. For those who have never done it, leaflet delivery must seem mundane and easy. Some streets are indeed a breeze. A team of activists can deliver hundreds of leaflets an hour to Coronation Street style terraced houses. A round of fifty detached houses with long drives could easily take an hour for one activist to deliver.

Time and volume are not the only factors in the delivery logistics of getting a leaflet inside an elector’s home. There are lots of obstacles. Gates are often fiddly to open. When entering a large garden of a detached or semi-detached house there is then that nervous moment walking up the path to the front door when you don’t want to hear a “woof” as Fido comes bounding round the corner. Dogs are the worst nightmare for the deliverer and canvasser.

The danger isn’t over when you reach the front door. Letterboxes these days often have triple layers for your flimsy leaflet to penetrate. Beyond the outer metal flap there’s a thicket of draught excluding brush and then another metal flap, with a spring resisting its opening more than a chink. You don’t want to leave your precious propaganda hanging in the wind. Householders find it an irritating advertisement that there may be nobody at home and you don’t want the risk of opponents whisking your leaflet away. The inexperienced activist will push their hand through the letterbox and then be startled by a thud on the back of the door as Fido’s paws crash into the door and his jaws close, if you’re lucky on your leaflet but it could be your hand.

One of our Bristol council candidates in 2006 had the appalling experience of the dog on the other side of the door gnawing his hand and refusing to let go. My colleague fainted in the doorway, such was the pain. When I saw him later his fingers looked like exploded sausages. Delivering political leaflets can be dangerous. I’ve always been cautious and in thirty years of delivering have had many narrow escapes but no bite marks.

Dogs and draught excluders aren’t the only irritants. The position of the letter box can be a pain. Vertical boxes, at shoulder height and close to the doorframe are hard to negotiate, when balancing your bundle or bag in one hand and the leaflet in another. But far worse are the ankle level boxes. Whoever thought these were a good design should be shot. To get the leaflet through the letter box you must crouch down, delicately poised while pushing your leaflet through the box that is just a few centimetres above ground level. Too many of these and you get bad knees and backs.

When I was Communities Minister one of my responsibilities was building regulations and I presided over the final stages of the housing standards review. It suddenly occurred to me that I could surely just make illegal these infernal letter boxes. I would be a hero to political activists and postmen alike. But the officials would have none of it. The proposal wasn’t in the original consultation so Sir Humphrey said “No Minister.”

Having been thwarted on the great letter box reform 2014, I propose that architects and housebuilders should be made to deliver leaflets to their houses and flats, negotiating the entry phones, coded entry systems and other barriers to the simple act of delivery. If they’re lucky they won’t get bitten but they almost certainly will get grazed knuckles, broken finger nails and paper slice cuts that really sting.

So are there any highs to delivering political leaflets? It’s moderate exercise in most streets but basement flats and upper storeys with their own entrances can turn a delivery session into a workout. It makes up for the time you don’t have to go to the gym, well almost. I quite like looking at front gardens and enjoy the novelty of doing a round that I’ve never walked before. Oh, and apart from the physical dangers there’s also the moral hazard of what do you do about the “no junk mail” signs? Personally, I ignore them. Election leaflets are essential to democracy, on a higher level to pizza adverts and estate agent guff.

Canvassing in person, as opposed to by telephone, has all the risks and rewards of delivering. But the object of the exercise is to chat to a voter and the experience is variable. The strict purpose of canvassing is to find out who either supports your candidate, is undecided between your candidate and someone else or is already firmly committed to a rival and won’t be budged. But the good candidate will use each encounter to build up knowledge of the undiluted opinions and concerns of the electorate. A month’s worth of canvassing across a mix of communities can give you more insight than any number of the focus groups so beloved of party HQs.

While most activists are prepared to deliver leaflets (though some think it’s beneath them) many are terrified about canvassing. But the truth is that the vast majority of doorstep encounters are polite and pleasant. Very few people are rude and if they are it provides an anecdote for team drinks in the pub.

A good canvassing experience would be a “full house” – everyone is in at the door you’ve just knocked, they all agree to speak to you and they’re all going to vote for you! These three things rarely go together. Going down a typical city street about half of the people are out. About 10% of the people you actually meet are not the people registered to vote at that address. When you talk to one registered voter at the address, quite often the others prefer to stay inside eating their dinner or watching Eastenders.

It’s different if you’re the actual candidate, people are more receptive and willing to chat. If you’re really lucky they invite you in for a glass of wine or in cold weather for a warm up by the hall radiator. This is a breach of the first rule of canvassing, get through as many names as possible and don’t linger. The rule may also be breached if the person who comes to the door is quite attractive. A canvassing hottie can be the highlight of the evening.

Apart from dogs (the owners invariably reassure you that they won’t hurt you) the worst aspect of canvassing is the sheer indifference of many voters. While allowing for the fact that you’ve turned up on their doorstep unexpectedly, you’re not after their money or even that much of their time. But many voters really don’t want to engage, even for a minute. You or one of your volunteers may have delivered 30 to 40 leaflets to them over the last four years and you want to spend the next four or five years of your life representing them on the council or in parliament. But you have to accept many people are neither impressed by this act of democratic munificence or interested in your much belittled trade of politics. Some can be won round to giving you a one minute audience by the use of various magic words such as “parking” or “school places” but once someone gives you the initial brush off it’s best to accept it and move on to a more willing household.

It is a shame that people don’t make the most of these chance encounters. And it really is a chance event. I was never that good at working out probabilities but given that if you’re a parliamentary candidate there could be 50,000 doors to knock on, then even at an optimistic rate of 50 doors at a time it would take a thousand evenings to get round. Remember that half of the houses will be out, so it must be massive odds against anyone actually meeting the person who could be their MP or councillor.

After a stint of canvassing or delivering the activist can relax but the candidate has much more to do before the election is over. There are letters and emails to read and write. You need to tell your social media friends and followers how hard you’ve been working. At its best social media allows the candidate to interact with many more people than via canvassing. But while most people are polite in person, on Twitter or Facebook plain civility often goes out of the window. People have always slagged off politicians while down the pub but the candidate didn’t have to hear it. Now they can be told on a daily basis that they’re a useless, lying, money grasping Nazi. At the end of 2014 I disciplined myself to stop looking at my phone after 11.30pm otherwise I’d be going to bed thinking I was the most hated man in Bristol. I slept slightly more soundly.

Elections cost money. This seems to be a surprise to many people, uniting journalists who tell people that donations to parties are obviously evil and campaign staff who are great at spending money but not at raising it. US Congressmen have two year terms and spend a chunk of each day after one election fundraising for the next one and if they’re unlucky for the candidacy primary that they have to win before the actual election. It’s not quite that bad in Britain but there aren’t many years without an election at local, national or European level and there are year round campaign activities that need to be funded. Local political parties will hold dinners, quizzes and raffles to raise a few hundred pounds at a time. But the serious money needed to fight an intensive and long running campaign will only come if the candidate picks up the phone and asks someone for a big cheque. It’s also true that many candidates make huge financial sacrifices themselves in order to stand for election. Only an idiot would go into British politics to make money.

So come election day, do take the trouble to vote for one of your hard working candidates. While I’ve written this piece drawing from my own Liberal Democrat experiences I’m sure it will resonate with candidates and activists from the Conservative, Labour, Green and nationalist parties.

By polling day the hard working candidate who is determined to win will have walked miles around the streets in all weather, been smiled at and sworn at, eaten too much late night junk food and if they’re careless or unlucky will have a campaign scar from a dog bite. They will have endured experiences that would fall foul of health and safety and hate crime laws if they were applying for any job other than elected office. Only some of them can win and only some of them really deserve to win. Make sure you select the right choice to work for your community in the years ahead.

Walter Ayles – the Bristol conscientious objector

April 17, 2016

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