Time to return to core values?

logosOn Thursday (9th July) I went along to a Bristol Festival of Ideas and Guardian Live event at the Arnolfini in Bristol, where the two Liberal Democrat leadership contenders (Norman Lamb and Tim Farron) were in discussion with Andrew Rawnsley. It was a fascinating debate, with real honesty and integrity from both speakers, expertly facilitated by Andrew, which left me thinking about how seldom we seem to engage in real political debate about the issues that matter. Too much of the debate we see and hear is shallow, reactive and glosses over the real problems and instead focuses on ones that are easier to solve or popular to attend to.

What was so refreshing about the approach taken by both Tim and Norman, was the recognition of what had gone wrong during the general election and how they needed to get back to positive campaigning. The focus was very much about core values and rebuilding the party on those values and principles, with a realisation that the Liberal Democrats need to remind people what they really stand for and give people a reason to vote for them. It was a grown up debate about principles and values, about issues that really matter and thought provoking on what Liberalism is and who it appeals to.

Tim Farron spoke eloquently about the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues we are facing at the moment. He spoke about wanting to make a difference to people and doing what’s right for the powerless. Norman Lamb referred to the importance of the liberal principle of community politics and reminded us of the need for ideas, inspiration and vision. They both saw the Lib Dems as a radical, progressive party that needed to operate effectively beyond and outside the Westminster bubble.

Despite their obvious agreement over many issues and general approach, the two leadership contenders couldn’t be more different. Tim comes across as a charismatic, opinionated, confident and someone who will undoubtedly take bold positions on key issues. Whilst, Norman, is quieter spoken, more deliberate and considered in his approach, providing an air of wisdom and experience as well as a long standing record of delivery on Liberal values. I was impressed with both for different reasons and they would seem in my view to make an excellent double act at the head of the party! As the members vote draws to a close over the next week or so it will be interesting to see who wins this contest and what direction they take the party.

For me the debate and discussion was interesting because it is exactly what I had been hoping to see in the Labour leadership contest, a grown up political debate where the issues that matter are addressed in a thoughtful and considered manner. But perhaps more important than this is the need for the labour party to go back to basic principles and remember why it was set up and where its core values are. Sadly, so far, I have seen little evidence of this kind of self awareness in the party, with little serious reflection on what so obviously wrong for Labour during the election. The constant suggestion that it’s because Miliband was too left wing so the party needs to move to the right, reflecting conservative policy and values, is deeply worrying and depressing.

For me the Labour Party has always been about challenging inequality and poverty, representing and standing up for those that are powerless, and providing and supporting the services we need in a civilised society so everyone benefits from them. Somewhere along the line the party seems to have forgotten some of these values and is playing a reactive role, firefighting whatever the latest Tory policies are with little to offer in exchange. That’s why the Labour Party need to have a proper debate about what the party stands for, what its core values are and what that means for the future leadership of the party. Without that debate, how do we judge leadership contenders? How do we know how the party will move forward? Without that debate, people like me will continue to remain outside the party, looking for a way forward politically and for a party that reflects our core values – it used to be Labour, but isn’t any more!

Initial impressions of an election night to forget! 

My first impression has nothing to do with the results themselves and more to do with just how long we all had to wait to find out what those results were in Bristol – seriously, how can it take until 3.30am to verify votes when some other councils had declared all results, packed up and gone home by then? What is the sense in doing the count in the evening if it is going to take that long? Why not go back to Friday counts, when candidates, agents, media etc have had a chance to sleep? The whole process seemed to be just ever so slightly shambolic……. again. This needs sorting out before the general election next year and goodness knows how they’ll cope in 2016 when we have all council seats and the Mayor up for election at the same time!

I’d like to say that it was an exciting night of local election results, but actually it wasn’t. Sure there were a few surprises, but overall it was rather dull and mostly predictable and I can’t quite believe that once more I found myself awake and listening to it all for most of the night. Clearly after 8 years of being a local councillor, and many more of campaigning, you can never quite shake off an interest in local politics. I’ll no doubt be awake listening on Sunday night as the Euro results come through as well. It seems most pundits were predicting the Liberal Democrats would lose seats and Labour would gain them, with some quieter mumblings about the Greens maybe picking up one or two and let’s not forget UKIP, they just might pinch a couple. So perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Conservative share of the vote held up reasonably well (only down 4%) and the Labour share didn’t increase as much as people thought (up 2%). Not surprising, however, was the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (down 17%) or the rise of UKIP (up 11%) and the Greens (up 8%) – entirely predictable. For more statistics on what happened, who got elected where, and what the turnout was see the Council website.

The overall impression from these results is a bit depressing really. Of course it’s difficult to predict patterns for future local or even a general election, as locals combined with Euro elections tend to bring out the ‘anti’ vote, so the trends may be more pronounced than they might be next year. They do on the surface at least seem to show that Labour is just not appealing to traditional Labour voters on the outer estates of Bristol, or they just didn’t get their vote out, whereas UKIP are appealing to people across the city particularly in the more traditional Labour heartlands and they seemed to be able to mobilise their vote – they came second in Whitchurch Park, Kingsweston, Avonmouth, Southmead, Brislington East & West – and of course they won their first Bristol Council seat in Hengrove. A further trend would seem to be that disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters are turning to the Green Party rather than Labour, with an increase in the Green vote and two new seats secured in Bristol West – this may also have been an option taken by some Labour voters across the city.

I listened to a lot of the coverage throughout the night on Radio 5 and Radio Bristol and what struck me most was the gradual dawning realisation that we might just have to take UKIP seriously as a party that appeals to the British public – there’s something about Farage and the messages he spins that appeals to people. Yes he might be playing on people’s fears, but it’s also true that to many he comes across as a normal bloke down the pub talking about all the stuff that people are concerned about. Yet somehow this isn’t true of Labour or the Lib Dems – they seem to have lost their way and been out manoeuvred by Farage and UKIP. To my mind Labour are too focused on trying to match the Tories on their policies and have lost sight of what a Labour Party should be about and the Lib Dems, I’m afraid, have just lost their way in a Coalition government dominated by Tory policy. Maybe eventually we’ll get used to the idea of Coalition rather than majority rule, and realise that compromise is essential in coalition politics until then the Liberal Democrats are in trouble, as is any other Party that enters into a Westminster Coalition as a minority. It’s just not something we are used to in this country, but I have a feeling we might well be getting a lot more practice at it. Depressing really! Also depressing is what this means for the Euro elections – I think the predicted upsurge of UKIP is obvious and maybe the only positive will be a few more Green MEPs?

A couple of mentions in relation to individuals in Bristol – I was surprised that the Liberal Democrats lost Brislington West but hung on to Whitchurch Park, keeping their Leader Tim Kent but losing a longstanding councillor in Peter Main, who did such a superb job as Lord Mayor. I was pleased to see the Greens do well, picking up a couple of extra seats and holding onto another, this hopefully bodes well for the European Election results, where the Greens may well just pick up that 6th seat in the SW. And finally, to Sam Mongon who won Windmill Hill from the Lib Dems, turning over a massive majority to win by 7 votes, impressive result.

However, the question I am left with is, does it really matter, other than to the individuals elected or not elected, what difference will this actually make now Bristol has an independent elected mayor, who has responsibility for taking all the decisions anyway? It certainly puts a different perspective on election day for me, as an outsider looking in, the excitement has gone and the meaning attached to results reduced. Perhaps one of the key question now is whether or not the political parties should participate in George’s cabinet and to what end? Maybe for another year it is worth it, to try and at least push party agendas, but in the run up to the 2016 full council and Mayoral elections, how does that work and what would be the benefit of being too closely associated with the decisions being taken by the Mayor? There’s also a big decision about scrutiny of the Mayor and how ineffective this seems to be at the moment – this is perhaps something that Labour and others need to get to grips with and provide more effective and consistent challenge to decision processes? Whilst I’ll watch with interest over the next week or so to see who helps George to form a cabinet and what positions different individuals take up, the gloss and excitement of local elections in Bristol has all but disappeared – until 2016 that is, when the people of the city get a chance to vote for who will be the next Mayor!

Decisions, decisions, decisions – green, red or yellow?

With the Euro elections approaching the dilemma of who to vote for is upon us. Now from a personal point of view this isn’t a dilemma I normally face as I have, until recently, always voted Labour, even though where I live in North Somerset that is pretty pointless and in the local elections there wasn’t even a Labour candidate to vote for! But this time, I’m just not sure. I detest the way Labour seem to be vying for the centre ground, tweaking Tory policies rather than dismantling them, using the same detestable terminology as the Tories and failing on so many policy areas that should be at the heart of the Labour Party I used to be a member of and believe in. How times have changed, a slow gradual change, which leaves too crowded a centre ground of politics, moving ever further to the right under the current regime – it seems to be working though doesn’t it, Cameron almost seems to be more right wing than Thatcher was, but in a more acceptable way? For me one of Blair’s biggest failings was that he didn’t use the massive majority government he had in 1997 to do anything radical and to move politics back to the centre-left, leaving us in this situation now where the left is all but a myth in party politics.

Anyway, apologies for the indulgence, but I decided to take a rational, logical approach to this dilemma, at least that was the idea – by reading the party literature and watching the political broadcasts to see what the priorities of each party are and to see which fit best with my own beliefs and values. Just a week before the election and I have only received 3 leaflets through the door – Tory, Labour and Green, nothing as yet from Lib Dems, UKIP (thank goodness) or anyone else. Now I’ll break from the logic briefly to say there is no chance in this world that I would ever vote Tory or UKIP, so they are discounted from the consideration from the start as are any of the other marginal/extreme organisations standing for election this time round. So that leaves me with Labour, Liberal Democrat, or Green to consider and a short, superficial ramble around their policies and my thoughts on them follows:

Labour – I truly hated their election broadcasts, the focus on hardworking people is just too Tory for me and the un-credible shrinking Clegg was just too crass for words. The election leaflet I got was a mix of Euro and local policy/politics – I don’t have a local election to vote in, so much of it was irrelevant. AND even worse, they used the term ‘hard-working families‘ in the leaflet – Labour are putting them first apparently – not sure where that leaves the rest of us!  Now for a Euro election leaflet there really was far too much focus on national policy and having a go at the Tories, most of which I may well agree with, but not really that relevant to whether or not they are the right party to get my European election vote. Overall it was pretty poor and a bit thin on policy and not at all convincing in terms of where they stand on key European issues like regulation, environmental policy, climate change, immigration, trade agreements, employment rights etc. There’s more in the Manifesto, obviously, which I did glance through, but for me the biggest omission was around environmental policy and climate change, this got the merest mention, it should be much higher up the agenda for all parties particularly in Europe. This is an area where the Labour Party constantly under perform and was one of the reason I quit my membership several years ago. Not a great start, and sadly they won’t be getting my vote this time. Here’s hoping the general election policies and manifesto are significantly better developed and thought out than current evidence suggests.

Liberal Democrat – don’t recall much about their party political broadcasts apart from the Incredible Silent man response to Labour’s attack on Clegg, I actually thought this was quite amusing and makes an important point, at least Clegg had the guts to debate with Farage, even if it did backfire slightly. Now at the time of writing I hadn’t received a Lib Dem leaflet but I have read through their European Manifesto which covered all the things you’d expect it to. Compared to Labour they do have more on climate change and the environment, which was good to see and overall there wasn’t a lot I would disagree with. From what I have seen of Graham Watson MEP he’s a good, decent MEP who does a good job for the South West in Europe – I hope he gets re-elected, but I’m not sure he’ll get my vote, mostly because I can’t get past the thought of the Lib Dems nationally and some of the policies they have voted for over the last few years as part of the Coalition government. So sorry Graham, you are being let down by your national party, but good luck and I hope you get back in.

Green – many of the foundations of Green Party policy are very close to my own values and beliefs, but in the past I wouldn’t have counted them as a credible party with a wide enough range of policies (not until the last 10 or so years anyway) so have never voted Green nationally or locally. I liked their leaflet and I have to say their party election broadcast was one of the best I have seen for some time now. They come across a lot more professional and credible now than when I first got to know them back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, soon after they formed. They certainly hit more of the right buttons for me in terms of prioritisation of policies on climate change, environment, jobs, public services and workers’ rights both nationally and at a European level. I can’t help but think they have taken advantage of Labour’s shift to the centre and grabbed some of the centre-left ground with their policies, but hey at least someone is! I also thought that Molly Scott Cato, as lead candidate, did an excellent job in the hustings meetings/interviews I have watched and/or listened to. So maybe this time I’ll vote Green, it’s certainly looking likely and it would be good to have a green MEP in the South West.

With European elections on the same day as the local elections in Bristol, it will also be interesting to see how this impacts on local voting patterns. One third of the seats are up for election, with the current Lib Dem leader, Tim Kent, a likely target along with Gary Hopkins. It does however all seem slightly pointless now we have an elected mayor in Bristol, who doesn’t belong to any political party. We will undoubtedly see Labour gain more seats and extend their majority, but so what, what difference does it actually make to how the council works or how decisions are taken? But I will no doubt watch with interest as the result pour in and will undoubtedly blog about the results.

Whatever your political beliefs and voting intentions, it is of course important to actually use your vote, so do remember to vote on 22nd May!

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 


Fickle, Floundering or Functional?

As the Liberal Democrat conference comes to an end are we any clearer about what they stand for and what difference they have made, and will make, to the Coalition Government? The Conference literature says “stronger economy, fairer society” but what does that mean in reality?

The first announcements were populist but marginal – we got proposals for a ban on free carrier bags and a commitment to make school uniforms cheaper – hardly the top of most people’s list of priorities. But as the conference got going, the debate warmed up and began to address the big issues. The key debate was about the economy, with left leaning Lib Dems proposing a change to economic policy and the Leadership sticking to the Tory Plan A, fiscal austerity. Whilst there was some significant dissent the motion to continue with the coalition’s deficit reduction plan was carried with a comfortable majority, enabling Nick Clegg to breathe a big sigh of relief. Continue reading

People before Politics?

What can we expect from Party Conference Season?

The next round of Party Conferences are almost upon us and this time the pressure is on as all the main parties are in the process of defining their manifesto policies for the 2015 General Election.  The autumn conferences are a great opportunity to share some of these policies more publicly, as well as get feedback and party buy-in to them.

But what will be the focus of each of the Parties? Continue reading