Month: June 2008

Reflections on Henley

If you read the comment threads on websites like Liberal Democrat Voice and Political Betting, you would think the Liberal Democrats had lost a seat in Henley not that the Conservatives had held one.

Despite that comment the result was still to me a disappointment. I admit that I never went to Henley, which was down to a mixture of election fatigue, distance from Sheffield, needing to catch up with the things I didn’t do whilst I was in Crewe and moving house. Which I suppose might in some people’s eyes make my comments invalid, but the impression I get is that most Liberal Democrat campaigners involved in the election still expected us to do a lot better than we did.

One of the strongest criticisms of the result though was from members who felt that our potential success in the seat was overhyped. From the pleas that I received for me to go and help, both by email and in person, this seems like a valid criticism, but I tend to believe the account given by Alex Folkes, (someone who is close to the campaign team), when he notes that at the time the pleas were sent out, it was entirely believable that we could win.

Despite this, I think that following Crewe & Nantwich and Henley, and ideally before Glasgow East (although that doesn’t give much time), the Liberal Democrats do need to assess how they campaign in by-elections against the Tories or where the Tories/SNP are the more obvious challengers. The political landscape has changed. The Tories are unfortunately more voter-friendly than they used to be and so when it comes to a contest where the Conservatives can clearly win people are more likely to opt for them. But as I said in a previous post, I don’t detect a groundswell of support for them like Labour had in 1997, it is just that people are fed up with Labour. So the task for the Liberal Democrats is to work out our niche in these by-elections and campaign on that. We may not win, but it will at least make us distinctive and get us somewhat closer.

Many have said that what the Liberal Democrats need is to talk more about policy rather than shovelling out more leaflets. I have some sympathy for thie latter part of this view, but feel that it is too simplistic. The Liberal Democrats have won by-elections in the past basically by shovelling out far more literature than the other parties. It worked in Brent East, in Leicester South and nearly worked in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. The problem is that the other parties now understand that leaflets work, and although one party delivering leaflets on their own wins you votes, if all parties deliver lots then it may well stop making such a difference. From a Liberal Democrat point of view, I think that putting out more leaflets than the others may not lose us votes, but we may have gone way over the number needed to get us the final result. I think it is fair to say that in Crewe & Nantwich we could have delivered fewer leaflets, and as a result saved more money, but still got the same result. That’s because the mood had already been set in the by-election, no matter what we did. Vote Conservative and you get a rid of Labour. No matter what our policies, no matter how many leaflets we delivered, we would have had the same result.

The failure in recent elections seems to have led to a tirade of criticism against Chris Rennard and ‘Rennardism’. This is unfair. Chris has succeeded partly due to an instinctive campaigning ability, (people forget that he started at the grassroots in Liverpool rather than just being top dog in the party), but also through trial and error. I am sure that Chris, never mind the Campaigns Department who are now autonomous of Chris anyway, will be reflecting on both of these results to work out where we go next. Despite being a member of party campaign staff I am not a blinkered follower of everything that Chris Rennard says. I know he has his faults, but I also know he wants the Liberal Democrats to succeed and both he and the whole party will learn from what has happened recently.

Henley was not a failure. We increased our vote after all. But what it was, was a disappointment. What the party needs to do is go away and work out how best to campaign under changed political circumstances and then put it in to practice when it has the chance. The Liberal Democrats have won by being ahead of the other parties on campaigning, it need to look at what it has done recently and reflect on how it can once again pull ahead of the opposition.

Finally, as a footnote to this I must mention my ‘Reflections on Crewe & Nantwich‘ post. I wrote this not long after the by-election itself, but hadn’t realised that it had failed to post properly at the time. I have now put it up on the intended date and as I was heavily involved in that election it goes in to a lot more detail on the way that the Conservatives now campaign.

My new flat’s in a building site, but I still love it

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve had a place of my own, and as much as I love my parents and my friends, I am over the moon to have got my own flat again. I moved in yesterday, and as much as the flat is great, I can’t help but feel as though I am living in a building site.

The place I’ve moved to is Wicker Riverside. A brand new block of flats overlooking the River Don just off the Wicker on the edge of the city centre. The area itself still feels like a building site but is undergoing a huge transformation with lots more flats going up, new office developments and a general upgrading of the area. But what I hadn’t quite reckoned for when I moved in yesterday is the building itself being nowhere near ready for people to move in.

I suppose I should have known. If a developer says it will be ready by a certain date, it usually means it will be running late. But I suppose I had more faith in this one. When I looked round the flat three weeks ago the building was almost done, and Artisan who have built it have a pretty decent reputation. But when it came to me moving in yesterday I found that the lifts didn’t work, (even worse when you are moving to the fourth floor), one of the fire alarms in the communal areas is bleeping continually which I assume means that it doesn’t work, the roller shutter in to the car park has to be opened by a very grumpy security guard by hand rather than automatically with a key fob, and the exit doors don’t have a handle on the inside to open them and so when you have released the lock you have to prise it open by pushing your hands between the doors.

But despite all of that, it’s great to have my own flat again. The view from the 4th floor roof garden is excellent. It isn’t a pretty view, given that it includes an NCP Car Park, the incinerator and Hyde Park Flats, but it is at least an interesting one. I just hope the final building work gets done quickly. Carrying furniture up four flights of stairs might be good exercise, but I really don’t want to inflict it on IKEA when they deliver later this coming week.

Tories threaten to sue – take it as a compliment

I was trying to put together my own thoughts on the ridiculous story about the Tories trying to sue Henley Liberal Democrats, when I read this post from Matt Davies who sums it up completely. It all sounds so familiar, as this story from the front page of the local paper in Sheffield from this year’s local elections shows and this story run during a Lib Dem leadership election confirms.

Labour and the Tories like to quote from an old and out of date Lib Dem publication where (out of context) people are supposed to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”. Well the Conservatives now appear to have an equivalent which is “make up a story about your opponents, exaggerate the gravity of the misdemeanour, tell the press and use it against your opponents.”

In the end though, the Liberal Democrats in Henley should take this whole story as a compliment. If you are sent or are threatened with a solicitors letter, it usually means that your opponents are rattled and worried they might lose. I’ve had them myself and in every case it was just a ploy to get a good news story and the case never went any further.

Please someone stand in Haltemprice… We don’t care who, just anyone… pretty please

I don’t think I’ve seen a story on the BBC News website sound so desperate before.

Firstly the article itself is slightly strange, all about how the Queen may have to cancell a visit to Hull because of the Haltemprice & Howden by-election.  I have read the story twice and I still don’t understand how this compromises her neutrality.

But to finish it off is perhaps an even more bizarre plea.  At the end is one of their usual “were you there when this happened?  Let us know so we can publish a story about it without having to pay a researcher to find out instead” boxes.  But instead the question is “Are you planning to stand for election in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election?  Let us know using the form below”.

I can’t work out whether this is the BBC giving David Davis a hand to make sure that his one-man crusade to protect civil liberties doesn’t turn in to the most pointless and farcical by-election ever held, or whether they are just trying to make a non-story in to something interesting.

David Davis is no liberal, but we are probably right not to stand

When a big political story happens I usually want to post straightaway, although far too often it takes me ages and the world has moved on in the meantime. However there are times when I am glad not to have posted straightaway and this is one of them.

My first reaction to us deciding not to stand in Haltemprice & Howden was anger and incredulity. I admit part of it was the instincts of a campaigner – here is a by-election in a seat that we can win, why on earth are we not standing? But there was also a whole host of other concerns – does us standing aside add to the suspicions that the Lib Dems would work with the Tories in a hung parliament, why are we not running against him when we disagree with him on many of the other issues he will be voting for in parliament, have we just handed the whole civil liberties agenda over to the Conservative party, and why are we backing someone who is most definitely not a liberal?

It is this latter argument that still concerns me the most. Over the years, David Davis has taken a pick and mix approach to civil liberties. We might agree with him on the issue of 42 day detention, we might agree with him that there are far too many surveillance cameras these days, we might agree with him on opposing ID cards. But what about other civil liberties issues? David Davis has voted in favour of capital punishment. David Davis has voted against equalising the age of consent for gays and straights. David Davis is against the Human Rights Act. Surely these other civil liberties issues are equally important to Liberal Democrats? It might be right that 42-day detention is an issue that is above party politics, but I feel equally strongly about other civil liberties issues where I am at odds with David Davis.

What has changed me though is a combination of media reaction, speaking to other party members, (the majority of whom think Nick made the right decision), and by talking to Nick Clegg himself. Understandably there are some unhappy Liberal Democrats in East Yorkshire – people who have sacrificed a lot of their time, effort and money over the years to defeat David Davis – and I honestly do not know what I would do if I was in their situation. I would probably still be furious and disenchanted and seeing someone defend our decision on the grounds of what party members think would just rile me further.

But what has made me think that Nick Clegg may well have got it right is the reaction from civil liberties campaigners and Liberal Democrats who I know feel particularly strongly on these issues. David Davis has ended up becoming the unlikely figurehead for this cause, and were we to stand we would succeed in annoying many of these people across the whole country – people who we really should have backing us.

It has also made the public see David Davis as honourable and trustworthy, (despite most of them not agreeing with him on the issue), and whilst this may not be the reality, it would be hard to run a campaign against that tide of feeling. That is why if someone does run against him it needs to be a Kelvin Mackenzie type figure. Kelvin Mackenzie may be as much of a right-wing shit as David Davis, but at least it would give people a clear choice on the civil liberties issue. Labour still haven’t decided whether to run, but if I was them I wouldn’t bother. They will do incredibly badly, and even though they would never stand a chance of winning Haltemprice & Howden anyway, their defeat will be seen as bad news for Gordon Brown.

Finally though, and back to the campaigning instinct, this whole issue has succeeded in annoying David Cameron and the Tories – a lot! Even more so now the Liberal Democrats have announced they won’t run. It has wrong-footed them and because this whole issue is now seen as David Davis’ personal campaign, it might weaken the general Conservative support for the civil liberties agenda. Far from helping the Tories it may actually hinder them, and that can only be a good thing.