liberal democrats

Why we must stand candidates for Police and Crime Commissioners

The debate within the Liberal Democrats on whether we should stand candidates for the Police and Crime Commissioners has been an interesting one.  Not just because the principle of standing candidates is not something that usually provokes debate (although obviously some areas struggle to find enough council candidates) but because the two sides of the argument are not easy to characterise.  There are people I would have thought were a dead cert in believing we should stand who are firmly against, and vice versa.  This topic has been debated informally internally for several weeks, but tonight it will be discussed by the party’s Federal Executive and so I decided it was time to put in my two penn’uth worth on why I believe we have to stand.

A DISTINCTIVE STANCE ON CRIME

For years the Liberal Democrats have been arguing a completely different approach to law and order from the other two major parties.  We’ve long campaigned for restorative justice (and been the people who’ve proved to the doubters that it can work in many of the councils we’ve run).  We’ve talked for years about how prison doesn’t work and is a very expensive and inefficient way of not really dealing with the problem of crime.  Whilst the Police and Crime Commissioners won’t have the powers to make some of the changes we would like to see in the criminal justice system these elections will see a much broader discussion on crime than just the things it can influence.  If we don’t stand candidates, who will argue that point of view?  Yes, Ken Clarke may be supporting many of the initiatives that we have long argued for, but do we really believe that the Conservatives who have long backed sending more and more people to prison and Labour who have an illiberal record of cutting civil liberties when in office, are going to create a wide debate on where policing goes in this country?  We need to stand to give people the opportunity to vote for the things that we believe in.  No one else will do that.  And if we don’t stand we’re saying that we have no opinion on this crucial debate.

IF WE DON’T STAND FOR ELECTION, THEN WHAT’S THE POINT IN US EXISTING?

Political parties are a likeminded group of people who stand for election to change the world.  OK, that’s a simplification, but Article One of the Liberal Democrat constitution says:

the objectives of the party shall be… to secure the election of Liberal Democrats as Members of Parliament, UK Members of the European Parliament and members of local and other elected public authorities.

Apart from the slightly nerdy constitutional point that the party would be breaching its own constitution by not standing for this ‘elected public authority’, it shows that standing for election is a fundamental part of what we do.  If we don’t stand for election we’re just a pressure group and not a political party.  We might not agree with Police and Crime Commissioners, but then we also don’t agree with directly-elected mayors yet we still stand.  Similarly, we stand under First Past The Post elections whilst supporting proportional representation.  The political structures may not be the ones we want, but they’re the ones that exist and if we don’t stand for election we can’t change them or make what they do as Liberal Democrat as possible.

DAMAGE TO THE PARTY’S IMAGE

Now I’m sure our opponents would say that our image has already been damaged since we went in to government, but would our image be improved any further by us not standing?  At the General Election we stood candidates everywhere because it gave us credibility as a national party, and so we can hardly argue the opposite now.  You only had to look at the press obsession with us having fewer council candidates in May (despite the fact that it was only marginally lower and in places where we’d always struggled) to see how obessesed they will get if we don’t stand.  The press line will be that we clearly are struggling, because we can’t even find candidates.  Instead, by standing everywhere and winning some of the contests it will, in the way that by-elections often have done, show that are still a thriving party.  Our opinion poll ratings have improved from “being disastrous, to just very worrying,” (as someone recently described it), and we are finally performing well in council by-elections and gaining our first seat from Labour.  This feeling of improvement and growing credibility will be destroyed if we fail to stand candidates, whether that is a blanket failure to stand or picking and choosing.

NOT STANDING WILL HINDER OUR LONG-TERM CAMPAIGNING

One of the mantras of the party’s campaigning over the years has not only been to always stand a candidate, but that doing so helps people get in to the habit of voting Liberal Democrat and it helps develop local campaigning over time.  However, if in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections our supporters have to go off and find someone else to vote for, it breaks that habit and makes it harder for us to win those people back in the future.  Many of us who were fighting hard at the General Election to help the party win key parliamentary target seats know how difficult it can be to persuade people to break their loyalty to a party they’ve always supported.  This weekend I was helping do some party training in Bradford, and one of the things we talked about was how getting people to vote for you involves both breaking their allegiance to another party and then persuading them that you’re the party they should now switch to.  If we don’t stand candidates we’ve already done the first half of that job for our opponents.

BACKING INDEPENDENTS IS NEVER THE SOLUTION

A third option for the party is to back independent candidates in certain areas, but my fear with this is who makes that decision.  Do we run an all-member ballot or is that decision just left to the Liberal Democrat great and the good of that police authority area?  I’ve written before about why I don’t believe Liberal Democrats should ever endorse Independent candidates.  But on Police and Crime Commissioners I don’t see how we can ever be entirely sure that someone is genuinely a Liberal Democrat in their views without going through the party approval and selection process, which of course would mean that they were then not really independent.  If there was to be no Liberal Democrat in my area I would still vote, as I believe you always should, but I wouldn’t necessarily back the party’s preferred candidate.  And whilst I may do the research to decide which one is the more Lib Dem candidate in their views, would most of our voters really do that and can I be entirely confident in that research?

The view of party members on whether we should stand in Police and Crime Commissioner elections was made very clear in a recent poll by Liberal Democrat Voice where 57% of members were in favour.  This view of the grassroots is also endorsed by ALDC whose Management Committee recently voted unanimously that we should stand candidates.  But at the same time many of ‘the powers that be’ in the party are known to be against and the English party’s executive has expressed its desire to not stand candidates (despite already starting the selection process).  The decision who stands will finally come down to local areas, but the views of the party’s committees are essential in making sure they endorse the process and that the candidates we have are ‘official’ and backed by the party’s upper echelons.  I hope that tonight, the Federal Executive will do the right thing and back the decision to run candidates everywhere.

Although I work for ALDC this post is written in a personal capacity.

Lib Dem Conference Review 2011

I can’t believe I’ve been going to Liberal Democrat Federal Conference for 15 years now, and although I’ve missed a few Spring conferences I’ve been to every single Autumn conference since that first one in Brighton in 1996.  At that time they were all in seaside resorts (except Harrogate, which is pretty much a seaside resort, only without the sea) but now we’re often in cities.  My conferences have also changed from having too much time on my hands but at least being able to attend whatever I want, to now being busy with work commitments for most of the day. But despite that, conference is that moment of the year when I get re-enthused and come away feeling upbeat and ready for the political year ahead.  So here’s my review of this year’s Liberal Democrat Conference which is just a random outpouring of things I’ve enjoyed, a few thoughts and the things I’ve learnt:

  1. The Liberal Democrats are generally at ease with where they are and with being in government.  Nick Clegg summed it up in his speech with the comment that it’s “not easy, but right”.  Like many people I know, I was fully behind the coalition despite my years of hating the Tories.  I still dislike the Tories, (although Labour’s behaviour is starting to make them become more hated), but I realise it was the right thing to do.  Even those who aren’t keen on Nick Clegg have pretty much accepted the coalition and whilst they may not agree with everything (and in some cases, not agree very much) they are starting to enjoy government.  It’s not easy.  Those of us at the grassroots who get no material benefit from the coalition, may get a lot of flack, but actually being able to do something rather than talking about it and being taken seriously (you should see the number of journalists, outside observers and exhibitors we now get), makes it worth it.
  2. A good speech can re-invigorate you.  I’m not just talking about the leader’s speech or the other big set speeches, but far more so is the other good speeches and debates you hear in the fringe meetings.  Those who don’t go to conference (and I’ll explain a few things in this review for non-conference goers) often don’t realise that the vast majority of time is not spent in the auditorium debating policy and listening to speeches, but a lot of it is spent in fringe meetings with discussions involving the party’s parliamentarians and a host of outside speakers, (including some from other parties), who get invited along, and in training sessions.  I went to a small number of fringe meetings because of my work commitments, but the best I went to was on community politics and I’ll write about this later.
  3. I’m getting old and can’t cope with long days and late nights.  One of the great things with conference is that after attending for many years you acquire many friends from all over the country, and this is the one time you get to see them all in one place at the same time.  For that reason, you end up being very late at night drinking more than you should and chatting to people.  Sometimes that would involve staying up until 3am or 4am.  But this year I just couldn’t do it and had to have two early nights and even the later nights were earlier than usual.
  4. Whilst on the subject of drink, the amount that hotels charge for drinks is horrendous.  Normally I would never drink in hotel bars, but at conferences they are where everyone gravitates to as it’s where the key party members stay and they are usually prepared to serve people until very late.  But £4.00 for a pint of lager is surely far from reasonable.  Y0u know who you are, Hyatt Birmingham.
  5. Sarah Teather should stick to just doing capable speeches and not doing gags.  She’s a very good constituency MP and can do a very good speech, but her jokes at this conference were just dire.
  6. RNIB do a good conference stand.  It was designed to look like a haberdasher’s shop on the basis that “a stitch in time saves nine” and that doing proper eyesight checks now and spending money on cataract operations saves money overall.  But the effort and the detail that went in to their stand was unbelievable.  For those who worry about the cost of it, they had a sponsor pay for the stand.  I should declare an interest as a friend of mine works for RNIB, but it was genuinely impressive.
  7. Birmingham is a great conference venue.  We’ve changed quite a lot in the places we’ve had conferences recently, although after Gateshead Newcastle next Spring we will have reached the end of new venues for now (apparently we might have done a few in Manchester as well if it wasn’t for Labour booking it up years ahead, and as it’s the consecutive week to our conference we can never go to the same place as Labour do in that year as there isn’t time for the change over).  What I like about Birmingham though is that the hotels and the ICC are very close together as are places to eat.  Although I do like Birmingham generally anyway.
  8. The discussion at conference is not the leadership.  One of them is how we turn things round and communicate all the good stuff that’s happening in government.  There’s lots of it and yet we don’t get that message across, but people seem up for the challenge and trying to turn round the views of those who are sceptical about the government.  For those who don’t know what the Lib Dems in government have achieved, can I recommend the website What the Hell Have the Lib Dems Done.
  9. The really big talk at conference is Connect and it’s going to be a revolution for the party.  For a long time the Lib Dems were ahead of the other parties on how it used technology to campaign.  Then we gradually slipped behind.  Now with the new Connect system we are going to move massively ahead again with an online campaign database that is light years ahead of where we are now.  I was privileged to be asked to be on the decision team that recommended what campaign databases we used in the future, and so I saw it for the first time months ago, but everytime I see it again I find another amazing feature that I didn’t know about.  Thank you to NGP VAN who have created an amazing product and are genuinely nice interesting people to have got to know.
  10. Jurys Inn remain my favourite hotel chain.  Nice hotels and not as expensive as many other decent chains.
  11. Some fringe meetings provide great food especially when they’re sponsored (thank you to The Co-operative and B&Q), however you can’t rely on the same from Liberal Democrat regional parties to provide a brilliant buffet.  For evidence, see here for South Central and South East’s catering offer.
  12. Lib Dems just get massive security now.  A lot of people in Sheffield were (perhaps understandably) unhappy with the size of the fence that surrounded Sheffield’s City Hall for our Spring Conference and the cost of the policing, and the members were fed up of the checks on badges and the bag and body scanning.  But remarkably some people were convinced that the protection for our conference was just about us trying to look important.  But it’s just the way things are.  Sheffield was an issue because the conference venue was central in the city.  In Birmingham it wasn’t but it still involved shutting Broad Street, one of the city centre’s busiest streets.  While I’m on the subject though, what the hell does pelkin mean?  The police operation for the conference was Operation Pelkin, which apparently is what they always use for political party conferences.  A few us thought they should have had something more Lib Dem like Operation Sandals or Operation Beard, but given that most ‘operations’ tend to be called something dramatic like Operation Brute Force, the most Lib Dem we could think of was Operation Muscular Liberalism.
  13. The Lib Dem Voice Blog of the Year Awards reminded me that I should just keep blogging as much as possible as I am probably capable it’s just that I lack the time and I worry about the implications of me saying something stupid.  But when you are reminded of the good stuff people write and you remember all the things you wish you’d blogged on then didn’t bother I just want to do it more.  But what astounds me is how worked up some people get about who did or didn’t win.  It’s just for fun!
  14. It’s bizarre how many people I now know.  One of the consequences of having lived all over the country and working in a job where 3,000 or so party members see regular emails from you, is that people know your name even if you don’t know then.  It’s bizarre but quite interesting.
  15. Finally, Nick Clegg’s brilliant speech.  It seems to have gone down very well with members and with some of the media.  It certainly helps when you finish conference on a brilliant speech that really made Nick look like a statesman.

Is the logic of a 25% loss of Lib Dem seats right?

According to today’s Guardian a study has found that the Lib Dems will lose 25% of its seats under the proposed boundary changes.  This is an argument that has been trotted out numerous times before and is certainly nothing new as the very people who have done the study that has made news today reported exactly the same story before just with less academic research behind it.  Perhaps they’ve been taking lessons from the previous Labour government in continually announcing the same story on several occasions just to get another good headline.  But is there anything in it?

Firstly, I have to say I am writing this purely on the basis of one article on the front page of the Guardian and without seeing the full report *, which wasn’t available at the time of writing (although it should be published here later on).  However, the main argument appears to be that because Lib Dem seats don’t tend to be next to another Lib Dem seat then when the boundaries are expanded this will happen to such an extent that the Lib Dem incumbent will lose.  Superficially this is a logical argument, but when you look at individual seats then the argument becomes less convincing and here’s why:

  • It is true that many Liberal Democrat constituencies border seats that are held by other parties, but that does not necessarily mean the neighbouring areas are poor for the Liberal Democrats.  Just to use an example from the area I know best, Sheffield.  Even in what was clearly a very bad year for us electorally, every ward won by the Liberal Democrats was either in Sheffield Hallam or adjoining it, and so if boundary changes to Sheffield Hallam extended the seat in to Sheffield Heeley (a traditionally Labour seat and where both other wards held by the Lib Dems are situated) it doesn’t mean that there’s an electoral problem for the party.  The same is true of Stockport where if both of the current constituencies of Hazel Grove and Cheadle were retained but with enlarged boundaries, they may (and I emphasise ‘may’, as no knows what will happen yet) end up taking in Lib Dem wards in neighbouring Labour constituencies.
  • Bordering non Lib Dem seats can also help us to win two constituencies rather than just holding one.  This came very close to happening in the last General Election when the abolition of Sarah Teather’s Brent East constituency led her to win Brent Central by 1,345 votes and us failing to gain Hampstead & Kilburn next door by just 841 votes.  A few votes either way in both seats could have made it very different, but the boundary changes there came close to benefiting us, despite the fact that the notional majority in Brent Central made it look dreadful for Sarah Teather and none of the neighbouring seats were Lib Dem.
  • Moving parts of neighbouring seats in to one that is already Lib Dem (or that is a target constituency) may turn them Lib Dem when they weren’t before.  As many Lib Dems know, there are lots of places that would vote Lib Dem if someone just tried to make it happen.  For example, it was a committed group of activists that were determined to win Redcar at the last General Election that also led to us winning a string of council by-elections as well.  Yet, on paper neither the General Election result in 2005 nor the previous local government base would have suggested we could win it in 2010).  It was because people tried that meant that we won.
  • Finally, the obvious thing to point out is that the effect on the Lib Dems is always likely to be disproportionately greater because we have a smaller number of MPs and so even losing just one seat will produce a greater percentage.  That is less relevant to this report, but it has certainly been ignored in many previous reports on the effect that the boundary changes will have on the Liberal Democrats.

Of course the popularity of the Liberal Democrats will have an impact on whether the boundary changes are good or bad for the party and so I’m not complacently trying to say that everything will be fine.  But given we don’t yet know how popular or unpopular the party will be by the time of the election any academic research should quite rightly take a neutral point of view.

The article in today’s Guardian is yet another attempt to portray the Lib Dems as a chaotic party that is being led astray by the Conservatives, rather than to simply report the news.  It is of course fine for the left to argue this if they wish, and given that Labour has responded to the report by saying that:

“the Liberal Democrats clearly did not know what they were agreeing to. It was extremely naive.”

that is their clear strategy, but even this doesn’t hold water.  To be fair a small negotiating team trying to get a coalition agreement as quickly as possible potentially could make this mistake, but I imagine it must have crossed people’s minds beforehand and what people forget is that it has been Lib Dem policy for some time to reduce the size of the House of Commons.  In particular though, given that the Lib Dem side included Andrew Stunell who, and I don’t think he’d mind me saying this, is nerdy enough about elections to notice if we were about to create a massive problem, I really am not convinced.

* Just for clarity, Lewis Baston who works for Democratic Audit who published the report is a self-confessed Labour Party member (although with a mother who was a Lib Dem councillor until recently).  That may of course not effect the rigor of the research especially as it is being done as part of an organisation that is more than just himself, but some might wonder if it affects the presentation of the results?

Image credit: Birmingham News Room

 

Andrew Reeves

Is it really last September since I last blogged?  Well it is and sadly that was also due to a death.  But I suppose blogs are good places for people to share their memories and to see how other people are feeling when something tragic happens. And that for me is what Andrew Reeves’ death in his 40’s and so soon after getting married is – tragic.

For those people who read my blog who aren’t Lib Dem activists I should point out that Andrew was the Lib Dem Deputy Director of Campaigns in Scotland.  But he worked for the party in London for many years before that.

Like many people who have expressed their feelings today on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, email, text and even perhaps in person, I wasn’t close to Andrew and didn’t know him well. But perhaps it’s an indication of the sort of person he was that I and many other people feel as though we did.

I think the first time I met him was during the Brent East by-election in 2003.  There may have been an earlier occasion but it’s the one I remember.  It was a boiling hot day (much like today and probably about the same time of year too) and I arrived at the campaign headquarters expecting to be sent delivering.  Instead Andrew arranged for me to go canvassing and being slightly wary that I was going straight out to speak to voters in a place I didn’t know but also genuinely feeling a bit scruffy in my shorts and t-shirt I said “aren’t I bit too casually dressed in shorts?” he replied “go on, there’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of leg.”  Why I remember that conversation I have no idea, but perhaps it sums him up. He wanted to get the job done but was good natured and good humoured with it.

[POST PUBLICATION ADDITIONAL PARAGRAPH] It was during the same by-election that I was asked to transport a load of letters from the by-election HQ in Willesden Green to Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street to get them guillotined.  This caused much amusement when people saw my tiny Fiat Cinquecento being loaded up with about 40,000 letters, Andrew Reeves and Chris Rennard (neither of whom, it’s fair to say are the smallest of people) for me to drive them all in to central London.

Since then Andrew is someone I would regard as a “conference friend”. In other words someone I only see at Lib Dem conference but when I do see them I know I’ll enjoy chatting to them.  For someone with a deep voice and who never shied away from putting across his opinion he was also surprisingly softly spoken as well.  I was surprised when he moved to Scotland, but you can just tell from his blog and Facebook that he loved every aspect of his life there in particular ice hockey and life with his partner.

Speaking of blogging, Andrew’s blog was one that I would usually make an effort to read. He proved you could mix the personal and the politics and managing to be forthright without just spinning the party line.  If I ever get this blog off the ground again, (and I really wish I would), he’s someone who’s blogging style I should perhaps emulate as he also teaches me to trust myself to not worry I’ll say the wrong thing and cause the party an issue.  It really does seem appropriate and amazing that ‘Andrew Reeves’ was trending on Twitter in the UK for some of today.

Andrew will be sadly missed and it’s been a pleasure to know him.  On Twitter today, Colin Ross said:

“that the sad passing of Andrew Reeves has shown that the Liberal Democrats are a family who do politics not the other way round”.

He is so right and that is why describing Andrew as merely a “conference friend” doesn’t seem right.  But I’m proud that he was.

Shortlisted for the Lib Dem “Blog of the Year Awards”

Well what can I say, other than that I’m absolutely astonished.  Given that I wasn’t in the Total Politics list of 75 top Lib Dem Blogs for the first time since this blog first appeared in the list in 2006, I wasn’t expecting to be shortlisted for the Tim Garden Award, (Best Blog by a Lib Dem holding public office).  Even more so given that I’ve blogged less this year than usual, I was only elected in May and I only really write about being a councillor on a different blog.

Given I’m up against Alex Folkes (my choice for winner), Lynne Featherstone MP, Mark Valladares (AKA, Mr Ros Scott) and Birkdale Liberal Democrats in Southport, I’d be astonished if I won, but it’s nice to be nominated.  You don’t really do blogging for the accolades, but it’s nice to get them.  If there’s one thing though, it really makes me feel that I must get on with blogging more.  I enjoy doing it, I can always think of what to write, I just never get around to it.