Month: March 2008

Arrogance, councils and the way things are run

The row over the proposed move of St. Luke’s Hospice’s to Graves Park is of course a huge issue in Sheffield at the moment. There has been a lot written about it, but this comment piece by Paul License, editor of the Sheffield Star, is one of the best. It’s succinct and sums up many of the wider issues about the way that Sheffield is run of which the Graves Park row is just one example.

I also advise that you read the comments, particularly comment 31 from Dave Flanagan. The Liberal Democrats may not be perfect, but I like to think that the way that we operate things is nothing like the arrogant way that Labour does.

But this article isn’t just about political control but also reflects on the role of council officers. It has always been a convention in local politics that you don’t criticise the council officers as they aren’t public figures and are purely employed to carry out the political will of the party in charge. That’s fine in theory, but in reality many councils (and I believe that Sheffield is one) are heavily led by council officers and what they want. In many cases this works fine as much of what a council does is non-controversial and many officers do an excellent job and have a good instinct for what is the right thing to do. But unfortunately there are many officers, and I have spoken to a number, who share the Labour arrogance and work on the basis that as they are professionally trained and therefore only they could possibly know what was in the interests of the general public and so politicians and the public should not interfere. It may be true that council officers are professionally qualified, but knowing how to follow the relevant regulations and legislation may not necessarily be the same as knowing what is the best thing to do.

A perfect council would be one where there are good politicians who instinctively understand the people who elect them and have a vision of where they want the city to go working with council officers who are professionally qualified, hardworking and innovative but are prepared to be guided by the politicians who have been elected by the people. Both of these sets of people though have to be listeners who go out and talk to normal people and find out what they want, actively seek opinions on things that are happening in the community and the city, and who are prepared to admit when they are wrong. If this happens effectively then you avoid the arrogance and refusal to listen that has been the hallmark of the Graves Park issue so far.

Finally, apologies for people who read this blog who aren’t from Sheffield and have no interest in its politics. I am aware that this blog has become a lot more opinionated on Sheffield issues lately, and has spent a lot of time overtly pushing the Lib Dem cause and criticising the opposition. It isn’t my normal style on here as although I am clearly partisan I am not blinkered and will criticise my own party where it is needed. But with the local elections only a few weeks away and with the likelihood that it will be exceptionally close Sheffield’s political issues are the things that are uppermost in my mind.

It’s Easter and I’m at work… :-(

It’s Easter weekend, but unlike the rest of the population who either have time off with their families or go to church, I am spending it at work.  Easter normally falls right in the middle of the local election campaign so I am used to it, but despite being so early I am still hard at work artworking leaflets for the Liberal Democrat local election campaign.

This weekend has been unusually quiet and peaceful.  Normally the Liberal Democrat office is complete pandemonium and is busy with people coming and going either on party business or to see the MPs office.  But this weekend the MPs office is closed and the majority of party activists have been slogging away on the streets all day long.  So I am currently enjoying a a rare moment of peace and quiet to sort out the office, to plan what is coming up next and to do the bits of artwork that need more thought.  I also thought it was a good opportunity to make a little bit of time to post here as I doubt I will have much time for it during the rest of the election.  Unfortunately the quiet will undoubtedly be shattered in the next couple of hours when people return from today’s action day (where lots of people go out and deliver leaflets or knock on doors) to stuff envelopes and to have a campaign meeting.

Talking of action days.  One very noticeable thing this year has been the number of people, many of them members we haven’t seen before, who are turning up to our regular action days.  Today the hoards have descended on Hillsborough where we hope to pick up a seat from Labour again, but no matter where we have had action days whether it’s Ecclesfield in the North or Mosborough in the South, the turnout has been brilliant – the best ever.  I hope this bodes well in a year when we hope to take control of the city council from Labour.

Despite being mid March, the campaign already feels in full swing.  Although Liberal Democrat activists have been working hard for weeks and months (quite literally ‘working all year round’), there comes a point when suddenly it feels like election time.  It is some weeks before the official start of the local elections and it is quite a long way before polling day.  But it is the point at which everyone is working flat out all of the time delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and phoning voters; whilst I spent my time feeding this insatiable appetite for electioneering by writing, artworking and printing leaflets, printing off canvass cards, generally keeping the campaign on track and doing lots of other behind the scenes administrative tasks that are dull but essential.  As someone who has spent years campaigning on the streets and who enjoys doing it, I feel slightly lazy being in an office all day but I suppose someone needs to do it and the very late nights (or should that be early mornings) certainly aren’t an easy thing to do day in and day out.  My housemates must be forgetting who I am as haven’t seen them in over a fortnight now.

For me this campaign is also the final slog of a very long electoral year.  Not long after last year’s local elections came the Sedgefield by-election where I spent a lot of time designing and printing leaflets and letters, then came the extensive preparations for the General Election that never was, then there was the Lib Dem leadership election and then after Christmas it was the build up to the local election campaign that we are now in the middle of.  It’s been a marathon year and I will be glad when it is over on 2nd May.  I just hope no politicians choose to die, resign or anything else that will affect the time off that I definitely need afterwards.

Greens vote against extra recycling

When you’re involved in politics in Sheffield you quickly get used to Greens behaving oddly. But you have to wonder why they bother being politics at all when they vote against the very measures they keep talking about, as they did in last week’s budget meeting in Sheffield City Council.

The Liberal Democrats in Sheffield proposed:

  • An extra £1.4 million for kerbside recycling of glass or tin.
  • £115,000 to provide green waste sacks (currently £1 each) for free.
  • £500,000 to help regenerate local shopping areas to make communities more sustainable and to help local businesses.
  • £287,000 to provide a ‘green pot’ for local community groups to bid for funding to carry out community environmental projects.
  • Scrapping the use of bottled water in the council in favour of tap water.
  • … and much more

But instead the Greens voted against this and just backed Labour who were offering far less for the environment, and who in the last year have voted to shut down a successful community school and who opposed Lib Dem attempts to introduce tough targets for the council on carbon emissions.

As one person put it to me, “it seems as though the Green Party is more committed to the Labour Party than to the environment.”

What do Schiphol Airport and a Focus leaflet have in common?

Pay attention all political anoraks who also write Focus leaflets, because here’s an exciting posting on fonts. That particularly includes you Duncan Borrowman and Ed Maxfield (sorry, private joke).

It turns out that Paul Mijksenaar, the person who designed the signage at the airports in Amsterdam, Athens and Frankfurt, has Gill Sans Serif as his font of choice.

Gill Sans also happens to be the standard font used by Lib Dem campaigners for their Focus leaflets (many are written in other fonts of course, but it is the one that party training usually recommends).

What I hadn’t realised is how much the font is used when I have only ever heard of it in the context of the Liberal Democrats. According to the Wikipedia article on Gill Sans (who spends their time writing these things? Mind you, who apart from me reads them?) it is also the original font used by Penguin Books, as well as being used by Fox News, the band Bloc Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Given that fonts are usually a key part of the brand and image of a company or organisation, I’d be intrigued to know what the similarities are between the ones I have just mentioned and the Liberal Democrats.

For anyone who cares and who doesn’t know, and more importantly hasn’t fallen asleep by this point, the font of choice for headlines in Lib Dem Focus leaflets is usually Democrat Sans. I understand this was created specifically for the Liberal Democrats and so there probably isn’t much to say about it.

No to a Britishness Day and an Oath of Allegiance

Of all the ideas that have been put forward recently as potential government policy, the idea of a Britishness Day and an ‘oath of allegiance’ is one of the most ridiculous.

I have an allegiance to my country (both the UK as the country in which I grew up and where one half of my family is from, and Sweden as that is where I was born and where the other half of my family is from). I have an allegiance to my family and friends. I also have an allegiance to the community I live in. But what I don’t have is an allegiance to the Queen. She may be perfectly pleasant, hardworking and a good figurehead for the country. But that is exactly what she is – a figurehead. I am not a republican but I feel no more loyalty to her than I do to anyone else that I don’t know.

I am also unhappy with this plan because it is purely and simply a gimmick. You do not make people more loyal or committed to a country by making them swear an oath. If someone does not feel loyalty or wants to actively undermine it then I doubt they will be put off by having to go through the motions of swearing their allegiance.

Thirdly, the whole idea for the oath of allegiance and the Britishness Day is incredibly artificial. It would be fine if it had come out of years of history, but it hasn’t. I have said before that I am all for celebrating the country we come from, but it would all be so much better if it was spontaneous or rooted in tradition. Allegiance to Britain is a gut instinct and about the various traditions of our country that have steadily built up over the years, and not some political gimmick thought up by a political party policy group.

Lib Dem Spring Conference

After the week that the Liberal Democrats have just had it probably wasn’t the best time to have a conference. But actually the mood at conference was very good.

It seeed to be that regardless of what side of the argument people were on, they just seem determined to put a difficult week behind them and look forward to the local elections in May. One MP I spoke to last night, who was one of the rebels in the Lisbon Treaty referendum vote, also seemed pretty chipper and as they knew that the issue was an incredibly difficult one to handle they had no gripe about Nick himself. It was also definitely noticeable how many people I know that have elections in May were fairly confident in them doing well at the ballot box.

The most notable thing for me is the number of people who have come up to me all weekend and said, “Life must have changed a lot for you now that Nick Clegg is leader”. To which the answer is always “Not at all. Nick is still the MP for Sheffield Hallam and although he has extra responsibilities as leader, life in the constituency carries on as normal and we carry on campaigning as normal.” It’s interesting how even people who are long-standing activists seem to imagine that Nick’s campaigning in the constituency is somehow different now.

So to Nick’s big moment – his first conference speech as leader. It went very well and he really made it very clear the style that he wants to adopt as leader and the sorts of things that the Liberal Democrats should be championing. I was also pleased with two bits that I was surprised he mentioned – ruling out going in to government with both Labour and the Conservatives, and also using any savings in government to cut the taxes of the least well off. The speech was clear, interesting, gives a lot of promise of great things to come, and he even managed to do well one of the things that he has not always been good at – ad libbing. I knew he had done well, but it was the reaction from other people that made feel particularly chuffed as they were all along the lines of “the boy’s done good” and “that was a speech from a real leader”. I felt good coming out of the conference hall, but I was even more pleased with it after the feedback.

Ever since Nick Clegg has been leader I have also had butterflies every time I know that he has a big moment where he really has to perfom well. I got it at Prime Minister’s Questions. I got it today. But hopefully like has happened with PMQs his excellent performances will stop me getting so nervous.

Liverpool: Great city, it’ll be even better when it’s finished

Until this weekend I’d never been to Liverpool before. Actually, that isn’t strictly true. I did come here as a small child with my parents to go to the International Garden Festival. But that was a long time ago and we didn’t see anything of the city itself.

But having now been to Liverpool this weekend I am pretty impressed by the place. In some cities, the people who live there know they are on the up and are confident in their success, and develop a kind of arrogant swagger about their home town. Liverpool isn’t like that. They know it doesn’t have a great reputation but they are also determined to change people’s minds. What Liverpool has is the feel of being an important commercial city, a bit like Leeds and Manchester, but it is also a bit more down to earth and rough around the edges than them, and so in that sense is a bit like Sheffield. I suppose it’s those two things combined that makes me like the place.

I spent Friday afternoon and today doing some sightseeing around the city. Although I went to the fairly obvious choice of Tate Liverpool, I also went to Williamson’s Tunnels which I had heard about and was intrigued to see. They were both interesting in very different ways and I am glad I went. But I also spent a lot of time just looking around the place to get a feel for what it is like. The thing that struck me more than anything was the impresive architecture, but also how much redevelopment is going on.

I knew that Liverpool was being turned around, but you don’t appreciate the scale of it until you go there. At the Liberal Democrat Conference, Councillors Warren Bradley and Mike Storey have made a big thing about how the Liberal Democrats have turned the city around and if it wasn’t for them then the city would not be undergoing the huge renaissance that it is. Well I believe them. The city is certainly improving a lot, and from the press I have read (so not just Lib Dem spin) a lot of it is down to the Lib Dems taking control of the city. I know they have had a lot of problems too, particularly in relation to being the European Capital of Culture, but I can honestly say they seem to be doing an excellent job. With so much building still in progress it does detract a bit from the image at the moment, but I am sure when it is all done it will be great. And loads of people I have spoken to this weekend have said the same.

The Lib Dems in Liverpool have done an excellent job of selling their city to the conference delegates. They said to people at conference that they wanted people to go away after this weekend impressed, and then to come back. Well Liverpool has impressed me and I will definitely be back, and I hope Lib Dem Conference will be too.

NOTE AT 21:24
Seems like I was far less original than I thought when I came up with the title for this posting.  If lots of people said it then maybe they all heard it from me.  Not much of a brag though as it isn’t exactly roll on the floor laughing material.