An enforced pause

There was a worry that once the general election was over this blog would go into decline. Having concentrated so much on the battle for Luton South, the concern was that after all the votes had been counted and the winner declared I would have nothing to write about.

That has proved not to be the case. The election result was not an end of the excitement, but the beginning of an extraordinary period in politics. So there has been no shortage of things to write about nor of things that I have wanted to say.

Yet, this blog has declined nonetheless.

The lack of activity is partly due to the expected post election slump. The need to recover lost mental and physical energy and catch up on neglected tasks. Yet the truth is new MPs and ministers aren’t the only ones who have been struggling to get to grips with a new job in the last few weeks. Alright, it might not be quite that challenging, but I have started a three month contract taking over the management of a website development project. Working out what I need to be doing and a return to the daily commute has left little space for blogging.

It is a shame really. Thanks mainly to the election this blog was building up a nice bit of momentum. I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to keep it going and carry that through.

However, things are now settling down a bit and I am going to try to catch up on what I’ve missed and see if I can get some regular writing going.

Why I will support this extraordinary coalition government

I started an interesting and challenging new job this week. Yet, while trying to get to grips with a new organisation, new tasks, and new colleagues I have been acutely aware of those other Liberal Democrats also starting new jobs. Admittedly their new roles are an order of magnitude more interesting and challenging than mine. However, the urge to be home watching the news channels, reading the web and blogging about it all has been intense.

So what do I make of a full blown Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition government? Well apart from being staggered, bewildered, astonished, gob smacked and hugely flummoxed, I am nervously excited. I am excited because change opens up opportunities and politics has really changed radically this week. I am nervous because the risk for my party is huge. If we get this wrong it could destroy us.

I wrote on Monday lunchtime about rational reasons why I could support a deal with the Tories. But I surprised myself during the period between then and the making of the deal with how emotionally comfortable with that idea I had become.

This says a lot about my personal desire for a change of national direction. But it is also about the attitude displayed by the Labour Party. The Labour Party is the reason why I support this coalition deal.

I shall explain why.

I wrote on Monday of the need for new leadership and stable government. How we needed this to tackle the economic situation and carry out political reform. And that a deal with Conservatives could be in the national interest if it could deliver this. But I added a caveat that substantial and meaningful political reform had to be a central part of the package and that this had to include proper reform of the voting system. If it didn’t it would not be acceptable.

I don’t fully understand the nature and implications of the referendum on AV, but I don’t think it is enough. We have got an elected upper house and fixed term parliaments as well as some other really good reforms, but AV is not proportional representation.

Oh and where is STV for local government elections? I want what Scotland has got. Did we argue for this?

AV is not good enough. So I should be saying no to the deal. But I am not.

The reason why is the realisation of just how utterly incapable of rising to the occasion the Labour Party was. It wasn’t just all those Labour MPs that spoke out against doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats because of tribalism, fear of true radical reform of the political system, perceived partisan advantage, or just that they preferred opposition to the hard choices of government. It was also the arrogance and the complete failure to grasp the reality of the situation displayed by the Labour negotiators.

As James Graham says in his excellent article on Comment is Free;

“For me, this represents a final let-down by the Labour party after 13 years of disappointments. It has become a hollow shell of what it once was. There is hope that it can now reinvent itself as a genuinely progressive party that rediscovers the enthusiasm it once had for individual human dignity. Sadly, however, the early signs show that it is going to retrench into a tribalist sect interested only in gaining outright power for itself. The fact that two of the things the Labour negotiating team would not even contemplate was dismantling the database state and ending the detention of immigrant children makes you realise quite how corrupted the party has become in office.”

It is not just that the Labour Party doesn’t deserve to be in government, as tired and as hollowed out as they are; they are no longer capable of meeting the challenges of government.

This coalition will be good for the country and I will support it. Whether it is good for the Liberal Democrats remains to be seen.

Reasons to be cheerful: those second places

While we are waiting to see how the hung parliament negotiations end up, I imagine that most Liberal Democrats are still feeling a little down about the result of the general election. However, there are one or two reasons why we should be a little more cheerful.

One of these is the second places the party is now in across the country. Anthony Wells reports the following:

“We know the Liberal Democrats didn’t end up increasing the number of seats they hold, but they did substantially increase the number of second places they have, and have more winnable marginals. The notional 2005 figures had the Lib Dems holding 62 seats and in second place in 188. Following the 2010 election the Lib Dems hold 57 seats, but are in second place in 242. On the 2005 notional figures the Lib Dems were within 10% of the winning party in 31 seats, now they are within 10% in 45 seats.”

Why I would support a deal with the Tories

Whatever the Liberal Democrats choose to do as a result of this hung parliament will carry with it considerable risk. But the least risky choice is to act in the national interest.

I am getting a little bit tired of politicians and commentators, particularly those who are not supporters of the Liberal Democrats, telling me what I and my fellow party members should or should not do and pontificating on what we will or will not put up with.

I grew up in 80’s hating Thatcher with a passion. I remember the harshness of those years, the ‘them and us’ attitude, the heartlessness and insularity, the damage done to our economy and social fabric. I remember also how they wasted the opportunity of North Sea oil revenue, introduced Section 28, the Criminal Justice Act ban on ‘repetitive beats’, the sleaze of Neil Hamilton and all that.

But I am also conscious that for many who voted in this election that is all just history. I also know enough of my political history to know that Thatcherism isn’t the only way to be a Conservative, that as a councillor I have achieved things by working with Conservatives, and I am mature enough to know that to be a member of the Conservative party doesn’t automatically make a person the evil spawn of Satan.

I am a progressive. In traditional terms, on economic policy I am on the left of the Liberal Democrats. I want to see radical change to Britain’s political, social and economic structures. I am a dreamer, an idealist, a Guardian reading, muesli eating, bleeding-heart liberal. So surely I would prefer to work with the Labour Party?

Yet I have seen the Labour Party close up in action. It is often a very unpleasant sight. I have seen their arrogance, their authoritarianism, and yes often their conservatism. I have seen the way they take the people who support them for granted, the way they often treat with contempt those they purport to represent. Too many times, when presented with the opportunity to do the progressive thing, I have seen them chose timidity and crush people’s hopes of a better way.

I don’t want to work with Labour. I don’t want to work with the Tories. I am a Liberal.

But I am prepared to work with Labour; I am prepared to work with Tories; if it will deliver change.

After 13 years of Labour the country needs new leadership. Government needs a fresh direction and the release of the new energies that change brings. It also needs stable government over the medium term to enable us to tackle the hugely difficult pressing issues we face, not least economic recovery. The country also needs to renew its political system, to develop a new politics. Not just in theory and rhetoric, but in a practical demonstration of how politicians can work together.

Looking at where we are now, the reality of the election result, I would welcome a deal with the Conservatives to provide stable government. It wouldn’t be easy, it would involve considerable risks for the Liberal Democrats, but it would be, I believe, in the best interests of the nation.

So if Nick Clegg does a deal with the Conservatives today or tomorrow I am likely to support it.

The caveat

But, and it is a crucial ‘but’, the need to develop a new politics is as crucial as the need to deal with the economic situation.

Substantial and meaningful political reform has to be a central part of the package. I would not accept a deal that suggests that the need for tackling the economics can override or postpone the need for tackling the politics.

Does it need saying that that substantial and meaningful political reform has to include proper reform of the voting system?

My, rather bewildered, reaction to the result in Luton South

I’ve been struggling to understand the reasons for the eventual result of the election in Luton South and still haven’t arrived at a clear conclusion. I said yesterday that the voters had the good sense to see through the celebrity candidature of Esther Rantzen. Yet were they displaying good sense in rejecting a change to the Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidates and instead electing Labour candidate Gavin Shuker?

I am of course desperately disappointed. The amount of work and commitment given by the small team of Luton Liberal Democrats to this election was extraordinary, as was the level of support given by those from outside. They really did deserve a better result.

I also have to pay full tribute to Qurban Hussain the Liberal Democrat candidate. He is a man of great integrity and has shown a principled commitment to serving the community in Luton in different ways over the years. I had so hoped that he would have had a chance to bring that commitment to the role of Luton South’s Member of Parliament. He handled his disappointment at the result with great dignity.

Instead Luton South has Gavin Shuker as its MP. Who, as far as I could tell, fought the election on the platform of not being Margaret Moran, of having been born in Luton, living in Luton, and having relatives who worked at Vauxhall. A platform which, I reckon, I and a few thousand other people in this town could also have stood on. What other achievements he has to his name, what he believes in, what he will try to do as an MP, I have no idea. We will have to wait and see what kind of representation he provides for the town.

I did genuinely think that the Liberal Democrats had a chance of winning in this election. There were solid arguments that, if the people of this town wanted change, the Liberal Democrats were in a good position to deliver it.  My belief that we had a chance of winning was naturally strengthened by the national reaction to Nick Clegg after the leader’s debates. So I was optimistic.

I also thought that, while support for the Conservatives in Luton is in long term decline, something I still believe, if the seat wasn’t to go to the Liberal Democrats it would be won by the Tories. What I didn’t expect was that after the scandal surrounding Margaret Moran and the way that the Labour Party in Luton supported her up until the very last moment, the level of anger that produced, and the expected rejection of Labour and Gordon Brown across the country that the Labour vote would hold up so well.

I am shocked and puzzled by the strength of the Labour vote in Luton South and, to a lesser extent, in Luton North.

Did people fear change and what it might mean? Was it fear of a Conservative government and how it would affect them? I really don’t understand why after being treated so shabbily by them, after being taken so for granted and treated like fools, so many people in Luton still chose to stick with Labour. I really would like to understand.

So if there is anyone from Luton who voted Labour reading this blog please do use the comments to this post to explain why.

Luton South result: Video of the declaration

Here is a video of the declaration of the election result in Luton South courtesy of ITN News:

Luton South result: Media reports

Here is how the media reported the result in Luton South:

That’s life!

So Esther Rantzen’s bid to become the Member of Parliament for Luton South ended in 1,872 votes and a lost deposit.

I said all along that she had no chance of winning. Yet, I am surprised at how badly she did. I was expecting her to get a slightly higher vote than the one she ended up with.

The way media reported on her involvement in this election, the amount of attention they lavished on her and the ridiculous claims made about her chances, was extraordinary. It should leave those journalists involved feeling foolish and chastened. Although I doubt that it actually will.

Between them the five independents standing in Luton South got just 6.6% of the vote. The one I feel most sorry for is Joe Hall who fought a clever and interesting campaign and deserved more than the 264 votes that he got.

In fact it was a very bad night for independents across the country, especially with Dr Richard Taylor’s loss of Wyre Forest. Let’s be clear politics is a team game. Political parties are an essential component of any democratic system. What matters in our politicians is not independence from party – but independence of mind.

I am glad the voters of Luton South had the good sense to see through the superficial appeal of a celebrity candidate. Whether they showed good sense in the way they voted for three main parties I will deal with in another post.

Results

The results for both Luton seats and the South Ward council by-election can be found here on the Council’s website.

My reaction to the result in Luton South is naturally one of deep disapointment, but also a genuine confusion at why the Labour vote would have held up so well. My response to the national picture is a general sense of bewilderment and some real heartache over some specific results. Very pleased about Simon Wright in Norwich South and Sarah Teather in Brent Central though.

Will write more after I have found the energy to put my thoughts into something approaching a coherent order.

Is someone using Twitter for dirty tricks in Luton South?

In the last few weeks someone has started using the messaging service Twitter under the identity of ‘lutonliberal’. This person goes by the name of Terry Spencer and describes themselves in their bio in the following terms:

“ex lib-dem town councillor now living in Luton firmly behind Qurban Hussain”

So you might think that a Liberal Democrat activist has decided to use Twitter to promote Qurban Hussain’s campaign in Luton South. Yet I think that something distinctly fishy is going on and some questions need to be asked.

Firstly, there is nobody involved in the Luton Liberal Democrats with the name of Terry Spencer. I am the local party secretary and would know if there was. We have no member, current or lapsed, with the name of Terry Spencer. There doesn’t appear to be a Terry Spencer on the electoral register in Luton either.

So is Terry Spencer a real person?

Luton doesn’t have any town councils so I did a quick Google search to see if I could find where our tweeting friend was elected. I did find that there was a Terry Spencer on the council of New Whiteland in Indiana and there is a Tory with that name on Worcestershire County Council. But no trace of a Liberal Democrat councillor with that name.

So, if he does exist, where was Terry Spencer a town councillor?

Then there is the problem with what our friend Terry is actually Tweeting about. If you read the tweets, which you can do here and make up your own mind, the claim to be “firmly behind Qurban Hussain” seems to evaporate.

The pattern of what Terry writes seems to be to make some general tweets and re-tweets in favour of the Liberal Democrats, but then to be critical of Liberal Democrat candidate Qurban Hussain. He is also critical of independent candidate Stephen Rhodes. He is more positive about Joe Hall. But the candidate he has most praise for is Esther Rantzen. Terry seems to want to give the impression that he is a disappointed Lib Dem campaigner that believes Esther’s campaign is the one with the momentum.

Here are some examples;

“Is clegg effect fading hope not – newspapers are just aligning themselves I guess we may lose Luton to Esther but we will gain nationally” May 1st

“Our hope qurban is fading fast in Luton south really pissed off thought you would do Better on TV maybe clegg effect will help” May 2nd

“lib dems are leading in polls in tommorows papers – Esther is leading in Luton though” May 3rd

Now it is possible that there are people in Luton who used to vote Liberal Democrat but aren’t impressed by our candidate and are falling for Esther’s charms. Unlikely, but possible. But our Terry wants to go further than that. He wants give the impression, particularly with his choice of Twitter identity, that he is more than just a voter and is somehow active in our campaign.

He is not.

I don’t want to go all CSI and start doing textual analysis, but from the way Terry writes I doubt he is a a Liberal Democrat at all. For instance, he often refers to us as ‘liberals’ and no Liberal Democrat activist would write ‘lib-dem’. A hyphen, please!

I am happy to be proved wrong if Terry wants to contact me – but the question needs to be asked whether this an attempt to use Twitter to boost Esther’s campaign and undermine the Liberal Democrat one?

If it is, I would be very surprised if Esther Rantzen’s campaign itself was behind it. It would undermine her whole argument about cleaning up politics and besides she’s just not that sort of person. But perhaps for the avoidance of doubt, if she reads this, it would be sensible for her to make it clear that Terry Spencer has nothing to with her?

Further thoughts on the final leader’s debate

My immediate reaction to the final leader’s debate of the general election campaign last Thursday was to call it for Clegg first, then Brown, and then Cameron last. However, the consensus of the polls and the commentators over the last few days was to put Cameron as the winner, followed by Clegg, with Brown last. Did I get it wrong? Did I let my partisanship blind me to what really happened?

I have been wondering about this and I do want to, in part, change my mind. I think I was right in my judgement – but only for the first half of the debate.

The format of the debate was to discuss economic questions first. In answering the questions on the economy Nick Clegg gave the best performance. Gordon Brown, playing to his strengths, was also more effective than he had been in the previous two debates. Cameron I thought was weak.

But then the debate changed and more general questions were allowed. Nick Clegg came under intense pressure to defend his party’s policies, notably on immigration. He did this robustly but he lost the opportunity to go on the offensive and make fresh arguments on his terms. Brown, away from economic issues, also did less well. So I could concede that maybe Cameron did ‘win’ this half of the debate.

However, overall I still believe that Cameron was the loser. I repeat what I said in the last post. The Tories are in the hunt for a majority. To secure that Cameron needed not only to win but to win in a big. He needed to provide a game changing performance to shift the likely outcome of the election away from hung parliament territory.  He did not achieve that.

The Observer says the Liberal Democrats can win Luton South

On Page 26 of today’s Observer newspaper polling expert Bob Worcester identifies seats where he feels the Liberal Democrats could win from third place.

No 12 on the list is Luton South. (See graphic below.)

Worcester argues that if the Liberal Democrats score 28% in the national opinion polls, which is roughly where the Party is at the moment, the Liberal Democrats will need to generate a ‘campaign’ swing of only 6% to win.

If you remember the swings achieved in some seats at the last election, for example Manchester Withington acheived 17.6%, this is very achievable.

More details at: ‘How to vote tactically: our guide to Britain’s key battleground seats

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