Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dear Electoral Commission (2) ...

A further letter asking for clarification following the Zac Goldsmith Case Review.

Dear Electoral Commission,

re. Case review concerning campaign expenditure return in respect of Zac Goldsmith MP

Further to my email yesterday there is another issue it would be useful to have guidance on.

Paragraph 3.16 of the review states:

"Mr Goldsmith‟s expenses return included an invoice for leaflets which cost £11,150.39. His return declared expenditure of £8,629.76, on the basis that not all of the leaflets had been used. The allegation suggested that in fact all material purchased should have been declared. However, the RPA2 defines election expenses as expenses incurred on materials used for the purposes of the candidate's election after the date when he becomes a candidate at the election. The guidance issued by the Commission states that candidates and agents must include the value of everything used in the regulated period, not what is purchased. We consider that Mr Goldsmith‟s reporting of the cost in relation to this item was consistent with the requirements of the RPA and the Commission‟s guidance in this area."

I was very surprised to raed this as the advice I have always been given is that you should declare the cost of everything you have bought for the purpose of the election, other than where you are sharing the cost with another campaign or going to use the material in the futre.

The problem with allowing campaigns to declare only part of a print run is that this allows them to benefit from economies of scale in printing costs and makes it very difficult to be certain what proportion of the run have actually been delivered.

For example if I want to produce a run of 10,000 leaflets it might cost me £500, whereas a run of 40,000 of the same leaflet might only cost £1000, due to the economies of scale involved in the printing process. If I get 40,000 printed and only use 10,000 (25% of the run) this ruling would allow me to declare only 25% of the bill, i.e. £250. In other words a campaign that has a lot of money to spend can artificially reduce the amount if has to declae on the election expenses.

Please can you therefore provide me with clear guidance on how this (new) rule works.

Is there any limit on how much a campaign can actually spend in order to reduce the aount it declares in the election expenses? (In either cash or percentage terms)

Is there any limit the number of different leaflets a campaign could claim to have not fully delivered?

How do you plan to be able to check what proportion of any given print run has been delivered?

Again, I would appreciate clear guidance on these points.

Yours faithfully,
Neil Fawcett.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dear Electoral Commission ...

I am sending this to the Electoral Commission after reading their Case Review regarding Zac Goldsmith's Election Expenses:

Dear Electoral Commission,

re. Case review concerning campaign expenditure return in respect of Zac Goldsmith MP

I have just read your Case Review regarding the expenses of Zac Goldsmith and am, frankly, very surprised by your decision not to refer the case for prosecution.

As someone who has been an election agent on numerous occasions, including at the General Election in 2010, it has always been clear to me that it was my duty to make sure I understood the rules, read the guidance, fill in the forms in line with the guidance and only spend within the limits.

I always understood that I faced prosecution if I failed to comply with your guidance and/or spent above the election expense limts, and that the law was applied strictly.

Your Case Review sets out very clearly that a) Mr Goldsmith's agent did not fill in the forms in line with your guidance, and b) that Mr Goldsmith's campaign almost certainly overspent the short campaign limit.

Yet you conclude that it is not in the public interest for there to be a prosecution.

In paragraph 4.3 you state:  "In determining whether to refer the case to the police for criminal investigation, we considered not just whether an overspend may have occurred, but also the relative amount involved and whether the aggregate expenditure for both the whole campaign period exceeded the overall spending limit. We also considered whether there was any evidence of excessive spending which was so unreasonable as to indicate a deliberate avoidance of the rules."

I am likely to be a legal agent again in the future and would therefore like some clear guidance on the following points please:

1  What is the level of overspending above the election limits that you consider to be low enough to avoid prosecution.  (Please feel free to answer in either cash or percentage terms)

2  What is the level of overspending that you consider substantial enough to indicate a deliberate avoidance of the rules.(Please feel free to answer in either cash or percentage terms)

3  Is it the case that it will strengthen my defence against prosecution if I claim to have not read and/or understood your guidance and therefore fill in my election expense return forms in a confusing manner?

I would appreciate clear answers to these questions please.

Yours faithfully,

Neil Fawcett.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why Lib Dem MPs should vote against increased tuition fees

Later today MPs will vote on whether or not to significantly increase tuition fees.

For me the lead up to this vote, and the implications for the party I have campaigned for for 23 years, are profoundly depressing.

I do accept that in a coalition we will have to make compromises. We have 57 MPs in a House Commons where the two dominant political parties both believe that individual students should make a substantial contribution to the cost of their first degree. I understand and accept that.

But what I find depressing is the way in which our party leaders, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in particular, appear to be more willing to argue that black is white rather than stand up for our party's clear policy and the principles behind it.

Nick and Vince have tried to frame the debate as being about whether monthly repayments are lower or higher than under the current system. Clearly they are lower, at least for a few years, and clearly anyone earning between £15K and £21K will be better off.

And clearly the improvements for part-time students are welcome.

But surely the debate is about more than monthly repayments. (Apart from the fact that paying slightly lower monthly repayments, but for two or three times as many years, leaves you a lot worse off overall.)

Surely what is important to us, as Liberal Democrats, is that Higher Education is (or at least should be) an experience which transforms individuals and boosts their contribution to society.

Surely we should be arguing that yes, there are benefits to many graduates' earning potential, but the wider beneficial effects are far more important.

Surely, even if we believe that individuals will benefit, we believe that society benefits too? And that it is reasonable for society to pay at least some of the cost of each individual's higher education.

I wanted to hear our leaders arguing this case. A case which has won the day repeatedly at party conferences, in policy committees, and in manifesto negotiations. A case which our leaders argued during the election campaign. A case which is based on a Liberal view of the broader value of education.

Sadly this hasn't happened.

Sadly our leaders appear to be so bought in to making the coalition work that they see arguing the detail, and redefining concepts such as 'fairness' and 'progressive' rather than arguing the party's principles.

Sadly it appears that they would rather divert our attention onto what some email someone in NUS might have sent, than debate the real issues.

Our party leadership appear to have completely underestimated the importance of this issue to activists, members and a lot of the people who voted for us.

They appear to have ignored the express view of party conference and all the discussions that took place during the formulation of the manifesto for the last election.

And they appear to have forgotten a whole pile of things they said about trust in politics.

So it isn't the fact we have to compromise that annoys me, it is the way we got to this position.

They could have made this more of an issue in the coalition negotiations.

They could have chosen different priorities in departmental spending.

They could have 'received' the Browne Report rather than 'welcomed' it.

They could have taken a bit more time to look at all the alternatives, not rush to proposals based on the Browne report.

And our leaders could have made it clear that this is a compromise, but one that is difficult for the Lib Dems.

If they had done these things we would not be in the mess we are now.

Instead we have a set of proposals that mean that future graduates will pay the full (and possibly more than the full) cost of their degree while those of us whose education was paid for by other people's taxes pay nothing extra.

We have a scheme that means those who end up on above average but still modest incomes will pay back a much greater share of their earnings than those on high incomes, so that it is NOT progressive.

We have a scheme which will mean that most graduates will pay far more over their lifetime than under the current scheme.

And all this from a Government that claims that it is dealing with the deficit quickly so that future generations don't have to pay for the mistakes of this one.

So this is why Lib Dem MPs should vote against the Government's proposals.

They are unfair, they are not progressive, and they do not, therefore, pass the tests set down in the coalition agreement.

Our leadership has failed to argue the party's strong case for free education paid for by progressive taxation (so that those who do benefit financially would contribute more) and therefore have no right to expect our MPs to support them.

P.S.  Yes Labour have been rubbish on this too and NUS not much better, but this isn't about them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Well done Tim

I am delighted to hear that Tim Farron has been elected President of the Liberal Democrats.

I've known Tim since our student days when we both used to argue the Liberal case at NUS conferences against the kind of left wing numpties who were doing so much damage to the student cause on Wednesday.

Tim is a fine liberal, comes from an ordinary background and is an activist through and through.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Back to Old & Sad

I am delighted to hear the news that the Election Court has ordered a re-run of the Oldham East & Saddleworth election.

The campaign run by Labour's Phil Woolas in May was the most despicable I have ever seen and one he and the Labour Party should be ashamed of.

The last time I was in Oldham it was to help run the Royton South by-election (which we won), which preceded the Littleborough & Saddleworth parliamentary by-election in July 1995.

We won in Royton South, which was next door to Little & Sad, and I well remember a very gloomy Peter Mandelson turning up on the Friday morning expecting to celebrate a Labour victory but having to excuse a bad loss.

I helped with the local by-election because I was getting married on the penultimate weekend of the main by-election campaign and was therefore unable to be part of the campaign team.  I even had to undertake extensive negotiations with Chris Rennard in order to persuade him to release some of our guests for the wedding!

I am already going through my diary to work out when I will be able to head up to help and look forward to meeting Lib Dem activists from around the country there.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Trades Unions elect new Labour Leader

In our party we choose our party leader by a ballot of party members in which each member has one vote of equal value.

The Labour Party have just elected their new Leader in a system which gives some members several votes, and which allows Trades Union members who are not Labour Party members to have a third of the votes, and which allows those Trades Unions to promote a particualr candidate in the ballot mailing.

So they now have a Leader who has the support of neither the members nor the MPs.

No wonder they don't support Fairer Votes!

Blood, Sweat and Tears: What really happens at Federal Policy Committee

Two years ago I stood for election to the party's Federal Policy Committee (FPC). My primary reason for standing was that I wanted to help make sure that we did not ditch certain key policies from our General Election manifesto, and that I wanted to help ensure that the Manifesto was an effective campaigning document as well as a sound policy one.

There was a little bit of trepidation in this move, as I've never really been that excited about the detail of policy, although I think it's fair to say that I ended up fitting in reasonably well.

Top committees

I had previously been a member of two top committees.

Back when I worked for the Lib Dem Youth & Students (LDYS) I was a member of the first incarnation of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC) under the very effective chairmanship of Matthew Taylor MP. This brought together representatives from the MPs, Campaigns, ALDC and LDYS to plan themed campaigning across the party and was, I felt, generally successful. I am still very proud of the LDYS campaign packs that came out of this process and the successful way in which LDYS campaigning complemented that of the national party.

A few years later I was elected to the Federal Executive (FE) with the aim of improving the party's approach to budgeting and improving support for and coordination of training. I achieved some of this, but found the Executive to be a more frustrating affair, and that it didn't really seem to know what its role was.

I was delighted to be elected to the FPC, coming third on first preferences behind the significantly more experienced and highly intelligent Duncan Brack and the somewhat more famous than me Claire Rayner. I interpreted this as a reflection of the strong stance I had taken on maintaining the party's opposition to Tuition Fees in my FPC manifesto.

Having enjoyed the two years, and particularly having some input into the manifesto, I have decided to not restand, largely because I don't realistically have the time to do it properly (and I don't like taking on jobs I haven't got the time to do).

Do stand and vote

I would encourage anyone who wants to to stand (although there is not long left!) and would generally encourage voting reps to take the election seriously. The rest of this posting aims to give you some idea of why the FPC is important.

So what is it really like on FPC?

Well, it's mainly as mundane as you would probably expect it to be. Most of the time was spent commissioning policy working groups to draft policy papers, reviewing those papers, rewriting bits and pieces and sometimes choosing between policy options that the working groups came up with.

Probably 90% of the time was spent on this.

But the other 10% turned out to be a) quite exciting and b) quite important.

Unlike my experience of the FE, FPC certainly does know its role, and takes that role very seriously. On the FPC each person has one vote and each vote is equal, whether you are the Party Leader or a humble elected member like myself.

In general there is a lot of genuine consensus, but where there is a disagreement the majority rules. There is no fear at all about disagreeing with the Leader or senior spokespeople.

Boo, hiss

I'm not going to tell you about which individual voted which way on what (boo, hiss, I hear you shout), because if committee members went round doing that it would seriously damage the ability of the FPC to function. But I can say a bit about some of the key issues we discussed, some of which came out in a rather public way!

The biggest bust up was over Tuition Fees. Party policy was clearly in opposition to them, and that policy had been a major and successful plank of our 2005 manifesto. But several senior members of the committee did not believe that the policy was sustainable. In the run up to last year's conference various public statements were made by senior figures which suggested that we were going to ditch the policy, or at least that it would not be a funded policy in the manifesto.

To say that there was a bit of a reaction to this would be an understatement!

Within days a draft motion had been circulated between FPC members to go to conference to set the record straight. A large majority supported it. (Technically I think it was an amendment to our own pre-manifesto motion) This was unheard of and made it obvious that the FPC was at odds with the leadership.

During conference a letter to the papers was drafted and circulated, and a very large majority of FPC signed it. This letter set out very clearly that we were committed to existing policy and that we expected the policy to remain in the manifesto.

There was also a bit of a to do about the proposal from Vince Cable for a Mansion Tax.

The following FPC meeting was, shall we say, quite interesting.

Because of the strength of the FPC a solution had to be found, and I put forward the view that we needed to find a way of keeping the policy commitment whilst ensuring that the figures stacked up. Various negotiations went on and we eventually worked out the phased funding approach that ended up in the final manifesto.

Other key issues

Other key issues that the FPC had significant influence over were schools policy (rejecting something quite similar to the Free Schools policy currently being implemented), health policy and Council Tax.

On this latter issue there was a very exciting row at one meeting.

Again the majority of the FPC strongly backed standing party policy that we should replace the (highly unfair) Council Tax with a (fair and simple) Local Income Tax.

However several senior figures, particularly those who had struggled to explain the policy at the previous election, made an attempt to drop/water down/replace the commitment.

It is fair to say that the resulting discussion got a little heated, and that the ensuing 'debate' was not carried out on the usual restrained basis, but everyone eventually calmed down and some progress was made.

Once again it was the strength of the majority view that prevailed, after some careful negotiation around the precise wording, with some wording that I proposed eventually being adopted.


And this links to my final point. As an individual member of FPC you do get the chance to have a direct influence on policy, and on the manifesto. In the same way that Slartibartfast was very proud of his fjords, I am extremely proud of some of the wording of the bits about abolishing the Council Tax and investing in Shipyards.

Throughout the process, and whilst not always agreeing with them on some key policies, my liking and respect for both Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander steadily grew, and the same goes for the incredibly hard-working Vice-Chairs Jeremy Hargreaves and Richard Grayson.

So, with apologies that I haven't named names, or told you which Shadow Cabinet member behaved in a way my children would get a good telling off for, I hope that you will be convinced that the FPC fulfils an important role, and doesn't shy away from asserting its view when necessary.

If you are thinking of standing, and are someone who knows their own views and will stand up for them, please stand.

If you a voting representative, please vote.

And if you are a member of FPC, please forgive me any indiscretions in this article and the very best of luck with the important job you do for our party.

That Was The Conference That Was

I always enjoy party conference and my 24th Autumn Conference, and the party's first in Government, was no exception.

Apart from the higher level of security it was little different to others on the face of it, although the mood was definitely a little different.

Lib Dem Conference goers have got used, over the years, to the media coverage of our conferences bearing little relation to what those of us there experienced. If anything I would say there was less of that this time.


Journalists may have to come to Liverpool expecting bust ups and for the leadership to be given a hard time, but in general that didn't happen and their reporting was more subdued.

I thought the article by Andrew Sparrow in the Guardian - 'Lib Dem Conference: 10 things I've learned' - summed the change in attitude up well.

I think it also reflected the steady change in mood of party activists too. A week ago many didn't really know what to expect. There are very real concerns about the impact of the coalition, and particularly the coming cuts, and party conference might have been the place that concern would turn to anger.

In fact the opposite happened. Nick Clegg and other leading figures rightly acknowledged the concerns, encouraged a feeling that we were all part of a team that would face the problems together, and moved on to set out the very real achievements we have already made in government.

Mingling freely

Nick, Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State mingled freely (and as usual) with party members around the fringes and in the bars, and spoke freely and frankly about how things are going.

From a personal perspective it was great to see people I have known for 20 years or more chatting about what it is like to be a Minister and what they are starting to achieve. For example I had a long chat with Jeremy Browne, who I have known since we were fighting NUS elections together, about the life of a Minister and how hard he is working to continue to serve his constituents (something Jeremy does exceptionally well). It was also good to chat to (the greatly underrated) Danny Alexander about his onerous responsibilities and his expectations about what was to come.

Where this conference differed from previous ones was that there was a much more serious tone to a lot of the debate and discussion.

No longer are the Lib Dems discussing policy in the abstract, but policy that might be implemented by the Government, or at least feed in to its thinking.

No stifling

It was also very positive to see that there has been no attempt to stifle debate. The leadership clearly disagreed with the motion about Free Schools and Academies, but did so by joining the debate. There was no attempt to stifle dissent, and no return of the kind of stroppiness we would have seen back in Paddy's day.

The other factor that I think played a big part in settling people's nerves was the strong promotion of the the Fairer Votes Referendum. From the rally last Saturday onwards the party promoted the importance of the referendum, an issue which broadly unites the party and gives people a very positive reason to get out there and campaign.

Humble organiser

For me it was a quiet conference. Being back in the role of a humble Constituency Organiser my time was largely my own. I helped run one training session, and had a couple of meetings to attend, but apart from those spent more time in debates and chatting to folk than for many years.

It was great to have time to sit down and talk to people rather than the hurried hello in passing that I had got used to in my years as a Campaigns Officer. It was also great to socialise with many of my former colleagues and, in particular, to finally get to see the hilarious Will Howells perform at one of the local Comedy Clubs.

All in all this conference did the job it needed to do. We left with a sense that while Nick and our ministerial team are set on their coalition course, they do understand the concerns of members and activists. We also left with a long list of genuinely liberal achievements which have been made, are being made and will be made soon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I'm Backing Tim Farron for Party President

The role of Party President is a flexible one. There are some things the President has to do, like chairing the Federal Executive, but most of the roll is down to how whoever is elected to the post wants to play it.

Ros Scott has done a good job, and was the right person for the last two years.

My reasons for deciding to support Tim Farron are based on my view of what kind of President the party is going to need over the next two years, which will be very different from the last.

We are very likely to face a difficult few years as a party. Even if our decisions to join the coalition and prioritise cutting the deficit are proven to be right in the long run there will be a few hard years before it becomes clear.

And it is not going to be easy for a party which has developed its collective skills as a campaigning opposition party to adapt to the role of a party of government.

During this period it is vitally important that we have a Party President who can keep morale up, keep the troops rallied and communicate our distinctiveness through the media.

My experience of Tim is that he has the skills needed to be that kind of President in spades.

I've known Tim since we were both involved in the National Union of Students. We were both Presidents of our respective Students' Unions (him Newcastle 91-92, me Leicester 92-93), and we attended several NUS Conferences together where it is fair to say that being a vocal Liberal Democrat was something of a novelty and often drew an excitable, noisy and negative response from a largely left-wing audience.

Even back then Tim was a passionate and engaging speaker, and to this day I always look forward to hearing Tim speak. His speech to the fairer votes rally on Saturday was no exception, despite his lack of preparation time.

Some people rightly question whether or not an MP should take the role of President.

My view is that it depends on the individual and the circumstances.

During the last Parliament Tim turned a wafer thin majority into a massive one. He did this while having a key role in the Parliamentary Party.

I am certain that he is more than capable of combining the role of a backbench MP with that of President and wouldn't support him if I had any doubts about this.

And I also know that when Tim says that he will be supportive of Nick and his role, whilst also being a critical friend of the coalition, that he understands the distinction between these two things and will do both of them well.

Finally I know that Tim's is a liberal through and through, and that he has given his heart and soul to campaigning for our party. During the next few years it is going to be hard work on the ground and Tim had been there and done that. He will lead from the front and enthuse members and activists wherever he goes.

So please vote for Tim Farron to be our next Party President.

The other three declared candidates are also great candidates, each in their different ways. It is great thing that our party's democracy is such that such a diverse field can stand and campaign.

I would like to put a plug in for the pledge bank supporting Jennie Rigg. Jennie does not have a huge income and if she wins will need support to get by. No-one should feel unable to put themselves forward because of financial worries so, if you are able, and regardless of who you are supporting, please consider making the pledge to support her.

How the coalition is affecting local results

As readers of Lib Dem Voice will know (and there seem to be a lot of you, from the numbers who've already mentioned our victory on Thursday to me at conference) we have just celebrated the third of three local by-election victories in the Oxford West & Abingdon (OxWAb) constituency since May.

Sadly all three by-elections were caused by the deaths of long-standing, effective and hard-working local councillors, Audrey Tamplin, John Wyse and Pat Hobby, each of whom I had helped elect originally and each of whom I had a lot of respect for.

Following our loss of Evan's seat in the General Election there was a real danger (as the party has seen in other places) that our local seats would start to fall like dominoes as a result.

But the activists in OxWAb are, I'm pleased to say, made of sterner stuff. Within a few days of the General Election our Abingdon team were back out on the streets canvassing and delivering for a Town Council seat in Dunmore ward, one of a minority of wards in the constituency that has seen some Conservative representation in recent years.

We selected the excellent Julia Bricknell who had fought and won the same ward in a district council by-election a year ago, and she worked her socks off. I'd like to say we fought an excellent but it was actually a fairly straightforward one. We had a good, local candidate, a positive record of working for the town and a good local issue around the need for a full interchange on the A34 at Lodge Hill.

And the coalition, which was being formed during the period of the campaign? A fair few people mentioned it, some negatively and some positively. A very small number, typically of previous tactical supporters, said they wouldn't vote for us a as a result, but a few others gave us credit for making a difficult decision and went with us a result.

But the over-riding message is that nearly everybody said nothing about the coalition at all and wanted to talk about local issues in the town.

We held the seat with very little change from previously.

The day after polling day in Dunmore was the nominations deadline for a Cherwell District by-election in Kidlington North, at the other end of the constituency. This seat had been held for 12 years by the indefatigable John Wyse who had originally been elected in an election with the slogan 'Vote Wyse-ly' (see what we did there?) and who had built up a formidable reputation over his years as a councillor.

If we were to lose ground to the Tories in OxWAb, Kidlington North would likely be one of the first places to go.

We selected a keen young candidate in Alaric Rose who proved to be a real find. A local resident, he got out on the doorsteps and personally spoke to hundreds of residents. The Kidlington team, augmented by help from across the constituency and beyond, worked very hard and secured another victory.

As far as the coalition was concerned it was much the same as in Dunmore. A small number of people against, some of whom said they would not vote for us as a result, but many others pro, and an overall sense that in a local election the work our Kidlington team have been doing to improve the village is far more important than what is going on in Westminster.

Kidlington was different to the two Abingdon by-elections in that Labour did run and active campaign, with leaflets attacking the coalition. They also had a big team out on polling day, including several helpers from Oxford East. It didn't seem to make much difference and they still trailed in a poor third.

And finally (and, to be honest, the novelty of by-elections was starting to wear off at this point) we faced out third by-election in Abingdon Northcourt.

We were very lucky to persuade one of our long-standing local deliverers, Helen Pighills, to stand. The campaign got off to a slower start - it was mid-August and most of the electorate and quite a few of our key activists were away. I even managed a lovely week in Somerset myself.

We got a couple of leaflets out and from the Bank Holiday the campaign started motoring. Helen canvassed regularly, and the Abingdon team once again trooped out to help her.

And the coalition - well, sorry to disappoint those of you looking for doom and gloom, but it was exactly the same as the previous two by-elections. As soon as folk knew it was a town council by-election they wanted to talk about the town. And once again the combination of a very good local candidate, our positive record of improving Abingdon, and highlighting the Conservative run County Council's failures, was enough to deliver us a 3% swing from the Tories.

Once again a few people raised the coalition and/or the coming cuts, but it was only a small number, and those who wouldn't vote for us as a result were even fewer.

So as far as our campaigning through to next May is concerned I think there are a few useful lessons (and none of them new ones!):
  • Keep it local. In local elections the voters are primarily concerned about local issues and our local record.
  • Work hard. In each of the three by-elections we delivered more leaflets and knocked on more doors than the opposition.
  • Keep it simple. In each by-election we stuck to a small number of simple messages promoting our strong candidate, our positive local record, pointing out the Tory County's failures and squeezing the Labour and Green vote throughout.
To any experienced Lib Dem campaigner this will be neither news nor rocket science. But in the face of the media criticism the coalition is facing it is worth reinforcing.

Those of us who remember campaigning in the post-merger 1988-1991 period know that we can win seats and councils at local level even in the face of dire national poll ratings (we were at about 4% in the polls when I helped us win control of Oadby & Wigston in one of those years!).

But we will only win where we put in the work on the ground. Anyone who thinks that it will be as easy this time round, or that they can rely on our national success, is deluding themselves. Whenever you have started your campaigns previously, start earlier. However many leaflets you have delivered previously, deliver more. And however many doors you have knocked on previously, knock on more.

Good luck!

Protecting our distinctiveness

After two days at party conference it has been very interesting to listen to the views of Lib Dem activists about the coalition, its policies and the implications.

There is overwhelming agreement that going into the coalition was the only game in town.

There is a lot of recognition that on a number of key issues, particularly civil liberties and the environment, we have already made great strides and there is more to come.

And there has been jubilation that there is to be a referendum on a fairer voting system next May - an issue which has brought many of us into the party over the decades and which Lib Dem activists will relish the chance to campaign on.

Where there is disagreement is about how the party maintains its distinctiveness whilst at the same time playing its proper role in Government.

There is no simple answer to this, although there are a whole range of opinions.

Evan Harris, writing on the Guardian website, argues that we need to be ready to set out which things the coalition did that we agreed with and which we didn't. I can see what Evan is getting at, but there is an inherent danger with this approach that it will make us look weak (why did you let it go through if you opposed it) and duplicitous (why did you support it at the time and tell us you don't now).

At the other end of the spectrum are those senior figures who tell us that we should simply trust the leadership and not attack Tory policies at all because we wouldn't like it if they attacked ours. This view is, frankly, barking. In an event there has been too much experience of 'trusting the leader' only to find out later that he had been seeing someone behind our back.

Nick's line is a bit more nuanced. He sensibly points out that he would be laughed out of court if he turned up to introduce some new policy to the media while at the same time pointing out that he and the Lib Dems disagree with it.

At the same time he and others are strongly encouraging us to campaign very hard for a YES vote in the referendum, and describing it as our opportunity to have an all out battle with the Tories.

On the face of it this is a bit of a contradiction, but I think it actually points in the direction we should head in.

Amongst many activists there is a further concern.

There are several areas where we have clearly compromised, or where the Tory approach appears to be dominant, that coincide with known differences of emphasis within our party. The coalition's policy of 'Free Schools' is one such area. There was a lot of debate within our party about the approach to schools, and some support from the party leadership for a policy similar to the coalition's policy. This view was rejected by the Federal Policy Committee and by Conference, yet is now Government policy.

So what approach should we take?

In broad terms I think Nick is basically right. It is in our interest, and the interest of the country, for the coalition Government to look united, particularly in its approach to the economy. We have a direct interest in demonstrating that we can govern in a responsible way and, in so doing, that coalition government is nothing to be feared.

We can also choose which elements of the government's agenda we particularly want to highlight, and claim credit for having achieved things which were in our manifesto.

But we can also choose some ground on which we agree to disagree with the Tories. In some cases the coalition agreement sets out quite openly where these differences of opinion exists: on changing the voting system, tuition fees and Trident.

In my view the public will be quite happy to see the two parties disagreeing on a limited number of issues, particularly if we can be seen to do so in a mature manner.

The harder part may be the run up to the next election.

At that point we will, I hope, want to set out our own distinctive set of policies for the 2015-20 parliament.

I can't see how we can, at that point, suddenly disown large parts of what the coalition government has implemented.

We will have to write a manifesto setting out how we will take Britain forward from that point and set out a distinctive platform based on our principles. The emphasis will need to be on what happens next, and not on criticising what has gone before.

We will need to highlight those things we are most proud of in the coalition's record but I can't see that we go on the attack against things that we have helped implement.

The reality of coalition government is that there are a lot of areas where a genuine consensus can be found, quite a few where a compromise is made between two positions, and a few where one side has to concede to the other.

If we are to demonstrate that coalition government can work, something that is vital to our future, then we should not be frightened of being honest it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conference 24

I arrived in sunny Liverpool last night for what will be my 24th Autumn Party Conference.

I suspect it could be one of the more interesting ones!

No doubt the media, as ever, will be full of stories about how the party is about to go down the plughole, but in the 24 years I've seen them say that it hasn't happened yet!

I hope we will see the party start to assert itself. In my view we need to put a bit more emphasis on what our policies are and what we stand for, rather than appear to fully support everything the coalition decides.

I do think the public will give us credit for having taken the decision to go into the coalition, but I also think they will respect us even more if we are honest about some of the compromises we are having to make.

Anyway - I'm off to train folk now, so I'll see you later.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time to step up to the plate

I joined the Liberal Party during the 1987 General Election campaign, did my first canvassing in Chris Abbott's ward, featured in the local paper for having an Alliance poster up while my Dad had his Tory one up and my brother put a Labour one up.

My first conference was the Liberal Assembly in Harrogate that same year, the last full Liberal Assembly as merger was on the cards, and met, amongst others, Chris Rennard, Arnie Gibbons and several other Leicester folk for the first time.

I went to Leicester University, lost lots of elections as a Social and Liberal Democrat, and kept track of the opinion polls which had us as low as 4%. I supported Paddy's leadership campaign and later organised a visit to Leicester by him.

I got involved in local politics, helped get Arnie elected as Leicester's first out gay councillor in 1989, stood in local elections in 1991 (vote up from 4% to 17%) and 1993 (up again from 17% to 33%), and steadily helped build up Lib Dem strength in the City. Ireturned years later to help with the Leicester South seat in a by-election.

After several years of slog in the Students Union I eventually got elected to a sabbatical post (by 8 votes after two rounds of transfers), got several other Lib Dems elected with me and , two years later was elected Union President and to the NUS National Executive, achieving a heck of a lot for the students I represented along the way. I ended up attending 13 NUS Conferences in all and became good friends along the way with, amongst others, Tim Farron, Jeremy Browne and Ed Fordham.

Not knowing what to do next, Chris Rennard (him again) asked me to work for the then newly merged Lib Dem Youth & Students. I did that for nearly two years and, I hope, helped establish the organisation as a force for good within the party and substantially increased its membership.

I then got asked by a young Oxfordshire doctor to go and be his agent, which I did. I helped the party win control of the Vale of White Horse District Council and Abingdon Town Council in 1995 and to steadily gain seats in Oxford City and Kidlington. We then went on to elect that young doctor, for it is he, Evan Harris, to Parliament in our breakthrough year of 1997.

I also got elected to Oxfordshire County Council and served eight years, three of them in a coalition cabinet with the Tories.

I stood for Parliament in Wantage in 2001 and nearly clawed us back to 2nd place.

I worked for the Campaigns Dept for a good few years as a Campaigns Officer and latterly as Deputy Director of Campaigns, slogging my guts out in by-elections from Hartlepool to Henley and some we won too, before climbing back down the career ladder to become constituency organiser again after a difficult year of floods and pneumonia.

I ran, or helped run, more European election campaigns than was good for me.

Why this tedious history now?

Because my motivation through these 23 years has been to get Liberal policies implemented, and to fundamentally change the way our political system works to one based on consensus.

And now it looks like we are starting to do just that.

So to those Lib Dems who are angry, or upset, or confused, or thinking they have wasted their effort I say this:

The inevitable consequence of what we have been campaigning for for decades is that we would end up having to share power with others that we disagree with.

The inevitable consequence of sharing power is that we have to be willing to compromise, and those we share power with have to be willing to compromise too.

And the inevitable consequence of holding power is that we will be judged. Not on the basis of who we choose to share power with, but on the basis of what that sharing of power delivers for the people of this country.

It looks like we are now in a position to implement several of the key priorities we set out during the election campaign, and which I, as a member of the Federal Policy Committee, was proud to help develop.

We may be on the verge of proving that the kind of politics we have argued for from the sidelines, for sixty years now, can work.

It is incumbent on all of us to help ensure that it does.

I, for one, relish that challenge.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Get over yourself, media

If the national media really think a detailed programme for Government can be thrashed out in only a few hours of negotiations it says more about their lack of understanding than it does about the politicians' ability to negotiate.

In bed with the Tories? I was for three years.

Understandably there is a lot of talk around the blogosphere about the ongoing negotiations between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

The reality is that this is an inevitable consequence of the election result. More people voted Conservative than voted Labour, and by a wide margin, and it is right that we talk to them first, particularly as they offered.

There are many in the party who are uncomfortable with this.

Well they'd better get used to it.

If we do achieve our long term objective of electoral reform it will become the norm, and the strongest position to be in when beginning negotiations is to make it clear that we are open to a deal with either of the other sides. That is how we will get our agenda adopted.

Back in 2001 we faced a similar situation on Oxfordshire County Council. The numbers were such that any 2 of the 3 main parties could form an administration. We entered into negotiations with each of the others, and they even spoke briefly to each other.

I was a member of our negotiating team. We had our red lines and our additional objectives. Our aim was to negotiate on the basis of our manifesto to win the maximum number of our policies as possible. Our expectation was that we would end up doing a deal with Labour.

It didn't turn out like that. It quickly became apparent that although there was more common policy between us and Labour they a) didn't know what they wanted, b) didn't know how to negotiate and c) didn't have any agreement in their own group about what they were trying to achieve.

In contrast the Conservatives were very clear about what they wanted, knew how to negotiate and had the backing of their group to do so. They also had some very constructive ideas about a clear framework for how we could work together and resolve day to day disagreements (which turned out to be both useful and well used).

It didn't take long for us to realise that, whatever the policy differences, a working arrangement with the Conservatives was the only way forward.

There are clearly parallels with the national position now, with some key exceptions:

1 Even if we want to do a deal with Labour the numbers still don't stack up easily.
2 The negotiations are taking place in the full glare of media publicity.
3 There is no fixed date for the next election.

I have every sympathy with the position Nick finds himself in. Whatever he does it will be the wrong thing to do in the eyes of many.

From what I can see Nick and the team are going about things in the right way.

They are focusing on the need to form a stable Government which can sort out the economy in the national interest. This is both the right priority and the right message to send out at this stage.

They are negotiating a deal that delivers as many of our key manifesto priorities as possible.

They are clearly working hard at it, but not letting themselves be rushed.

They are consulting widely within the party.

And, if today's rumours are true, they are trying to find a way to deal the big risk of partnership Government under our system - the lack of a fixed term parliament.

If they do come to some agreement with the Conservatives there will, of course, be a lot of people who are not happy. Those who feel that we have much more in common with Labour than those nasty Tories.

There is some truth in that, I certainly see myself as on the centre-left, and worked hard to ensure that our manifesto reflected that political position.

However we would not be negotiating with the Labour party we have things in common with, we would be negotiating with a failed Labour Government of ID Cards, bombing Iraq, Tuition Fees, unfair taxation and an economic meltdown. A party that, until 10pm Thursday, was attacking us for our progressive views on such issues as Trident and Immigration.

Of course the other thing we have to bear in mind is the electoral impact of all this.

In Oxfordshire we did not fare well at the following County elections - although this was probably more down to our own organisational issues than any political backlash.

Nationally the risk is that we lose whichever way we turn. If we get into bed with the Tories we risk losing Labour waverers and tactical voters. If we go with Labour we risk losing soft Tory voters.

However the potential upside is greater. We have an opportunity to show that the Liberal Democrats are capable of sharing power, of putting the national interest ahead of narrow party interest and that political parties can actually work together successfully for the benefit of the country.

In the meantime we just have to trust the team. We couldn't have a more able negotiating team and at this point we have to let them do their job.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Stephen Fry says vote for Evan Harris

Evan Harris has had sone high profile endorsments during the campaign: Ben Goldacre, Dr Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins, to name but three.

And now Stephen Fry has urged 'Oxonians and Abingdonians' to back Evan saying:

On one front alone I would absolutely urge you to vote LibDem and that is if you live in the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency. Your incumbent member, now under threat because of boundary changes, is Evan Harris MP, far and away the most persuasive and impressive parliamentarian in the cause of good and open science and enquiry that we have had in the past decade. He has been central to mould-breaking and inspirational multiparty cooperation in issues of scientific concern since 1997. It seems to me (almost!) that he should be elected unopposed like the Speaker. If you have any interest in the promotion of science and evidence based policy-making and a voice to oppose superstition, religious vested interest and new age nonsense, then do check him out and get those Oxonian Abingdonians working for his re-election.

Men with vested interests and dubious record criticise Lib Dem policies on security in Tory supporting newspaper - SHOCK

'Nuff said.

When it comes to Iraq and draconian attacks on our civil liberties I certainly hope that the Lib Dems will remain 'outside the consensus'!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Nick Clegg to visit my Dad :-)

According to the Evening Gazette, Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg is planning to drop in my Dad and sister this weekend.

Well not just my Dad and sister, but the good folk of my home town of Redcar.

Redcar has already been blessed by visits from Party President Ros Scott and Deputy Leader Vince Cable.

The fact that a constituency like Redcar is even getting these visits demonstrates just how far the political ground has shifted.

When I was growing up, and indeed when I did my first ever canvassing in the town, Redcar was donkey with a red rosette territory. For many years it was then represented by the excellent and widely loved Mo Mowlam.

But now things have changed.

People feel badly let down by Labour, highlighted by the recent closure of the steelworks. And this isn't just about the actual jobs, it is symbolic of a general decline in worthwhile employment in the area following decades which saw the loss of jobs in the shipyards, chemical industry and, slightly further afield, mining.

They have also been let down by the current MP, Vera Baird, who is seen to have neglected the constituency, had widely publicised expenses issues and to have done little or nothing to save the steelworks.

And during this period of Labour decline the local Lib Dems have been steadily building up. they hold a large number of council seats and have won some spectacular by-election wins, even coming close in South Bank. In Ian Swales they have a formidable candidate, with a long track record of living locally and campaigning on the key local issues. Ian came a good second last time and has been working his socks of in the run up to this election.

He is a good, solid, Redcar man, and the kind on no-nonsense politician that goes down well in the straight-talking north east. He will be a worthy successor to Mo Mowlam.

The swing Ian needs to win Redcar is way beyond the level that would have the seat labelled as a 'marginal', but it is the kind of seat Labour could lose.

If the seat's traditional Tory voters believe that voting for Ian is the only way they can get Labour out this time, he might just do it, and it will be the icing on the cake of a good election night for this Redcar lad.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Extremists to the left of me, fundies to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with Evan

It has been a very hectic campaign here in Oxford West & Abingdon for weeks. We were already getting a tremendous response from local voters even before the first TV debate, and it has got even busier since.

I can't remember an election like it since 1997 when we got Evan in for the first time, and with the ease of email we are now being flooded with even more offers of help, poster requests, Garden Poster sites etc.

Two days ago we completely ran out of boards, and we had quite a big stock to start with!

During the last few days things have got even busier.

Online donations are pouring in (from here) and we are getting requests for Garden Posters at about twice the rate we can possibly get them up.


Because the extremists have attacked.

As many readers of blogs like this one will know, Evan is a pretty straightforward politician who goes out and argues for what he believes to be right.

Like the majority of people, he believes that scientists and researchers should be allowed to conduct properly regulated medical research within the law without facing threats of violence against them and their children.

As a result he is facing this.

Like the majority of people, he believes that competent adults with terminal illnesses facing pain and misery should have right to ask for assistance if they want to die with some dignity.

As a result he is facing this.

Both leaflets are riddled with inaccuracies and untruths and misrepresent Evan's views on many of the issues mentioned.

Now I happen to agree with Evan on most issues, but I am happy to accept that some people don't. Evan has always been more than willing to debate these issues with just about anyone and always does so by putting a reasoned and rational case.

The former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, has responded to the leaflets by saying:

"I have worked with Evan on social issues in Oxford, in Parliament on legislation, and outside Parliament on ethical issues.

"We do not always agree, but he takes a responsible and intelligent position on what are always divisive and controversial matters to do with the beginning and end of life.

"I greatly respect him as a Parliamentarian"

I understand that there are people who honestly believe that life starts at conception and that abortion is the equivalent of murder. I disagree with them, but I believe they should have the right to state their views and campaign to change the law, which is what most of them do.

But to produce and distribute leaflets tagging someone with the nickname 'Dr Death' - a name usually associated with Nazi torturers and serial killers - is simply disgusting.

And the really good thing is that the vast majority of local voters seem to agree.

We have had a flood of emails and phone messages backing Evan, including many from mainstream Christians.

Donations are flooding in as a direct result of these smear leaflets and several people have said the leaflets have firmed up their vote for Evan.

If you would like to help defend Evan against attacks like these, please go here and donate.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doctor Who = Excellent, BBC = Idiots

I thought yesterday evenings episode of Doctor Who was absolutely top notch. (And a big step back up after last week's below par effort)

Dranatic, well-scripted, exciting, thrilling and full of suspense.

The build up to the end of the the episode, the first of a tw-parter, was exceptional.

Until, that is, the BBC decided that it would be an appropriate moment to inflict a cheerful cartoon that I assume was meant to be Graham Norton bouncing across our screens, in a feeble effort to get Doctor Who viewers to keep watching whatever rubbish they had scheduled after the top quality TV drama that is Doctor Who.

The reult in our house was that the suspense of Doctor Who was ruined for a few minutes and we switched straight over to Doctor Who Confidential, as we always do anyway.

No further BBC was watched after that.

I have sent the following complaint to the BBC:


As we do every Saturday I sat down with my two younger children to watch Doctor Who yesterday evening.

It was a fantastic episode, a real scary thriller, and we were loving it.

And then just a few minutes before the end, you ruined it.

Against the backdrop of a gloomy cave, with the Doctor, Amy and their companions trapped as the weeping angels advanced, up pops a brightly coloured graphic telling us that some Graham Norton fronted talent show would be up next.

Which idiot at the BBC authorised this to happen?

Have they been thrown off the top of Television House yet?

Has a full grovelling apology been sent to the Doctor Who production team and cast yet?

Will there be an apology to the viewers?

The BBC is at its best when it concentrates on producing quality television, like Doctor Who.

It is at its worst when it come sup with cheap stunts like this in a feeble effort to boost its audience for whatever cheap rubbish follows.


Monday, April 19, 2010

In defence of 'Dr Death' - a riposte to 'Odious' Odone

Torygraph writer Cristina 'Odious' Odone has an article today which makes for a pretty unpleasant attack on the candidate I am Agent for in the election, Dr Evan Harris.

She attacks Evan for his position on abortion (broadly in line with the current law but making it easier for women to access abortions earlier and with less stressful processes) and assisted dying (where he is broadly in line with the vast majority of people).

She apparently believes that Evan's stances on these issues somehow make the Lib Dems 'creepy' and that he deserves the tagline 'Dr Death' for his efforts.

Setting aside the childish nature of such name-calling for a moment, it is worth noting that nowhere in her article does she put forward any actual arguments against Evan's views.

Nor does she put forward any reasons why taking a stance on such issues is a bad thing, or inappropriate.

I wonder if she, like many people, just finds the idea of having a rational debate about the rights of people who are terminally ill and living a life of pain to decide their own fate a bit unpleasant.

I don't agree with Evan on everything, but I think we need more MPs like him.

We need more people in the House of Commons who look at the evidence before coming to a decision on an issue, who can string together a rational argument to back up their position, and who are willing to discuss and promote sensitive issues which have a real impact on the lives (and dignified deaths) of their constituents.

If you find the views of 'Odious' Odone as ridiculous, petty and childish as I do, please pay a small visit to here.

And do read the comments. There is one from Evan himself and several from constituents of Oxford West & Abingdon.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

This says it all really ...

From my good friend Nich.

About the Tory policy which is an insult to married people.

And to quite a lot of unmarried people to.

Well done Nich.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Time to kebab Lord Adonis

Back when Lord Adonis was an Alliance councillor in north Oxford he was nicknamed 'kebab' having fought his election on the basis of defending a threat to the city's kebab vans.

For this campaign I am grateful, if not for much he has said and done since.

I suppose it is good news that he apparently believes that there is not much to choose between Labour and the Lib Dems policy wise.

Personally I don't agree with him, but if he and other Labour types do believe that then there is a simple solution, and one with more chance of success than his proposals.

If every Labour supporter, from Lord Adonis down, votes Lib Dem, we will definitely beat the Tories the length and breadth of Britain. We will be in a position to implement our policies (which the good Lord broadly supports) and there will be no risk of the boy George getting his hands on the economy.


Friday, April 02, 2010

Have Labour got any members left?

Labour Party members in Stoke are apparently a bit miffed at the lack of a local candidate on the shortlist for their candidate selection, reported by the BBC here.

I noticed the story because Oxford Labour Councillor Saj Malik (who defected from the Lib Dems) was one of the unlucky candidates.

I always wondered whether Saj's defection was as much down to his parliamentary ambitions as his principles. If it was, he won't be chuffed at this result.

But the most startling thing about the reported result is that, in total, only 63 people appear to have voted at all.

This is a seat Labour presumably expect to hold, yet only half of the local party's membership of 140 bothered to turn up, and 140 members is pretty low to begin with!

If that is the level of enthusiasm amongst the Labour grassroots then they really are in trouble.

Monday, March 15, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: 3rd April is the big day

After months of speculation we finally have a date for the big event:

3rd April 2010.

See here for more details.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Post Office Fail

Just recived this speedy response from the Post Office complaints people:


This is an automatic acknowledgement from Royal Mail Customer Services

Your reference number is xxx-xxx (my change)

Thank you for your e-mail regarding lost, damaged or delayed mail.

We know how important it is for all mail to be delivered on time and
without incident. We would therefore like to apologise for any upset or
concern we may have caused.

We are unable to process claims for loss, damage or delayed items via
e-mail as we require your signature of declaration on our claim form and we
also need certain original documents such as certificate of posting before
we can consider your claim.

We therefore need you to complete and submit a P58 lost damaged or delayed
mail claim form for each item of mail affected. These forms are available
from all Post Office branches or alternatively you may wish to download and
print a form from our website by clicking on the following links.

For Mail sent within the UK

For International Mail

Once completed please post the form along with any other requested
documentation to our freepost address as detailed below:

Royal Mail Customer Service

What will happen next?
Once we have your completed form back you will receive an acknowledgement
from us providing you with a unique claim reference. We aim to conclude
all inland enquiries within 30 days of receipt and with some are in a
position to do so even sooner. Having said that part of our enquiries may
involve contacting the recipient and them being given time to respond - so
it is appreciated if you allow us the full 30 days after receiving your
acknowledgement before re-contacting us.

This has been allocated to one of our advisors who respond to your specific
enquiry. Our aim is to reply to all customer emails within five working


Would be quite impressed with the speed of response if I had actually complained about 'lost, damaged or delayed mail'.

However my complaint was actually about the length of time I waited at Oxford Post Office to post an item on Monday afternoon!