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.