Monthly Archives: January 2011

Lib Dem Chameleon Caught In Headlights

It’s fascinating to see how the Liberal Democrats locally and nationally are adjusting to being in government, and how they are approaching the tricky issue of responsibility for the deeply wounding cuts being inflicted on local communities by government-imposed, ideological cuts to council services.

Does a Liberal Democrat EVER take responsibility? Is the Pope a Buddhist? Listen, is that a constipated bear I hear grunting and straining in the woods?

It seems to me, after five years of observing the ungainly policy somersaults of Lib Dems here in Lambeth, their absurd dancing from populist pinhead to pinhead, their eager climbing aboard of any bandwagon like it was the last bus home, their oily, pompous grandstanding and their desperate airbrushing from history of their own history of failure, that Liberal Democrats are not in the business of taking responsibility.

But that’s why, it seems to me, Lib Dems become Lib Dems. They yearn to be a bit provocative (but not too much, we want the neighours to like us, Muriel), a bit different from the mainstream (typical attention-seeking tactic, like rich kids living in squats) and a bit oppositionalist (but only ever if they think it will be a magnet for votes).

Let’s not forget that Lib Dems are peculiarly skilled at concealing their lack of principle (Tory-sounding on one doorstep, Labour-as-they-come on the next, UKIP, Green, SWP – you choose, they schmooze). They are political chameleons, adapting their electoral appearance to circumstances and always looking for ways of explaining away any actions or decisions that could become questionable.

So that’s why it’s interesting to see what the Lib Dem chameleon, now caught in the headlights of government, looks like when startled by the consequences of its own actions.

Take Lib Dem government minister Sarah Teather, attending a meeting in her constituency, where impending closures of six libraries in the London Borough of Brent was being discussed. An uncomfortable place to be for any Lib Dem on the wrong side of an argument. What to do? Rather than taking any responsibility and explaining that a massive cut in (her) government’s grant to local government is necessitating closures of many local facilities like libraries, Teather thought in this case she’d do the usual hand-wringing thing, whilst half joining in the save libraries campaign and half staying out of it. Typical.

Local resident Philip Jones said that Teather ‘Did seem a little bit embarrassed about being there when everyone was talking about saving the [Kensal Rise] library because of the cuts, and she suggested that people take all the books out of the library and clear the library of books … we were all a bit stunned really because she is a member of the Government and it seemed opposed to the policies of the Government’.

Taking all the books out of a library is a gesture. It doesn’t amount to a strategy that saves a library in the fierce blast of Tory-led, Lib Dem following government cuts.

In Lambeth, look at Lib Dem Leader Cllr Ashley Lumsden, who had this to say in the South London Press about the effects of his own government’s £37 million cuts (this year) on this one borough: ‘Residents will neither forgive nor forget Labour for this butchery to local services’.

Oh, so he rushed to the Lambeth Lib Dem comfort zone – it’s all Labour’s fault. If that isn’t avoidance of responsibility, I don’t know what is. The online comments on the article, mainly directed at Cllr Lumsden’s misfiring sophistry, are instructive:

‘It’s your government’s cuts you ridiculous little twunt’

‘Its more likely the people of Lambeth will never forget or forgive the Lib Dems for being traitors and Tories in disguise!’

‘The Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition seem to be particularly punishing inner city areas like Lambeth with their spending cuts’ [True, see here]

And, finally, the particularly illuminating: ‘Ashley Lumsden is a dishonest fool’


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The Power Of Endorsements

An example of local endorsements


Below is an article I wrote at the request of Total Politics magazine. It’s in the current issue.

If you are candidate seeking election, it’s good to have endorsements from known and trusted local figures on your election literature.

The best endorsements demonstrate reach and respect in the local community, even if you are a relatively new or unknown candidate. They can also help you get across key campaign messages, coming from the mouths of people outside it.

But the reverse of the coin (no money should ever change hands, by the way) is the endorsement that undermines your credibility, either through accidental error, or changing allegiances – or worse, deliberate falsehood.

So here’s some advice for the wary:

Choose endorsers in advance, ideally ready for the short campaign before polling day. Remember it can be a big thing for many people to be asked to appear in a political leaflet. Perhaps their work forbids them engaging in politics (police, council employees, etc), or perhaps dipping into politics is not for them. So be considerate and accepting if they are in any doubt – never push your luck, or their patience. And never jeopardise anybody’s job. Always thank people for their time and trouble, whether they endorse you or not.

Gather a range of people who are representative of the community you are seeking to represent. Think about a good spread of ages, ethnicities, roles in the community (e.g. shopkeeper, local vet, residents’ association chair), and family situations.

Look at where endorsers live or work in your patch – it’s good to be able to mention their street (but always get permission). Get a good geographical spread. If all your endorsers live in one street, their support may not appeal to voters living on the other side of the ward or constituency, where there may be other issues they care about.

Deploy endorsers sparingly in leaflets. Probably the maximum in any leaflet is five. Don’t overcrowd leaflets with glowing praise for you – you need space for your policy offer as a candidate and to take on the policy shortcomings of your opposition. Feed endorsements out gradually, leaflet by leaflet, which will help show momentum in your campaign.

Be imaginative. Leaflets are not the only way. Letters to local papers are good, if they print them. Direct mails from an endorser to their neighbours in a cluster of streets around can be powerful. Help them write a one-page (perhaps double-sided) letter in a neighbourly, legible way that can be copied and delivered. This is still election literature so don’t forget the imprint.

Focus primarily on voices in your community and bring in other politicians cautiously. They don’t always carry weight. You may be best mates with the MP for Blatherpool South East, but in Blatherpool North West their name may be mud, and that mud may stick to you.

Similarly, don’t count on celebrities you know to win many hearts and minds. They may have been in your woodwork class at Blatherpool High, and can add pizzazz to a campaign, but a smiley picture in a faraway place may turn off more voters than it turns out.

Think carefully about what you want your endorsers to say about you. Rather than lavishing praise on your almost saintly wisdom and compassion, it should be about the work you have done – or will do if elected – for the community (e.g. better lighting on the Pitchdark Estate), or refer to a key campaign you are involved in (e.g. saving a youth centre or mobile library service).

Draft a brief quote – voters won’t read essays – and give it to the endorser to approve. Never, ever print a quote that has not been approved – it may not reflect your endorser’s views on you or an issue. They should be able to happily support their quote if a neighbour – or opposition activist – comes to their door to question it. Ask them to physically sign off the quote in case of a dispute later on.

Always try and get varying pictures of your endorsers, some with you and some alone doing average everyday things – gardening, shopping, dog walking, etc. If children appear in family pictures, a consent form will need to be signed by parents. If an endorsement is connected with a campaign, get a picture with you in front of the threatened building, or with your petition. Make the picture tell a story as actively as possible – even if it’s just chatting to each other.

Elections are nervy times so it often feels easiest to play safe. But residents who are also members of your party (‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’) are often not the best endorsers. Independence of mind counts for a lot in an endorser, but it comes with the risk that minds can change next week when an opposition leaflet appears blaming you for all the ills of the world.

Really surprising endorsements – the ones that raise eyebrows and cause comment – are often the most valuable. But consider the risks carefully. Sound people out. If you don’t, your endorser may turn out to be not all they seem, whether in fickle support for you or your party, or politically damaging aspects of their life you were innocent of. Sometimes, they may be keen to lend their support but expect special treatment in the future. Beware.

On their own, endorsements will not win your election – only gruelling slog on the doorsteps will do that – but they do help to give a sense to voters (hopefully rightly) that you are someone worth investing their vote in on polling day.


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We Are Like The Thames

The Thames at 'Proud Windsor'

This blog is about a poem I wrote last week and read out today at my Auntie June’s funeral. I share it because a number of people have asked to read it.

I wrote it (a) because I was grieving and wanted to express what I felt, and (b) because I couldn’t find any reading that said what I wanted to say, or that wasn’t very religious (which as a family, generally, we’re not – pray for us if you must), or overly sentimental (‘So dear old Mum now flaps her angel wings in highest Heaven’), or so familiar that everyone might as well recite a line each (‘Stop all the clocks’, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, etc.), or  indeed just a bit scrappy, random or inappropriate (‘Alas! the people now do sigh and moan for the loss of Wm. Ewart Gladstone’ – a William McGonagall classic).

But anyway. I felt the need to write a poem of my own, which is below. I tend to think poems that need to be in any way explained – something usually done in a title that’s almost as long as the poem (e.g. Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree Which Stands Near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a Desolate Part of the Shore, Yet Commanding a Beautiful Prospect’), are missing the point of poetry and perhaps of life in general. While I make no claims to poetic quality – really I don’t, why else do you think I am doing avoidance-waffle like this? –  here is a personal poem about a much-loved member of my family, as well as my much-loved family as a whole. So I’ll just  explain that it’s themed around the Thames because of the long family connection with the river.

So after all that preamble, think of what living and working generation after generation on and near a great river might come to mean to a family, and read on.

We are like the Thames.

We are born, we are pushed out new,

Rising from the loving source

Of mother and father.

Small at first, we grow as we begin

The flowing journey of our life.

We flow, slowly at first, learning about

Others as we learn to be ourselves.

Meeting and knowing

Family, friends, neighbours.

Spouse, children, grandchildren.

They become part of us,

Like tributaries of our Thames –

Counter’s Creek, Beverley Brook,

Wandle, Effra, Evenlode –

They join and stream with us

To love us and help us on our course.

Sometimes we flow fast, too fast;

We rush and regret.

Sometimes we flow slow, too slow;

We falter and fail.

But we flow on.

Happiness comes to us like sudden sunshine

Glittering on rippling waters at

Goring, Shepperton or Hurley.

We wish we could stop and stay.

But life washes us on.

Once in a while, as we swirl gently along

Sadness falls on us like rain.

Perhaps a momentary shower,

Perhaps lengthy, pelting us from slate-grey skies

But like our Thames we are not to be stopped.

Not us. Not yet.

Rainwater tears only give us new depth,

Strength, courage and understanding

To push onward, fleeting under bridges,

Through the locks, weirs and reaches

Of experience.

We flow through villages, towns,

Busy Reading, proud Windsor and great London.

Looking around us, seeing lives lived,

Making plans for our own.

Some we make happen.

Some we don’t.

Then we see ahead what we have sometimes feared,

The arms of the sea opening

Waiting to take us where others

We have known and loved

Have been taken.

We look back over our years, knowing others

Will follow, and one day join us.

We would dearly like to wait for them

And go together.

But we go alone.

Trusting we will be remembered

Kindly, with some sadness but with many a smile.

Hoping the love we have given

Flows on and on,

Like our Thames.

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An explanation: why was I tired and bored?

A few friends have remarked that I look a bit glum in this picture. It hails from the South London Press review of 2010. The SLP was present at the Lambeth Council count to take pictures.

The truth is I wasn’t glum at all – just very tired and a bit bored. The national picture wasn’t looking good either.

Tired because I had been at Chuka Umunna’s count for the Streatham parliamentary seat, where the ‘vote sampling’ I was doing predicted pretty accurately the eventual result, albeit that the result arrived at 8am, which nobody predicted. That was because of the length of time it took to separate national votes from local. The count for the locals reconvened later the same day.

Now, why bored? No reason other than than the phenomenal length of time it took to get the votes counted. Largely because somebody had decided that one ballot box – for local and parliamentary elections – would be enough. So the ballot papers were all mixed up.

If I recall correctly, I knew around the moment the photo was taken that Labour had kept control of Lambeth – the first time in twenty years. Well, it’s tough at election counts to look as you feel. Politicians are human. We get tired too.

It was a great victory. Bear in mind the national circumstances. Give a thought to Lambeth Labour’s months of canvassing and, at last, a full-on day of knocking up, from morning to night.

It goes without saying that I was really happy for Labour to have increased its representation on Lambeth Council from 37 (had been 39, but a death and a defection took down two) to 44 (out of 63).  It also goes without saying that I was really happy we retained three Labour MPs in Lambeth, and Chuka Umunna was elected in Streatham for the first time.

So the picture shows a moment in the long slow process of the count. A moment that can best be equated to ‘my train’s been cancelled for 24 hours’.

And though the Lambeth Labour special chugged to victory in the end, of course, nationally we came off the rails. There are many lessons being learned from that.

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