Tag Archives: Liberal Democrats

Business as Usual?

On Thursday I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the election. Now two days later we have had the results, and at a national level are still going through the machinations caused by the results.

I have heard it said often that whatever people tell pollsters, when they get into the polling booth they can do something totally different. The 1992 General Election is a good example of this effect where the polls were predicting a Labour victory, but the country returned the sitting, and apparently deeply unpopular Conservative government for another term. For decades the government of the UK has been flip-flopping from Labour to Conservative and back to Labour again, usually with a large pool of floating voters who are voting to get rid of something they don’t like, rather than voting for something they do.

This time around according to the polls Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had made a big impression during the campaign, and according to the pollsters had historically high poll ratings, at times pushing Labour into third place. But on the day all these poll gains evaporated – across the country people were desperate to get rid of an unpopular government and saw voting for the Conservatives as a way to do it.

It was against this backdrop that we must look at the results for Wokingham. John Redwood our sitting Conservative MP was returned with a significant increase in majority. In the press this has been reported as a swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, but when you look at the votes this is misleading. There was a significant increase in turnout over 2005 – in actual fact of the three main parties only Labour had less votes – the Liberal Democrat candidate received more votes. However most of the additional turnout went to the sitting Conservative candidate. Mark Ashwell the independent candidate polled a couple of thousand votes, noticeable, but not enough to really impact the vote.

Locally, there was a big jump in turnout – the last time this ward was elected it wasn’t on the day of a General Election. Occurring on the same day it is rare for people to vote differently in the two elections, so again the local councillor was returned with a sizeable majority. Indeed across the whole of the borough only one ward changed hands, passing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. In the run up to the vote I had been swapping e-mails with our local councillor who had been defeatist right from the off, saying that our Resident Action Group website was going to lose him the election, that he knew his time was up, and during the course of the campaign we had more than double the number of flyers through from him. In my e-mails I’d repeatedly said that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still the village councillor on May 7th, and I’m not – this is a staunchly Conservative area, and whilst there is a good deal of anger amongst some of the residents it is a big step for many from being angry about what is going on to actively voting for someone else. The big disappointment is that his insecurity in his electorate led him to produce election literature with some truly ludicrous and unfounded claims that do nothing for the reputation of politicians. I have much more respect for someone who has run a clean and honest campaign and lost than someone who has run a dishonest campaign and won.

Reflecting on the local situation, we now have a very interesting situation developing nationally, as the two parties who on a local level here seem to truly loathe one another find themselves thrust together as the Cameron led Conservatives find themselves with no option but to ask the Clegg led Liberal Democrats to support them to allow them to form a government. Thanks to the British constitution the incumbent Prime Minister stays in the job if nobody gets an overall majority. The Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats. More ironically any decision to support them needs a positive vote from 75% of the parliamentary party and 75% of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, and if they can’t agree it needs a ballot of the members. Suddenly in order to have any chance of forming a government the Conservatives need the support of the self same people who in our area they have been making ludicrous accusations about just days before.

The situation is also causing people to reflect on the absurdity and perverse nature of our venerable first-past-the-post voting system. The whole system favours parties with dominant pockets of support, as a result of the system country wide it took the vote of 35,021 Conservative supporters to elect one MP, and 33,338 Labour supporters to elect one MP for them. However it took the vote of 119,397 to elect on Liberal Democrat MP – the final seats in the Commons fail to reflect the votes cast nationally. Other perverse results include the City of Oxford, which is split into two constituencies. Across the whole city 41,087 people voted Liberal Democrat, 33,633 voted Conservative and 27,937 voted Labour, however because of the distribution of the voters the city is now represented by one Conservative and one Labour MP. Similarly in Wokingham Borough across ward after ward the Liberal Democrats come a strong second, but they have vastly fewer seats on council because the same unfair voting system operates in local council elections.

However thanks to the failure of the Conservatives to win a majority they now need the help of the Liberal Democrats to govern, and whilst elements of the press seem to think that they should quietly trot along and just prop up a minority Conservative government who only gained the support of 36% of the electorate, there are other groups who see this as a golden opportunity to properly reform our voting system. Today a fair votes demonstration that was going on largely unnoticed in Trafalgar Square, decided to go and visit the building where Nick Clegg was discussing the offer made by the Conservatives to try and get Liberal Democrat support – an offer that doesn’t include the promise of a change in voting system, this was the result:

Could this be the dawn of a new age in terms of British democracy – or will it just go back to business as usual?

Another Year – Another Leader

A few years back you couldn’t turn on the news without some sort of leadership crisis in the Conservative party – now it seems that the Liberal Democrats have picked up the same disease. I commented last year about the group of relative unknowns who ousted Charles Kennedy. Menzies Campbell won the subsequent leadership election – which ever since I’ve found slightly strange as of the members of the party I know, nobody seems to have voted for him – in fact the majority of them seem to think it was a generally poor move to elect him at all. Indeed most of them seemed to think the party had made a dreadful mistake to oust Charles Kennedy in the first place.

That opinion seems to have been reflected in the opinion of the general public, as the poll figures for the party have slid steadily down ever since, leading ultimately to his resignation as leader today.

But then comes the question of who could replace him, looking at the runners and riders the only two recognisable figures to me are Simon Hughes who having been beaten twice before has ruled himself out already, and Charles Kennedy the former leader. To be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if the party re-elected Charles Kennedy, despite the periodic hiccups such as the recent smoking incident on the train to Plymouth.

Of course the question to consider is whether they should go for someone who is already known or make a clean break. The Conservative party seem to have built their resurgence on the back of a photogenic new leader, and without much in the way of tangible policies either, much as Labour did a decade or so before with Blair. Effectively both grew in a large part out of effectively criticising the sitting government rather than anything particularly radical. Maybe some new relatively unknown leader is what the Liberal Democrats need? Certainly what they don’t need is many more years of leadership instability…

Housing Argument Kicks Off Again

You may remember last autumn that I had a letter published in the Wokingham Times complaining about the pretty tedious arguments that our Conservative local councillor in particular had been having with the opposition Liberal Democrats through the pages of the newspaper. As an aside, in terms of results, it quietened down for a bit, although there were still occasional letters. I had a personal letter from our local Liberal Democrat candidate, but not a peep out of our Conservative local councillor Gary Cowan, until of course election time came around this year and he turned up on the doorstep asking for our votes.

Anyway, recently the argument over housing numbers has flared up again. Initially it was started by a letter from Gary Cowan saying that the Conservatives didn’t support housing development, and blaming the Liberal Democrats, saying that they were backing development. This of course was swiftly followed by a response from the Liberal Democrats, then another from Cowan and so on. The Wokingham Liberal Democrats have produced a press release describing the trigger for this latest round of arguments – in the interest of fairness I’ve taken a look on the local Conservative site but there is nothing about this particular part of the issue. My spin on it is that neither party actually wants large scale development, the differences are actually over how to deal with the issue of the numbers being allocated to our area by central government. As far as I am concerned, both parties could be accused of – to some extent – misrepresenting the policies of the other.

The exchange has now degenerated into an argument over numbers of houses, with both sides claiming that they are against large scale housing development, and blaming the other for the numbers that are allocated, and also having decidedly tedious arguments over the exact figures. Bear in mind that although there is a difference in numbers, both parties would sign up for significant levels of housing development. In truth since the whole house building issue is being driven from central government (take a look at this section by the Campaign to Protect Rural England) it is a slightly irrelevant and pointless discussion as to my mind whoever was in charge, the building plans would be forced through. A local council really has little real power to stop something like this, it really comes down to a question of how you deal with it. Indeed, behind the posturing, elsewhere in the local paper last week it was reported that the Conservative administration had published a list of possible sites for housing – bear in mind that this is really a compilation of sites that have been suggested rather than a definite plan. Having said that, with some definite places and numbers, it has the potential to rattle a number a local communities.

The list perhaps gives a clue as to why Gary Cowan in particular is so keen to distract blame onto the Liberal Democrats, when you take a look at the list. His bio on the local Conservative site highlights that he is executive member for planning, however a look at the locations mentioned reveals quite what a large amount of the new housing allocation will fall on his area. Arborfield Garrison has, since rumours of it’s closure started has always been seen as a likely spot. Already two areas of former land have become the Penrose Park and Poppyfields developments, and the closure of the base will result in up to 2000 new houses being built. However in addition to that, there is another significant development of hundreds of houses listed as ‘Barker Close’, where Gary actually lives – a look at the map shows that the space for building there is all green-field development. The real driver from development is coming from the Labour government, but in this area it is a straight two horse race between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, so it is quite easy to speculate that a well organised campaign by the Liberal Democrats highlighting the inability of the sitting Conservative administration to stop the developments, could pay dividends – Cowan as the named person responsible for development being a prizes scalp. Repeatedly blaming the policies of the Liberal Democrats during the short period that they held minority control of the council, would seems to be the best tactic to try and hold on to power. Interestingly, many years ago another Conservative administration in my local council at the time lost a similar battle with the Liberal Democrats – who still control the local council today – over the routing of the M25, so the stakes can be high.

Anyway, taking a look at the rest of the list, other local sites on the list include the Hogwood Lane Industrial Estate which is brown field. Confusingly a significant development, again of several hundred houses at Church Farm, Finchampstead, currently an area of just over 100 acres of farm land between the housing in North Finchampstead, and the area around the church. However clarification of this in this weeks paper states that this is actually the field bought by a UK landbank to sell to individual developers – not suprisingly this has caused just as much concern as it was believed that the land was protected. Indeed the bulk of the list hits various places around this part of the district. Of course to see the argument for development around here, you only need look at where the bulk of new developments are occurring currently – although Finchampstead received a lot of housing the seventies and eighties, the latest round has been hitting other parts of the district.

But what are the other options? According to the Liberal Democrat press release they are arguing for a single large development, similar in concept to the Elvetham Heath development near Fleet. This is not a new idea, previously there have been large scale developments proposed at Grazely, Spencers Wood and Shinfield – read this English Heritage report for a mention of those – however despite the objections, large scale development has subsequently occurred in both Shinfield and Spencers Wood. The argument for that is that by designating one large development, the developers will be required to provide road upgrades, and sites for new schools and shops – smaller developments could well be built with nothing like that. However designating a single large site, could result in the whole scheme being rejected by an organised campaign – take the Dever Society campaign against the plans for a new town at Micheldever. Having said that, firstly it is difficult to see where there would be space for such a new town around here, and secondly with the Liberal Democrats in an increasingly weak position locally, the list of numerous small scale developments seems likely.

Ultimately, since the building is being driven from national government, and Wokingham sits at the heart of one of the areas with most demand, there seems little that can be done to stop the new building. However I’m sure we’ll still be having arguments in the local paper over who is to blame for a long time to come – which is a pity, as in reality discussion should be on where the new houses are going to be built, and which bits of green field are going to be bulldozed.

Liberal Democrats look to Replace the Conservatives

The Liberal Democrats have often talked of replacing the Conservatives as the real alternative to Labour, however whilst they haven’t achieved that in terms of seats and share of the vote, they seem to be going all out to do it in terms of hitting the self-destruct button in full glare of the public, something the Conservatives had down to a fine art during the past few years. So just as the Conservatives get the point and have a relatively trouble free leadership election, the Liberal Democrats look to be trying to take over the mantle, with a group of Liberal Democrat MP’s publicly threatening to resign, rather than work under Charles Kennedy. This seems to be at odds with the apparent support that Kennedy is receiving from party members.

However, what is most interesting looking down the list of MP’s in the group is that none of the really well known potential leaders are on the list. The media talks about Senior MP’s and peers, but note how it is the relatively unknown Liberal Democrat MP’s who are appearing in the media. Not names like Simon Hughes, who said he will make no announcement on whether he will stand until he fulfils his official role of chairing the committee overseeing the election arrangements (and I would be surprised if he does stand on his own). Not Sir Menzies Campbell, who although he has been critical of Kennedy in the past, told reporters “I have said on many occasions that I would not stand in a leadership election against Charles Kennedy, and I confirm that again this evening.â€? Another possible candidate, Mark Oaten has said “I will be actively campaigning for Charles as he reconfirms the members’ support.â€? Lembit Opik, leader of the party in Wales pointed out that Kennedy has delivered increased seats at each General Election, and personally he had “taken a courageous step which goes way beyond politics. You add those two things together and you’ve got the sign of a leader with real personal integrity.â€?

There is a real possibility that in a vote of the members, despite all this, Kennedy could retain the leadership, although a quick straw poll of people who I know are members finds definite groups both for and against Kennedy, some saying he should go, and others highlighting that there are, and have been a number of high profile alcoholics, the majority of whom kept it quiet – common examples being George W Bush and Winston Churchill. However what is interesting is that whether they would vote for Kennedy or not, they are all critical of the way the whole thing is being played out in the media. Indeed one, whose membership renewal has recently arrived is so disgusted with the whole way some of the MP’s are acting that they are sitting on the renewal until they see how things turn out.

Of course all of this is exactly why we now have the letter, any potential rivals are remaining loyal to the wishes of the members, so the only available option for the list of relative unknown ‘senior Liberal Democrat’ politicians on the list is to hit the political equivalent of the nuclear launch button, and like any nuclear conflict, there will be no winners.

Unfortunately, far from the idea that this will take the Liberal Democrats forward building on the record gains in 2005, these MP’s don’t seem to have learnt from the experience of the Conservatives that this sort of thing doesn’t help, just gives the media something to talk endlessly about, and stir up even more, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Liberal Democrats slide come May, and if my straw poll is anything to go by the membership fall. Seriously, I think the MP’s on the list need to take a step back from what they are doing, and ask themselves why it is that the potential new leaders are all ruling themselves out. Unfortunately, rather than doing that, I suspect they might end up resigning and then putting forward a total unknown for the election, we’ll wait and see.

Punch and Judy

It’s now a couple of weeks since my letter about the printing of endless letters from our local politicians appeared in our local paper, so I thought I’d just look at what has happened since.

Firstly, I haven’t heard anything from any of the politicians involved in the letter writing, not even the one who represents my ward. The two I directly named have also not responded through the letters page of the paper, indeed we actually had one week last week with no letters from local politicians in the paper at all! Having said that, on the front page of last weeks paper was a quite amusing cartoon with two of the people involved playing table tennis…

However, it was a brief restbite, as this week, one of the letter writers, the leader of the current administration has come back with a letter on a different topic, in response to a letter that a resident in Woodley wrote last week. Not that it makes much difference mind you, the structure is much the same as the letters on previous topics.

He starts off justifying the letter by saying that he assumes the letter writer is a new resident, and therefore unaware of what has happened recently. This allows him to lead in to an explanation as to how it’s not down to the current Conservative administration, and is entirely due to the hopeless Liberal Democrat administration that was in charge when the Conservatives lost control for two years between 2000 and 2002. Essentially it’s either them, the current Labour government, or an unelected quango that’s to blame for anything around here it seems. The letter as always finishes off with a final dig at the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrat response, that I’m sure will appear next week, will be much the same – just replace ‘Previous Liberal Democrat Administration’ with ‘Current Conservative Administration’, change the final dig to be at the Conservatives and you get the general idea. So to some extent the local politicians haven’t really taken the hint, to which I’m not overly surprised.

As for comment from other people, most interesting was someone at Church who asked me whether the letter in the paper was from me, and when I said yes, congratulated me, and said that he agreed wholeheartedly with what I had said. Having chatted on the subject with him a bit more, we seemed generally in agreement over how local politics should work.

From my point of view the fundamental thing about local politics is that you have pretty limited power, and much of what goes on is limited or driven from London. For example, although local tax rates are set locally, a large proportion of the council budget actually comes as a block grant from, and at a level set by the government. Indeed although there is some flexibility, the government even has powers to cap the tax rate set by a council. The housing issue is again something over which, in reality the local council have little control, as this is a national policy issue – housing numbers being set by the government. For all the fuss that is being made currently, the new houses will come, the only decision being where they go. It is interesting to note that in the current debate the Conservative administration have made much of blaming the Liberal Democrats for the numbers, however they say little about being able to reduce the numbers. In fact, had things been different and the Conservatives had held the council at the time, I’m sure that the numbers would be just the same. Again, even if our local council planning department refuses permission for building, a government department can reverse the decision. The fact is that we are in a location that has good transport links to London, more demand for housing than availability, and some significant areas of land that could be used for building. All the local council can do is to try and get the new houses in as acceptable form as possible.

Ultimately, the local council is about boring but essential things like collecting the rubbish, cutting the grass and fixing the streetlights, which is why there is even more of a disinterest in local politics than at a national level. If anything, when people do vote in their local elections, unless there is a high profile local issue, they are voting based on national politics. So whilst their new leader may be calling for the end of Punch and Judy politics I suspect on the ground in Wokingham that won’t happen, and we’ll carry on with the Punch and Judy letter writing in the local paper, over subjects that they have little control. Oh, and on the subject of things that they should be worrying about, the streetlights around here still don’t work properly…