The leaders’ debate

I watched this, and learned little. This was never going to be a platform for new policy announcements, rather a minefield for the gaffe prone. I think all seven avoided any major mistakes. It did allow us, the voters, to compare, and here are my admittedly biased impressions.

Natalie Bennett (Green) was the weakest. She clearly learned from some pretty damaging interviews, but came across as humourless and naive. I like the Greens when they talk about the environment, I dislike them when it comes to the economy, jobs and the like.

Nigel Farage (UKIP) is normally a warm and engaging performer. Somehow this format did not suit him, and my impression was that a serious debate was a step too far. His attempt to label everyone else as ‘all the same’, and to blame all of society’s ills on foreigners and the EU just showed how vacuous UKIP’s message is.

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) came across as a beaten man. At times there were flashes of the 2010 Clegg, but far too often you could see the impending cliff-edge for his Parliamentary party etched on his face. Now his party has been under the harsh glare of administration it is very hard to play the ‘all things to all men’ game anymore. I could not get away from the thought, every time he appeared to challenge the Prime Minister, that here was a man who had five years to do something about it. Instead, he has spent five years more or less giving Cameron whatever he wanted.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) was too parochial. Despite her wonderful Welsh lilt, her message seemed to lack any real weight, and whilst she must push hard for Wales and her Welsh voters, she demonstrated why regional parties should not be admitted to national debates. Doubtless many beyond Offa’s Dyke will have found something to cheer about, the rest of the UK must have wondered what her contribution would do for them.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) was very good, and I am no fan of nationalism or nationalists. She somehow managed to overcome parochialism and deliver a punchy message. Her style was suited to this stage, although I still wonder why a party that only represents a fraction of the UK was admitted to this debate. I watched and wondered how Alex Salmond managed to keep her at bay for so long for clearly she is a better performer than her predecessor as leader of the SNP.

David Cameron (Conservative) was actually pretty good. This format, of seven leaders, allowed him some cover, yet when he spoke he did so with some authority. Those who have Conservative principles will have found little fault. I still found him a bit evasive, but am pleased that he managed to leave the aggressive and bullying side of him at home.

Ed Miliband (Labour) can appear awkward at times. Last night he struck me as relaxed, and he delivered his lines pretty well. He is always going to be more about the message than about how the message is given. He was confident, his body language was good, and he showed some humour. He had the strongest message. As only one of two likely Prime Ministers on display he also had weight behind his argument, and he managed to augment this with considerable gravitas.

Doubtless my views will not agree with everyone else’s. I have listed the leaders in order of who I thought was best; I call it an Ed victory, just ahead of Cameron (in terms of presentation). In terms of policy the order would be somewhat different, with Ed still winning but with a considerable margin over the others.

On animal welfare – six Labour pledges

One of the many political strands I have pursued over the years is animal rights. I am a member of the Labour Animal Welfare Society, and I have been pleased to support a number of other campaigning organisations, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

For an example see this –

I am pleased that Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party) and Maria Eagle (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have made six pledges under the heading – Labour: Protecting Animals.

These pledges are

• Defend the Hunting ban
• Ban the use of wild animals in circuses
• End the Government’s ineffective and inhumane badger culls
• Improve the protection of dogs and cats
• Tackle wildlife crime and reduce animal cruelty on shooting estates
• Lead the fight against global animal cruelty

The last Labour Government achieved much to end the cruel and unnecessary suffering of animals: the banning of hunting with dogs, securing an end to cosmetic testing on animals, banning fur farming, and introducing the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

This is a legacy I am proud of, and I believe that only a Labour Government can be trusted on animal welfare issues.

Primus inter pares

I do not like the debates between the party leaders. The concept of first amongst equals is diminished in my view with the advent of these spectacles. These debates reduce a contest in 650 distinct and separate constituencies to a beauty pageant between three, four, or more, leaders of the main political parties.

I am often pointing out that the contest in Southend West will be between (Sir) David Amess and me (and whoever else is selected amongst the other parties). Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband will feature on the ballot paper.

I do not see this as enhancing our democracy. The leaders’ debates introduce a presidential element to the General Election, and if the contest is whittled down to who of the party leaders comes across best then the role of backbench MPs across the House of Commons starts to dwindle.

I realise that it is national issues that largely decide the outcome in each constituency, yet I hope that my efforts, and those of other candidates, have some bearing.

I doubt that these debates will go away, though. I sense that I am in a minority in being alarmed at seeing a whole campaign reduced to three one-hour slots (or whatever format is agreed upon this time). How long before our leaders are selected only for their ability to look good on camera, irrespective of their abilities to lead debate, set policy, or argue cogently?

There is a chance that the debates will be scrapped, although this unlikely. The Prime Minister is setting a precondition for his attendance; and the riposte from his opponents is the suggested empty chair solution.

I am not one to take David Cameron’s side normally, but I think he has a point about the inclusion of Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader). If we must have leaders’ debates then all who lead parties that genuinely seek to form a Government should be included. The simplest test of this is whether they are planning to field 326 or more candidates. 326 MPs is the minimum required to form a majority Government.

In 2010 six parties fielded more than 325 candidates: Conservative (631), Labour (631), Liberal Democrat (631), UKIP (558), BNP (338), Green (334).

The BNP will not feature beyond the fringes this time around, yet the Greens are threatening almost universal coverage (as are TUSC, I believe).

Whilst the current electoral system is skewed in favour of the big two, in the ‘anything can happen’ set of possibilities is a Green or UKIP PM (and indeed a TUSC PM if they do put up enough candidates). In these circumstances it is fair and reasonable to invite all leaders who face the possibility of residence in Downing Street. To do otherwise somewhat takes the electorate for granted, even if this is somewhat backed up by historical evidence.

One of my motivators for being an electoral reformer is my disappointment that so many of our elections are being seemingly decided before a ballot has been cast. A leaders’ debate that excludes any national party leader surely also somewhat prejudges the outcome. Whilst I believe it will be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband who wakes up as PM on May 8th, it is ultimately the decision of the people.

PPC letter to LabourList

Earlier this afternoon I was asked whether I would like to add my name to the following letter. I did, and have, and it is now on LabourList.

To the editor,

Our country simply cannot afford another five years of an abysmal Conservative-led government. That’s why, as candidates, we’re out on the doorstep week in, week out in the towns and cities that we seek to represent, making the case for a better future under Labour.

We always knew this election would be difficult, but we also know that just four years after suffering our worst defeat since 1918, Ed Miliband has led our party to within striking distance of government.

At a time when the public are increasingly sceptical about politics and politicians we’re proud to led by a man that we know to be honest, sincere and decent. He will be a courageous, radical and reforming Prime Minister.

Ed is the only leader who understands the scale of the challenge that our deeply anxious and unequal country faces, and the only leader who has developed a radical yet credible agenda to meet it. He was the first to identify the dangers our economic malaise posed not just to the poorest but also to vast swathes of middle-income Britain. He was the first to call for a new culture of responsibility, not just among those who rely on state support but also those at the top. He was the first to highlight both the moral evil and the economic stupidity of Britain’s endemic levels of low pay and the importance of fair wages and dignity in work.

And he was the first to take a stand against Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. He has shown time and again, on press regulation, on bankers’ bonuses, on gas and electricity prices, on the minimum wage, on payday lending and on military action against Syria, that it is the Labour Party that is setting the agenda not the Coalition Government.

We have watched in disappointment over recent days as an anonymous few attempted to orchestrate a campaign of briefing to destablise Ed and his leadership. It has been deeply damaging for our party and it has to stop. Now is the time to stand our ground and to work even harder for the Labour victory that our communities so desperately need. As candidates we will not be distracted from getting out there and doing all we can to work for a Labour government.

Labour Parliamentary Candidates

Housing and more affordable homes for first-time buyers

It ought to be crystal clear to every politico in the urban paradise that occasionally is Southend-on-Sea, that this town is in desperate need of affordable housing. This manifests itself in a number of ways – youngsters still at home, families overcrowded, aspirant home-owners trapped in expensive rental agreements.

Homebuilding would also be a driver for employment for the local builders and craftsmen who assemble and furnish these new homes.

Recent announcements by Ed Miliband are welcome news; to remind readers, these have included giving local communities power to build where people want to live, enabling councils to plan properly for homebuilding, and giving access rights to first time buyers.

This Government has a frankly terrible record on home ownership and house-building, including the lowest levels of house-building in 90 years and home ownership levels at their lowest in 30 years. Those houses available are too expensive for young families, pushing back the age at which people can own their first property. Our children face a grim future unless the housing market is made to work for them.

I applaud the Labour commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020. I also applaud the aspiration to see the number of first-time buyers doubled by 2025. I was in my twenties when I first owned my home – and I wish this for all in their twenties, in Southend and in the rest of the country.

Not from central casting but valuing principle over posturing

Ed Miliband made a speech yesterday setting out the standards against which he will ask to be judged as Prime Minister. Here is an extract:

“When people say ‘you’re all the same, you’re in it for yourself, you don’t care about my life’, they are talking about us: the politicians. Millions of people think that for us, it actually is all about us, that we are in it for ourselves, for our own success, not the country’s.

“They believe we value posturing more than principle, good photos or soundbites more than a decent policy, image more than ideas. Unless we stand up now and say that we want to offer people something different, more and more will simply turn away. And if we allow that to continue to happen, we will also rob people of the debate they deserve, about the things that matter.

“David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of an image-based politics. He made his name as Leader of the Opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle.

“Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that. It is not what I care most about. And it’s not where my talents lie —as you may have noticed.

“I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich. If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.

“But I believe that people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is more to politics than the photo op.”

“If politics is going to respond to the distrust people have, it has to begin to respond to talking about you.

“The current Prime Minister might take a good picture but he can’t build a country that works for you. It is not what interests him. And it is not who he stands up for.

“Here’s what I think matters. The leadership you need and the leadership this country needs is one that has big ideas to change things, with the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard, and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life.

“For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer. I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard. But it is what I aspire to.

“I know the qualities I have talked about don’t just matter to me. They matter to you. They are the bedrock of this party.

“Let’s show people that we have new ideas to address the problems the country faces, that we seek to offer principles that prove that politics can be about more than what is expedient and convenient, that we believe decency and empathy are crucial values not just for our communities but for our country.”

Ed, strikes, Inverclyde

When out canvassing last night I stumbled across a couple of teachers who had been involved in yesterday’s strike action. I also called on a teacher. In both instances I had to attempt an explanation of Ed Miliband’s stance regarding the industrial action.

Reading Ed’s words it seems to me that he has some sympathy with those who struck; he is unequivocal about the strike itself.

I can understand why a PM-in-waiting has to be careful about strikes; if he gets into number ten he will be doing his damndest to avoid unrest. However, I would have taken a slightly different tack. We live in a democracy, a democracy where workers have the right to withdraw their labour. If we were genuinely ‘all in it together’ then public servants would have to suck the lemon. Clearly, though, we are not all in it together.

This Tory-led government is stirring unrest. In just over a year we have seen student protests and mass union demonstrations. Much like Tory governments of old, this current incarnation is intent on causing distress. It is no wonder that upset people want to show their disquietude. Labour politicians could be asking about this.

No-one wants strikes, but it is no surprise that workers are responding to provocation.

Even if you were one hundred per cent behind the Government’s agenda you should still be asking why it has failed to negotiate or explain its case adequately.

I see we had a good result in Scotland last night. Labour retained the Inverclyde seat in a by-election caused by the untimely death of David Cairns. The Labour vote was marginally down, but the real story is of two of its rivals. The SNP made significant gains but still fell some way short of victory, and these gains came at the expense of the Liberal Democrats who lost their deposit. Lib Dem support will make some recovery come a General Election, a General Election that will not see any SNP gains, in my opinion. Labour is steering a steady ship in Scotland, and will have to up its game. A good result in Scotland is essential for the return of a Labour government.

Steady Eddie

Undoubtedly there is growing speculation about Ed Miliband’s future as leader of the Labour Party. This appears to me more about the press trying to create a story than of any real discontent within Labour ranks. Certainly my experience in south Essex Labour circles does not suggest any appetite for change. Indeed it is a rarely discussed topic.

Britain-Votes has a post on this, an interesting read.

With less than a year in post Ed Miliband is safe – it would be madness for anyone to seriously contemplate change at this stage. It will not remain ever thus, though, and Ed’s steady progress will have to be maintained for any potential sceptics to stay quiet.

Miliband’s next big test will be the London mayoral contest. Despite Boris’s considerable personal charms he should be an easy target in a Labour dominated London. The London Labour Party has a third of all Labour members and a failure here will make the 2015 General Election look lost already. In a return to good old fashioned two-party politics all the polls are indicating that Tory support remains solid, and whilst Labour leads it leads by small margins redolent of anti-Government feeling that accompanies every Parliament. I have yet to detect real move towards Labour, disgruntled Liberal Democrats aside.

But as I said, if we keep taking those small steps then success is assured.

My dad was a Marxist too

I have met our new leader. I think I got thirty seconds with Ed Miliband. I wanted to say something meaningful and encouraging; instead I trotted out “my dad was a Marxist too”. Ed politely responded with “oh, what was his name?”

“Cyril, Cyril Ware-Lane”. Then it was a smile for the camera, job done. I was at the coronation when Ed won by a slender margin on the fourth preferences of some voters. I remember being amazed that he had Belgian ancestry – we have that in common too. To be fair, I genuinely have Belgian genes in my DNA whereas Ed’s dad, whilst being born in Belgium, was really Polish. I could have mentioned that instead.

My Belgian grandfather, Joseph Frank de Lobel, fled to Britain in 1914 – a refugee from another war.