9 July 2015

Worst Political Leaflet I've Seen in Ten Years


In my many years of Liverpool political campaigning, I’ve seen some poorly judged political leaflets, but the latest Liberal Democrat literature to come through my door is by far and away this decade’s winner for the worst.

In September, 120 children are due to start at Dovedale Primary School. The Liberal Democrats are asking for objections to the expansion. What they are proposing would mean 30 children would have to find alternative provision this September. Do they want to contact those parents, to tell them to search desperately, at the last minute, for alternative provision?

For some context, it is a double sided A4 leaflet, solely about Dovedale School and its proposed expansion. Now I’m not responding in a political capacity here on behalf of my party, but the way in which this leaflet communicates on the issue of expansion is awful.

I’ll quickly make a statement of first principles. I believe that children should be entitled to a good education, in their local school. I don’t support the Academy or Free School model as the way forward. I think the current problems in Sweden illustrate the dangers in a society that fragments its education system.

In Liverpool we are facing the loss of green space at various points around the city. The idea that we don’t renovate and renew our existing schools, on their existing sites, is likely to mean the loss of further green space. The Liberal Democrats are arguing to prevent the school expanding and arguing against building on green spaces. This is a little like having your cake and eating it.

Liverpool needs new school places. In 2013/14, the furthest any pupil in the new intake of 90 would have to walk to school would be 0.342km. The demand for school places is right here, in our part of the city, and to me the answer is to expand an existing good local authority school (and I’m not just talking about the narrow OFSTED snapshot) to provide those places.

It is obvious that there will be challenges in any renovation and expansion, but let’s break down the Liberal Democrat claims, and let’s do that in the knowledge that 120 new pupils are due to start in September. So the Liberal Democrat position demands that 30 of these pupils are now told to go and look for a new school? How would those 30 be selected? What do you think the reaction of parents would be to that decision? On this point alone, the Liberal Democrat position is untenable, but the leaflet needs to be deconstructed.

The leaflet begins with the massive “33%” expansion in the school. Over a six year period that will happen but the annual growth in the school will be by 6%. This makes the “problems” they subsequently identify far less daunting.

The suggestion is that traffic and parking is already a nightmare, and it will be even worse. That isn’t my experience as a parent. The majority of parents walk their children to school. 44% currently drive. An expansion of 30 pupils each year would mean 13/14 extra car trips, all other things being equal. However, given the short walking distance for the vast majority of pupils, it’s not beyond the wit of local councillors to work with the school and the community to get people out of cars on the way to school. This is entirely possible and achievable. Can the community manage to reduce the 300 or so pupils at Dovedale who are dropped off by car by 15 per year? Yes. At that point you’ve got a benefit for the community, for children and the environment (noting that if Dovedale doesn’t expand, parents would probably be travelling further to alternative schools with more likelihood of using a car).

The leaflet makes the claim “most parents and residents”. Now Richard Kemp retained his seat in 2015 and did incredibly well to do so, but it was not a referendum on Dovedale expansion. The leaflet claims to speak for the majority of parents. According to the Liberal Democrats, residents and parents collected 388 signatures opposing the plans. The Change.org petition shows 342 signatures. Neither figure would constitute a “majority” of either parents or residents.

Now I certainly think that there was a lot of uncertainty and opposition before the plans were put on display, but since that has happened, we’ve spoken with other parents who previously opposed the expansion, but who are now no longer concerned about it. I think there may be lessons to be learned about the process and timings of proposed changes and how that is communicated in future instances of school expansion, but the major concerns about the building required have been cleverly addressed.

The one issue that may concern parents is less playground space. There will be some impact due to the increase in the space of the main buildings. This will largely, but not entirely, mitigated for by the removal of the temporary classrooms currently occupying part of the grounds. Most important will be about how the school structures its lunch periods. If lunches are staggered as the expanded cohorts rise up the school, there is no reason for the number of children sharing the playground space to rise.

The Liberal Democrat leaflet suggests a kind of “Dovedale School – Apocalypse Now” scenario, but the truth is that this is about providing an education for all the children of our city in the best way possible. It is base level political campaigning and it won’t be forgotten. Parents value their school and the increased resources that expansion will bring, at a time when school budgets are under pressure like never before, will in my opinion bring benefits to all the children studying at the school over the next few years. I’m proud to send my children there and reject the tone and much of the content of a very, very poor political leaflet.

16 June 2015

Nominations Opened – Who Will Be Liverpool’s Green Party Mayoral Candidate?


In 2012, the Green Party finished 4th in the Mayoral Election contest. It was a respectable result. We held our deposit (something we haven’t managed in London for example) and John Coyne ran a strong campaign for us.

In both 2014 and 2015, the Green Party finished as the 2nd largest party in the local elections across our city. All other things being equal, if Mayoral contests were just going to be about party politics, then we would be favourites to be the main challenger to Labour. However, we are yet to see if Liam Fogerty will run again, or another high profile independent candidate steps up. It would be no surprise to me to see former Conservative and now Deputy Leader for UKIP, Paul Nuttall, stand for them.

Our own nomination process has opened:

“We are also looking for a candidate to stand for the Green Party in the Liverpool Mayoral election, which is on the same day as the local elections: 5th May 2016. A key aspect of being a good Mayoral candidate will is being able to produce good media performances and have good debating skills, as a key part of the campaign will be participating in hustings events throughout the city. The Mayoral candidate would also be expected to play a full part in producing a high profile election campaign...”

It is therefore important for our party to select the best possible candidate for this contest, who can put across Green values of social justice and the environment. Who might that be?

Let me take this opportunity to rule myself out. Our daughter is just 6 months old and I started a fantastic new job as a university lecturer in February. I’m looking forward to embarking on my doctorate in a year’s time and I’m continuing to enjoy fatherhood. I’m not in a position to run for high profile elections for the rest of this decade.

Our councillors, John Coyne (if he could be persuaded on a political comeback) and one or two of our current activists all have the ability to do the job of Mayor, and to run the exceptional campaign that will be needed to be elected. We’ll be open and transparent about who our candidate(s) are once the nomination process has closed.

In parallel, I’m sure Labour in Liverpool will also have a contested internal selection for their Mayoral candidate, with a free and fair exchange of views... We shall see.

31 May 2015

Burnham, Cooper, Creasy and Kendall


I only ever voted once in a Labour leadership contest, back in 1994, and it wasn’t for Tony Blair. People who are members of that party now have their choice coming up and I would expect Andy Burnham to win the contest. He has positioned himself as a Labour centrist, with every candidate positioning themselves to the right of Ed Miliband.

What does that tell us about Labour’s trajectory politically? In Scottish terms it marks an acceptance that under First Past the Post Labour may at best win back a handful of seats from a Social Democratic SNP, that is to the left of Labour on most issues. Anything else would be a bonus, but barring some appalling SNP scandal, it is the best they can hope for.

All eyes are on “middle” England now for Labour. If you are looking at the politics purely in terms of number crunching, it is the UKIP surge that cost Labour the election, with UKIP votes far more than the margin of victory in many constituencies. So it appears that is where Labour’s focus is going for the next five years, whether that is Burnham, Cooper or Kendall.

To categorise all UKIP voters as right wing is to make a mistake. Many of them back rail renationalisation and support the NHS, with a vote for UKIP a clear two fingers up at the establishment. However, it is clear that there is a strong anti-immigrant factor in many UKIP voting decisions and that the older generations are much more likely to vote UKIP than younger ones. How Labour believes it can win these voters back will be interesting.

What is increasingly clear is the absolute mountain in electoral terms the Labour Party has to climb, and that is before boundaries are redrawn, which will stack things further in favour the Tories under First Past the Post. Here in Liverpool, Luciana Berger and Steve Rotherham are backing Andy Burnham and Stephen Twigg is backing Liz Kendall (probably not the most popular decision with some councillors and activists in West Derby).

Whoever emerges as their leader, they are tasked much more with a Kinnock role than one of winning an election. To win now, Labour needs to accept that it is fighting as one of the bigger parties in a multi-party system, rather than pursuing a First Past the Post majority. If they insist on a one more push strategy, it will not work, however it will take a brave leader to move them to a position in favour of Proportional Representation. We shall see.

18 May 2015

What? So What? Now What?


The Past

So as I predicted before the election, there is little thanks in the blogosphere from Labour and others on the left for the seats Greens didn’t stand, but plenty of blame thrown about the Tories now being in government - the SNP, the Greens, anyone but Labour. So the first bit of this entry will look at what happened this time, before I suggest a way forward in 2020 for progressive politics.

As I made clear in this previous blog, there were six seats where the absence of a Green candidate should have helped Labour hold or gain seats. In Bolton West, Labour failed to hold on despite the local Greens choosing not to stand, and clearly doing so with the marginal status of the constituency in mind. In Wirral West and the City of Chester, there were very narrow wins for both Labour candidates. Look at neighbouring Wirral South and you can see that had the Greens chosen to stand a candidate in these seats, it is highly likely that the Conservatives would have held both.

The Daily Mirror has flagged up constituencies where 900 votes made the difference between no overall control and a Tory majority. So we can also look at these seats and a couple of other marginals. Does the charge that the Greens handed the seats to the Tories stack up?

Well in one of them, Vale of Clwyd, there was no Green candidate so we can write that off. In Gower, you could say that it was the fault of the Greens, or you could say it was down to TUSC, whose votes exceeded the margin of the loss. In Bury North, Croydon Central, Plymouth South & Devonport and Telford the Greens were ahead of the Lib Dems, so maybe it was the fault of the Lib Dems. In Morley and Outwood, formerly Ed Balls’ seat, you could say it was down to the Yorkshire First candidate.

Only in Derby North can you specifically point at a Green candidate finishing last in the seat and say that if the Greens hadn’t stood it would have meant a Labour win, but even that claim depends on the assumptions that:

- Every Green voters would have still voted
- Every Green voter would have made Labour their 2nd choice in the absence of a Green candidate
- The dynamics of the campaign would not have been affected

So if Labour or left supporters want to play a blame game, they can, but it isn’t a black and white analysis. Simplistic claims just don’t work. Greens can equally point to Labour pulling the plank out of its own eye on this issue. As Adam McGibbon eloquently writes in relation to Brighton (my bold):

“...the full weight of the national Labour Party was thrown at us. Endless mailshots, scores of activists bussed in, a steady stream of shadow cabinet ministers, fancy offices, and a huge national infrastructure backing their local operation. In the end, while Labour threw the kitchen sink at Brighton Pavilion, they lost neighbouring Brighton Kemptown by 690 votes. With turnout in Kemptown 5% lower than Hove and Pavilion, there is so much more Labour could have done to elect Nancy Platts, their excellent, positive, left-wing Kemptown candidate. Not going hell-for-leather to unseat Caroline Lucas, and talking more about the Greens than about the Tories, would have been one thing that would have helped.”


Blaming other parties for a Tory majority means Labour has a long way to go to get to where they need to be in 2020.

The Future

My view is that we can either spend the next few years blaming each other for an outcome Greens, Reds and even Yellows didn’t want – a majority Tory government – or we can work out how we can work differently next time. This isn’t going to be easy for any single party. The price for Greens and Lib Dems to work with Labour in any sort of electoral arrangement would be dependent on:

- Labour understanding that Greens never want another majority government, Tory or Labour, unless they gain 50%+ of the vote and have a democratic mandate for it

- That there are very many Labour MPs in safe Labour seats who believe they have a job for life (including our MPs in Liverpool). They will not easily sign up to any electoral arrangement that will require a change to the voting system, but this would have to change

- The Greens (and hopefully the Lib Dems) would require real constitutional reform of the voting system, the House of Lords and political accountability in exchange for the kind of co-operation I’m outlining below

So how could it work? Firstly, you would need a Labour and Lib Dem leader willing to speak about working together with other parties to fix our broken political system. The Labour leader would need to be able to stand up to the majority of their Parliamentary Party who may prefer an extended period in opposition to a voting change that would mean they no longer had a seat for life. Caroline Lucas has already said this about the next election:

“Unless we break free of tribal politics and work together to fight austerity, and promote crucial, common-sense climate policies, we’re faced with an incredibly bleak political future. For the sake of all those who’ll suffer most at the hands of the Tories, we must rethink our relations and recognise the importance of our common ground.

That should include shared platforms and case-by-case electoral pacts, to build a strong progressive alliance to challenge the Tories over the next five years. Clearly in Wales and Scotland, where there are PR elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, this doesn't apply, but where First Past the Post continues to distort election results, it should surely be considered.”


In Liverpool, the Greens are likely to pose the main challenge to Labour in the city for the next decade. The idea of Greens or Labour standing down in favour of one another here is unthinkable but in safe Labour seats, and indeed in most seats, politics would continue as usual. What we need to consider are the marginal seats, like Wirral West, Chester and Bolton West. We did not stand in these seats in 2015 but given our growth, we could have, and we would expect to in 2020. Our presence in these contests would have meant more Tory MPs and a bigger majority for Cameron. What we actually wanted was a hung parliament with a progressive majority.

So in 2020, we could have Green v Labour contests in Bristol West, Sheffield Central, Liverpool Riverside and Manchester Gorton (or more likely the successor constituencies to them), but potentially with Greens not standing in selected marginals, while Labour don’t stand in Brighton Pavilion. Any candidate standing in a marginal would have to be fully signed up to genuine electoral reform, as would the Labour leadership. The British people don’t deserve a “one last heave” philosophy being put forward by the biggest opposition party. They need something smarter. Given Labour’s near wipeout in Scotland this time, it is now in their interests too, and if Labour can take that step, then so should we.

14 May 2015

Liverpool Wavertree - Thank You


It's a week on and I'd just like to formally thank all the voters of Wavertree before I start blogging about the result. A lot of people voted differently depending on whether it was the local or national elections, so while we got 5.2% for the Parliamentary vote, we got nearly 10% in terms of our local election results around the constituency. I've already explored this issue in the last blog about Liverpool Riverside, but this is one message I received from a voter:

"...i like your party peter but have to go labour. to keep the nasty 1% party out"

There are a few more like it. These illustrate the difficulty in persuading people, even in a safe Labour seat, that they can vote Green without any fear of the Conservatives winning. So for all those people that did vote Green, thank you.

Within Wavertree constituency, we picked up 2 second place council ward finishes, one expected and one not. Paul Kenyon was 2nd in Picton ward (12.3%) which we did expect, but in addition, Julie Birch-Holt finished 2nd in Wavertree ward with 11.5% despite this being one of the seats that there was some local Liberal Democrat activity.

As I've highlighted to colleagues, the forthcoming boundary review that will potentially hand 30 to 40 seats to the Tories on the basis of this year's result, is likely to result in just 4 Liverpool constituencies. We don't yet know what shape they will be in, but in order to build on our constituency 2nd place in Riverside, we now need to be working hard in a number of neighbouring Wavertree wards too. That is a big challenge for us, but it is one that we can take on. Planning is already underway.

10 May 2015

Liverpool Riverside Analysis


Firstly, I’d like to offer a huge note of thanks to Martin Dobson and everyone who worked on his campaign. I know how hard it is to be a lead candidate from my experience in two Euro campaigns. I also contested Liverpool Riverside in 2005, but did nothing like the level of work that Martin put in this time. He deserves all of our thanks. I think we can always learn from campaigns and I’m going to do a little bit of number crunching on this blog (if you don’t like that sort of thing, please look away now!)

Last year’s local election results showed that Labour gained 53% of the vote and we gained 27%. So an obvious question is that despite a really impressive and hardworking campaign from Martin Dobson and his team in Riverside, why was the General Election result Labour on 67.4% and the Greens in 2nd place with 12.1%?

The first point to make is that our local vote wasn’t that much different. If we aggregate the local election vote for Riverside, we gained 23% of the vote, which is a little down on last year’s share. We know that there is a much higher turnout at General Elections, and these figures suggest that people who vote at General Elections are slightly less likely to vote Green. If we also make a basic assumption that people who voted Green in the General Election also voted Green locally (as the options were the same on most ballot papers) then the other half of our local election voters chose not to support us in the General Election. So what are the reasons for this for the disparity? I’d suggest the following:

- The national message that you have to vote Labour to beat the Tories
- That people don’t see the Greens as a “national” party yet but do like local Greens
- Lib Dem voters boosting our local tally marginally in seats where they fail to put up local candidates

There is evidence of the first. I sent out my final email message to voters in the Wavertree constituency who had contacted me during the campaign the day before the election. I got back a few positive replies, but I also got back replies that included phrases such as:

“I like the Greens but I’m voting to keep out the nasty party”

“I don’t want to let the Tories get in”


Now in Wavertree constituency, the Tories did actually finish 2nd with 10% of the vote, but no serious political analyst thinks they have a cat’s chance of winning this seat for generations. Our conversion rate from local to national votes was a bit higher in Wavertree, but not that different to Riverside. In Riverside we finished 2nd. That argument can and should be dealt with before we get to 2020 as we can make the case in every election that we are the main challenger to Labour in the Riverside seat.

There are people that Martin said he met on the doorstep that would vote Green locally, but not nationally. We are not yet seen as a credible national party by many. That is harder to address, but the 2nd place finish in Riverside, plus the fact we are the main opposition in Liverpool and we contested all Liverpool constituencies for the first time should start to address this issue. However, we perhaps need to think about how we can best remind people that we are a party that can win seats at Westminster. The more people see of “Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party” the better.

The final way to really put ourselves in the frame for next time will be to win council seats in every local election between now and 2020 in the seats within the constituency. We were the 2nd place party in every ward except Kirkdale (3rd) and St Michaels (1st). We are going to have to win seats in 2016, 2018 and 2019. We need to show real momentum locally going into the next General Election, because we will need to improve on the 23% gain we made in Bristol to win the seat, but we also need to spread ourselves more widely in Liverpool.

One complicating factor is that we will almost certainly face redrawn constituency boundaries in Liverpool, with 5 constituencies being reduced to 4. We’ll see possible competition between Labour MPs (unless Louise Ellman chooses to step down) about who should go for which seat. So our target constituency strategy also has to look outside the current boundaries of Riverside to wards like Kensington& Fairfield, Wavertree, Church and Cressington. Under redrawn boundaries any number of combinations could be developed, but we would be unwise to focus solely on the wards that are within the current boundaries.

On a final note, I can take absolutely no credit for the Liverpool Riverside result. This year, the demands of a new job and a new baby have meant I’ve been putting much, much less of my time into politics. I was delighted to be the Wavertree candidate and very pleased we kept our deposit there. I owe that to the hard work of local candidates like Steve Faragher and Josie Mullen, who did quite a bit within their wards on local campaigning. I’ll be a lot less frontline in Liverpool for a while, but as time allows I’m going to be working hard to help more Green councillors get elected in the coming years.

9 May 2015

Leadership


Subtitle: In Praise of Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett

Caroline Lucas gained nearly 42% of the vote in Brighton Pavilion, up over 10% on 2010. Massively up on the mid-term polls in 2012 and 2013 that suggest Caroline would lose her seat.

At the beginning of that year I found out that Caroline was stepping down as leader to focus on her constituency. She knew what it would take to hold the seat as the Labour Party was going to throw everything they could at it. I urged her to continue as leader, so did other people. She was right and we were wrong. That is leadership.

Her decision to do that, for the last Parliament, was the right one. Going right back to the day after Caroline’s victory in 2010, we knew the success of our 2015 General Election campaign was always going to be about that one result. Despite our detractors in Brighton, we also recorded small increases in our shares of the vote in both Hove and Brighton Kemptown. At a council level, we’ve paid the price for some of the problems of the last four years, some of which were self-inflicted. Some hard working and very talented councillors lost their seats yesterday. There will be lessons to be learned for the whole party from Brighton, but we must note the positives as well from the time in office.

Natalie Bennett has led the party through a period of phenomenal membership growth. She has been incredibly hard-working and has supported local parties everywhere. Her work around the country has played a major role in our success.

She has had a tough election. The detractors have been out in force and yesterday’s piece in the Guardian questions whether Natalie should step down because the Greens failed to capture Bristol West, and whether that constitutes a failure or end of the Green surge. That is absurd. Our vote went from under 4% to nearly 27% - an unprecedented leap. The fact that we could even talk about winning Bristol West was exceptional.

The strategy of having regional target seats also deserves applause. Our 2nd place finishes in Liverpool Riverside (more on this soon), Manchester Gorton and Sheffield Central and that 23% gain in Bristol West mean that we can credibly target to win these seats going forward. There are also some high percentages of the votes in other seats, albeit where we are finishing 3rd or even 4th. Thanks to this strategy we are now able to compete at First Past the Post, and as we have seen, we can use our resources far more effectively than UKIP to achieve electoral success.

So Natalie deserves plaudits for her performance over this crucial bit of the electoral cycle. We’ve gained a Euro MP, made advances in the General Election and seen a massive surge in grassroots support, membership and activity. That is leadership. I hope we see Natalie lead us into the London Assembly and Local Elections next year, and we should make gains in both. It will not be a surprise if Natalie does get elected to the London Assembly in 2016, that she may then choose to step down to focus on that vital role, but that for now is speculation. The debate about who should lead us in the next big cycle of Euro 2019 and GE 2020 is not one we need to have now.

Nick Clegg has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Remaining Liberal Democrat members will probably reflect back and realise he should have done this last year after the European Elections. It would have saved some additional Lib Dem seats with a new leader in charge who had been able to criticise the party’s broken promises on tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have their reward for playing their set of cards very poorly in coalition.
The Liberal Democrats have always stood for electoral reform. What have they got to show for it after 5 years in coalition. Nothing. They talk about having moderated the excesses of the Tories, but we’ve had unprecedented austerity. They talk about governing in the national interest but we’ve been left with the legacy of five years of majority Conservative government even though 63% of the population didn’t vote for that party. Frankly, they blew their one chance to effect real change at a national level. I see no way back for them, particularly given the decimation of their parliamentary ranks.

You need to read my blog posts (main and second link) last year about Ed Miliband, Liverpool Labour and The Sun newspaper. This was Labour’s last best chance to change leader before the election. It was pretty clear that Labour chose the wrong leader for the wrong election. Now they face a triple whammy of boundary changes, an EU referendum which will neutralise UKIP (and therefore help the Tories in swing seats) and their wipe out in Scotland.

Little has to be said about Nicola Sturgeon. She has had a magnificent campaign, but when 1.5 million votes deliver 56 seats for one party, in one part of the UK, yet the Greens get 1.14 million and gain just one seat, you know the system is broken. The Tories won’t be rushing to fix it and indeed the boundary reforms that should have happened in the last Parliament will now come through. That will be worth another 30 seats for the Tories and make the prospect of a non-Tory led government getting elected in 2020 much harder to envisage (once again, you have to question the Lib Dems about this failure).

Finally, I’d like to thank each and every Green Parliamentary candidate. The 136 of us who saved our deposits (which is the best ever Green result) probably felt a sense of progress. But even for those candidates who didn’t, your votes mattered. The Short money allocation for this Parliament will enable Caroline Lucas to be better resourced in terms of research support. Your contribution mattered and we are all leaders for standing in our constituencies. We have a long way to go, but we are on the way now.