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1959 election marked the start Tories slow decline in Scotland

In 1959, as a junior reporter of only a few weeks, I had my first taste of covering a general election. In those days politicians used their right to free use of school halls for election meetings and even the rawest recruit to the paper had to report on them.

My abiding memory is that the Conservatives draped the speaker’s table with the Union flag and that because they were public meetings there was always at least one heckler in the hall. Candidates would do several meetings in a day.

I worked for the Leamington Morning News, the smallest daily paper in the UK. Only Conservative and Labour candidates were contesting the Warwick and Leamington seat.

John Hobson, later attorney general, was defending the seat which he had won two years before following Anthony Eden’s post-Suez resignation.

His Labour opponent William Wilson,went on to win a Coventry seat and earned his place in history piloting the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. That changed the grounds for divorce from matrimonial offences to the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage.

Two of my senior colleagues decided Hobson was not seeing how the other half lived and arranged to go with him to a council estate. They chose a house at random, knocked on the door.

It was not what they expected. There were thick fitted carpets and the tenant welcomed Hobson, opened a well-stocked cocktail cabinet and offered him a drink.

England was changing and the Conservatives won the election with an increased majority. Looking back, the most significant change in 1959 was that for the first time the Conservatives won fewer seats than Labour in Scotland.

This year the Conservatives are fighting to retain their last toe hold in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale: a 2% advantage for the SNP according to Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll but the margin for error means it is too close to call.

Labour is also facing wipe-out at the hands of the SNP.

If we count the change in Scottish politics from 1959, the evolution has taken 56 years.

 

 

2½ weeks is a long time in an election – anything could happen

2½ weeks is a long time in an election campaign. Either the Conservatives or Labour could yet win an overall majority. Or, a little more likely, one of them could make a big error and lose.

That  has to be the basis on which the strategists are fighting the campaign. And that is what is behind all the posturing about danger of dysfunctional coalitions.

Ed Miliband simply can’t say he would do business with Nicola Sturgeon. If he said he was prepared to form a Government with Scottish Nationalist support he would also be telling his own party members in Scotland that there was no point in voting Labour.

And that is just the message Sturgeon wants to get across.

In much the same way David Cameron cannot say he would rule with the support of UKIP. The Lib Dems say they would not support Conservative welfare cuts, but their credibility is shot by their record on student fees.

No party is in a position to say what it would do in the event of it not having an overall majority and having to seek a coalition or some looser form of support. It would be electoral suicide.

That is why they try to get the other side to say what they would do and so make one of the mistakes that lose elections. We have reached the situation where no party’s policies look like winning the election. But it would still be easy to lose the election

It is only in the early hours of May 8 that we will start to see if there is a need for the wolf to dwell with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid.

Then the realistic bargaining can begin and it could result in some strange bedfellows and take a long time. But not as long as the 16 months taken by the Belgians in 2010-11.

The Young Fabians say in a thoughtful blog post the foundations are already being laid:

In the new era of multi-party politics the manifestos produced by all the parties take on a fresh significance as coded love letters to would-be partners in government.

And after a bit of decoding it concludes:

The seedy game of footsie between the progressive parties will continue right up to, and beyond, May 7th. Yet Labour has been more forward towards its potential partners than many realise. A subtle, but aggressive, pitch to plurality could be all the difference when the votes are in.

Put MPs on zero hours contracts. ‘It’s clearly not a full-time job,’ says Tory mag writer

Putting MPs on zero hours contracts is an idea which has a certain mischievous appeal. That it should come from the Conservative Spectator magazine owned, along with the Daily Telegraph, by the Barclay brothers is a surprise.

Of course, they would not be called “zero hours” which Ian Duncan Smith told Sky News this morning should be rebranded as “flexible hours contracts”. They are good for your “work life balance”, the Work and Pensions secretary is reported as saying by The Independent.

Journalist Ross Clark expands on the idea in the Spectator’s Coffee House blog under the headline. “It’s time to put all our MPs on “flexible hours contracts“.

He explains…

IDS would have a much easier job of convincing the electorate on this had he gone further and recommended that one particular group of workers was switched to the contracts: MPs. I am not trying to belittle the job of being a parliamentarian, nor try to assert that it is on a skill level with shelf-stacking. Scrutinising legislation is a skilled activity which deserves to be paid well. A rate of £100 an hour would be appropriate, I think.

But being an MP is clearly not a full-time job. How could it be when 100 or so of them combine being MPs with ministerial jobs and many others continue to work on outside careers? There is a fairly obvious answer: only to employ MPs when they are required: when there is business to debate in the House of Commons or legislation to scrutinise on one of the committees.

Sounds like a good idea but getting the necessary legislation through the house would be a lot harder than the protracted business of forming a government we are expecting after the election.

But perhaps the bill could be introduced in the House of Lords whose members are already only paid when they turn up. Lords who get a ministerial salary are not allowed to claim the daily attendance allowance according to the Parliament website.

Notes on a quiet election in rural England

Here in Debenham, a village in the heart of Suffolk, it is hard to tell there is an election going on. I have not seen a campaign poster nor has any leaflet from a party or candidate come through my door. Rarely are party political conversations heard in the village.

It is not really surprising, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich is a Conservative hegemony. Dr Dan Poulter, the MP, is sitting on a majority of 13,786. Political activists have presumably been drafted in to marginal constituencies in the eastern region.

Labour needs to win the bellwether seat of Ipswich which Ben Gummer took in 2010, turning a Labour majority of 5,332 into a Conservative victory by 2,099 votes. Shortly before the last election a Daily Telegraph review of his book on the black death suggested his victory would be a loss for literature. He is a personable man, a hard-working constituency MP and a very good writer: I look forward to his next book. (And, yes, he is the son of Lord Deben aka John Gummer.)

Both parties are getting as many activists as they can muster to canvas and leaflet Ipswich.

To the north of Debenham there is a fascinating battle in Norwich South which is one of Green’s key target seats. On the face of it, this is a marginal with a Lib Dem majority over Labour of 310 last time. The Greens were in fourth place with just under 15% of the vote.

But the Greens have a very strong organisation in Norwich: 15 seats on the City Council making it the opposition to the ruling about group which has 21 councillors. So the parliamentary constituency is demanding as many activists as the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens can find.

So it is no surprise that there are few people canvass the electors of Central Suffolk. Voters go to the poll knowing their vote is not going to change the winner, but the result may be an indication of some underlying trends. How the Green candidate does will be interesting.

Last time the result was:

Results 2010

Table from Wikipedia

This year there are six candidates:

  • Jack Abbott (Labour)
  • Mark Cole (UKIP)
  • Rhodri Griffiths (Green Party)
  • Tony Holyoak (English Democrats)
  • Jon Neal (Liberal Democrat)
  • Dr Dan Poulter (Conservative)
DanPoulter

Dan Poulter in open neck shirt.

It would take a major earthquake to unseat Dr Dan Poulter. He is a medical doctor and in his first term has become a health minister. I was disappointed to see him accept the restrictions of being part of the pay roll vote so soon (his predecessor Michael Lord was a deputy speaker and as such did not do politics). Dan Poulter is very active in the constituency and in his newsletters seems to avoid mentioning that he is a minister but concentrates on constituency matters particularly in the health area.

The only complaint I have heard about him comes from Conservative sources: he is reluctant to wear a tie and by having two shirt buttons undone he reveals his hairy chest.

Of the other candidates I know little except what is to be found on the web.

Jack Abbott, lives not far from me in Debenham, and at the age of 23 has become a welcome younger voice on the parish council. If standing in an unwinnable seat is the first step in an ambition for a political career he will be keen to make the best fist of it that he can.

But there is no sign of an army of supporters. I could not even find a biography of him on the local party website. But they do offer “free delivery” if anyone would like a Labour election poster.

The Diss Express does rather better, telling us he “has lived in the local area for over 12 years, attending Debenham High School, and said his interest in politics was triggered while studying at Sheffield University. Nick Clegg was the local MP and backtracked on his pre-election pledge not to vote for higher tuition fees.

And he raises an issue which is hugely important in many rural areas but which I have not heard any of the big guns raising. The paper reported:

Mr Abbott also said there was a “brain drain of young, talented people my age, who go away to university and don’t come back.” Part of that was due to a lack of graduate jobs and poor or expensive housing provision, issues facing everyone, but younger people were under-represented and Mr Abbott hopes to redress the balance.

Rhodri Griffiths, the Green candidate is a former Welsh deputy headmaster who has retired to Suffolk. He looks like a safe pair of hands for his party having previous experience in local government and standing as a parliamentary candidate in Wales.

His aspirations are realistic, saying on the Mid Suffolk Green’s website: “I aim to, at the very least, save my deposit at the general election in May!’

He might do better than that. Green support in the area has been building for several years. They have four councillors on Mid Suffolk District Council and in Debenham their candidate in 2011 pipped Labour by two votes to take second place.

Tony Holyoak is the parliamentary candidate for the English Democrats in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich.” That is all his About page on Facebook says about him. I don’t really want to know more.

Mark Cole, UKIP, runs a driving school in Essex but was brought  up in Suffolk. The UKIP website has a little more information.

Jon Neal, Lib Dem, is a Suffolk lad who returned to county a couple of years ago to work at an agricultural communications agency in Woodbridge. He has stood in the last three elections against David Davies in Haltemprice and Howden so has extensive experience of fighting in safe Tory seats.

He has a degree in British Politics and Legislative Studies according to his website.

Afterword: Since writing the above I have received my first election leaflet; it is for Kathie Guthrie the Conservative seeking re-election to the District Council on the same day as the general election. It was wrapped around Dan Poulter’s newsletter.

Suffolk Local News has no specific”vote for me” message.  Neither is there any mention of his role as a health minister in the main item headed: “Poulter protects our hospitals”. Odd.

Money will not solve health service problems. Morale needs lifting too. That goes for the whole public sector.

A British Medical Association poll of GPs which suggests a third of them are thinking about retirement in the next five years indicates ills which which will not be solved by giving the NHS more money. One in ten said they were considering working abroad.

The BBC report says doctors cited factors which had a negative impact on their commitment to being a GP  including:

  • excessive workload 71%,
  • un-resourced work being moved into general practice 54% and
  • not enough time with their patients 43%.

This suggests to me very bad morale among doctors. And in any workplace poor morale inevitably leads to low productivity. Doctors will claim their productivity is high and demonstrated by the fact they do not have enough time with patients. But it is very difficult to recognise your own low productivity.

Yet if you asked them what changes they wanted there would be a string of suggestions to make their work more efficient.

We are seeing low morale right across the public services, in the health service, education, local and central government and the emergency services. In many areas this is a result of pay freezes and redundancies coupled with feelings of not being valued by central government, local councils and their immediate bosses.

Money alone will not solve the NHS problems, But that is the only solution the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour are suggesting in their election promises.

I would be more impressed by politicians who promised to tackle public service morale, making the jobs ones to be proud of, where employees ideas are listened to. These politicians would rightly insist on monitoring the quality of work but would not centralise everything, recognise that diktats solve little and that box ticking inspections alienate.

David Cameron’s promises on GP access must be adding to concerns of hard-working GPs. Pulse, the general practice magazine, reports:

The Prime Minister said: ‘People want to be able to see their GP at a time that suits them and their family. That is why we will make sure that everyone can see a GP seven days a week by 2020.

‘We will also support thousands more GP practices to stay open longer – giving millions of patients better access to their doctor.’

The magazine continues:

GPs and leading academics have already warned that extending GP access in this way will make general practice more overstretched and could subsequently reduce the continuity of patient care.

A Pulse survey in April revealed that more than half of GPs believe that the Government’s move towards seven-day GP access will negatively affect the safety of patient care.

GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘This announcement fails to grasp the reality of a GP service struggling under extreme strain and without the capacity to meet current demands, resulting in patients already waiting too long to see their GP.

From the middle of Suffolk where I live Cameron’s promise of 12 hours a day access, seven days a week, to a GP looks daft. It would not be an efficient use of doctors. If the promise was to revert to an out-of-hours serve run and staffed by the county’s doctors together with some extra surgery hours to suit people who work away from the village I think there would be a lot more public support.

But we need to listen to what GPs themselves have to suggest about ways to improve the service.

 

Deciphering promises of ‘gold taps’ in election manifestos

This beautiful spring morning with its blue sky and a light breeze, I decided to walk to the news agent to pick up the dead tree version of the newspaper rather than reading the digital edition on the iPad. On the way this blog post was forming in my head: how election manifestos are changing. Which simile would work best? Were they becoming more like a child’s wish list in a letter to Santa, or did they have more in common with a union claim at the start of collective bargaining?

At the shop counter I discovered the idea was less original than I had thought. The Guardian is leading the front page with Clegg denying the Lib Dem manifesto to be launched later today is a bargaining document. The headline is “Clegg: we will not sell out in coalition talks. Exclusive: Lib Dem leader says party will stick to its manifesto promises.”

In an interview, Clegg told the Guardian that five pledges would have “a near religious status”. The idea of a manifesto as the basis for theological debate had not crossed my mind.

The first pledge would mean that education spending would be £5bn higher than the Tories by 2020 and 2.5bn higher than Labour. That looks more like bidding at an auction than a matter for synod.

The paper continues:

The other pledges on the front page of the manifesto will cover spending £8bn more on health and equal status for mental health, increasing the personal tax allowance to £12,500 a year, a balanced current budget by 2017-18 and five green laws including a decarbonisation target for electricity.

The documents produced by the smaller parties have always been wish lists and bargaining points, but now need reading differently. They may be in coalition or offer supply and confidence support or provide ad hoc support to a minority government.

What are the immutable principles? Remember that many principles seem flexible at the prospect of a seat at the cabinet table and a car. What do they really want a lot? What are the sops to factions of their own party? What are designed to broaden appeal to the electorate?

Of the sops, the Conservative pledge of a free vote on repealing the fox hunting ban looks like a pledge to be thrown away. There is no chance that it could do more than waste parliamentary time.

And there must be a suspicion that Cameron would not be too unhappy if he was unable to go ahead with a referendum on EU membership and could blame others for his failure. That web has become even more tangled with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists demanding that any vote to leave should have a majority in each of the four states of the union.

In the Labour manifesto there is a pledge which matches that Tory plan for Trident renewal. A cheaper alternative way of remaining a member of the nuclear club would probably appeal to Miliband who would then have more money for some other long-term plan. What will probably happen is that the issue will be kicked into the long grass with a defence review whoever forms a government.

But reading manifestos in the new multi-party environment requires new skills or, at least, adaptation of old ones. But there are a couple of rules: The first page “executive summary” and the leader’s launch speech set out what they think will give them wider appeal. The real priorities and intent are hidden somewhere in the body of the document but they must deliver on the headline promises.

It rather reminds me of the days when trade union power in collective bargaining was under assault from the government of the day. How, I asked a print union father of the chapel, would he deal with the latest restriction?

“Easy,” he replied, “I would put in a demand for gold taps in the washroom and then get what I really wanted as a compromise.”

 

What if Tory strike ballot plan was applied to general election?

This afternoon I laid down my spade, sat in a garden chair and dozed. My dream was bizarre: The Tory manifesto had proposed major constitutional change making it impossible for anyone to form a government unless he, or she, had the support of MPs who between them had garnered the votes of at least 40 per cent of the United Kingdom electorate.

There must be something wrong. No political party would propose something which would exclude it from office. Fully awake, a few minutes of research and, if my calculation is right Cameron’s coalition commanded about 38% of the popular vote in the 2010.

What is not a dream is that the Conservative party is promising it would insist that 40 percent of eligible members of a trade union would have to vote for a strike before one could be held in the health, education, fire and transport sectors. In other industries at least have the employees would have to take part in the ballot.

The turnout threshold is more reasonable than the draconian plan for the special sectors. Now if that was applied to  government elections we would have neatly avoided having police and crime commissioners.

In their manifesto the Tories say the threshold is a “fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions.”

I fear that it undermines still further the need “a powerful organisation on both sides” which was advocated by Winston Churchill. See my previous post.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said today: “The Conservative plans on industrial action ballots will make it almost impossible for unions to call a legal strike. No other mainstream political party in the democratic world has suggested such a fundamental attack on this basic human right.”

If she is right all balance is lost.

“A serious national evil” that politicians are not addressing

“At no point since the regularisation of employment law in the 1840s has the power imbalance between employer ad worker been so extreme,” Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News wrote in his Guardian column yesterday.

I have been waiting for a politician to make the case for workers in our 21st sweated labour as part of their pitch for election. No hope. The three main English parties scrabble for the middle ground and are afraid to offend “business”.

If you think Mason’s views can be dismissed as radical nonsense, listen to Winston Churchill speaking on the Trade Boards Act of 1909 (Wikipedia).

It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions. It was formerly supposed that the working of the laws of supply and demand would naturally regulate or eliminate that evil. The first clear division which we make on the question to-day is between healthy and unhealthy conditions of bargaining. That is the first broad division which we make in the general statement that the laws of supply and demand will ultimately produce a fair price. Where in the great staple trades in the country you have a powerful organisation on both sides, where you have responsible leaders able to bind their constituents to their decision, where that organisation is conjoint with an automatic scale of wages or arrangements for avoiding a deadlock by means of arbitration, there you have a healthy bargaining which increases the competitive power of the industry, enforces a progressive standard of life and the productive scale, and continually weaves capital and labour more closely together. But where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst; the worker, whose whole livelihood depends upon the industry, is undersold by the worker who only takes the trade up as a second string, his feebleness and ignorance generally renders the worker an easy prey to the tyranny; of the masters and middle-men, only a step higher up the ladder than the worker, and held in the same relentless grip of forces—where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.

Mason, in his column, was telling politicians to get out of their pristine photo-op high vis vests. Keep the vest on, take the tie off and try hailing a cab, he suggests. And while they are about it, go to an ATM and withdraw £48.75, the sum a maid in London earns for cleaning 17 hotel rooms in a day.

It is no wonder that voters are looking for alternatives, Green and UKIP. The alternative vote for the SNP is out of the reach of the English electorate. We see Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems imprisoned in the central corral.

 

Reviving Wordblog

New Life was intended to be about renovating a 1960s bungalow as an eco house and living in it. It has not worked for a variety of reasons. There were too many things to do, too many people I did not wish to offend. In short, I was too close to everything to write as a journalist. And that is the only way I am able to write.

After three months living in Ridgeway, I can say it is a bright, comfortable and warm house. I feel ready to resume blogging.

Wordblog, my original blog about media is being revived but it will have a wider range and incorporate New Life. I will write about whatever I feel like writing about. After several years of retirement I take more of a consumer view but I still feel passionate about journalism so that will feature.

On a lot more topics I have strong views and will say what I think. In my own mind I will be using the experience of living for a bit over 70 years to inform my views; if that makes me sound like a grumpy old man, so be it.

 

In recent weeks I have had time to stand and watch birds in the garden. Gold finches scavenging for food, a green woodpecker extracting worms from the ground, long tailed tits around the bird feeder. I will write about them too. Encouraging wild life is one of my excuses for keeping the garden rather unkempt.

 

Vote to end beer ‘tie’ may help give villages a more sustainable future

Could yesterday’s defeat of the Government in the Commons be a straw in the wind, hinting that MPs are starting to listen to their constituents? Certainly it was a blow for the big business pubcos who have done so much damaged to rural communities. The value of their shares dropped today.

The MPs voted to end the stiff rules that force tenants of pubs owned by the pubcos — getting on for half of Britain’s pubs — to pay much more for their beer than free houses. The BBC report has a table of prices paid by landlords who are “tied” (forced to buy beer from their the pubco rather than on the open market). The worst example is a keg of Fosters which wholesales for £81.49 but is sold by pubcos to their tenants for £150.22.

This is one of the reasons why so many people who hopefully start their own business running a pub end up getting out of the trade. For villages the pub is particularly important. It is not simply a social meeting place but it is often the only restaurant.

Having a pub that serves food is for me a mark of a village which has a sustainable future. We all need a local restaurant for celebrations and when we simply don’t want to cook at home.

Losing the vote on an amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill seems to have come as a surprise to the coalition leaders. Forty one Liberal Democrat and Tory MPs ignored the whip and went into the lobby  with Labour MPs. It was the first defeat in a whipped vote in this parliament.

Maybe MPs are starting to take more notice of what they hear in their constituencies and less of their leaders as the prospect of next general election draws closer. There are probably few MPs, other than those who are retiring, who are not worried about their prospects of re-election: these are strange and turbulent times in politics.

The change in the way pubs are run will not be immediate, even assuming the Government does not try to reverse the decision. A five-year transition is proposed.

 

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