I’ve always liked Totnes

I’ve always liked Totnes. Especially the Tudor Butterwalk, the Babbage room in the museum and walking by the river. I confess however that I’d not noticed the castle until the last time I visited on 2nd January this year – much to the amusement of my wife. My excuse was that as I drive I’d never seen it from the road, and if you’re in the town centre the buildings shield it from view.

So here’s a view of the River Dart, taken on my last visit, by way of welcoming their MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats.

The River Dart at Totnes
The River Dart at Totnes

Random musings from Bracknell

I’ve been a regular visitor to Bracknell for twenty years. It’s the town in Berkshire whose 1960s centre was so unloved that it was recently demolished so that it could be rebuilt in 21st century … splendour. The town’s fascinating subway murals celebrate buildings and employers that are no more.

3M Building - Bracknell Subway Mural
A mural in a Bracknell subway celebrating the 3M building, now demolished.

The drive between Derby and Bracknell gives me plenty of time to chew things over, not necessarily Bracknell related. These were some of the random thoughts that occurred to me during last week’s driving.

Will Dr Phillip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell, join the Liberal Democrats?

I don’t think that he will. But I can see him resigning the whip to sit as an independent MP of one flavour or another. However, my political predictions are usually rubbish, so nothing would surprise me. I’d be certainly be happy if he did join the party though. His pro-business credentials would certainly sit better with us than in the current anti-business Tory party.

What’s the point of the A308(M)?

At 0.6 miles in length, this is the country’s shortest signed motorway. The queue to get off it is sometimes 0.6 miles long too. The A308(M) wasn’t always like this, as Pathetic Motorways explains.

Why do supersized versions of small cars look so ugly?

There are some great small car designs. The original Fiat 500 is beautiful. The current Fiat 500 although larger, still looks cute, especially in yellow. A Pikachu of a car. But the Fiat 500X? My goodness it’s ugly. Lovely to be driven around in certainly, but that’s because you can’t see the outside at the same time. As ugly as a Raichu – the ‘evolved’ version of a Pikachu.

What would the 15 year old me make of the 55 year old me?

I think he’d be happy that I managed to turn my hobby of tinkering with electronics into a 30+ year career in the software industry. After all, writing software and getting paid for doing it is fun. Helping to explain the benefits of software to others, while still being paid, is even more fun.

Which songs make me smile unexpectedly?

This one did. It brought back some pleasant memories of Easter 1980, before the grind of sitting O Levels began.

I’ve voted for Ed – here’s why

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve voted for Ed Davey to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. At the start of the contest, even though undecided, my expectation was that I’d probably vote for Jo Swinson.

After all, Jo has the slightly higher profile of the two candidates. (Though not by much, if a recent YouGov poll is accurate). Regardless of who becomes leader their profile will rise. However, breaking through the noise of our opponents will always remain a challenge.

I scored the Nottingham hustings as a draw, but that felt like a surprise to me. Even Ed’s dreadful “Back in the game!” line, seemingly borrowed from Alan Partridge, wasn’t quite enough to put me off.

After Nottingham, I found myself warming more to Ed. The more I listened to both candidates, the more I believed that Ed had a better plan for building on our recent successes, especially post-Brexit (or post-article 50 revocation).

I also believe that Liberal Democrats are the best people to deliver Liberal Democrat policies. As Jonathan Calder puts it, we sometimes haven’t been tribal enough. Ed seemed clearer on this point than Jo. He still obviously wants to work co-operatively with others to end the Brexit madness and achieve our environmental aims. I think he’s smart enough to persuade the party to follow him into alliances where it makes sense, while remaining distinctive as Liberal Democrats.

It was the mini-hustings at the ALDC Kickstart weekend that finally swung my vote. I know the 250 people present were not representative of the way most people think about politics. We’re probably not even representative of the majority of party members.

But we were a group with a specific interest in local government and grassroots campaigning. Ed had recognised this. Right from his opening remarks, he successfully tailored the way he presented his message to the audience. Jo was much less good at doing the same thing. If I closed my eyes when Jo was talking, I felt I was back at the Nottingham hustings again. I never had that impression when Ed was speaking.

This difference in approach felt important to me, especially when there really isn’t that much to choose between two excellent candidates. To succeed in our ambitions at the next general election, different groups of people are going to have to understand our propositions in ways that make sense – to them.

As I said about the last leadership contest, it’s often not about what you say, but the way in which you say it.

Last Saturday, in the hot and sticky conference room at Yarnfield Park, Ed demonstrated to me that he understood this point best.

Telegraph poles at Yarnfield Park
As my photographs of the Yarnfield Park hustings were all equally blurry and rubbish, here’s a picture of part of the telegraph pole collection at the conference centre instead (The centre used to belong to the GPO and BT). I was relieved that the ALDC Kickstart training didn’t involve climbing these for an hour before breakfast …

On reflection perhaps unicornism is dying in the Tory party

Reflecting on yesterday evening’s post, perhaps the more interesting story is that around 30% of Tory members are prepared to stop Brexit if they thought it would damage the country. It’s only one data point, but I wonder which way the trend is heading? Maybe Brexit unicornism is starting to die in the Tory party.

Brexit unicorns. Every bit as likely as an electric Caterham 7. But less real.
The Tories may be prepared to sacrifice their Brexit unicorns after all.

Although all the remaining candidates still say that Brexit is a given, that block of 30% must be giving them pause for thought. And, perhaps, a potential way out after all for a smart Tory PM.

If I can’t have a unicorn, no one can

Meanwhile, over in another political leadership contest, their unicorn-loving electorate are happy to destroy the UK and our economy. I don’t remember seeing that on the side of a bus in June 2016.

The simple conclusion is that the membership of the self-styled Conservative and Unionist Party is:

  • No longer unionist
  • No longer cares about wasting your money
  • Happy to die on the altar of Brexit

… but prefers to inflict such chaos on the country themselves, rather than let Jeremy Corbyn do it for them. What patriots they are.

Fortunately, Jo Swinson has found a rational order to do these things in for whoever their future leader is Boris Johnson. (Spoiler – only one of them needs to happen).

Ed vs Jo at the East Midlands hustings – a score draw

Last night I braved the stormy weather to attend the Liberal Democrats leadership hustings in Nottingham. I started the evening without a strong preference for either candidate and came away in the same frame of mind. It’s an unoriginal thought in Lib Dem circles, but I believe that either candidate will lead the party well. Even so, Ed and Jo impressed me during the event. So my judgement is that the evening was a high scoring draw, even if (to mix sporting metaphors) many of the questions asked were gentle lobs.

Ed vs Jo hustings leaflets

The hustings was more upbeat than the one in 2015 I’d attended. This was undoubtedly due to the much higher attendance and recent electoral successes. It seems like we’re no longer fighting for mere survival, but trying to figure out how to grow sustainably. The presence of Steve Bray also added some welcome colour to an otherwise nondescript university venue.

Ed’s strongest when he highlights the importance of simple, repeated messaging as a way of reaching the electorate. He argues that we need to keep forming policies based on evidence and our principles, even if they seem unpopular. Ed cites the examples of the “Stop Brexit” messaging of recent months and party history, including our opposition to the Iraq war and arguing in the 90s/00s for a penny on income tax to support education.

He’s rightly proud of his green credentials, making the excellent point that environmental policies need to be sold on their benefits rather than a “hair shirt” approach. I’d love to see the party develop the “your house as a power station” concept more, regardless of who wins this contest.

Ed’s most passionate while making his final statement, noting we really could be choosing a future prime minister. He doesn’t tell us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government, but he’s not far off. “Stop Brexit, heal the country. Let’s win”.

Jo is at her best when she states that rebuilding trust with the electorate and communicating are the same. She says that authenticity is important and making emotional connections with policy is essential. Winning is not solely about having rational policies and catchy slogans. Actions are important too. She says that others (including MPs, hopefully!) are definitely looking at how we treat new people joining the party, like Chuka Umunna.

Jo puts the biggest smile of the evening on my face when she talks about the importance of lifelong learning (without actually using the phrase). She sees reskilling as being one way of ensuring de-industrialised areas aren’t left behind economically, as happened in the past. I get the impression that the future of work and spreading opportunity outside London and the South East is something she’s put considerable thought into. I’d love to see more detail on this in due course. She’s passionate when condemning the lack of attention given to this topic by the current government.

Her closing message is that she will be a leader who can cut through by working across generations, across the country and across party lines.

Ed and Jo in thouhtful mood as questions are taken from the audience
Jo and Ed in thoughtful mood as questions are taken from the audience.

There were no questions asked about electoral reform, and neither candidate introduced it into their answers. This was slightly disappointing, as I suspect electoral fairness will soon become a hotter topic than ever before. If we cede Liberal and Social Democratic leadership in this area the public will not forgive us. Fair votes are essential to a properly functioning democratic society.

As I said at the start, I remain undecided as to how I’m going to vote. I’ve signed up for the online hustings tomorrow evening, so maybe that will help me to decide. It feels like a really important decision and it’s one that I don’t intend to duck.

Is it too early to write off Change UK?

It has been a humbling couple of weeks for Change UK. No seats won in the Euro elections after allegedly boasting that they were going to replace the Liberal Democrats. With Westminster polls now showing them at 1%, it may be tempting to write them off. That’s probably premature, but they have a huge mountain to climb to establish relevance.

However, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership elections underway and the Nigel Farage party hogging the headlines, there’s a chance for Change UK to use this time out of the media spotlight to regroup. They may wish to borrow a copy of SDP – The first five years to help them. The first five years was published in 1986 and is optimistic in tone, predating the agonies of the 1988 merger with the Liberals. Reading it again, there would seem to be a couple of things Change UK can fix – and one they can’t.

SDP - The First Five Years

One thing Change UK can’t fix (at least, not quickly) is putting together a broad-based policy platform that their current MPs can agree to. Probably the best article in The first five years book is by Bill Rodgers. In it, he traces the roots of the SDP back to Gaitskell’s loss in the October 1959 general election. Right from the outset the SDP had a clear political philosophy underpinning the party and the policies it developed. It was fairly obvious what kind of party the SDP was going to be from day one.

Outside of opposing Brexit, it’s difficult to understand what Change UK is trying to achieve. But as Nigel Farage demonstrates, being politically opaque doesn’t seem to matter too much at the moment. Provided, that is, you can motivate a reasonable portion of the electorate to vote for you. Unfortunately for Change UK, the Liberal Democrats (and The Green Party) have been far better at motivating voters in recent weeks.

More positively, the first thing Change UK could learn from the launch of the SDP is to actively court other political parties. From The first five years: “After the launch of the new party the overriding political imperative … was to come to some sort of accord with the Liberals”. The SDP was formally launched as a political party on March 26th 1981. By June 16th a joint statement of principles had been agreed with the Liberals. A Fresh Start for Britain addressed topics including proportional representation, incomes policy, the EEC and multilateral disarmament. In October, Bill Pitt became the first parliamentary candidate to win a seat on a Liberal/SDP Alliance ticket.

Should the Liberal Democrats be open to forming some kind of electoral pact with Change UK? Before the Euro elections I would have said definitely yes. Now – I’m not so sure. I’d currently support an arrangement not to stand candidates against their MPs in a general election, but nothing beyond that. Unlike the SDP, Change UK has been too slow to court and too aggressive towards its potential friends. That could change of course and I hope that it will do. But some serious bridge-building and fence-mending is required on all sides. However, some of their MPs and supporters are clearly Liberals and/or Social Democrats. I’d welcome them in a heartbeat to our party.

The importance of being capable of fighting local elections is a second lesson Change UK should learn from the SDP. At the local elections in 1982 the SDP fielded 2,300 candidates. While only around a hundred of these were elected, their average vote share was 27%. It helped to establish the SDP outside of the Westminster bubble. Adopting Liberal savvy in running local campaigns brought success for the Alliance, and enabled the SDP to attract and retain members during the seven years it existed. If Change UK is to establish itself outside of Westminster, then I’d expect to see it fighting many council by-elections sooner rather than later.

One other joy of re-reading The first five years are the stories included from party activists. This story comes from a certain Christopher Huhne, then the SDP’s PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon.

What are the SDP's policies poster - GE 1983

Silly and sensible is the new left and right in British politics

I’m sure there’s going to be loads of erudite analysis pieces written about the results of the European Parliament elections. This isn’t one of them. However, listening to the results come in last night, I was reminded of the Monty Python Election Night Special sketch. Here’s part of it.

Palin: And this one is from Harpenden Southeast. A very interesting constituency this. In addition to the official Silly candidate there is an unofficial Very Silly candidate, in the slab of concrete, and he could well split the Silly vote here at Harpenden Southeast.

Jones: Mrs Elsie Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Cleese: Silly

Jones: 26,317 (applause). Jeanette Walker…

Cleese: Sensible

Jones: 26,318…

Cleese: Very close!

Jones: Malcolm Peter Brian Telescope Adrian Blackpool Rock Stoatgobbler John Raw Vegetable Brrroooo Norman Michael (rings bell) (blows whistle) Edward (sounds car horn) (does train impersonation) (sounds buzzer) Thomas Moo… (sings) ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the…’ (fires gun) William (makes silly noise) ‘Raindrops keep falling on my’ (weird noise) ‘Don’t sleep in the subway’ (cuckoo cuckoo) Naaoooo… Smith.

Cleese: Very Silly

Jones: …two.

Cleese: Well there you have it, a Sensible gain at Harpenden with the Silly vote being split.

The new left and right in British politics appears to be silly and sensible parties. Insanity is represented by UKIP and Nigel Farage Ltd. Sanity is obviously represented by the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and a small party whose name I’ve forgotten.

I trust that this analysis provides a convincing explanation of why the Conservative and Labour parties fared so badly. You simply can’t put together an appealing political platform while claiming to be sensible and silly at the same time. The electorate clearly respects obviously sane and insane politicians. But politicians who claim to be both at the same time? That’s just mad.

East Midlands Lib Dem, Conservative and Labour leaflets from the 2019 EU elections
Labour and Conservatives – simply not sensible or silly enough for the electorate. Liberal Democrats – very sensible.

In other news, I’m fervently hoping that my 100% wrong Old Timmy’s Almanac prediction record is maintained this afternoon at Wembley.

Come on you Rams!

Update 5.23pm. Rats. But there’s always 2019/20 …

Say Bollocks to Cancer and Bollocks to Brexit

Join me, my family and friends and say Bollocks to Cancer.

Also please use your vote tomorrow to say Bollocks to Brexit.

Vote Liberal Democrat to say Bollocks to Brexit

The two requests are connected. The development of novel cancer therapies relies on close European and international co-operation. The vacuum left by a mad no-deal Brexit that Farage, half the Tory cabinet and their elitist chums want will kill the sick.

So vote for a genuinely pro-remain party. I recommend supporting the Liberal Democrats as they have the best chance of frustrating the Brexiters, but whatever. Just vote. Defeat the unpatriotic nationalist elites. And tell your family, friends and neighbours to do the same.

This is no time for our great country to become the twenty-first century equivalent of the GDR, isolated and poorer in an increasingly dangerous world.