Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rewriting the LibDem case

The other day, I laid into how the LibDems were planning to present their messages for the forthcoming general election. I think there are some decent ideas and principles that have gone into crafting the LibDems' policies, but their new campaign slogan, logo and "Four steps to a fairer Britain" just don't do anything for me. (Of course their presentation might do wonders for everyone else; who knows?)

So I thought I'd have a go at re-crafting the messages, using their website as a source. Inevitably the way I've crafted this represents what I see as strongest in their case. I might try the same with Labour and Conservatives too. We'll see.

LibDem Steps Revisited

What are the key problems facing the country?
  1. the economy
  2. the threat from climate change
  3. social problems
  4. bad bureaucracy stifles schools, hospitals, the police and post offices

1. What are the problems with the economy?

People are struggling with spiralling debts, food prices and energy bills. The country is in debt, growth is stalling, inflation is rising, and jobs are at risk.

What are you going to do about the economy?
The LibDem plan is to cut wasteful government spending such as ID cards and bloated IT projects. We will get the banks lending sensibly, close unfair tax loopholes, and make polluters pay. And we will give the economy a boost by cutting taxes: no-one will pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn.

2. What is the threat from climate change?

Science is telling us that unless politicians act firmly now, the planet is going to become a much more unpleasant place to live. Severe storms and flooding will become much more common. Food and water will become much more expensive. And human health will suffer. Many politicians pay lip service to the need for action. Others stick their heads in the sand. We need to act now to avoid costly climate change.

What are you going to do about climate change?

The LibDems have ideas to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. For example, we plan to upgrade disused shipyards to make offshore wind turbines, creating 57,000 jobs. Only a green road to prosperity can safeguard our future. The LibDems will also work with the EU and others to make sure action is coordinated and doesn't disadvantage Britain.

3. What social problems need to be tackled?

Four million children are living in poverty. One in five young people are out of work. Millions of pensioners struggle in the winter to keep warm. There are more laws than ever before, but the fear of crime remains. Levels of inequality are worse than under the Tories. This is a disgrace, and is storing up social problems for us all.

What are you going to do about these social problems?

The LibDems will give a fair start for all our children, by giving schools £2,500 extra for each pupil from a low income family. We will create paid internships to give young people a start on a career ladder. We will cut the costs of pursuing further and higher education. And we will make it easier for pensioners to get the help they need.

4. How is bad bureaucracy stifling schools, hospitals, the police and post offices?

A lot of money has been invested in health and education in recent years but too much of that has been wasted on central bureaucracy. Doctors and nurses are forced to spend time trying to meet government targets rather than caring for patients. Government ministers tinker with how schools are run rather than solving the problem of why so many children are leaving school without the knowledge and skills to be successful. The police are forced to spend too much time form-filling. Vital post offices are closed without communities having a say.

What are you going to do about bad bureaucracy?
The challenge is getting better public services with less money. As liberals, we want to free public services from Whitehall's dead hand. Let local people have a say in how the NHS is run and stop hospital closures. Let communities decide on post offices and police priorities. Put power back in the hands of the people.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unitary Exeter: The Statement to the House of Commons

A few words on the statement made by the Government to the House of Commons on the Unitary Exeter decision.

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, Rosie Winterton, explained that the Secretary of State, John Denham, had passed the decision on unitary proposals for Devon to her, because of his family connections with Devon.

Each proposal was assessed using the five declared criteria:
  • affordability
  • broad cross-section of support
  • strategic leadership
  • neighbourhood empowerment
  • value for money and equity in services.
In relation to the Unitary Devon proposal, the Boundary Committee's view had been that the proposal would be likely to meet all the criteria. Rosie Winterton disagreed with this view. She judged that there would not be a reasonable likelihood of this proposal achieving a broad cross-section of support or neighbourhood engagement. And indeed, when I read the Boundary Committee report in December, I came to exactly the same conclusion, while noting the narrow way in which the Boundary Committee had interpreted these criteria. However it would have been helpful for Winterton to be explicit about why exactly she disagreed with the Boundary Committee on these criteria.

In relation to the Unitary Exeter proposal, the Boundary Committee's view had been that the proposal would meet all the criteria apart from the "broad cross-section of support" criterion. Winterton disagreed with this view. Instead, she judged that the Unitary Exeter proposal would meet all the criteria apart from the "affordability" criterion. In that earlier post I pointed out that the Boundary Committee glossed over the fundamental problem that support in Exeter and support in the rest of Devon are very different things; and I am happy with Winterton's conclusion in relation to the support criterion. However, again, it would have been helpful for Winterton to say exactly why she disagreed with the Boundary Committee on this criterion. Moreover, not being an economist I was unable to assess the quality of the Boundary Committee's methodology and data in passing the Unitary Exeter proposal on affordability. So it would be valuable to know on what basis Winterton disagreed with this assessment.

Winterton was clear however about why she considered there to be compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that unitary proposals which do not meet all five criteria are not to be implemented:
"First, the Government's priorities today are, above all, for jobs and economic growth. Local government has an essential role to play in delivering these economic priorities, and this role is of a significance that could not be contemplated in 2006 when the criteria were developed. We believe, as has been made clear to us by the representations we have received, that a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich would each be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic outcomes both for the city and more widely than the status quo two-tier local government.

Secondly, with today's approach to developing public service delivery, as envisaged by our Command Paper-"Putting the Frontline First"-announced by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 7 December 2009, Official Report, column 1WS, including the Total Place approach, a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services. Through innovative shared services and partnership arrangements the public services for the cities will be able to be tailored to the needs of the urban area while still being able to achieve the economies of scale that are possible under the countywide delivery of such services as adult social care and children's services."
This does indeed sound compelling, and expands on the explanation that John Denham gave to his Permanent Secretary, Peter Housden, for the ministers' approach to the decision. I accept that ministers have taken the decisions that they believe are "in the best interests of the people for the areas concerned."

However, what is being offered in Winterton's Written Statement is essentially an argument that could have been offered years ago without any of the intervening data collection, analysis, review, consultation lobbying, PR campaigns and legal processes. It is reasonable for an elected representative to make the judgment call that is required, but they need good evidence to help them; and the Boundary Committee simply did not provide that evidence. It is not at all clear from the review process whether there is in fact "genuine local appetite for unitary government in the cities of Exeter and Norwich". It is not at all clear whether the proposed local government structures "provide a robust framework for the future prosperity of those cities and surrounding county areas"; or that they "open the way to better and more efficient public services". These are noble aspirations, but we don't have sufficient evidence.

My view then is that the ministers have made the best of a bad decision-making process.

Future reviews

Given all the review effort of the last few years then, why don't we have the evidence we need? I've outlined some of the key flaws of the process in my December post. In essence, I believe the Boundary Committee didn't come up with the goods because of their brief, their lack of resources, and their interpretation of the criteria.

In my view, the local government review was flawed from the start. Instead, it should have been set up to:
  1. Have local democracy as its primary focus.
  2. Systematically compare the different models, including the status quo.
  3. Examine cost-effectiveness robustly, using data from a variety of councils.
  4. Conduct proper surveys to tease out local opinion.
  5. Be transparent in the selection or election of members of the Boundary Committee.
  6. Publish detailed reasons for ministerial decisions.
  7. Allow sufficient time before a General Election to allow proper scrutiny by a Select Committee and for parliamentary debate.
  8. Require a local referendum before the change is implemented.
The consequence of failing to follow any of these principles is that there is now antagonism between councils, substantial opposition from regional MPs, and an election promise from the Opposition to undo the changes if elected.

Nevertheless, at least the flawed process has not resulted in the complete loss of Exeter's City Council, an outcome that was looking rather probable in December. And for that I thank Rosie Winterton.

The Housden Affair

As noted in a previous post, Iain Dale has published a leaked exchange of letters between Peter Housden (the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government) and John Denham (the Secretary of State). These letters are being cited as evidence in Devon County Council's legal challenge against the decision to grant Exeter unitary status.

I would like to comment briefly on the letter sent by Peter Housden to John Denham, taken as evidence by Iain Dale that the relationship between the two has broken down, and taken as evidence by Devon County Council that the Exeter Unitary decision was about protecting Ben Bradshaw's seat in Parliament. Iain Dale has also published John Denham's reply and an explanation of what a "Ministerial Direction" is.

My personal view is that Peter Housden was behaving quite properly in his role as Accounting Officer for the department. However I feel the arguments he used in his letter could be criticised on two points: Firstly he used the fact that the financial benefits of resurgent Exeter & Norwich economies are not easily estimated as an argument against the city unitary options. Given the huge range of variables in relation to estimating such benefits, and the highly disputed basis for the attempts as costings already made, a judgment call is ultimately required. So such an argument is very weak.

Secondly, by prioritising value for money above all other considerations, Housden fails to consider the other criteria on which such a decision needs to be made, in particular (in my view) the democratic aspect. To take this point to its logical conclusion, it would be superficially cheaper to sweep away all democracy in the country. Even if it were conceded (which I do not) that an open society does not reduce the risks of financially disastrous mistakes in comparison with a dictatorship, the removal of democracy would of course be undesirable on other grounds.

However Peter Housden is not stupid and will be aware of these limitations in his arguments. And given the negative career repercussions that flow from writing such a letter requesting a formal ministerial instruction, I'm sure there is a more complicated back-story here to come out about Housden's discomfort with the decision-making process in this case.

Who gains from the leak? It's not clear to me that either of the correspondents gain. Comments at Iain Dale's blog suggest that a written Ministerial Direction makes ministers look bad because it suggests they are overriding not just impartial civil service advice but some element of propriety that transcends partiality. And at the same time, a Ministerial Direction makes senior civil servants look bad because it suggests they have lost influence over their ministers.

Given that the leak gives ammunition to those who oppose the Government's decision, my guess is that the source is a Conservative-leaning civil servant who feels he or she can embarrass the Government in the run-up to the General Election. However, it's a big risk. Unauthorised leaking can be a career-ending step. And however grateful the Opposition is for such leaks at the time, when in government they don't want untrustworthy civil servants anymore than the current ministers. So this is why I doubt the reason for the leak is simply about a personal attachment to current local government arrangements in Devon and Norfolk. More likely, I think, is that it's a matter of principle: he or she perceives the unitary decision as being about either gerrymandering a Labour enclave in the heart of Tory Devon or saving Ben Bradshaw.

Whatever, I'd rather more of the government's decision-making was in the open. And it shouldn't require someone to risk their career to bring to light the reasoning behind public decisions.

Exeter unitary repercussions

Some predictable repercussions from the decision to grant Exeter unitary status...
  • There has been a predictable bitter battle of the press releases between Devon County Council ("Exeter Unitary plan branded as 'costly madness'") and Exeter City Council ("Devon County Council Peddling Lies"). Devon County Council claims council tax will rise by £200 in Exeter; Exeter City Council says this is a blatant lie.
  • As expected, Devon County Council has launched a judicial review of the decision, claiming a "cast-iron case of malpractice". The exchange of letters between Peter Housden (the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government) and John Denham (the Secretary of State) is being cited as evidence.
  • It is my guess that Peter Housden's objections to the basis on which the Exeter & Norwich unitary decisions were being taken were the reason that the decisions were not publicly announced by Gordon Brown when the Cabinet met in Exeter earlier in the month. The timings indicated by the letters lend support to this.
  • The leaking of these letters to Iain Dale (see also his post here) is a surprising and serious matter. While it's great for the public that they are in the public domain, the leak was clearly a breach of regulations if not trust. The letters were clearly leaked in order to further someone's agenda, and it is odd there hasn't so far been an official statement condemning the leak and promising an internal inquiry.
  • Exeter City Council and Ben Bradshaw attacked the legal action as a waste of taxpayers money.
  • Shadow local government minister Bob Neill has said "This unitary restructuring is expensive, divisive and fundamentally undemocratic. It will do nothing to improve local services, but merely distract councils as they rearrange the deckchairs of local government. The Government's reckless and mad dash plans contradict the Boundary Commission advice. This is yet another example of Labour fiddling with the constitution just to create dividing lines. Gordon Brown is pursuing the politics of division, setting city verses county, for petty partisan advantage."
  • Meanwhile, the House of Lords is investigating the unitary decision. This is interesting given the behind-the-scenes lobbying of the House of Lords that Devon County Council has been undertaking since the decision. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the unitary decision, for an unelected bunch of peers to have the whip hand over a question of local democracy would be bizarre.
  • Devon County Council has told its employees not to staff talk with Exeter City Council colleagues about transition arrangements without approval. Meanwhile a motion of non-cooperation over the transition will be voted on tomorrow (18 February) by Devon County Council. Lack of cooperation between councils would indeed lead to greater costs, so perhaps Devon County Council is hoping to make its prophecy come true?
  • The statutory instrument that will be voted on by the House Commons (subject to legal challenge and the timing of the general election) has been published in draft. Item 3.1 reads "On 1st April 2011 Exeter shall cease to form part of the county of Devon". The 2010 Exeter City Council elections have been cancelled, and the terms of office for current councillors will continue until local government election day . An "Implementation Executive" is proposed to manage the transition, with 11 representatives of Exeter City Council and 4 representatives of Devon County Council. Each of the four major parties in Exeter (Conservatives, Labour, LibDem and Liberal) are to be represented on this Executive.
  • UDPATE 18 Feb: Here's the news that the legal bid against the unitary decision is a joint one with Norfolk County Council.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blah blah blah fairness blah blah blah change

The Liberal Democrats are starting to publicise their election campaign material.

There is a slogan:
"change that works for you: BUILDING A FAIRER BRITAIN"
a logo....... and "four steps" to a fairer Britain:
  • Fair taxes: We will ensure no-one pays income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. 3.6m low-income workers and pensioners will be freed from paying income tax and millions more will have a tax cut of £700 a year. We’ll pay for it by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the rich, a new tax on mansions worth over £2m, and ensuring polluters pay for the damage they cause.
  • A fair start for all our children: We will get every child the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes. We will spend an extra £2.5bn on schools, targeted at children who need the most help. The average primary school could cut class sizes to 20. An average secondary school could see classes of just 16.
  • A fair future: We will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs with a £3.5bn green stimulus and job creation plan in our first year in government, fully funded by cut backs elsewhere. We will break up the banks and rebalance the economy away from unsustainable financial speculation. And we will be honest about where savings must be made in government spending to balance the books and protect our children’s future.
  • A fair deal from politicians: We will introduce a fair voting system to end safe seats and make all MPs listen to people. We will ensure corrupt MPs can be sacked by their constituents and stop non-doms from donating to parties or sitting in Parliament. We will take power from Westminster and give it to councils and communities, with local power over police and the NHS.
I realize that the party's policies will be presented more effectively over the next few months, but I'm strongly of the view that everything needs to be much punchier!
There are serious problems to be solved and we're the ones to do it
... is getting lost.

The Slogan

So, first of all, that slogan. Trendy lower-case "change that works for you" that has the feel of a 1970s washing powder commercial, with the bold "for you" being a particularly naff touch. The antecedents of this phrase in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election campaign don't help: Nick Clegg doesn't have the charisma of Obama to pull off this slogan in a speech, and American slogans have a habit of not translating well to a British context.

And then the SHOUTY UPPER-CASE BUT IT'S OK BECAUSE WE'RE USING A SMALLER FONT AND ITS IN A CURVE "BUILDING A FAIRER BRITAIN". As if Labour and Conservatives wouldn't lay claim to building a fairer Britain too. Indeed "Building a fairer Britain" was the subtitle of a book by the IPPR a few years ago, and was the theme of Gordon Brown's Commons statement in 2008 on the Labour Government's draft legislative programme. George Osborne, meanwhile, set out the Conservative Party's vision of fairness in a speech to Demos in the same year. Fairness is a disputed term.
So what really differentiates "change that works for you" and "building a fairer Britain" from what the other parties are proposing? This anodyne slogan doesn't sell anything.

The Logo
It's been pointed out that the logo doesn't indicate the name of the party... Hmm... Almost as serious is that the logo links the LibDems stylish bird of freedom with the naff slogan and a naff swirl.

The colour of the bird and the colour of the swirl don't look quite the same to me, but then my eyes are poor and candlelight isn't the best for distinguishing yellowy-orange shades.

The Four Steps

Now here's where things get really bad. I actually think there are some decent ideas and principles that have gone into crafting the LibDem's policies. But these four steps don't do anything for me.

Firstly, how do these four steps set a distinctive agenda? As noted above, why would Conservatives and Labour folk not also lay claim to wanting fairness? Indeed David Cameron said in December "Let's be honest that whether you're Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you're motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about - and indeed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be."

Secondly, the details of each step allow the problems (e.g. "loopholes that unfairly benefit the rich", "unsustainable financial speculation", "corrupt MPs") to get swallowed up in the proposals. And some problems (e.g. climate change, the economic crisis, over-centralisation) don't get explicit name-checks at all. To get people to vote for you, you first need to persuade them that you understand the problems the same way you do. This style of presentation doesn't do that.

For you to engage with the idea of fair taxes, you first need to accept that taxes are somehow unfair at the moment. For you to understand what "rebalancing the economy" might mean, you need to understand how the economy might currently be unbalanced. The presentation of the Pupil Premium (the "Fair start for all our children") does not distinguish it, as it so easily can be, from the Labour sales-pitch of boasting about billions here and billions there. And just using the word "green" a couple of times really doesn't sell the LibDem's fantastic unique selling points in relation to the environment and climate change.

Of course this is rather unfair of me: there will be manifestos, websites and leaflets with the space to set out that kind of case in due course. But my feeling it that the campaign agenda needs to be set now, and it should be framed by the key challenges facing the country, not a set of anodyne slogans.

Thirdly, and this may just be me, but I'd do away with "A fair deal from politicians" as a campaign point. As I've suggested before, I don't believe there's any point campaigning for reform of politics. This is, somewhat perversely, despite the fact that reform is needed, and that proposals for reform need to be discussed. But these are not ultimately issues that will determine votes. I suggested that typical voters see these issues as secondary to their real concerns.

Easy to carp from the sidelines

I follow politics keenly, so my perceptions of what works as a way to persuade people who are not so keen are probably entirely unreliable. There are far more variables at work here - historical baggage, people's knowledge of the different parties, media reactions, finessing difficult arguments, what issues the electorate actually care about... So it doesn't work for me, but it might well turn out to be a brilliant campaign message.

And it almost goes without saying, but I should say it: it's easy to criticise; much harder to come up with something better. And without something better this blog post is just hot air.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More reactions to Exeter unitary decision

Following on from this earlier post...

Devon MPs and PPCs
  • Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, has condemned the decision as a "political fix".
  • Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, has said: "It will be a disaster for Exeter and for the rest of Devon, ripping the heart out of the beating body."
  • Dr Jon Underwood, parliamentary spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton has said "I've been assured that MPs and Lords from our party will do what they can to stop this scandalous piece of electioneering from being implemented. It isn't too late to stop the further loss of services and increased council tax."
  • I've not yet seen comments from Conservative MPs Anthony Steen (Totnes) and Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) but they are known to be against the Exeter unitary option.
  • I've not yet seen comments from Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, but in a letter to the Boundary Committee in 2008 she endorsed the unitary Exeter model that was announced yesterday.
  • I've not yet seen comments from the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, Adrian Sanders. Based on Torbay's experience of being a small unitary authority, he proposed in 2008 a three-unitary model for Devon.
Exeter City Council
  • The leader of the Conservative group on Exeter City Council, Yolonda Henson, has said: "I am delighted but I feel, three months to a general election, the timing of this has been done to save Ben Bradshaw. It has been done in undue haste."
  • The leader of the Liberal group, Joan Morrish, has said: "This is a great victory for local democracy and commonsense. This is evidence of what happens when all the parties on the city council work together with one aim. We have lots of challenges ahead and need to keep the same idea for what is best for Exeter, but this is wonderful news."
  • Pete Edwards, leader of Exeter's Labour group, and chair of the unitary changeover committee, has said the county council does not need to move out of county hall just because they are in a place they don't represent any more.
  • In the Commons yesterday, Caroline Spelman, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, described the restructuring as "expensive and undemocratic" and called for a debate in Parliament.
  • Martyn Oates, the BBC's South West political editor has some useful FAQs.

Exeter Council saved!

Yesterday afternoon was spent engaging in some excited Tweeting at the announcement that Exeter unitary council has been given the go ahead by the Government (BBC News report).

The current round of discussions about the reorganisation of local government in Devon has been going on for five years. And this isn't the end: there first needs to be a vote in Parliament; Devon County Council is apparently fighting for a judicial review; and the Conservatives have promised to revoke the decision if they form the next government later this year.

However, the status quo would, I think, be not an unreasonable outcome. The key thing as far as I am concerned is that the option of a Devon unitary council is no longer part of the agenda. This option would have resulted in the abolition of Exeter's council altogether. I argued against this as the worst option from a democratic standpoint.

So I send my heartfelt thanks to all the Exeter councillors and other individuals who have fought the abolition of our city council over the last five years.

This hasn't been a party political issue - Exeter City Council has been almost unanimous in its opposition to abolition; Devon County Council has been almost unanimous in favour of abolition; with a variety of views from members of district councils. This has led to some interesting tensions within parties. And these will continue.

For example, there are tricky questions for Exeter Conservative PPC Hannah Foster: will she demur from her party's policy to revoke the decision? If not, she will look as though she is failing to stand up for Exeter. If she does, she will lose her reputation as a standard-bearer for David Cameron. I've not seen a comment from her yet. I suspect she will come up with a formulation along the lines of "It is right not to make such a big change in the current economic climate. Who knows what might be possible in a few years time?"

The LibDem Leader of Exeter City Council Adrian Fullam is delighted with the decision. Nick Harvey, LibDem MP for North Devon, condemned it.

In other reactions, Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, puts a strongly robust view against the decision, and calls for a full inquiry into the process. The Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, puts the counter view. The Labour blogger Ust Oldfield is scathing about the response of the Conservative leader of Devon County Council. The leader of Teignbridge District Council says the whole process has been a waste of money.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Chronicle reports concerns of the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities & Local Government, Peter Housden. Housden wrote to the Secretary of State, pointing out that the decision departed from criteria previously published by ministers on how unitary bids would be assessed and that "I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as accounting officer”.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Exeter constituency - some complications

In my previous post, I quoted the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster, who has said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't." And indeed, a swing of 7% from Labour to Conservative would do that: the size of swing that the Conservatives need for a majority.

However there are quite a few complications I didn't consider:

1. Boundary changes
The Topsham and St Loyes wards have been moved to the East Devon constituency for the 2010 general election. Analysts who study such changes suggest that this change disadvantages the Conservatives. Labour's actual majority in 2005 was 14%. Based on the new boundaries UK Polling Report estimates a notional 2005 majority of 19% (9200 votes). Electoral Calculus estimates a notional 2005 majority of 17%.

2. Campaign money

The Conservatives have much more money to spend. Nationally this is well known, and locally this is confirmed by the glossy mini-magazine produced to promote Hannah Foster.

3. Decapitation strategy

There is some evidence that the Conservatives have a plan to target potentially vulnerable Cabinet Ministers, and Ben Bradshaw is often mentioned in such lists. This strategy might or might not succeed, but it does mean more resource and national attention is given to the seat than otherwise might be the case.

4. MPs' expenses

Rather than the usual advantage from incumbency (and a Cabinet post), the mood of the country might well be against incumbents, because of the scandal of MPs' expenses. In principle it should just be the people who were seen to be abusing the expenses system who are punished by the electorate. In practice, those who are punished might well also include those who voted for such a system, or indeed - more indiscriminately - all sitting MPs, even those who campaigned against the flawed system and predicted such abuses. Even more likely, many people will imagine that "They're all as bad as each other" and that somehow not voting acts as some kind of a protest.

5. Toilets

OK not toilets especially, but unanticipated local issues. Recently, for example, Exeter City Council were forced by budget constraints to propose closing 10 of the 26 public toilets in the city. A concerted campaign by the city's newspaper The Express & Echo resulted in this proposal being abandoned in favour of other cost-cutting measures.

Perhaps this particular episode will be mostly forgotten by election time, but some voters will continue to harbour resentments about it; some will forget the issue but be left with a vague sense of not being happy about the running of the council; and some will associate the parliamentary candidates with their respective parties' role in the episode. Similarly with a myriad of other episodes. In this particular case, the reason for the cuts was that the previously healthy council budget was damaged (on top of the recession and Icelandic bank difficulties) by the Government's imposition of a vastly underfunded bus travel scheme. Yet, in this case, it is "the council" that gets the blame for the cuts rather than the Government. It does not always go like this.

Nevertheless, with a LibDem City Council, a Conservative County Council, and a Labour Government, there will likely to be plenty of scope for a blame game.

6. Unitary

A decision is expected in the next few days on the review of local government in Devon. My sources tell me that a Unitary Exeter will be the outcome. This outcome - or a decision to stick with the status quo - would I suspect have little effect on the election. And it is likely that a Conservative government would reverse any substantive changes, in any case. However, a Unitary Devon outcome would be disastrous for Ben Bradshaw's re-election chances, because Exeter would lose its council. This would be a major blow to civic pride, and local accountability, and the benefits of Exeter having a Cabinet Minister as its MP would be seen to have been non-existent.

7. Homophobia

The 1997 Exeter election was infamous for a repugnant homophobic campaign against Ben Bradshaw. 13 years later, the country is more comfortable about sexuality, and the fact that Ben Bradshaw is the first cabinet minister to be in a civil partnership scarcely causes a ripple. On the one hand this suggests there are fewer bigots around in 2010 who will vote against a gay man on principle. On the other hand, of course, those who in previous elections might have voted for Ben Bradshaw primarily in order to counter homophobia, and who might feel in 2010 that there are other issues (the Labour government's record, for example) that weigh heavier with them this time around.

8. Media attention

I've already mentioned how Ben Bradshaw's status as a Cabinet Minister might render more media attention for the Exeter campaign than one might normally expect. Other reasons for greater attention might well be:
  • Seen as a good television performer by his party, Ben Bradshaw is often put forward for Question Time and other political programmes. This high visibility might well continue during the general election campaign.
  • Ben Bradshaw's Cabinet portfolio includes that of the media. He is likely to remain outside any debates about broadcaster bias during the campaign (properly a matter for the party chairs), but discussions about the future of the BBC, of the television licence, of local newspapers, and of national newspaper ownership are likely to involve him. Journalists understandably seem to give such issues special attention. Ben Bradshaw is also a former journalist for both the BBC and the Exeter Express & Echo.
  • Hannah Foster, as a former Chair of Conservative Future, is highly regarded within the Conservative party as a determined serious contender and an excellent candidate. She was an early selection onto the Conservative A-list. She has been successful in getting herself into the Exeter Express & Echo on many occasions, while the publicity and website produced by her campaign have high production values (although actually I've just noticed three typos on the website homepage!) David Cameron and other members of the Shadow Cabinet have visited Exeter several times in the last year and given strong backing.
  • Graham Oakes, the LibDem candidate, has experience of three parliamentary campaigns as candidate: Exeter in 1992, Wells in 2001 and Dorset South in 2005. He is no novice then, although the lack of literature from the LibDems so far suggests that this seat is not a target for them, given the third place in 2005 and the number of south-west seats under threat from the Conservatives.
  • Exeter changed from Conservative to Labour in 1997, just as the country as a whole did.

9. Vote squeeze

Although the hurdle for Hannah Foster to climb looks large, it is entirely possible that the LibDem vote could be squeezed. Hannah Foster looks to be campaigning very much on a Cameron-style "liberal Conservative" platform rather than the old-fashioned right-wing conservatism of "cut taxes for big business; slash public spending; marriage good; immigrants bad; EU bad; lock up the criminals and throw away the key". So her more liberal platform might well attract those who previously voted LibDem and who want Labour punished.

On the other hand, should UKIP stand a candidate (the Earl of Dartmouth has been selected as a prospective candidate), Hannah Foster's less obviously Eurosceptic platform might well be squeezed by UKIP more than Conservative candidates in previous elections.

Another potential squeeze relates to climate change. These particular candidates from the three main parties are, I believe, likely to follow their official party lines on climate change. Yet there is evidence of strong scepticism in the country. However, I suspect that while climate change is a huge issue for those who accept the science, the sceptics would be unlikely to see it as an issue requiring tactical voting (in constrast with, say, Euro-scepticism, socialism, fear of immigration, or hatred of taxes). Nevertheless I would expect to see climate sceptics gravitating to the Conservative party, whatever Hannah Foster's actual views or the official party line on this particular matter, since Conservative PPCs, bloggers and columnists typically rate the issue as low priority.

Previous elections have also included a candidate from the continuing Liberal party. This has usually divided the liberal vote - had this not happened in 2005, the LibDems would have come within a whisker of overtaking the Conservatives. This would have made the 2010 battle look very different indeed, with a liberal in second-place to a representative of a strongly centralising government.

Current forecasts

Ladbrokes are predicting Exeter will be held by Labour (odds of 5/6, with a Conservative win at Evens). Electoral Calculus are predicting Exeter will be held by Labour with a majority of 2.7%.

I'm sure there are further factors I haven't considered: please feel free to let me know of any. This should be an interesting campaign...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Exeter decides the country

The phony war that is the build-up to the 2010 British General Election continues. We already know the main candidates to be Exeter's MP:

Labour: Ben Bradshaw, Exeter's MP since 1997, a former BBC journalistand current Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport.

Conservative: Hannah Foster, a Human Resources director and (as Hannah Parker) former chair of the party's youth wing Conservative Future.

Liberal Democrat: Graham Oakes, a nurse specialising in care for older people.

: Paula Black, a Devon councillor and former teacher.

The statistics

The race is rather interesting, as can be seen from the 2005 results:
A swing of 7% would enable the Conservatives to win Exeter from Labour. This makes it a key battleground this year. Indeed, the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster has said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't."

Already glossy leaflets from Conservatives and Labour have come through letterboxes. The Labour leaflet is in the style of a news magazine, but consisting mostly of pieces exclaiming how much the Labour Government has done for the country, and Exeter in particular. No mention of Gordon Brown.

The Conservative eight-page leaflet ("People talk! news - life - photos Delivered FREE by your local Conservatives - at no cost to the taxpayer") is in the style of Hello magazine, and contains lots of photos. It tells you all about the life and values of the candidate Hannah Foster. There is also a case study of a couple who feel let down by Labour during the credit crunch, a picture of David Cameron looking stern while studying a document, and mention of Conservative plans to protect jobs and help "hard-working families".

What will be the key issues for Exeter?

It's not clear yet if there are distinctive issues different from those that will be key nationally. I.e. The economy (particularly how to safeguard public services and jobs while dealing with the deficit), Labour's record, and Conservative values.

The current MP, Ben Bradshaw, is well-liked locally (even though the Twittersphere seems to dislike his TV performances), and he came out well from the expense scandal that engulfed many other MPs. On the other hand, as a government minister since 2001, he has never voted against the government. He has voted for student top-up fees, ID cards, the Iraq war, nuclear power, the hunting ban, 90-day detentions without charge, and reductions in Parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation.

It is possible that the abolition of Exeter's City Council may be a key issue should John Denham make the wrong decision about Devon local government.

What I'd like to know

When the opportunity arises, I would very much like to hear the candidates' views on...
  1. What are the main problems facing the country in the next parliament?
  2. How should the deficit be dealt with?
  3. What practical steps need to be taken to improve public services?
  4. What needs to be done in relation to climate change?
  5. How would you revitalise local democracy?
  6. In what circumstances might you vote against your party?