Saturday, April 21, 2012

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - Accessibility

Mags L Halliday has reviewed the accessibility of the parties' local manifestos, and has kindly allowed me to post a summary her findings here. (For completeness, I've storified the relevant tweets below.)

In ascending order of scores, the results are...

... drumroll ...

In joint last placeExeter Conservatives, with a score of -1, for an unreadable PDF that returned an error about font sizes and refused to load an image. [It was fine for me, incidentally; but failing to open for some people clearly means it's not very accessible!]. Mags also notes that the document is "a print PDF hosted online, as the colours, fonts etc are not accessible for the visually impaired".

Also in last place, Exeter LibDems, for lacking local pledges. Their website is "at least fully accessible, but the last local news update was Feb 2011". [There's also a problem with the South West manifesto hosted on the national website, in that it's actually for the North West...]

UKIP also scores -1 for lacking a manifesto specific to Exeter.

In second place, with 0 points, Exeter Labour. It gets 1 point for its manifesto being html rather than PDF, but minus 1 point "for a gray font on a gray background... and the font is also serif and in italics".

And in first place, with an unassailable 1 point, Exeter Greens: "only @exetergreens have local pledges up and easily read by people with disabilities, but they don't have a biog of my candidate"

P.S. Mags warns that she wasn't able to check accessibility with a screen reader. I've sent the links to a blind friend, who has just replied to say that they found the Greens' pdf to be unreadable. So I don't think any of the parties come out of this well!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the issues

There are elections for Exeter City Council on 3 May (details here). So what are the main issues between the parties?

The current Exeter City Council


Exeter has been under Labour control for most of the last 30 years. Currently, Labour holds 19 out of the 40 seats, and so has minority control of the council. This means that it needs the support of councillors from other parties to pass controversial measures.

Labour is clearly pushing hard to gain majority control. It has a strong and increasing doorstep presence in the run-up to the election. Its website is simple but effective and contains full details of all its candidates. On Twitter it is well organised and nicely engaging. It is assisted by Exeter's eloquent MP Ben Bradshaw. And already Labour's leader Ed Miliband and deputy leader Harriet Harman have paid visits to Exeter.

Exeter Labour's priorities include:
  • more social housing, using cooperative and mutual models of home ownership
  • installing solar panels on council houses
  • redeveloping the Bus Station site to include a swimming pool and open spaces
  • setting up an Exeter City Council Apprenticeship Scheme
  • supporting the Devon Metro initiative
  • improving play facilities in the parks

Simon Bowkett, who is standing in Pinhoe for Labour, is keeping a blog of his campaign. Well worth a look.


Meanwhile, Exeter Conservative Party currently has 11 councillors. Their local election manifesto emphasises recycling and refuse collection because these services are "very often all people can physically see for their Council Tax".

Exeter Conservatives' priorities include:
  • setting up a ‘cash for recycling’ scheme
  • investigating restoring weekly collections in some areas
  • cutting the number of city councillors
  • scrapping councillor pensions
  • merging the council's newsletter with that of Devon County Council
  • reducing expectations about social housing and reprioritising the housing list

See also the Exeter Conservatives' website and Twitter. And Jake Donovan is active for Exeter Conservatives on Twitter.


Exeter Liberal Democrat Party currently has 9 councillors. It has not issued a citywide manifesto, preferring to emphasise the hard work that individual councillors put into representing local people.

For example in my ward (St James), the most recent leaflet discusses the scheme to re-route traffic from outside the new John Lewis to Blackall Road and York Road. "Labour members of the City Council have ignored the concerns of local residents and have relentlessly pushed through these changes."

Concerns about bins, parking, HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) and unwelcome planning applications are common.

Meanwhile, the leader of the LibDem group has condemned Labour's excessive borrowing while running Exeter City Council. The party notes that no LibDem-run council in England has raised Council Tax. And LibDem councils are also most likely to be giving the lowest-paid council workers a pay rise.

See also the Exeter LibDems' website, Twitter and "Local elections 2012: delivering for the South West".


Exeter Green Party has no councillors, despite 8% of the vote in last year's local elections. A proportional voting system would have seen them get one of the 13 seats up for election in 2011. Instead, Labour took 54% of the councillors on 38% of the vote.

Their local election manifesto says that "too often a fixation on economic growth results in the loss of or damage to our valuable green spaces, deterioration in air quality, or the loss of small local businesses pushed out by large corporations".

Green priorities include:
  • raising parking charges, to tackle poor air quality and encourage alternatives to the car
  • generating more renewable energy and increasing home insulation, to cut costs and increase income
  • introducing weekly food waste collections, to increase recycling rates and generate energy and income
  • using this additional income to mitigate government cuts to local services
  • resisting planning proposals which reduce the quality of life in Exeter
  • increasing social housing and compulsory purchase powers on empty homes
  • redeveloping the Bus Station site into a new market square for local farmers and businesses
See also the Exeter Green Party website.


The UK Independence Party got 4% of the vote in last year's local elections. There is no specific manifesto for Exeter. Instead, their manifesto for the local government elections says that "councillors should put their communities, not party politics, first. Important local issues should be put to binding local referendums"

UKIP priorities include:
  • halting all cuts to front-line council services, cutting councillors’ allowances and expenses, limiting numbers of highly paid council employees, and abolishing "non-essential and ‘politically-correct’ services"
  • requiring referendums on major planning schemes like supermarkets, wind farms, large housing developments and major transport schemes; with no right of appeal for developers
  • introducing elections for county health, education and police boards
  • leaving the EU to provide more money for local services
  • cutting immigration and withholding all state benefits and free NHS services from immigrants and citizens of other countries
  • ending all funding for renewable energy, banning new wind farms, and building new power plants
  • building more prisons and increasing prison terms
  • reintroducing selection by ability into schools
See also UKIP's national website.

Other candidates

There's only one candidate who is not from the above parties: a candidate standing in Priory Ward.

Incidentally, St Loye's councillor Joan Morrish is standing down this year, at the age of 85, having served the city for 20 years. She is currently the only Liberal on the council, and no member of the Liberal Party is standing this year. The Echo also notes that her husband David Morrish was involved in local politics for 50 years both as a city and county councillor before retiring last year. Even political opponents pay tribute to the sterling public service that Joan and David Morrish have given to their community.


If you represent one of these parties locally, and you would like to clarify or correct anything here, please feel free to comment below. :-)


Friday, April 13, 2012

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the basics

There's an election?!
In Exeter on 3 May we have elections for the City Council. This blogpost is for those who haven't voted in a local election before, or who are new to Exeter.

"Why should I care?"

Well, Exeter has two councils: Devon County Council and Exeter City Council.

Among other things, Devon County Council looks after education, social services, transport, fire and police.

But the May elections are for the City Council, which makes decisions on planning applications, housing, car parks, waste collection, shops, parks, and anything that helps make Exeter an attractive place to live and work.

"Sounds worthy, but voting doesn't change anything"

My cats run the city
Perhaps. Often less than 40% of people vote. Sometimes it's less than a quarter.

If you don't vote, you're letting others choose councillors for you. Do you really want to let obsessives and crackpots choose the decision-makers?!

"OK. What's the choice?"

It depends what ward you are in. There are 18 wards in Exeter, but on 3 May only 14 wards have a councillor to elect:

Alphington, Exwick, Newtown, Pennsylvania, Pinhoe, Polsloe, Priory, St. David's, St. James, St. Leonard's, St. Loye's, St. Thomas, Topsham, and Whipton Barton

It'll be your turn next time Duryard, Cowick, Mincinglake, and Heavitree!

Each ward contains 5000-10,000 people. Each ward has two or three councillors. There are 40 councillors altogether. Only councillor in each ward is up for election on 3 May.

If you're not sure which ward you're in, enter your postcode on the Exeter City Council website, and it will tell you.

(There's also other useful information about your home at that website, such as dates of bin collections and street cleaning, your councillors, your polling station, nearby planning applications, a heat loss map, your council tax band, residents parking zones, your nearest GP and more!)

You can see who's standing to be your councillor in this document (pdf).

"How do I choose who to vote for?"

Most Exeter voters have a choice between candidates associated with the familiar parties from recent General Elections: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and UKIP...

"Wait. What the hell? What have these political goons got to do with judging planning applications or designing our parks?"

Hmm, yes, some voters find this odd: Why should decisions your councillor makes about the city have much to do with what national politicians are doing? Is there a distinctively Labour way of collecting bins? Is there a philosophically different UKIP way of judging planning applications? Does what Liberal Democrats say about the Syrian crisis have much to do with housing policy in Alphington? How do Conservative attitudes to European integration relate to the number of car parks we should have in Topsham?

Cats are individualists
It's a good point. We could of course have no local parties at all, just independents. And across the country there are indeed many councillors unaffiliated with these national parties. Nothing wrong with that.

But I'd suggest it's generally preferable for us to have a choice of a small number of manifestos offered across the city, than for us to end up with a council full of completely independent individuals with no clear common platform for the future of the city.

That's not to say there shouldn't be independent councillors; but a small number of distinct groupings within a council can be helpful. At the same time, rigid party-based decision-making that leaves no room for independent thought would obviously be wrong.

So parties are probably a good idea, but voters also need to take into account the record and plans of individual candidates.

"Yes. But why these parties?"

True, the parties competing to run councils needn't be the same parties competing to run the country.

We could have different groupings: The Populist Party and The Socialist Party, for example; or The Low Council Tax Party, The High Equality Party and The Centre Party; or The Federal UK Party, the Neo-Fascist Party and the Exeter Independence Party.

But there we go. It's the national parties which tend to be most well-known and the best organised. And in our weird British voting system it's hard for new parties to break through.

It might seem at times that the things that national politicians care about - income tax, the NHS, foreign affairs, and so on - don't have an awful lot to do with potholes in Pinhoe, parking in Polsloe, students in St James, speeding in St Leonard's, and so on.

On the other hand, there might in principle be philosophical differences between parties that lead to very different local plans. For example, one could imagine a radically free market approach to council services would differ substantially from an ardent socialist approach. Whether there are significant differences in practice I'm not so sure, but there are clearly broadly distinctive emphases, values and positions between these national parties that might influence different local choices in small ways.

"OK, so I just vote for the same party I'm voting for in the next General Election?"

Sure, some people decide which candidate to vote for entirely on the basis of the national parties.

But choosing your local councillor on the basis of what national politicians are doing is a little like choosing which train to catch on the basis of what you think of your Internet Service Provider.

And if you imagine that the generally hard-working folk who put their heads above the parapet to offer to help their communities as councillors have much to do with slick national politicians, you'd mostly be wrong. Candidates might broadly support the national parties, but disagree strongly with significant aspects. Ask them.

"Yes, but I want to send a message..."

Some people use their vote in local elections to "send a message". Usually the message is that they don't like what the Government is doing. Sometimes the message is to the Opposition that they need to switch tack. Sometimes the message is that all the main parties are useless.

It's tempting.

Exeter expects...
But I would suggest this is a bad way to select a councillor.

National politicians can see the opinion polls. They can read the papers, internet comments, the emails, the petitions. They can hear the vox pops, the focus groups, the booing on Question Time. They're acutely aware every day when people are unhappy with their performance. They don't need some kind of ballot box semaphore to receive a message.

The councillor you vote for will be representing your neighbourhood in all the decisions directly affecting your city. National politicians don't get "punished" if you vote for another party at the local election. The only person getting punished is yourself, because you're not focusing on selecting the councillor who best represents you.

If you want to punish national politicians who aren't doing what you want, just don't vote for them at the general election.

"Yeah, but they're all the same. Incompetent. Spineless. Meddling. Just in it for the expenses."

Devil councillor

That's not my experience.

And it has to be asked: If the decisions are so easy to get right and the expenses so lucrative, why don't you put yourself up for election?

Because I can imagine many more lucrative ways of spending my time than reading reams of council papers, sitting in a whole load of interminable meetings, and getting abuse from the Exeter Express and Echo letter pages, all for quite measly sums of money.

Let's see you put yourself on the line then.

"Oooh. Touched a nerve, eh?"

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there!

But the basic point is that we need more people willing to stand as councillors. A cross-section of society. Bright, thoughtful, hard-working, caring, conscientious people. We don't encourage people by hurling abuse and assuming the worst possible motives.

"OK. They're not all the same. Party A is useless. Party B works for you all year round. Party C politicians are just in it for their pals. Party D is always lying..."

Hmm... Yes, having said that councillors are not all the same, I wouldn't want to imply the truth of these kinds of generalisations, often bandied around in leaflets and on doorsteps.

I find it difficult to believe, for the main parties anyway, that one party's candidates are innately more untrustworthy than another's. Or automatically more useless. Or generally more hard-working, just by virtue of membership of a particular party.
Cat fight!
There are good councillors and bad councillors. And all varieties in-between. And I'm not sure any one party has a monopoly on either virtue or sin. These things vary depending on the place, and over time. And people can get better or worse.

So I don't think there are easy truisms here.

"Indigo Party can't win here..."

Beware the dodgy bar charts!

As I noted earlier, we have a slightly crazy voting system, which means that you can't just vote for the candidate you most want: you also have to take into account how others might vote.

Let's say past experience suggests the fight is basically between Candidate A and Candidate B. You like Candidate E, who (sadly) isn't going to attract many votes. Do you vote for who you want, or do you vote for whoever is better out of Candidates A and B? Tough choice.

"OK. Enough of the 'Local Elections 101'. What are the issues for 3 May?"

To be continued in the next blog post...!


Friday, April 6, 2012

A damning critique of the Liberal Democrat local election campaign

... is not to be found here. I've decided the minuscule chance of my critical post being used to improve the campaign is outweighed by the small chance of damage.

And I don't want to risk damage, given the great people I know who are putting themselves up for election.

I will post the critique after the May elections.

Instead, I would encourage Liberal Democrat candidates to get as clear as you can with your electorate on some basic questions:

1. What are you campaigning for? Or against?

2. What is it that makes Liberal Democrat councils distinctively Liberal Democrat?

3. The Coalition is "putting more money back in the pockets of hardworking people". How is this helping tackle the deficit?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lon Won's 100th blog post spectacular

One hundred blog posts isn't a major milestone for most bloggers, but it's taken me three-and-a-half years for me to get here, so I'm quite proud of it!

When I started, I wanted to try to write about the explanations that lie just one step removed from the soundbites, slogans, rallying cries, buzzwords, platitudes and shibboleths through which the public are expected to understand their political choices.

So this wasn't to be a blog about esoteric academic thinkers or sophisticated empirical studies. It wasn't to be a heavy-duty examination of political messaging.

It was to look for alternatives to the sterile shouting-matches between left and right, fairness and wealth-creation, authoritarianism and liberalism, proletariat and oligarchy... It was to look for justifications framed in non-technical, colloquial language; for accessible justifications that didn't patronize or dumb down.

I was particularly hoping that my perspective might help sharpen the Liberal Democrat offering to the British people at the 2010 general election, an offering that at that time appeared to me to lack focus and presentational quality. In my view, the Labour government desperately needed to be ousted; the Conservatives were untrustworthy and would be disastrous for the country; and the only alternative - the Liberal Democrat Party - was failing to attain mainstream appeal, despite excellent policies and arguments.

So what happened?

I had a go: I considered what might appeal to different current British political traditions; I looked at a range of issues; I précised and rewrote the LibDem case; and I arrived at 6 reasons why I was voting Liberal Democrat. Much good it did! But it was cathartic.

Subsequently, of course, I also ended up blogging quite a bit about coalition because Britain ended up (in line with the above expectations) insufficiently convinced by any of the parties to elect a majority government.

Looking back at my 100 posts, I'd forgotten that, in the guise of a broadsheet perspective, I'd actually proposed a Conservative-LibDem coalition in 2009. When in 2010 that possibility actually arose, I ummed and ahhed before deciding it was a good thing. I still thought so a year later. We'll see shortly whether this view continues in 2012...!

After the election, I reflected on my failings as a blogger, and resolved to stick to my own voice. I've also noticed that many potential blogposts never got written because the itch for observations, questions and chats ended up mostly fulfilled by Twitter.

Among other topics, I came up with some liberal heuristics; tried to identify instinctive responses and inspirations of the three main parties; compared the Big Society and Liberalism; got proved right about the AV referendum; pondered about copyright; wrote a lot about climate change; and reported on politics in my home city of Exeter.

More controversially (not that anyone noticed!), I defended Ken Livingstone when everyone else was damning him; worried about the Woolas verdict that everyone else was praising; urged against campaigns to clean up politics; questioned the point of the parliamentary sketch; unfairly caricatured local government; attacked Jeremy Paxman; got angry with the cynicism of the Occupy movement; criticised the idea of a directly elected House of Lords; and accused the police of helping terrorists.

It hasn't all been politics: I've thrown in a few thoughts on religion, television (particularly Doctor Who!) and radio, just because there were a few thoughts I wanted to share. Looking back, I'm surprised I didn't blog more about the many films I've seen over the last few years. Again, I blame Twitter!

Most viewed posts

The blog currently receives about 1300 page views a month, which is far more than I was expecting. There are a small number of RSS feed subscribers: around 30 according to FeedBurner. Other visitors typically come through Google searches, Twitter and Liberal Democrat Voice.

Blogger managed to lose a heap of web stats before June 2009, but since then the most viewed posts have been:
  1. Tintin and the Wreck of the Treasured Memory
    I strongly suspect this is #1 not because it's great writing but because it crops up high in Google Image searches for Tintin... ;-)
  2. A General Election blog post (boring boring boring)
    I've no idea why this one is popular.
  3. LibDems: We must do better than this
    Provocative title! But I'm proud of this one.
  4. Exeter's newspaper: neither Express nor Echo?
    Presumably there are a lot of Exeter folks interested in opinions about their local newspaper.
  5. Three Futures for the Liberal Democrats and Tuition Fees
    I put myself on the line for this one, and been proved mostly wrong! Popular because it was a timely issue for LibDems.
  6. The General Election: Reflections on my failure as a blogger
    Maybe self-doubt is attractive. Not sure... ;-)
  7. When councillors get fixated on "progress"
    Detailed examination of a local proposal.
  8. LonWon's 2011 Five Self-Denying Ordinances for the Arts
    Again, sadly the detailed stats suggest that the popularity of this post is more to do with people searching Google for pictures of "horse with blinkers" than to do with anyone wanting to know my policy on spoilers...
  9. Rethinking what the tuition fees issue is about
    The partner of #5.
  10. Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen
    Lots of people love Doctor Who. :-)

One of my proudest achievements was the post about nuclear power featuring in Liberal Democrat Voice's "Top of the Blogs: The Golden Dozen".

My favourite posts

Of all 100 posts, I think my best are:
  1. LibDems: We must do better than this
    Bad bill-making practices and voters' cost-benefit calculations about the Coalition.
  2. Jumping all over the fence
    Can my political philosophy find coalition with Conservatives acceptable? Spoiler: yes, but with major caveats. I will need to return to this post...!
  3. Blah blah blah fairness blah blah blah change
    What's wrong with the LibDems' 2010 election campaign material?
  4. Reflections on the threat to Exeter democracy
    Tiny medieval Florence ran its own affairs. Why can't 21st century Exeter? A flawed Boundary Commission process ignores democracy and the status quo.
  5. When councillors get fixated on "progress"
    A detailed examination of a poorly thought-through local road scheme, and why it is that councillors can fail to think things through.
  6. Liberal Democrat tribalism is the real danger
    Why Liberal Democrats need to foster liberal and social democratic elements in the other parties.
  7. Lon Won's Evil Liberal Masterplan
    Give local government more autonomy and local voters more controls. I may return to the council gears metaphor linking people, services and business.
  8. Why are parties of the Right sceptical of climate change?
    Fear of costs, suspicion of the Left, fear of economic disadvantage, muscular contrarianism.
  9. The Big Society v Liberalism
    A common dislike of top-down control, but differences in relation to democracy.
  10. Why is Any Questions better than Question Time?
    The panel, the questions, the camera, the chair, the audience, the medium!

If you like this, you might like...

I've never done a blogroll, preferring to highlight interesting individual posts via Twitter. But I'll take this opportunity to single out the following blogs for typically thought-provoking posts:

I'm aware there's only one Labour blog in that list (Simon), so I'd be very interested to hear of suggestions for Labour, Conservative or Green blogs that might be worth trying.

What's for the future?

In advance of the next general election, I want to revisit some of these earlier posts containing political and presentational arguments, to explore whether the same arguments apply again.

I hope to document some thoughts and conversations that are almost irretrievably lost in the mists of ancient Twitter history (pretty much anything over a week old!)

I want to develop some of the ideas about local government I've begun here.

And I want to try to blog more often about films. Not necessarily for their overt political messages at all, but because I think that films often force us to imagine ourselves in the position of others. And that has political value in itself.