Oldham East and Uphill Struggle

Tomorrow morning, in front of Oldham’s Civic Hall, Labour leader Ed Milliband and his newest backbench MP Debbie Abrahams are holding their victory press conference in the open air surrounded by shipped-in supporters of all shapes, sizes and religions.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” asks the younger Milliband, holding onto Debbie’s wrist with his left hand. (Her left hand is flat and by her side, as focus groups find female candidates doing the thumbs-up “too Palin”. She is permitted two (max) little waves of the hand, like the fattest bridesmaid at the wedding reception.)

“This result is a sensation that rocks the heart of the ConDemNation!” barks little Ed, to the choreographed delight of the invited crowd. By the end of the evening, Oldham East (and Saddleworth, “like attaching Coronation Street to Last of the Summer Wine” as described by Michael White) would be thankful for never being asked to vote on anything, again, ever.

All being right and reasoned with the world, the good burghers of Oldham East and Saddleworth will put Labour back with a handsome-ish majority. LibDem Elwyn Watkins is a damn fine candidate, and I would prefer him winning after running Phil Woolas so close (one-hundred-and-three votes) in 2010. My smart money is on Abrahams; this is Labour’s to lose, not the Liberal Democrats to lose.

Doubtlessly, the combined forces of the on-line Labour keyboard Corps. will hed asplode at 11pm when the Returning Officer takes to the stage. It would certainly wobble the Coalition, just nothing like as hard as Labour think it will. This is more “finger poking a cheesecake” than “hammer against a balloon”.

Ed, for one, has yet to strike a name for himself. Though his stance has advanced from “opposition for the sake of it”, he appears to have given up reminding his Shadow Cabinet colleagues of his Conference plea to ‘grow up’ and ‘do Opposition differently’. Labour MPs appear confused, still, over the best way to deal with Coalition Britain; pointing out divisions between the two partners is counter-productive. Of course there’s going to be differences, that’s what “coalition” means. On the deficit reduction plan, Labour have yet to define exactly what they would do differently (if we sidestep the inevitable reminders of Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money left” note, there’s Alistair Darling’s “cuts worse than Thatcher” quote whilst still Chancellor to bring to mind….).

I’m not as rabid pro-Coalition/anti-Labour as some notable interweb commentators appear to be, clearly frothing at the mouth at every whisper of Westminster gossip about early elections, splits and divisions, as though ‘new politics’ means the same tedious parlour games that turned off voters years ago. Labour, it has to be said however, are not addressing the nation as a “Party prepared”. In the fast-forward news agenda world of today, the Opposition are expected to be primed for action; more mature and reasoned opposition would stop chasing the spotlight and dictaphones (and, indeed, some members of the Government could do well to stop acting like newspaper commentators, too….)

Labour must be careful what they wish for. Unsettling the Coalition, even pressing for an early election, would be a disaster. Ed’s profile is negligible. His position on the student protests was shaky, uneasy, and even now his reputation amongst the growing numbers of youthful protesters and anti-cuts groups seems weakened and wary. An early election would underline the under-cooked centre of his strategy, splitting his internal coalition – Brownites and Blairites at opposite ends of the Shadow Cabinet table ready to pounce.

Opinion polls are two a penny at the moment, bringing Labour some cheer with their constant and growing lead. Annoyingly for Ed, the polls show much less obvious support for not making so many cuts so quickly. His “squeezed middle” has yet to permeate beyond the hacks in the Lobby. They are also within the margin of error; and after the 2010 election you can forget ‘uniform swing’, it no longer exists.

A snap election would doubtlessly “do” for the LibDems…but for Labour? They’re constant House of Commons “bantz” as they ridicule the Coalition without putting up answers themselves could backfire. An electorate who accept the need to keep tight hold of their pursestrings don’t want to hear about spend, spend, spend. An outright Tory majority is statistically more likely than an outright Labour win. Coalition is currently putting the brakes on the worst Conservative excesses (see how angry the 1922 Committee is getting with their allegations of ‘tickling the LibDem tummy’). Coalition is working, and Labour know deep down how realistic an outright Conservative victory really is.

Playing the long-game annoys MPs, especially now, when the news agenda demands quick-smart reactions and fast-forward changes. It would be far better for Labour to play the slow game, make the subtle and considered moves of the poker player. Ed may win in Oldham tonight, but lose the long-term battle. That’s the gamble at the foot of the Pennines. Whatever happens, it only matters what moves Labour makes next…

Devil is in the Ballot Box

As a Liberal Democrat supporter and defender of the Coalition, I was surprised to read the results from a ConservativeHome poll that pointed to a slim majority of Conservative supporters feeling positive about a “non-aggression deal” with LibDems at the 2015 general election.

Those LibDems with long enough memories will shudder at the memory of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the subsequent trouble with ‘electoral pacts’. Democracy was not served well; loyal activists from both sides felt let down by the agreements from the opposite side.

For the Tories and LibDems to agree standing down in tough marginals would be a gift to Labour. Suddenly Rochdale would never seem like a LibDem target again, ditto both Oldham seats. What would happen in Southwark, where Labour have been denied ‘one of their own’ for decades? How would Wales react – Cardiff has a LibDem MP and both sides of Newport almost did. Would Conservative supporters in, say, Westmorland and Lonsdale [a LibDem stronghold, ex-Tory] really want to vote for Tim Farron? Would LibDems in Harrogate vote Conservative?

One consequence of a ‘pact’ which has been barely mentioned is the sudden rise of UKIP. Despite being trounced from every angle, latest figures from the Electoral Commission point to the UK Independence Party being the only mainstream group to enjoy an increase in membership. Both Tory and Labour voters would merrily troop into the UKIP fold, even with AV, if a dodgy deal is agreed betwixt Coalition partners.

LibDem voters at the last election knew that the introduction of STV (our ultimate goal) would have meant a future of coalition governments and compromises between parties. Lord Mandleston in the brilliant “5 Days That Changed Britain” hinted at his realisation that majority governments of the size enjoyed by Thatcher and Blair are things of the past. Britain doesn’t do mammoth mandates anymore. This Coalition could be the start of something big, even if AV is not introduced.

However, I agree with Nick Clegg’s words from before the election; the LibDems are not to become an annexe of the Conservative Party. Any electoral pact would start laying down the foundations. Clegg should publicly dismiss the idea. There are many LibDems who have tasted such agreements before – we tend not to return to a tree if the fruit tastes sour (and from oak trees grow acorns, and they are awful….)

Lancashire Under Review

To much (ignorant and misunderstood) cries of “fix!” and “gerrymander!” and “How dare you launch so many constitutional reforms in one go, it makes us look bad!”, the Labour Party are opposing the plan to reduce the number of Members of Parliament to 600, from 650.

As part of the review, parliamentary seats have to be redrawn, one of my favourite activities, although the new legislation puts a lot of strain on me and the many “boundary anoraks” who have been trying out get things sorted in preparation. I point you to a couple of threads at VoteUK (“Equal Voting Size” and “AV Referendum set to be announced“), as well as this thread on USElectionAtlas (“Let the great boundary rejig commence“. These show just how difficult and drawn out the process may turn out to be. I am personally very set against splitting electoral wards between seats, something which may need to happen to make the numbers add up.

My proposals take a look at my home county of Lancashire. The numbers are quite clear; the county cannot lose a seat without being paired with a neighbouring county. I have added up and divided and subtracted as much as possible, for the County to go from 16 to 15 MPs, it must use wards from somewhere beyond Lancashire. To this end, I chose Greater Manchester. It allows for some flexibility, and avoids the problem of creating major knock-on effects elsewhere (as using Cumbria would, for example).

These are my proposed seats for Lancashire, so far. I now will move on to Greater Manchester. Some of these creations have been up and down and switched and changed, but ultimately these seem to be the best I can do with my knowledge of local geography, community links, and democratic validity. Labour supporters who oppose the reduction in MP numbers cry foul over the changes, without any understanding of the manner in which the changes take place. I did not set out with a plan to create constituencies which were anti-Labour, or pro-Tory, or likely-LibDem. It would be fruitless of me to try.

Anyway, here be what I have created so far…Lancashire down from 16 to 15…

1) Blackburn and Rishton. Takes the town of Blackburn and adds half of Hyndburn next door. This seat effectively merges the two existing seats together, although the extreme west of Blackburn, and east of Hyndburn, are moved elsewhere.

2) Blackpool North and Fleetwood. Not quite the pre-2010 seat, but close enough. Takes the eastern suburbs of Blackpool, so in essence the town is divided east/west rather than strictly north/south. This creation maintains the current divide of Thorton from Cleveleys, which wasn’t ideal but no alternative exists which doesn’t isolate Fleetwood from the rest of the county (no jokes about this already being the case, please….)

3) Blackpool South. Almost called “Squire’s Gate and The Golden Mile” for a bit of variety, this is the existing South with a “tail” extending along almost the whole coastal touristy bit.

4) Burnley and Accrington. Almost all the existing Burnley seat with the eastern bits of Hyndburn. I could not keep Burnley as a united authority because Pendle is undersized, but this I think neatly brings two near neighbours together in a credible combination.

5) Chorley and Wrightington. This caused me all sorts of headaches. Chorley is just the right size for a constituency, but no near neighbours are, so I had to add bits of Chorley to South Ribble to make up the numbers there. This seat takes Chorley into the south-west, with Parbold, Appleby Bridge, Lathom and Wrightington all joining in. I notice from Google Earth and Street View that there seems to be good road links between them all, so can’t see anything too unusual here. My first thought was “Chorley and Horwich”, but that would have been far too messy.

6) Darwen, Egerton and Pleasington. I know the name is a bit clumsy, but with the existing “Rossendale and Darwen” not having any actual direct road links between those two towns, something had to be done. I think this is a decent replacement, Darwen is connected to the parts of the authority it left Lancashire for, the northern bits of Bolton look north as much as they do south, and it replaces a constituency which had little democratic validity.

7) Fylde. The entire borough of Fylde coupled with the town of Poulton-le-Fylde. The seat is no longer coupled with Preston at all. This caused me a lot of headaches, as originally I envisaged Fylde being paired with Garstand and points east.

8) Lancaster and Morecambe. Exactly what it says on the tin. The city of Lancaster, and the towns of Morecambe and Heysham.

9) Pendle and Burnley North. With Pendle stuck in the top right corner of East Lancashire, it’s not easy to create a credible seat without splitting something into pieces. I have not been to silly here, I don’t think, moving Danehouse, Queensgate and Lanehead wards into Pendle.

10) Preston. The existing seat of Preston, minus Ingol ward, plus the ‘commute to work’ bits from over the Ribble. This is a slight return to the pre-2010 seat, although I have added Coupe Green and Gregson Lane as well, because it’s awkward positioning made adding to Chorley or Ribble Valley difficult without causing me headaches elsewhere. I did toy with calling this “Preston, Bamber Bridge and Samlesbury” but given the 1997-2010 seat was effectively this without a name change I don’t think one is needed here.

11) Rossendale and Ramsbottom. The whole of Rossendale borough is over 20,000 voters too small, so something had to be added. I tried north, I tried east where everything goes moorland and mountainy, I considered Darwen despite my misgivings. But this seems to be the best of a bad bunch. Takes three chunks out of Bury, going as far south as Tottington, but I don’t think a good MP will have any problem representing a seat of this size and shape.

12) South Ribble. No longer taking in any of the Lancashire Marsh Towns, this South Ribble includes the town of Euxton from Chorley. You only have to talk to people in my office for an hour or so to discover just how Euxton is considered a natual extension to Leyland, so a seat like this makes sense. The advantage of the larger constituency size plan is the reversal of the stupid decision to take Lostock Hall and Tardy Gate into Ribble Valley.

13) Valleys of Ribble and Lune. I know, it’s a great name, ain’t it? The whole of the Ribble Valley borough coupled with the rural bits from Lancaster, looping around to include Carnforth and Silverdale and other bits people assume are Cumbrian. This seat works because it keeps a lot of rural Lancashire together.

14) West Lancashire. The borough of West Lancs is too large, so bits have to be cut away. I think taking the southern bits into Chorley make sense, and anyway I haven’t considered adding Merseyside which would have opened the door to “Southport and Ormskirk” or some such mega creations. I think keeping a borough together as best as possible is preferable.

15) Wyre and Preston North. Originally ditched from the start, I could not fathom out an alternative which made sense. At one point I had “Fylde and Rural Preston”, but this painted me into a Garstang shaped corner. My WaPN is far larger than the current seat and of course does not include Poulton-le-Fylde.

Reform agenda

If you have often been confused by the phrase “cutting off the nose to spite the face”, may I point you to the news that the parliamentary Labour Party are to vote against the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill not for reasons of principle but for misguided and misunderstood ignorance.

Labour are all for voting reform, we’ve heard many a Labour MP (including Gordon Brown during the leaders debates) say as much. Tony Blair wasn’t so much of a fan, kicking Roy Jenkins’ “AV+” model into the long grass without barely having enough time to dog-ear the report’s index page. Most MPs agree that the UK needs to replace First Past The Post, the “winner takes all” system whereby an MP can have 5 years on the Green Benches on the back of being LESS popular than all the other candidates on the ballot paper combined.

Labour fought the 2010 election on a manifesto pledge to support AV. To turn away, as they have announced they will do, gives the impression that they would rather oppose for the sake of opposition, a truly pathetic reaction.

Their reasoning draws from the fact that the Bill also puts into place boundary changes to lower the number of MPs in Parliament from 650 to 600. It goes without saying, surely, that the UK is too small a country to have 650 MPs? An ever greater reduction would be welcome in the long-term, not least because India (with over a BILLION PEOPLE) has 545 members in its Lower House. We know now, then, that Labour support spending millions more on maintaining the House of Commons as the most bloated Chamber in the democratic world. Good that we have that sorted.

One of the most amusing – down right laughable – parts of Labour’s opposition is their use of the word “gerrymander”. If only they could use their insults correctly! How can it be fair that Labour can “stack up” smaller, compact urban seats with fewer electors while all other parties – not just LibDem – are forced to fight larger, mostly rural constituencies, often for less votes?

Some critics on Facebook and Twitter seem to be ignorant to the existence of the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales, three organisations who have been doing this sort of thing independent of Government since the Second World War. “Tories want to gerrymander the country!!” is the kind of ignorant headline grabbing whinging I’d expect from less well tendered Student Unions, not the Labour Party. They know, as most of us know, that the Boundary Commission process is at arm’s-reach from Government. Opposing these changes for the sake of being anti-Tory is utter dribble.

What this means, of course, is another flip-flop in the known facts of British politics. Labour are not only the party against police accountability and now against progressive political reform, too.

To be against the AV referendum because of some misguided understanding of the boundary review process, as if it is some newly invented system never before seen under the eyes of God, is the most cynical and child-like ploy in modern politics.

Just what exactly is the current Labour Party in favour of?

university, challenged

I agree with Nick.

“I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished”

Unlike Labour, who over 13 years of misrule could not see the consequences of “spend, spend, spend”, Nick told Party Conference last year that the country may well not be able to afford the abolition of tuition fees; he maintained that they were a policy he could not abide and would, when circumstances were better, move to abolish.

In his first major speech as University Minister, David “I Had Two Brains Once” Willetts has sown the possibility of tuition fees having to rise, or at least remaining in place for English students. His blame falls on Labour;

Labour left a system on shaky financial foundations, without a viable long-term future

He went on to say;

“If fees were to go up, the government would have to lend people the money to pay for them – and that would push up public spending…It’s not just that students don’t want to pay higher fees: the Treasury can’t afford them”

Universities are not scraping the barrels quite yet; there are alternative revenue streams aside from the Government or tuition fees. As in all areas of spending over the next 12 months, 2 years, cost-cutting will have to be looked at from the very top to bottom. After 13 years of economic misrule, we all have to suffer the consequences.

The “T”‘s threatening the stability of the coalition – Trident, Tuition Fees, taxes – have all shaken the alliance since polling day. As I have always done, since their forced introduction, I will oppose university tuition fees. Their abolition for Scottish students in Scotland shows it can be done.

Tuition fees are inexcusable, a mortgage on education, a tax on learning. Students should not leave with the cost of a family car around their neck for the sake of their future careers. Reviewing what Universities spend, and how, is vital for the coalition.

But I will not support an increase in tuition fees. The consequences of the ill-thought out plan should not be putting more strain on students. Too many short-term errors were made by Labour – the arbitrary 50% aim for University admissions, for example, which now “ties in” future governments to the level else to look elitist. The aim of 50% has opened up the gates to too many students chasing too little places; little wonder smaller institutions are now feeling the financial strain. Little wonder the students loan service is close to imploding under the pressure.

Nothing related to spending commitments will be easy, with the tight constraints of the previous Government boxing in the aims of this one – “There is no money left!”. No matter the change in context, though, my convictions stay the same. I agree with Nick; tuition fees must, at some point, be abolished.