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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Word of the day

I only manage a quick glance at one of the daily newspapers, in between dashing about on the campaign trail, and I learn a new word - commentariat.

The commentariat is the army of opinion pollsters, political journalists and pundits that comes into its own in the period leading up to an election. Bar graphs, charts and swings, chasing around after candidates in target seats, blogging from battle buses - the product of all this effort covers acres of newsprint and bloats hours of television news time. And of course, in a delightful circularity, the outpourings of the commentariat then become news in their own right, and are subjected to further analysis and commentary, increasing the coverage exponentially as the weeks wear on.

Some of the analysis is more accurate than others, of course - not all of it is objective, and some is remarkably ill-informed. However, three major changes have significantly altered the landscape in which the commentariat dinosaurs roam.

The first factor is the fast-moving nature of modern news, and the insatiable demands of the 24-hour news channels for 'stuff' to fill their timeslots. Daily opinion poll findings are pored over much as the ancient Romans examined animal entrails. It's like weighing yourself every single day when you're on a diet, and about as productive.

The second factor is the obsession of the political parties with the power of the media. It's something that can be traced back to the period between 1992 and 1997, when Labour felt they'd been cheated out of the 1992 General Election, and the culture of media spin and government by focus group really began. The commentariat now don't just report party politics, they change it.

One of the most astonishing, and in my view under-reported, events of this campaign was the way both of the old parties changed their election slogans mid-way in the light of adverse political commentary. Labour dumped Britain Forward Not Back, their manifesto title, last week in favour of If You Value It, Vote For It. (Would this have been anything to do with the photo of their launch where Blair was holding up the manifesto and accidentally had his thumb over the last letter of the second word, so it read Britain for war ...?). The Tories ditched the much-derided Are You Thinking What We're Thinking? (presumably because voters aren't) and replaced it with Taking A Stand On The Issues That Matter - and then spent the next few days throwing mud at other parties' policies rather than saying anything positive about theirs at all.

Meanwhile, in an even more glaring example, the Tory decision to 'go negative' in its campaign early last week, with the posters name-calling Blair as a liar, was binned after only three days - not, sadly, because the Tories suddenly discovered a sense of decency, but because polling showed that it was actually damaging their own election prospects rather than Labour's.

The third factor, however, is the internet. Now we no longer need to rely on Peter Snow's stupid rusty swingometer - everyone can become a commentator. You can find out who you should vote for using an interactive quiz, or even have a bit of a flutter with advice from the self-styled "web's premier resource for political gamblers".

In the last few days of this campaign, it's clear that - in a supreme case of political bankruptcy - the only reason Labour can give to vote for Tony Blair is that "if you vote Lib Dem you'll let the Tories in". The commentariat, in all its forms, has seen through that argument for the hogwash it really is. The Independent demonstrates conclusively on its front page today that this Labour scare tactic is complete rubbish, as does this internet article from one of the new breed of individual commentators analysing what's going on in this election.

On Friday, of course, we'll all know who was right.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Almost May

With less than a week to go before polling day, the weather really is getting summery - a beautiful day to be out delivering leaflets in Bush Fair, which is how I spend part of the morning.

After lunch, it's off to Jerounds for the junior school May Day celebration. All of the three main parliamentary candidates are there, and made very welcome by head teacher Mr Roberts, his staff and the parents. The playground is laid out ready for the performance, and we have VIP seats in the front. Every class makes a contribution, from reading to singing to country dancing to the procession and crowning of the Queen of the May (complete with paper petals scattered like confetti by her princesses), and culminating in a dance round a proper maypole. The children are impeccably well behaved, their performances are excellent, and it's a really delightful occasion.

At quarter to three, Lesley drives me over to Potter Street and the re-launch of the Rainbow Services re-use and re-cycling project at Prentice Place. There's some terrific work going on. Furniture, paint, textiles and clothing are available for families in need. The recycling workshops are used to fashion some amazing articles from old pallets - garden planters, bird tables and even miniature wishing wells! The arts and crafts are superb, and I take the opportunity before I leave to buy half a dozen of their hand-made greetings cards.

Channel 4 have contacted the parliamentary candidates to say they want to film us in conversation with the town's youth councillors for a piece on next Tuesday evening's news. The Water Gardens is awash with people - candidates, youth councillors, camera crew and interviewers, even local press taking photographs of the cameramen filming the candidates. The young people ask some interesting and challenging questions. What will we do for young people? What's our view on votes at 16? Will we consider increasing the age for full fares on the buses from 14 to 16? What about affordable homes for young people?

After the camera crew has finished, I dash home to check my email and (to be honest) have half an hour's sleep, before getting myself together for the final campaign team meeting before the election. I take a quick glance in the mirror and realise that with all the rushing about outdoors today I've caught the sun.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Head to head

Back from canvassing tonight, it's the big event on TV - the three party leaders appearing in turn on Question Time. However I'm only able to watch the first interview, with Charles Kennedy, as there's only one TV in the house, and the rest of the family has decided to watch Supersize Me on Channel Four at nine o'clock. Seated in front of the television, I use the time productively by signing thank you cards to all our campaign helpers.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A word of advice

The biggest - and perhaps decisive - piece of news yesterday was the leaking to Channel 4 of the Attorney General's previously secret advice on the war in Iraq. The devastating analysis by leading human rights lawyer Anthony Lester QC raises even more sharply the question of the basis on which Tony Blair led us into war, and on which the Conservatives supported and voted for that war. The Liberal Democrats' principled stance against the war, not only now but then, seems increasingly justified.

Meanwhile, the Australians imported by Michael Howard to run the Tories' election campaign have moved into the final, even more negative and personalised phase of their strategy. It's turning voters off in droves, and it's certainly not helping the Tories in the opinion polls - indeed, their ratings have continued to slide as the weeks have gone by. Nearly three years ago, Conservative MP Theresa May - then chairman of the Conservative Party - warned that her own party was perceived as 'the nasty party'. It appears that Michael Howard's Australians think this is something to be proud of.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Rallying to the cause

Linda picks me up at half past five, and she and David and I head off towards the M11 on our way to Cambridge. Chris is travelling by train, so we'll meet him there.

It's the Liberal Democrat election rally in the Cambridge Guildhall this evening, and we're under instructions to be seated by 7:15. That's not going to be easy, as when we arrive at 7:00 there's already a huge stationary queue of people snaking round the market square, and the police appear to be under orders not to let people in yet. Worse than that, the heavens suddenly open, and we're all drenched. Mary from Saffron Walden, who's behind us in the queue, offers Linda and me a share of her Daily Telegraph to shelter under, but it's quickly reduced to a sodden pulp, and doesn't stop the rain trickling down the backs of our necks anyway.

Eventually we're admitted inside, and after a search of our bags and pockets we make our way to our places. We've got good seats, only a few rows from the front. The event is late kicking off, and the music by Sibelius that's used in our party political broadcasts on TV is looping endlessly like some form of torture technique.

But for the hundreds of people in the hall the wait is worth it. The first speaker is foreign affairs spokesman Ming Campbell - he's authoritative, interesting, and gets the meeting off to a strong start with his condemnation of Labour's actions over Iraq. David Howarth, Cambridge law lecturer and the town's next MP, is next; he contrasts Blair's illegal war and its effects with the success of peaceful regime change in middle and eastern Europe, but closer to home in a university city he also talks about Labour's broken promises on tuition fees.

Baroness 'our Shirl' Williams is the third speaker; as our regional president she's always beloved of Liberal Democrat audiences in the east of England, and she encourages the audience to protect our fundamental civil liberties from a Labour party that no longer seems to understand what the term means.

Our final speaker is party leader Charles Kennedy, and he's delayed for quite a while. We eventually find out why - hundreds of people have had to be turned away from the rally for lack of space, and have stayed outside the Guildhall. But they've had their own private open-air rally to make up for it - Ming, Shirley, and now Charles have given speeches in the rain to ensure they're not entirely left out, and Charles is still talking to them outside the building.

Charles eventually gets to the front of the hall, and gives a strong speech setting out our key campaign messages and our hopes for a good result. He's even undeterred when half-way through there's a bang and the microphone goes out, together with the picture on the large plasma screen ("now's the time to see if my lungs are as strong as my son's", he comments). He keeps talking while the technical hitch is sorted, and Linda - who hasn't seen him speak live before - says later that he comes across far more strongly in a hall like this than on TV.

The speech ends, the music resumes, and Charles and the other speakers make their way through the hall - I shake hands with Charles and Shirley as the TV cameras follow their exit.

The Harlow team retires for dinner at the Eraina in Free School Lane, followed by the journey in Linda's car back down the M11. I wake up as we pull up at the lights at the junction 7 roundabout.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Iraq

A number of people - including Nick - have asked me why the Liberal Democrats haven't made more of the issue of Iraq during the General Election campaign.

So it's good to see the party raising this to the very top of the agenda today, and to see Blair continuing to be put under pressure to answer for his decision to take us into war alongside George W Bush - without a second UN resolution, with no weapons of mass destruction found, and with weapons inspectors denied the brief additional time they needed to complete their task.

If Blair's record on the war is shaky, then Michael Howard's is little better. The Tories acted as cheerleaders for Tony Blair's war in Iraq; they supported it in Parliament, and voted for it in the division lobbies. Their attempts to wash their hands now look opportunistic and frankly dishonest.

The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to oppose the war consistently - a point which won't be lost on the electorate in the final ten days of the campaign.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Quote of the day

"My broken promises lie in the street like Yorkie wrappers"
barrister Jerry Hayes, former Conservative MP for Harlow 1983-1997, speaking in court earlier this week

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Advantage Harlow

Today Andrew Duff, Member of the European Parliament for the East of England, and I are guests of Harlow Lawn Tennis Club for a visit to their premises at Latton Bush.

The Essex junior league is in full swing as Will, Karen and Brenda from the club show Andrew round the existing courts and clubhouse, and where they would like to expand. There are lots of young people out on the courts, and the whole place is buzzing with energy. Will and Karen explain the club's current activities, and its future plans to extend its work with children and young people in the town.

The Lawn Tennis Association has agreed to extend the deadline for take-up of its grant of nearly £900,000 for the development of tennis at Latton Bush. The Club's revised proposals mean that local residents wouldn't have to give up the green space between the existing courts and The Briars; and the council would receive a rent for the land to support local services.

If Liberal Democrat councillors hadn't stood firm, and if Harlow Conservatives had had their way, the council would have received no income for the land, the green space would have been lost, and this much better proposal would never have seen the light of day.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Keeping up appearances

Great. I wake up this morning with a stye on my right eyelid - my body's usual surefire way of telling me that it's run-down and over-stretched.

It's a busy day - answering press questions and organising campaigning in the morning, meeting a council officer and then a young couple about a complex boundary dispute in the afternoon. By the time I've cycled home it's nearly 5 o'clock.

When Nick gets home we've only got a brief moment to catch a bite to eat, as he's ordered the Tesco shopping for 7 o'clock, and I've got the churches hustings meeting at half past seven. So at 6 o'clock we dash out in the car to Pizza Hut. It's not until we're well on the way to the town centre that I realise I've not put on any make-up.

Now if there's one thing I know, it's that I can't be photographed for the press and stand up in front of the largest audience of the campaign without make-up. Before the 2001 General Election, Liberal Democrat candidates had the chance to be Colour Me Beautiful-ed (albeit a bit of a forlorn hope in my case). I was told I should never wear black, I was told that my jackets needed to be longer and my hair shorter - but above all, I was told that make-up was a necessity for a female candidate.

Well, thank goodness for George at Asda, is all I can say. At five to seven, after our pizza and salad pit-stop, I dash over to the supermarket and shell out for a stack of cosmetics. They're not my usual brands - I'm not sure the foundation is the right colour, the powder is compressed rather than loose, the mascara is definitely too black, and they've only got eyebrow pencil, not the sort I usually use. I head down to the loos at car park level, and apply my new-found treasure trove in double quick time. My handiwork completed, I step back for a look in the mirrors above the washbasins. Hmmm - more Coco the Clown than Coco Chanel. Oh, well. At least I tried.

I arrive in good time at the church hall. All five candidates are there tonight, and the Revd David Kirkwood is in the chair. I remember starting out in politics fifteen years ago, and my first public meetings; literally retching with nerves for hours beforehand. The years have smoothed that away, and as the evening progresses I really get into the swing of the debate, with some interesting questions to answer.

Conservative candidate Robert Halfon's responses seem lightweight, contradictory and unconvincing; he's having to defend his party's U-turns on council tax revaluation, its support for the war in Iraq, its opportunistic stirring on asylum and immigration. And he's also caught bang to rights on his professed opposition to development north of Harlow, when the Harlow Conservatives have publicly supported the Harlow part of the regional plan for additional homes in the East of England.

Bill Rammell for Labour, meanwhile, is having to justify his support for Blair's war, for increased means testing of pensioners under Labour, for the tuition fees and top-up fees that at the last election he promised Labour would not introduce.

I'm in my element. Though naturally I'm not a supporter of hers, I remember one of Margaret Thatcher's last appearances at Prime Minister's Question Time, and her sudden exuberant whoop "Oh, I'm enjoying this! I'm enjoying this!" I know exactly how she felt. I'm having a wonderful time, but all too soon it's over. There's coffee and tea (fairtrade, naturally) at the back of the hall, and over the refreshments I learn that I'll be getting votes on 5 May from some quite unexpected quarters.

Run-down and over-stretched my body may be, but I return home bubbling with enthusiasm.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sporting chance

Towards the end of today's canvassing, Chris comes over to tell me there's a resident who wants to talk to me about sport for young people in Harlow. I walk over to the house in question, and knock on the door - to be greeted by a mum and three boys on their way out, the lads all dressed up in martial arts kit.

The dad has a lot to say about sports provision in Harlow. The new sports centre isn't built yet, and he's concerned about affordability. The Rugby Club has outgrown its present site, but building houses on it just isn't acceptable to the council (we'll have to see what the council decides about the Local Plan at its special meeting next month, and whether there'll be a second inquiry to settle the matter). The football pitches are often unplayable. And the council's budget savings have temporarily called a halt to activities at some of the local centres.

I explain that the council is keen to see the development of a local Sport Harlow body, bringing together local sports providers and those with a sports interest to develop a strategy for sport in the town. The new sports centre will be ready in a couple of years' time, but the present sports centre and pool will remain open until then. The new facilities will be run by the Sports Trust, just as the present sports centre is now. The new football stadium and athletics provision are on track (so to speak). And there's also a small amount of money in the Gateway scheme budget which we hope will help sort out the football pitches.

Meanwhile, information packs have been going out to the organisations interested in running services from the buildings the council's budget has left empty. The council will need to consider the bids, make decisions and finalise arrangements with the successful bidders. I hope we'll be able to see community activities running from those buildings before too long, and some optimism restored about the future for sport in Harlow - even though for the dad I'm talking to tonight, that's a little hard to imagine right now.

As I come to the end of another busy day, I ponder how long it is since I've had time to make use of my own gym card. Too long, if the bathroom scales are telling the truth - which I very much hope they're not.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Home and away

Today, the issue that's been one of the main items in the Liberal Democrat manifesto - our proposal to scrap Labour's proposal for council tax revaluation and replace it with a fair local income tax - suddenly features on the national media's radar, but only because the Tories have done the most spectacular and shameless U-turn on it. Only a month ago, the Tories backed Labour's revaluation of homes for council tax purposes; now, they're suddenly trying to claim they oppose it. What they'd do instead, they haven't said - probably because (as Michael Howard admitted a year ago) they don't know. Presumably they just want council tax (brainchild, after all, of Michael Howard when then in government) based on house values, but just with really out of date prices. At least the Lib Dem alternative, local income tax, has been clearly thought through and consistently argued.

In the evening, however, the focus locally turns away from domestic issues. It's the first hustings of the campaign, organised by the United Nations Association at St Andrew's Church Hall, with a focus entirely on foreign affairs. Four of the five candidates (myself, Labour, Tory and UKIP) are there - Veritas isn't. We're each allowed a two minute statement, and then it's over to the audience. Most of those present are already politically committed as members of a political party, so there's little likelihood of the evening's events changing any hearts and minds.

The questions are varied and interesting, from thoughts about North Korea to the role of the UN in relation to Cuba when Castro eventually dies. The chair, Rev Albert Watson, keeps proceedings on an even keel, and the meeting concludes in a friendly and orderly way. With so much focus in the election campaign on issues within our borders, it's good to have an election meeting that reminds us all that there's a big world beyond Britain in which there's an awful lot happening.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Doorstep challenge

It's fortunate that I like dogs, as out canvassing again tonight, one particular stretch is quite clearly dog city. There are big dogs, small dogs, black dogs, white and brown dogs, noisy dogs, quiet dogs, friendly dogs, nervous dogs - and one whose owner opens the door about two inches and wedges himself firmly in the space to talk to me "otherwise the dog'll go for you". It's clearly not a threat or a comment on our policies though, as he (owner, not dog) takes a Liberal Democrat poster.

People's willingness to stop and chat on the doorstep suddenly deteriorates after the first 45 minutes. At first we're surprised, then all becomes clear - we should have checked the TV schedules. Even the excitement of a General Election campaign is full swing is no match for the return of Phil Mitchell to Albert Square.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Getting organised

It's that stage of the campaign when all the things that have been so carefully organised for the last few months start reaching a conclusion. Nomination papers are confirmed as accepted by the council's election office, so that's a relief. Some of the worst 'election nightmare' stories on the political circuit over the years have revolved around rejected nomination papers, or papers that haven't been delivered to the town hall on time. There's some last-minute sorting-out needing to be done with the leaflet printing and delivery; but then, when did arrangements ever go according to plan?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Campaign cash

It's been a strange first full week of the campaign. Despite being the only party leader to know the date of the election for certain in advance, Tony Blair has seemed almost caught on the back foot. Michael Howard has been throwing everything he can at this campaign - asylum seekers, travellers, the lot - but his poll ratings today see the Tories in a worse position than at the beginning.

Meanwhile, at 23 per cent (according to Tory polling organisation YouGov) the Liberal Democrats achieve their best opinion poll ratings in any General Election campaign ever. Even former Tory MP Michael Portillo is quoted offering grudging admiration:
"the Liberal Democrats stand for something and their programme is radical. It sounds like what the Labour party ought to be saying. Yet there is something in it for Tory voters too. They will not like the tax changes but plenty will applaud the proposals on care for the elderly and university fees."
A relaxed dinner with colleagues in Old Harlow tonight is a chance to assess how it's all going so far, and share tales of campaigns in years gone by. The canvasser who trod in the voter's freshly laid cement path before the owner had even had a chance to pack away his tools. The visits to casualty after enthusiastic dogs bit off more than they could chew - finger-ends as well as half-posted leaflets.

The dinner raises a little more cash for the campaign. We can't hope to compete with the Tories, bankrolled as they are by big business - but election campaigns are expensive and every penny counts.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Meeting people

I'm not usually at my shining best at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning, but that's the hour when I have be at the Civic Centre. At least it's for a pleasurable event. The mayor of Prague 15 district, Jan, his deputy Marcella and several other elected representatives from the Czech Republic are here to visit, and to present the town with a bust of one of the first Czechoslovakian prime ministers, Anton Svehla. Since we last met, Jan has been elected as a senator in Prague, so through Marcella, who speaks English (Jan doesn't) we swap notes about election expense limits and campaigning tactics.

The relationship between Harlow and our Prague friends has continued to develop in recent years, and it's excellent to see them again. This time they've brought with them a photo exhibition of the sights of Prague, and it's certainly confirmed my intention to visit this very beautiful city.

After a brief pit-stop at Esquires for a coffee and croissant (no time for breakfast before I came out), it's on to join my team knocking on doors and meeting residents. We're back in Mark Hall again, and we meet up at the Small Copper, where we spend about twenty minutes in conversation with George the landlord before heading into one of the estates. A lot of people are out, but most of those who are at home are interested to stop and talk. A couple of hours later and we head back to the pub for a drink, and another chat with George and one of his regulars.

Cycling home through Mark Hall, I meet a Tory team out also canvassing. Anyone would think there was an election on.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Strategic partnership

This afternoon there's a meeting of the working group discussing the proposal for a 'strategic partnership' with the private sector to improve the way Housing and Street Scene services - everything from street cleaning and pest control to lighting and roofing - are provided in Harlow.

I unexpectedly find myself nominated to chair the meeting, which continues at some length, as the commercial issues we're discussing - presented to us by our management consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers and lawyers Nabarro Nathanson - are quite complex. The notice will be issued shortly inviting bids, and then after that we'll need to work through the process of evaluating and agreeing options.

I have an hour and half until the next meeting, so Nick and I decide to try out The Water Margin, the new Chinese buffet in the Water Gardens immediately below the Civic Centre. It's very good indeed, and we both value the break.

At eight o'clock it's the regular Friday night campaign team meeting. We update on our leaflet delivery and canvassing plans, and it's gone ten o'clock by the time we're done.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Any questions

This morning it's the Lib Dem manifesto launch, put off from a couple of days ago by the birth of the Kennedy baby. The sleek four-page tabloid newspaper is unveiled for the national press conference in London before 7:30am - but already a 228 page supporting briefing has landed in my email in-box. Shall I be environmentally unfriendly and print it out to read later - or ruin my eyesight and short term memory by trying to read and remember it on-screen?

The predominant interest from the media is the detail of our tax and spending plans. We've worked hard to make it very clear - there's even an online calculator to enable people to compare how much they'd pay in local income tax compared to the council tax.

I'm being interviewed by Rachael from the Harlow Star today, for an article that will appear in two weeks' time. I've spent some time this morning finalising and sending answers to a list of questions from the Star for them to print next week, on a range of issues. I also start the same task for the Herald, whose deadline is a week later.

It's threatening to rain, so I chicken out and book a cab instead of cycling into town - that means I can wear a skirt suit instead of trousers. We do the interview over coffee at Esquires; it's interesting that Rachael's first question is about Iraq - it's the first election for some time in which foreign policy has been so important in shaping public opinion. We discuss the NHS, school dinners, the environment, Stansted expansion and transport, and lots more. It's only afterwards that I realise my suit jacket is spattered with spaghetti sauce.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Loose ends

The day's news is dominated by the launch of the Labour Party's manifesto. It's all very well issuing 120 pages of new promises - what about the ones we've been waiting for since 1997? But I've got little time to sit around and watch TV; I've got email and post and phone calls to catch up on.

I've received an email asking whether Tory county councillor Derek Robinson responded to my letter last December about Goldsmiths elderly people's home. I reply, with a copy of Cllr Robinson's response and a link to the consultation he then kicked off on his proposal to privatise the home.

A resident in Lower Meadow rings me up about the request for a dropped kerb he made last month, to help him use his disabled buggy. Fortunately I'd chased that up with the council a few days ago, so I could tell him the latest state of play (which is that finally the council's multifarious departments seem to have agreed which one of them is responsible). I print out the council officer's email, and put it in my brought forward file for a week's time, so I can check that the housing department has been given the costings and things are on course.

The report of rubbish in garages at Risdens that I made on 10 February has been dealt with, so I move that file out of my Pending folder and file it away.

I write to the constituent who contacted me about the services for patients withdrawing from use of benzodiazepines, updating her on what I've found out so far; and to the Primary Care Trust too, asking their views on the current state of service provision to these patients.

The pile of paper shows a satisfying reduction in size by the time I've finished these and a host of similar tasks; a lot of loose ends tied up and matters resolved.

One moment of light relief deserves to be shared, however. A colleague emails me a link to a web page that has me falling off my chair with laughter. The flurry yesterday about the Tory candidate in Dorset faking his election picture has given rise to an online competition - if the Tory candidate could fake this photo, you can too; how would you do it better? Take a bow, James Smith.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Photo opportunity

The Harlow Star wants a photograph of me for its coverage of the election this week, so one of their photographers joins me as I deliver more copies of my Health Study in The Fortunes. The Tory candidate for Dorset South appears to have created something of a stir in today's news with his photograph of himself campaigning against (or was it for?) immigration. And of course the obvious news photo of the day is of Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah leaving St Thomas' Hospital with their new baby boy - I must send off that congratulations card I picked up in Sainsbury's today.

Monday, April 11, 2005

When computers ruled the earth

Everything today has seemed totally dominated by computers. Georgina has bought a new laptop (well, strictly speaking she's got me to order it online, and she's paying me back), and it's supposed to be delivered before noon today. She's effervescing all morning, and when it doesn't arrive by twelve there's a crash of disappointment. But it turns out it's only the delivery firm being about twenty minutes late - so all's right with the world again.

Meanwhile, my struggles with IT throughout the day are more irritating. I've got to email the files to the printer for my Freepost leaflet today - the one the Royal Mail delivers free of charge for each candidate ('free' in that the political parties have to pay for the printing, but not the delivery). They're huge and take ages, even with broadband. Then the printer comes back and asks for a revision on one of the files, so that needs sorting out. Finally, an email arrives from one of my team with data I need to pass on to our regional office - but I can't extract the data, so he has to re-send it before I can forward it.

Meanwhile, I catch up with the progress of the campaign on the BBC News website and by reading the regular email updates from party headquarters. Our planned national manifesto launch has been delayed because Charles Kennedy's heavily pregnant wife has been admitted to hospital. But the Tories have launched their manifesto today. It's a thin document, and hardly persuasive. There are very few ideas, and even those are to be paid for by 'fantasy economics' that just don't add up. No wonder their apparent early poll lead appears to be ebbing away. People aren't daft.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Yours sincerely

Having spent yesterday evening in Cambridge (out for dinner at Selwyn College and an overnight stay), we arrive back in Harlow at about 10:00am. Georgina has helpfully video'd the third episode of Dr Who for us - written by Mark Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, it's a real treat.

It's always a good idea to save up some clerical work to do when watching TV, so not a minute is wasted - there are a couple of hundred more acknowledgement letters to be signed for sending to residents who have responded to my NHS Study.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

On the doorstep

Out and about with the team again in the morning, knocking on doors in Mark Hall and talking to residents before the royal wedding starts. A number of issues arise repeatedly on the doorstep: the privatisation of Ashlyns elderly people's home, house prices escalating beyond the reach of young people starting out in life, and - over and over again - massive distrust of, and disillusionment with, Tony Blair.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Lobbying

The General Election campaign is an opportunity for a vast array of special interest organisations to present their views to candidates of all the parties. I've already received a large number of these, and a further flurry of envelopes and emails arrives today. The subjects these briefings cover are many and various - health, animal welfare, environmental issues, professional bodies, and much more besides. At a busy time, it's not possible to read, let alone answer, all these; but some stick in the mind more than others. In that category has to be a briefing I receive by email on my BlackBerry while snatching a quick meal in Bella Italia this evening: An Important Message from the British Toilet Association.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Question Time

The last Full Council before the elections can often be an intemperate affair; politicians are getting wound up by the campaigning and tempers can get frayed. The agenda looks harmless enough - some uncontentious references from council committees to be nodded through, and the one potentially hot issue (the Local Plan and the Maypole Club) deferred to a special meeting in May, with the agreement of all parties. By rights we should be out by nine o'clock.

Unfortunately, life seldom runs so smoothly. Tory councillor JP Goddard has decided to submit two written questions for the joint leaders of the council - one on the fresh proposals for the Tennis Club, and one on postal ballot fraud following the recent case in Birmingham. A quick look at the written answers from the Labour leader (I'm giving oral answers) shows JP his choice of subjects is ill-advised and he's going to lose the argument. He asks whether the questions and answers can be taken as read - but it's pointed out that it's up to the person answering the question whether the answer is read out or not. Then he tries to withdraw his questions altogether - but having asked for them to be taken as read, he's clearly indicated that they're on the agenda. The procedural nonsense adds nearly ten minutes to the length of the meeting.

The first question is whether, if the Tennis Club's new proposals get planning permission, the Lib Dem - Labour administration will support them. Our answer is that we can't possibly prejudge the planning application, or make a commitment before we've seen the detail, but that - unlike the old proposal backed by Cllr Goddard and the Tories, which Liberal Democrats consistently opposed - the new scheme doesn't concrete over green space or leave the council without a rental income for a hundred years. If we'd given in to Tory pressure to accept the old scheme, Harlow would have got a much worse deal than what's now on the table.

The second question is what steps have been taken to protect postal votes in Harlow from the type of electoral fraud that happened in Birmingham. I remind councillors that this is a matter for the returning officer, but that his powers are limited by legislation and that the Government should be making changes to the way elections are handled to make this type of fraud easier to spot and more difficult to get away with.

Neither of these questions seems terribly helpful to the Conservative campaign, and indeed the first one appears to have been entirely counter-productive for them. Perhaps they'll calm down again after 5 May.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A matter of opinion

No sooner is an election announced, than the opinion pollsters gather, like onlookers after a road accident. Every news medium carries a new opinion poll every day, with different companies surveying different populations in different ways.

According to today's Metro newspaper on the London Underground, the Liberal Democrats are in the lead among 4,000 'urbanites' (whatever they are) questioned - with 25 per cent of the vote against Labour's 24 per cent and the Tories' miserable 18 per cent.

Other polls are perhaps a little more sober. Tory polling organisation YouGov in the Sunday Times places Labour on 36 per cent, with the Conservatives on 34 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 22 per cent. Meanwhile, independent pollsters MORI place the Tories on 33 per cent, with Labour five points clear on 38 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 23 per cent. However, taking into account the views only of those "absolutely certain to vote", the Conservatives snatch a five point lead on 39 per cent, with Labour on 34 per cent and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent.

Of course it's all rumour and speculation. The polling organisations got it spectacularly wrong in 1992, predicting that the end was nigh for John Major's Tory government when in fact he ended up winning the General Election that year and sitting it out until 1997. They've been trying to recover their lost face ever since. And in the meantime all the political commentators commenting on each other's commentaries make easy column inches for the daily newspapers.

I don't mind the election anoraks whittering on so much - it's Peter Snow's 'swingometer' that really ought to be loaded into the nearest skip. How can he have the nerve to suggest it's relevant to modern British elections when there's a third party with over 20 per cent of the vote that his silly diagrams completely ignore? And of course, without a fair 'proportional representation' election system, the percentages are meaningless anyway - under our 'first past the post' system Tony Blair could be re-elected with a huge majority while getting a smaller share of the vote than one of the other parties.

The psephologists will carry on analysing their bar charts for another month to come. But it's real votes in real ballot boxes that will matter on 5 May. And if there's one thing that all pollsters are united on, it's that this coming General Election will be the most uncertain to predict for a long, long time.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The game's afoot

The long-expected announcement (probably the worst kept secret in the world) happens during the morning while I'm chairing a meeting of Harlow's Community Legal Services Partnership. In the afternoon I'm meeting the Bishop of Chelmsford (very astute and not at all bishop-ish), and it's such a busy day that it's only at 10:00pm on the BBC news that I see a surprisingly tense-looking Tony Blair say that he's asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament so that a General Election can be called. Perhaps he was put off his stroke when the day started with an announcement that Labour's parliamentary candidate for Ribble Valley has defected to the Liberal Democrats.

During the course of the day I receive an email from party leader Charles Kennedy wishing me and my team all the best; in the post, a small yellow teddy bear (now perched on my computer as a lucky campaign mascot) from the Liberal Democrats' Gender Balance Task Force, working to support women candidates in the party; and phone calls from our regional contact and from the Gender Balance co-ordinator.

In the evening I'm out with the Liberal Democrat team knocking on doors in Mark Hall and meeting residents. We're well received, and when it gets dark the team retires to Chris and Robert's for coffee and chat. The chief topic of conversation is the stinging verdict of judge Richard Mawrey in the much publicised case of the six Birmingham Labour councillors convicted over organised abuse of postal votes. The judge's comments that he has heard
evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic
have hit the headlines - and his condemnation of how the police investigation into this scandal was handled must surely make people in high places sit up and take notice. After this, the government must surely abandon its complacency about postal vote abuse and take action to ensure the security of people's votes, if the ballot on 5 May is to be trusted.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Medical notes

My postbag today contains a letter which makes me stop and think. It's from a local resident about the level of suitable support available for people who have been long term users of benzodiazepines. This group of tranquillisers includes familiar drugs such as Mogadon and Ativan, the so-called 'date rape' drug Rohypnol, and a host of others.

Countless patients have been prescribed these drugs, in some cases for many years, and the situation has been described as "a national scandal" (David Blunkett, 11 years ago) and "the world's biggest drug addiction problem" (Dr Vernon Coleman, nearly 20 years ago). It has been said that "it is more difficult to withdraw people from benzodiazepines than it is from heroin" (Professor MH Lader).

The letter takes me back nearly thirty years to my teenage times, when at the age of seventeen I had a nervous breakdown after sitting my A Levels. I was prescribed Valium, another of these benzodiazepines - but I was very fortunate to take them for only several weeks, and to be able to give them up fairly easily. The anti-depressants that followed were another matter, however; looking back now, it's quite extraordinary that I moved hundreds of miles and lived in four different places during the five or six years I was taking them, with GPs in all those places apparently quite happy to continue prescribing them while I took my degree, got married and so on, without ever talking to me about how to stop or offering support in doing so. In my early twenties and newly moved to Harlow, I took it upon myself to sort my own withdrawal programme out, and started spacing the tablets out further and further apart over a period of a few months until I didn't need them any more - but I was fortunate enough to be able to do so entirely under my own steam.

So this letter really does give me a lot to think about. It's clear that the medical profession seems such more alert these days to the problems associated with long term use of tranquillisers and anti-depressants. GPs are obviously being encouraged to broach with patients the idea of withdrawal, and there's quite a lot of 'self-help' information online, including a site specifically about addiction to benzodiazepines. But how much specialist support is funded, available, and actually meeting needs at the front line? Correspondence last year between expert Professor Heather Ashton and Rosie Winterton, the minister responsible at the Department of Health, suggests that all is not as it should be.

I leave a message with the local Primary Care Trust, who promise that someone will ring me back tomorrow to discuss sources of help and support available locally.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Weddings and funerals

Normally Sundays follow a fairly regular pattern in our household, but today is unusual. There's a meeting at 3:00pm to review our campaign plans. Blair was expected to call the election tomorrow, but it looks as if that'll be postponed a day or so in the light of the death of the Pope. Home Secretary Charles Clarke is worried that the delay will affect the "washing up" of all the parliamentary legislation that hasn't made it through the system yet, and that ID cards and his proposals to outlaw incitement to religious hatred will fail. (Personally, I'd be delighted if the ID card plans didn't make it onto the statute book). And, of course, Prince Charles and Camilla must be not a little concerned that their wedding plans will be thrown into disarray if the Pope's funeral is on Friday. It all puts our minor readjustments into perspective.

And talking of weddings, tonight is Jim and Linda Pailing's party to celebrate their first year of marriage. Jim is in his element as 'mine host', Linda is lovely as always and it's a really good evening.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

John Paul II

Today's events are dominated by the regular bulletins on the declining health of Pope John Paul II, and - just after 8:30pm - the news of his death. It's impressive to see the size of the crowd at the Vatican, and similar gatherings across the world; and in particular the numbers of young men and women paying their respects.

I'm not a Roman Catholic, and never have been, but his leadership has clearly been inspirational to a great many people and his 26-year presence on the world stage will be very much missed, even by many who disagreed with him on the very controversial matters on which he took such a conservative (in religious terms) stance.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Not quite meetings

It seems a day of meetings that haven't, quite. I can't attend the first one in my diary, at 11:00 am. The second meeting, with the Chamber of Commerce, is down in my calendar for 1:00 pm, but at 12:30 I get an anxious phone call asking where I am, as the meeting is supposed to have started at 12:00. I apologise for getting the time wrong, but as I'm going to be cycling out to the Harlow Business Park on Roydon Road for the meeting, I'll not get there before 1:00 anyway. It's a beautiful day for a cycle ride, and I arrive at 1:00 pm, only to be told I'd got it right anyway and I wasn't late after all.

My next meeting, the presentation of the Harlow 2020 Citizens awards, is at the College at 3:00. I can't stay long however, as I have a meeting at 3:30 pm at the Civic Centre - a great pity, as I'd much rather have stayed and taken part in the whole of the awards. As it is, my early departure has messed up the perfect scripting of the event, and Harlow MP Bill Rammell has to be me (a condition to which I'm sure he has long aspired!) for the duration of the speeches.

I'm late for the 3:30 pm meeting (it was so hard to tear myself away from the great stories of success and courage at the young people's awards), only to find it started earlier than that and I've missed quite a bit of it.

I have an 8:00 pm meeting in my diary too, but I'm not sure it's on, and on enquiring am relieved to find out that it isn't, and that I have a rare evening at home.

All in all, a bit of an odd day - not inappropriately for 1 April.
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