After a lengthy break due to the Local Elections in May and the General Election in June we are back to regular weekly by-elections (for now!) with results from 5 by-elections.
I do love a tour. I also love free stuff. So, when my good friend Kirk Taylor promised me not only a whistle stop tour of the mayoral campaign for Rod Cantrill in Cambridgeshire plus the county council election campaign plus a much-coveted “Rod for Mayor” mug (as seen recently at the York Lib Dem Pint) I was very much in!
After a reasonable journey through the English countryside (via the M25 and M11) I arrived in a village called Sawston to meet Kirk. After a cup of coffee and a catch-up we wrestled what has to be the largest orange diamond in existence into the back of his Fiat 500 (no mean feat I can tell you) and off we went.
First stop was a bit of canvassing just up the road in Great Shelford. We were canvassing on behalf of Peter Fane and Brian “bar chart” Milnes as the other candidate in Sawston and Shelford, as well as Rod Cantrill as the mayoral candidate for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We were knocking on the doors of postal voters and possible supporters, so the canvassing was very targeted. Finding people in was a challenge (but then it was the Bank Holiday weekend) however the response overall was good. I also was lucky enough to meet Peter as well as Alex, another member of the team. They carried on where we left off, proving that teamwork really does make the dream work.
The next stop was actually Waitrose for a spot of lunch! Then on to another village called Over for more lunch (well, a superb chocolate cake) and to catch up with Sarah Cheung-Johnson. She is a newbie who is standing in the county council by-elections for Longstanton and is one of the most inspiring candidates I have met in a long time. Inspired to join after the EU referendum last June; she is hard working, motivated and definitely one to watch for the future! Also, the large diamond we had shoehorned into the car was for her and it was good to pass it on.
The action day here (and they seemed to be happening all over Cambridgeshire that day) was a slick and organised operation. It was being hosted by another newbie called Anne. It is great to see so many new members getting stuck in and with such enthusiasm! We also bumped into former MP for Cambridge (and future MP with any luck) Dr Julian Huppert who was more than happy to pitch in and help with the campaign. The combination of new members and more experienced ones is great; it means that everyone learns something new and those of us who have been doing this for a while receive inspiration from the newbies who are always fired-up and ready to go!
After the obligatory campaign photos, we hit the village with Tom, a former councillor. Response here was a lot more positive; not only because people were in their homes which always helps, but those we were speaking to planned to vote for both Sarah and Rod! Local people here are unhappy with the way the Conservatives are running things and are certainly not happy with the prospect of a hard Brexit looming, therefore will not vote Conservative again on any level. Going out with someone who is well-known to local people is also a good boost; he was a face that everyone not only knew but were very happy to talk to. Tom is clearly still held in high regard which is heart-warming to see.
I left South Cambridgeshire filled with positivity and motivation. Everyone here wants to do well; they work well together as a team and are all in constant communication with each other. It is always great to visit a team that is organised, knows what they want to achieve and are willing to work across the division to achieve it. I was only sad not to catch up with John Berkeley-Grout who is another friend of mine working hard on the campaign team. I also did not get to meet the man himself; Rod Cantrill, however I suspect he was a bit busy elsewhere.
If you are at a loose end and fancy a day out in beautiful countryside twinned with some positive canvassing, then this would be a good place to be. From what I saw in Longstanton and Sawston we can easily win this one back from the Tories, but of course the team always need help. Especially as this was an area that only lost by 1% in the 2015 General Election, meaning that nothing should be taken for granted. Looking at recent polls in the local press, it would appear that Rod is the only alternative to the Conservatives in this area. I can promise a warm welcome, lots of positivity, beautiful countryside and maybe cake. I can’t promise a free mug though.
I must be mad. On Saturday 8th April, all my friends were getting ready to enjoy the unexpected beautiful weather; group chats filled with beach days out, park trips, barbeques or even just the promise of a lay-in and a trip to the pub garden. Not for me; I had decided that the good weather was a great opportunity for a campaigning trip!
This week’s destination was Newhaven to help the team down in Lewes. In typical fashion I was running late (those that know me know I am always running late) but thankfully I could put my foot down on the motorway. I made it to Newhaven just a bit before 11am.
Sadly, my tardiness meant that I had just missed the morning rush. That was ok. This meant I had time to meet some of the team and chat about the campaign over a nice cup of coffee (essential) and some envelopes that needed addressing.
It was clear that this was a much larger operation than I am used to, certainly at council by-election level. I’ve planned and run Action Days in the past and they have been smaller affairs than this and I’ve attended quite a few in my (short) time too. So, it was comforting and motivating to know that around forty-five people had signed in so far and more were expected in the afternoon!
I think it is worth pointing out just how much work goes into planning and organising an Action Day. For starters, a hall had been hired and decorated. This made the perfect base for activists to swing by, update the team, get a cup of tea (and of course more leaflets), rest their legs for half an hour and get back out there! Banners and balloons adorned the outside; what better way to make your presence known in the town. Also, kids love balloons! Promoting the Lib Dems with a bright yellow helium balloon which can be tied to a pushchair or carried round all day is a great idea.
Inside was a hive of activity. Holding things down were Kelly-Marie Blundell as the Parliamentary Candidate for Lewes and George Taylor who was keeping an eye on all the available areas for leafleting and canvassing, ensuring everyone signed the sheet and taking plenty of all important pictures. There were other people also present to oversee indoor activities such as feeding and watering the troops (very important) and the addressing and stuffing of envelopes. The latter task is a great way to get involved if you don’t feel confident or able to get out on the streets. Anyone who has done it will tell you what a vital task this is as it frees up other people to get out and perform other tasks. Every contribution matters.
After a hearty lunch of soup and cake I hit the streets. I was with Newhaven candidate Sarah Osborne. She spoke passionately of neglect in Newhaven by the Conservative councillors and how cuts to the local budget had affected schools and roads in the area. Reception on the doorstep was mixed, however it was a great boost having a local councillor on the team as he was well-known in the area and able to drum up support where possible. I suppose this is where the excellent weather was counter-productive; the majority of residents were out enjoying the sunshine so we were unable to talk to them! However, quite a few that I had spoken to had genuinely not made up their minds yet and were receptive to Sarah’s message. I’m positive she will get a good result.
There are lots of great campaigns up and down the country right now. From mayoral campaigns to county campaigns to the parliamentary by-election up in Manchester Gorton; there is plenty for activists to get their teeth into. I am a bit nomadic by nature; I like getting out, meeting new people and doing something different. Believe me, campaigning outside of your local areas is different! I guarantee you will always learn something; a new skill or a new way of doing things you hadn’t thought of before for example. I can’t emphasise enough how great it also is to meet new people and make new friends. In addition, it’s extremely motivating for those on the campaign to see people who have come from miles away just to help out. I remember this from my own campaigns and this was confirmed by a few of the members upon hearing how far I had come.
My message to newbies and fellow activists is this; it pays to get out of your comfort zone and go somewhere new. You don’t have to travel as far as I do, there’s so much going on at present that there’s probably an active campaign going on in your next-door town (if you aren’t working on one already of course). To more established members: promote your action days wherever you can as you never know who may be able to help you out.
Overall this was a very positive day. The team down here are clearly extremely organised and very motivated. I suspect they will do very well come 4th May, however if you fancy coming down I’m sure they will be very grateful for the help. All that’s left to say is good luck, thanks for having me and thank you for making me feel so welcome!
The Liberal Democrats have taken an early Easter break in by-elections this week with there being no candidate in either of the two principle council by-elections taking place on the 13th April 2017.
After a week off last week with no by-elections we are back this week with four principle council by-elections and the Liberal Democrats are back to winning ways.
With just the 3 Principle Council by-elections, one without a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, and the other two where the Liberal Democrats didn’t stood a candidate in years it looked like a quiet night was in store…
In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.
Electoral systems in use
Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.
Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.
For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.
Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.
So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?
Electoral reform in the UK
One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.
But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.
At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.
It was a quiet set of results in last night’s Principle Council By-Elections with none of the 4 seats contested changing hands.
Yesterday there were seven principle council by-elections and with Liberal Democrat candidates in all seven, including two with no recent past Liberal Democrat candidates, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
This week saw four Principle Council by-elections including a Liberal Democrat defence, a town council by-election, and City Council that is in fact more like a town council by-election (no disrespect Wells!).