Why the Electoral Reform Society needs reform!

With the elections to the Electoral Reform Society about to begin a few friends have asked me why I have decided to contest such an election. Normally I am more interested in the cut and thrust of a General Election or a by-election.

Some of this blogs readers will know that I came back into campaigning politics at the end of last year when Andy May employed me to take on the North West region for the Yes campaign in the referendum on AV. Although the campaign was at times totally ineffective and depended far too much on poorly founded concepts of campaigning, the people involved in it reminded me of why I became involved in politics 25 years ago. They wanted change and were going to work their hearts out to get that change. We were all disappointed by the result, that much is obvious, but we were also angry. Angry because the ‘strategic’ leadership of the campaign was poor and really blunted the campaigning effectiveness of the campaign.

I have been told many times by ‘experts’ that we were never going to win, but the problem with such a poor campaign I am not content to simply accept that electoral reform, however dry it may appear to the electorate, was not something that people were happy to support if a good argument was put forward. We did not. And we did not because the organisations which were founded to promote electoral reform were not fit for the purpose that the referendum required of them.

To make them fit for purpose we first start with the Electoral Reform Society, it is the foundation stone of the constitutional reform sector, but has little influence beyond its immediate supporters. The campaign to win the next referendum and to influence government to back STV for local  in England and Wales must begin now, with a purpose of renewal in the organisation.

Firstly, ERS must become a mass membership organisation. Membership has increased massively during and following May, but with membership just over 5000 it can hardly be judged as a mass movement which is going to promote change in these areas.

Secondly, it must have a campaigning focus. ERS has historically been a research based and lobbying group. In an age where politicians are much more affected by direct campaigns aimed at them, rather than being promoted behind the scenes. Just look at how effective people can be in making politicians think again over issues like the sale of forests. It takes co-ordination and leadership and ERS must be the changemaker in this movement.

Finally, ERS must become much more mainstream. I joined the SDP in the 1980s and we slowly learned that going around just promoting PR would not win us the argument. I am committed to STV but we must also attract more people to the cause of constitutional reform and democratic change through other means. Lords reform and votes at 16 are obvious, but we must also engage people who want to see press ownership reform and party funding reform. If ERS can be at the centre of this national campaign of renewal, then ERS will have greater relevance and, as a consequence, there will be more chance of winning the argument for electoral reform when the next opportunity comes.

This is why I am standing for ERS Council.

Goldsmith to the right of me, Goldsmith to the left of me, Goldsmith’s in front of me, I marched into the interview…

The interview was the strangest I have ever had, which would you pick The Guardian, The Telegraph or The Morning Star...?

All this discussion of Zac Goldsmith, and his apparent lack of desire to pay the UK Taxman and Lord Goldsmith and his apparent uncertainty as to the legality of the war in Iraq, has reminded me of my visit to Goldsmith’s College 20 years ago.

It was my second choice University, but as I was very keen to study History in London I arrived at the interview in good time.

I was taken by a very large lady to a chair, placed outside the office of the Professor I was due to see for my interview.

After about 10 minutes the previous person, as I thought, came out of the interview room and said that I should go in.

Behind the desk all I could see was a copy of The Times and a rising plume of pipe smoke coming up from behind it.  Thinking this would end fairly soon I just waited patiently.

After a few more minutes of pipe smoke and page turning I noticed that there were three newspapers neatly place, pointing at the candidate’s chair.  They were The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Morning Star.

I divined after a few more minutes that the Professor behind the paper was not intending to stop reading his paper so I decided to pick up one of the newspapers sitting in front of me.

Having never seen a copy, let alone read a copy, of the The Morning Star before I picked it up and started reading. 

After a few seconds at last came the first evidence that the man on the other side of the table even recognised my existence.  He grunted, ‘why did you pick that one?’

I responded with the answer that I had never seen it before, let alone read it so I thought I would take the opportunity.

‘Hmmm,’ he said, ‘we’ll offer you two Cs, will that be OK?’ I responded it would and for the next 30 minutes we just chatted about politics, and why I had joined the SDP, not the Liberal Party.

As I didn’t take the place up I never discovered what the offer would have been if I had taken The Guardian or The Telegraph.

Tarquin Fintim-Limbim-Whimbim-Lim Bus Stop-F’Tang-F’Tang-Olé-Biscuit-Barrel – 238 votes, but Shirley Williams (SDP/Liberal Alliance) 28,118…

The 'Gang of Four' set out to break the mould of British politics and Shirley Williams was to become the first elected SDP MP, 28 years ago today...

With 28,118 votes Shirley Williams gained the formerly strongly Conservative seat of Crosby. The by-election took place at an almost unprecedented state of division in British politics.  With social unrest and both the Labour and Conservative parties in a state of flux.

The SDP had, at this point, not elected any MPs but did have an ever-growing group of former Labour and Conservative MPs in Parliament, as shown at its launch earlier that year. 

A few months earlier Roy Jenkins had failed to gain my hometown seat in the Warrington By-election despite a massive swing from Labour, and Shirley Williams was promoted as the potential SDP candidate for the Crosby by-election.  Although the seat was one of the wealthiest in the North West of England the party felt that Shirley would be the best candidate for the seat, having links with Liverpool, through her father, and with her being a practising Roman Catholic.

Always an effective and energetic campaigner Shirley ran a high visibility campaign and romped home in an historic win. It effectively delivered the SDP a 50% swing, which would have elected a House of Commons, if replicated across the UK, full of Alliance MPs.

It was probably, at that point, the most significant post-war by-election. Although there were important Liberal gains like Orpington, there was for a very short time a genuine belief that the SDP, with their Liberal allies, could ‘Break the Mould’ in British politics, and Shirley’s win 28 years ago today was a major moment in that.

Tarquin Fintim-Limbim-Whimbim-Lim Bus Stop-F’Tang-F’Tang-Olé-Biscuit-Barrel contested the election as Cambridge University Raving Loony Society polling 238 votes. Those of you who are Monty Python fans will recognise the gentleman concerned as being the winner of Luton in the 1970 ‘Election Night’, for the Silly Party. He later joined forces with Screaming Lord Sutch of the larger Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

Leaflets and the full results from the by-election can be seen here.

We were ushered into the Mayor of Neuilly’s office, little did I know 20 years later he would become a star of The Simpsons and the 23rd President of France…

President Sarkozy invited us in for coffee and biscuits when he was Mayor of Neuilly

Speaking about French ‘A’ Levels, one of those things you never realise is who people are before they become famous.  This is true of people you went to school with but is equally true about people you meet as you go through life.

My school arranged an exchange trip for those studying French, in my case for ‘A’ Level.  The school we were twinned with was in the leafy suburbs of Paris.  It was a nice school, with lots of very keen students who were really enthusiastic about having English students in their midst.

As part of our fortnight with them we were lodged with students’ families and went on a number of trips as part of our tuition, including to the Champagne Caves of Epernay, though I personally think this was more for the benefit of the teachers, rather than the students.

Knowing my interest in politics the teachers at the school arranged for a few of the English students to go as a delegation to meet the Mayor of Neuilly, the suburb in which the school was based.

We were ushered into an office where a diminutive man, with moderate English, invited us to sit down. We discussed politics, he was a conservative, at the time I was a Social Democrat. I don’t know how well that translated in the French context, but nonetheless the busy mayor was interested to know about British politics and was a very warm and hospitable host. He made sure that we felt very welcome and thanked us for fostering good relations between our nations.

These are the sorts of events that happen to everyone really, but when reading  about Nicolas Sarkozy appearing on the Simpsons I looked up his Wikipedia biography and I noticed that in the 1980s and 1990s he had been a Mayor in a suburb of Paris. 

My curiosity was instantly sparked, surely it couldn’t be the same guy who had once welcomed us into his office for coffee and a chat?! Nicolas Sarkozy was Mayor of Neuilly between 1983 and 2002. Our exchange trip was in the Spring of 1987.

Chalk up the President of France as one of the most famous people I have met!

‘Paddy Ashdown to welcome former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats today…’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 5 – Have a good hook in your press release!

The press release acted as the perfect hook for the local media who knew of the ongoing split between the Lib Dems and the continuing SDP

‘Today Paddy Ashdown will be welcoming former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats,’ read the press release. Myself and the local PPC decided that, in this desperate time for the party, we should try something creative to get the media interested in our campaign.

It was, of course the real Paddy Ashdown, but the David Owen in question was not former Foreign Secretary, David Owen MP.  It was a local student member of the continuing SDP had decided that, following the gradual decline of David Owen’s SDP he would join the local Liberal Democrats, and the visit of the newly elected Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, was a perfect opportunity to get the press involved.

So, duly we arrived in the local town centre with Paddy and David to what can only be described as a Lancastrian media scrum, which Paddy had to gradually let down the local media as he explained that he was delighted to be welcoming the student Social Democrat, David Owen.

Nonetheless the photo call went off well and it made an excellent piece in the local papers. 

The visit was in 1989, a particularly bad year for the Liberal Democrats, and any publicity was very welcome, as we had just polled 6% across the UK in the European Elections.

I seem to remember most of the rest of the afternoon was spent with Paddy trying to buy a pair of shoes off in the local shops!
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice