Gordon Brown’s deathbed conversion to electoral reform has certainly stirred up some interest in our electoral system. And not a little cynicism about why, despite having a commitment to electoral reform in their 1997 manifesto it has taken until now to do anything about it.

It seems to confirm that Brown’s strategy is to play for a messy draw at the polls. Perhaps at night, as he rests his weary head, he fantasises about a minority Conservative government struggling with public finances and making themselves unpopular, while the population start to yearn for the good old days of Brown and, eventually, he is carried aloft on the shoulders of a loving (and repentant, how dare they have rejected him?) public back into Downing Street.

But what I’ve not really seen is any defence of our first past the post electoral system. A system I rather like.

“Well, you are a Tory,” you may snort, “and of course you don’t want change.” But I have actually changed my opinion on a number of constitutional issues. Having been fiercely proud of our unwritten constitution after 13 years of seeing our rights and liberties eroded I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of having a written constitution and bill of rights. I used to see the benefit of hereditary peers, but now recognise that for the one or two whose life experience enhanced the second chamber there were many more who added nothing to our Parliament other than a few minutes attendance to claim their allowances. And while I enjoy traditions like election night, I’m far from wedded to it and see no point in keeping something that – really – seems to be surviving purely because political anoraks want it.

But I do like the electoral system, even though it is currently weighted against the Conservatives to the extent that we could win the vote by a decent margin and still lose the election. I won’t pretend my reasons are novel, they aren’t, they are the same old arguments you’ve heard before. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good arguments.

For a start, first past the post delivers good results. And by good results I mean decisive results. Since the war it has tended to reflect the public mood rather well. In 1945 it produced the massive victory for Clement Attlee to start the building of post-war Britain. Then it switched between Tory and Labour administrations to reflect the country’s preference for (Butskellite) paternalistic government. It gave us Thatcher to rescue us from the failings of 70s intervention and (to prove that I can see the other side of arguments) it gave us Blair to rescue us from Thatcherism.

The consistent theme is that it provides us with strong governments, but can produce decisive change when that change is needed.

I was having an interesting conversation the other day about whether politics should be representative (essentially that politicians should try to change and adapt to reflect the prevailing public mood on any issue at any time) or should be about leadership (politicians should present their beliefs and policy platform, then deliver on that if elected and stand on that record at a subsequent election). While it isn’t black and white I tend to favour the latter; politics should be about more than just representing the results of a referendum of public opinion, or passing on the opinions of a focus group. First past the post means we can have strong leadership and government.

Having said that ironically, first past the post does lend itself to that more representative form of democracy – since there is a direct link between a member and their constituency. There is none of the mess of multi-member constituencies or party selected lists. People vote for their member and he or she represents their interests. This link, I would contend, is a strength.

But most importantly it keeps power with the people – even if they delegate it every five years – and keeps our politics in the mainstream. Instead of coalitions agreed between party leaders we have governments chosen by the changes in public opinion. Germany was a great example of how a third party dominated politics by effectively deciding who won the election it was only a few years ago that an election, rather than the third party’s whim, actually changed their government. And because it means parties have to appeal to a broad spectrum of the public if they are ever to stand a chance of winning a seat it means extremism remains marginalised. We would not have seen the BNP winning seats in the European Parliament under the old first past the post system. Is it fair that small parties are effectively doomed to constant electoral defeat? Perhaps not. But when it’s the BNP, are you going to complain?

What we really need is a shift in power in the country. Not by changing the electoral system, but from the government to Parliament, so the votes that people cast don’t just make a difference when aggregated nationally, but make a difference locally. We need MPs who have real power to hold the government to account and make a difference to their constituency. That would start to produce a real change and help address the massive disaffection people have with the political process.

Making votes matter isn’t about knowing that your vote elected 1/60,000th of an MP somewhere. It’s about knowing that whoever is elected can make a difference.

Sadly though, unless you can spin that into something that might convince Brown it would save his skin, it isn’t going to be taken up by this Prime Minister.

The UK has finally left recession. As Gordon Brown repeatedly told us, we were one of the best placed economies to weather the storm – although quite how that tallies with being the last major economy to see growth and having the longest recession since current records began escapes me.

What is interesting to me, is how Jobseekers Allowance claims in Wandsworth appear (and I stress appear) to have followed economic growth. Previously there has been a lag, with unemployment increasing after the recession has ended. JSA is only a proxy for unemployment (many people who are unemployed choose not to claim, or are ineligible) but its recent plateau seems to mirror the plateau in the economy. Whether this is coincidence, or a sign that the nature of recessions has changed, remains to be seen.

It’s not a dynamic end to the recession – only 0.1% growth in the provisional estimate – but a positive sign.

I doubt it has escaped anyone’s attention that 2010 is going to be an election year. In London we are faced with the prospect of a double header, with people electing their MPs and their councillors on the same day (since Brown seems to have inadvertently ruled out a March election in his interview with Andrew Marr).

Towards the end of last year Labour activists seems significantly buoyed by a series of polls that showed them only nine or ten points behind the Conservatives in polls. Frankly I was bemused that it caused such delight amongst Labour activists. Surely a nine point deficit is not a cause for celebration, after all, their margin of victory in 2005 was significantly less, just 3%. In 2001 when they had a 247 seat majority their margin of victory was 9%. In moral terms, if not electoral, a 9% deficit is not a cause for celebration. But as I’ve touched on before, the currently distribution of seats means that, on a uniform swing, the Conservatives need to win by more than 8% to be able to form a government.

While visiting family over Christmas I watched my team – Grimsby Town – lose and I realised why Labour are so happy with such a poor result. It’s a symptom of their abject lack of ambition for themselves and the country.

If you are a fan of a struggling football team (Grimsby have spent all season in the relegation zone, and only retained league status last season because other teams had hefty points deductions for going into administration) you will know the mentality. You go along to the game expecting defeat, but heartily support even the most minor sign of positive play on the pitch.

At Blundell Park we had about 80 minutes of misery before the last ten minutes when the players finally gave us something to cheer about – and cheer them on we did. We were hoping for a miracle that never came. But hope is what it was all about.

And such is the lot of the Labour supporter. They know they have lost the arguments and Brown’s administration has been nothing short of a disaster. But they support the Labour team, so they have to cheer when something gives them hope. They know the electoral maths are stacked against the Conservatives, so now it isn’t really about winning; it’s about clinging on.

Just as a Grimsby fan dreams of clinging onto league status rather than seeing a cup-winning hat-trick at Wembley, Labour are dreaming of somehow clinging onto power at the election. And how that happens is unimportant. If they have to rely on the electoral system, so be it. If they have to rely on tired old cliches, so be it. If they have to rely on some bizarre form of class envy, that’s all right too.

And it might just work for them. They have lowered expectations so much that, combined with the expenses scandals, people probably don’t expect to get that much from a government. It’s almost as if their campaign slogan is “Brown: he may be a comical incompetent, but he’s your comical incompetent. Vote Labour.”

To a degree the Conservatives have helped by talking about the problems Brown has created that the next government will have to fix. Sensible enough, they will face some tough decisions if they win power and it’s right to prepare the electorate for that. But it’s hard to motivate people to vote for you unless you are offering something positive, if it’s going to be bad whoever gets in you might as well stick with what you’ve got.

It is the nature of political parties to seek power. That is their raison d’être. However, it becomes a real problem when that is all they are doing – it would be a disaster for the country if Brown somehow manages to do just that.

There are many things for which I would criticise the Prime Minister. Having bad hand-writing because he is half-blind and making some spelling mistakes are not on that list.

That he has was a story that, at first, I let pass me by. But the more I have thought about it the more distasteful I have found The Sun‘s attitude and the more I have found myself respecting Gordon Brown.

I can only try and imagine the horror of losing a child – if I’m honest, it isn’t something I particularly want to imagine – so Ms Janes has my sympathy. As does the Prime Minister who, though in totally different circumstances. It seems to me that letters of condolence, whoever they are from can do little to soften the blow.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be written.

I, fortunately, will never have to write a letter like those the Prime Minister is writing to the families of fallen service men and women. That Gordon Brown takes the time, even if they do have spelling mistakes and bad hand-writing, to write them personally and send them without them being checked – so they are directly from him – is admirable

For the paper to reveal they have a recording of his subsequent call to Ms Janes raises even more questions. How many people have tape recorders at the ready by their phone? I can only guess; but if you forced me I’d be far more likely to think the paper is taking a Prime Minister with a track record of bad spelling and handwriting and using the anger of a grieving mother to make a story where none should exist.

We can make political points about the war and about his handling of it all day long. We shouldn’t be trying to make political points from letters like this – and I’m not sure what point The Sun is trying to make: that the Prime Minister doesn’t know each soldier personally, that he doesn’t get letters like this triple-checked by an array of Civil Servants, that he deliberately set out to upset a grieving mother and family.

Gordon Brown tried to write a letter to offer some comfort to the mother who lost her son in Afghanistan, an impossible task. For trying so personally, he deserves our praise, not our condemnation.

Every Prime Minister has a biscuit. Thatcher was a bit of a garibaldi; a lot of people loved her, but a lot of people hated her. Major was a rich tea; honest and decent, but a bit bland and – frankly – other biscuits do the job better. I’d go for Blair as a pink wafer; they can look quite nice, in a certain light, but they don’t really have all that much substance when you to get down to it.

And biscuits are important too – the BBC, perhaps still sensitive from Anton du Beke and Bruce Forsyth’s brush with racism, pulled repeats of This Week because of a potentially racist biscuit comment.

So how will biscuit history define Brown. Will he be a versatile digestive or a beloved Hobnob? A nostalgic Sport biscuit or something classy by Fox’s?

My foray into biscuits was prompted by a post on LabourList, it seems Brown was never asked the question when on Mumsnet. This has just come to light – and LabourList felt compelled to tell the world.

So let’s create a biscuit timeline:-

16 October
Brown takes part in Mumsnet discussion – keeps silent on biscuit issue

17 October
Aware of questions over his premiership, but conscious of the biscuit vote in key marginals Brown declares his fondness for “anything with chocolate”. Doesn’t mention that he was never asked about biscuits

18 – 26 October
Brown and Mumsnet don’t point out that he was never asked

27 October
Mumsnet decide to reveal he was never asked. Country breathes easy that they still haven’t hard, biscuit-based evidence that the PM can’t make decisions.

Actually, LabourList is missing the point. The relevant facts here aren’t whether or not he was asked to name his favourite biscuit. It’s that no-one questioned the credibility of the story. No-one, when they heard it thought, “hold on, that doesn’t sound like our Prime Minister”. People just took it at face value because, when it comes down to it, the country really doesn’t believe Gordon is capable of high-level decision making on major issues – they don’t even believe he’s capable of deciding on his favourite biscuit. He’s a ditherer.

It’s just another example of his failings as a leader.

So, those important questions. My favourite biscuit is a Hobnob (plain, not chocolate), although I have to give special mention to the digestive simply because it works so damned well with cheese.

And what do I think Brown is? I reckon a Crawford’s Shortbread. It looks all right, but actually it’s a cheap biscuit that isn’t really up to the job and leaves a messy sludge at the bottom of the mug that someone has to clear up.

Dried (and presumably ornamental) fruit at the Old York Road Fun Day
Dried (and presumably ornamental) fruit at the Old York Road Fun Day

Old York Road Fun Day
I popped along to the Old York Road Fun Day last Sunday. The last (I think) of this year’s street party style events supported by the council and town centre partnerships. A fantastic day and definitely bigger and better than previous years. Congratulations to all involved in organising it.

Labour Party conference
There is no doubt that the Labour Party conference has dominated the news and politics for the past week.  To me it seemed they had a promising start.  The issue of Gordon Brown’s alleged medication needs turned into sympathy for the Prime Minister and there were some good early performances by key ministers in his government.

Unfortunately it turned bad with the Prime Minister’s speech, that – I believe – wasn’t enough and certainly left The Sun thinking it was time for change. Whether The Sun‘s decision proves a motivator for Labour Party activists remains to be seen, but I can’t help but think Brown missed his best opportunity to remedy his dire situation.

Business Support
Last night I attended the last of our business support seminars which have been running around the borough to provide help and advice to businesses during the recession.

The event provided local businesses the opportunity to hear from professionals from the world of property, tax and insolvency and to network and mingle with them and other business support services afterwards.

Despite the recession I have real pride that Wandsworth is a business borough. While most of the credit for this belongs to the businesses, I can’t not point out the work that the council’s Economic Development Office do in supporting businesses, assisting new businesses to start or set-up in Wandsworth and make sure the council is as business friendly as possible.

Monkey MusicMy emasculation was completed this morning when I took MiniMe to Monkey Music for the first time.

It had to happen sooner or later, and while I’m obviously a proud and doting Dad I can’t help but be aware that as the sole man in a room full of mothers (and nannies) and children I am not fulfilling my gender stereotype.

Now, you might think this is a welcome break from politics and conference related postings, but sadly it isn’t. While I’m not going to discuss Brown’s speech (far better people than have done analysis on it) or The Sun‘s switch back to the Conservatives (was anyone really surprised?) I have been thinking about his proposals for teen mothers – more vulgarly know as ‘gulags for slags’.

While MiniMe and I were on our forced march around a community centre hall to martial music (well, something about rain) it struck me that this was parental responsibility in action. Was I particularly enjoying it? Perhaps not. Did I feel self-conscious? Most definitely. But was I part of a group who were taking responsibility for their child’s upbringing and development (even if outsourcing it to a nanny)? Absolutely.

We were on a forced march of responsibility. But oddly enough, we were there voluntarily. It was our responsibility, our duty, as parents. But this is a government that doesn’t seem to understand concepts like personal responsibility or freedom. They are, after all, the party that are suggesting sending leaflets to parents reminding them they are responsible for their child’s discipline.

And while we were there voluntarily Brown was going to compel teen mums on that route. No bad thing, a Daily Mail reader might say. But I cannot help but be shocked at the message this sends.

He is, in essence, saying to everyone around the teen girl, and the girl as well, that they need not take responsibility because the state can happily step in. Her parents need not worry themselves, as once they might, about the care of the child. And we certainly don’t want to trouble the father. No, the state is there and can take care of such problems. Behave as you wish, with no regard for the consequences because when you find yourself unable to cope because you can’t afford it or are too immature the state will bail you out.

And our prudent Prime Minister is also keen to point out that this is a cheaper way of looking after them. Well, fair enough, but then large dormitories would be a better way of providing social housing. And a return to workhouses might be a cost-effective way of tackling unemployment. Or is he saving these ideas for the election?

When you consider what the policy actually means – an extension of the state into people’s personal lives and an abrogation of personal responsibility – use of the phrase gulag isn’t that inappropriate.

The council goes into a mini-hibernation during party conference season, partly because so many councillors attend their conferences. This doesn’t, however, apply during the Liberal Democrat conference for the simple reason that there are no Liberal Democrats on Wandsworth council. We have been in the fortunate position of being a two party council and, despite some opportunistic campaigning, the Liberal Democrats have never made inroads in Wandsworth on a council or Parliamentary level.

And this week’s conference can’t have given them any confidence they will be seeing a breakthrough at the next election.

It seemed doomed from the start. Nick Clegg’s decision to use the phrase “savage cuts” was wrong. Lib Dems are regularly (and arguably rightly) pilloried as trying to be all things to all people. But suddenly we had a leader who seemed to relish being more macho than the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition in his approach to public spending. The problem with the word ‘savage’ is that it doesn’t imply much intelligence. From being leader of a party that straddled the centre he was now the leader proposing indiscriminate cuts.

It wasn’t helped when the sainted Vince Cable announced to delegates, and his colleagues, ideas for a property tax. His reputation was further tarnished by a number of interviews when he didn’t come across as the super-economist his publicity paints.

And (although it might just be that I’m over-sensitive as a Conservative) when it seemed they were as keen to give as much conference time to knocking the Tories as highlighting their own policies you begin to realise that their aspirations of becoming the second party in British politics, or Nick Clegg’s desire to be Prime Minister, are pipe-dreams rather than realistic ambitions.

But the biggest problem they faced this year is that they were never going to be any more than a side-show.

This year the game is between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. And it’s the Labour Party conference that is the main event. David Cameron only needs to put in a competent performance. If he avoids the pitfalls of making policy from the podium and unthinking posturing he will have had a successful conference. We need to continue setting out our stall and outlining what a Conservative Britain will look like, but fireworks aren’t needed.

The fireworks will come next week, as the beleaguered Prime Minister tries to do the impossible and re-assert his authority. The papers are running rumours about resignation on vague ‘health’ grounds and we’ve already had the traditional call for him to go from Charles Clarke and there are going to be plenty more mutterings about the PM’s position in Brighton. If Nick Clegg had a bad week, he can at least take comfort that Gordon Brown is almost certain to have an even worse conference.

There is something about an end-of-life Government that draws attention to the flaws. There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s not as if they were never there, but somehow your attention is just drawn to them. Governments, it seems, never die with dignity.

And the latest indignity is Baroness Scotland. An error that once would have been in the headlines for a day or two now takes on a much larger significance. Her survival is not so much about what she did, or didn’t, do when hiring her housekeeper, but about the strength of the Prime Minister. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time with the Labour Party conference next week focusing attention on the Prime Minister and his leadership – it has become yet another bit of tittle tattle to focus attention on the failings of his administration.

I confess I’m finding it hard to feel that Baroness Scotland has committed a major sin. I have never asked anyone working in my home for proof that they are entitled to work in this country. It is a hallmark of modern Britain – and Europe – that workers are frequently from other countries.

The argument that, as the government’s senior legal officer and one of the ministers who piloted the relevant legislation through Parliament Scotland should have known better is a powerful one, to be sure. But I’m not sure that is really the killer blow. Frankly, she’s made a mistake. A mistake she shouldn’t have made, and one with which a lot of people will have no sympathy (there are few people who can afford to hire housekeepers, illegally or not), but a fairly simple mistake in not keeping copies of the relevant paperwork.

No, the killer blow for her will be whether Gordon Brown can keep her in the face of criticism from other parties and, potentially, his own backbenches. I’m sure there are plenty of other MPs who have made similar arrangements and will be busy making photocopies of the relevant documents over the next few days, but this doesn’t change the simple fact that this is an issue opposition parties can push to make life uncomfortable.

And for them it’s a win-win situation. Whether Baroness Scotland stays of goes is fairly irrelevant. If they get her scalp they have shown the Prime Minister’s weakness. Even if they don’t it becomes part of the steady drip-drip of the dying administration.

Thinking back to Major’s last administration, how many of the people involved in the sleaze and scandals can you remember. Most would remember David Mellor, although ironically for the Chelsea shirt he never actually wore with Antonia de Sancha. Then there’s Neil Hamilton, who most would probably get because of his subsequent (and rather undignified) career as a ‘celebrity’. Jonathon Aitken has possibly faded into obscurity with the general public. And I’d bet names like Graham Riddick or David Tredinnick would be met with blank stares from most members of the general public.

What people do remember is the feeling. A feeling that the Conservatives were sleazy (even though it was only a handful of MPs from a much larger Parliamentary party) and were no longer fit for government. They were tired and it was time for change.

And that’s the feeling that you can’t help but get from Brown’s administration. In a few weeks most will have forgotten who Baroness Scotland is… but that feeling that it’s time for a change will be just that little bit stronger because of her.

I thought it might be worth putting a Labour Party Election broadcast on here.

For me, the key line comes in at exactly one minute: “You cannot cut your way out of recession, you’ve got to grow your way out of it.”

Compare and contrast with the his speech this afternoon, being heavily spun as talking about cuts. This, of course, is the man who used to tell us that Britain was the best-placed to come out of recession, but we’ve now seen France and Germany – among others – come out before us.

Now it seems there’s agreement on the scale of the problem, who do you trust to deal with it? The Conservatives who have always been honest about the need to address public spending? Or the man who, as Iron Chancellor, created the problem, as Prime Minister failed to tackle the problem, and as dead man walking realises the Conservatives are right?