My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

BusBecause of my blogging, Twittering and dabbling in other things digital-engagement I seem to have fallen in with a crowd who are passionate about the power of social media to change the world. Sadly, I am a cynic, a pessimist who recognises that for all its power, it’s limited.

Limited by the people who use it because for all the Twittering in the world, if you don’t actually do anything, it makes no difference.

And limited by the people who don’t use it. For all the huge numbers bandied around of facebook users and Twitter accounts, the overwhelming majority of people do not use them. Many people just do not access the internet at all, others only for a bit of eBaying or online bingo.

But if we are going to make it all work then the early adopters have a responsibility to use it wisely and show how it can be a force for good.

But this seems to happen so rarely, and brings me to a rant that has been building for a few days. It involves Tom Watson, Sadiq Khan, buses and public spending – and I think an example of how we shouldn’t be using social media.

Tom Watson’s name may ring a bell after he got caught up in the Damien McBride smear scandal. However, he is also something of an unlikely poster boy for the advocates of digital engagement. He is one of the most prominent Twitterers in Parliament and a blogger. And last week launched an online petition, aimed at Sadiq Khan – recently appointed a minister of transport (who can attend Cabinet where he can, apparently, watch the Cabinet not talking to each other). The petition asked Khan to “Please sort a ‘where’s my bus?’ mobile app.” The detail suggesting “GPRS technology makes it easy for your mobile phone to tell you where the next bus is. Please sort it out for the UK.”

Why do I think this is a bad example? For a number of reasons.

First, we need to have a real debate in this country about public spending, and the Prime Minister has already announced a “0% rise”. Surely this is something we can really debate and start having some of those discussions online – where everyone can participate.

Petitions, however, are not the way to go. Even as I was highlighting the No. 10 ‘resign’ petition I accepted that petitions push a single issue without regard for the alternative.

Second, which follows on from this, is the cost. According to Bus Zone (the best I could find), there are around 32,000 buses in this country. Back of the envelope calculations: let’s say it’s £100 per bus to fit a GPS unit. That’s £3,200,000 gone. You then need to set up the infrastructure, I can’t even begin to guess the cost of that. But on top of that you have to factor in the running costs. The buses will have to communicate with the centre – so you will effectively have to buy 32,000 air-time contracts year. Even if you got a deal at, say, £10 a month per bus, then you have £3,840,000 a year running costs. Then factor in unit failure, maintenance and replacement…

And these figures are very conservative. The government does not have a great track record of implementing large IT projects – so you can bet it would be more than the £22,000,000 my figures come to for the first five years. Can you think of better ways of spending £22,000,000? I certainly can.

Third, it’s another of those example of pushing a technological solution for a problem that does not really exist. Perhaps if we had a more extreme climate that might make standing at a bus stop for a few minutes a problem. But actually, is waiting a few minutes for a bus such a hardship? Even in those areas where buses are less frequent, timetables exist. Somehow public transport has operated – more or less – successfully for generations without everyone knowing exactly where the next bus is.

Fourth, the people who would benefit most are the people who need it least. Those who have to rely on buses, particularly out of London, are often the less well off who cannot afford the latest mobile phone to track their bus, or are from sections of society who are digitally excluded and would not know what to do even if they wielded the latest iPhone or Nokia.

Fifth, and finally – this is just a bad example of social media campaigning. As I write only 55 people have ‘signed’ by re-tweeting the petition, despite Tom Watson having over 4,000 followers.

To make matters worse, Sadiq Khan hasn’t even responded, except to thank Tom Watson “for directing hundreds of people my way.”  No comment on the issue, not even a “I’ll look into it”.

This is disappointing.  If we are to believe social media can give ordinary people power, it has to be something of a blow to our confidence when people who have real power aren’t even getting a 140 character answer.

This is a bit of a rant. But if we are to start getting social media taken seriously as something that can engage and empower people, then it’s for MPs and ministers to start using it properly, on serious issues that will make a difference. There are an infinite number of nice things we can have petitions on, but why not start discussing some of the more fundamental issues and seeing where it goes. You might find people participate while they are waiting for the bus.

Gordon Brown’s economic miracle doesn’t seem to show any sign of slowing.  My observation that the rate of increase seemed to have slowed last month was shown to be idle conjecture this month as the rate grew again.

JSA claimants May 08 - May 09

I will continue to say that Wandsworth seems to be weathering the recession better than most places.  There are a lot of reasons to be confident, indeed, part of my spot at Balham last Thursday was to highlight the reasons we should be positive in Wandsworth.  But that does not mean we aren’t being hit by the recession, nor does it make it any easier for those who are losing their jobs.

The Wandsworth total of Jobseekers Allowances claimaints (i.e. people who have signed on as unemployed, and excluding those who are unemployed but have chosen not to register) rose to 6,430 – a rate of 3.1%.  As I say every month, this still compares favourably to the London and national rates of 4.2% and 4.1% respectively.

The total was 341 higher than last month and 2,656 higher than this time last year, increases of 5.6% and 70.4% respectively.

Yesterday I highlighted some of the things canvassing is not. Today I want to go through some of the things canvassing is, and my thoughts at the end of this particular campaign.  While the media will concentrate on Cabinet resignations and pressure on Brown, the life of a party activist is less glamorous and less dramatic; we knock on doors and talk to people.

Canvassing to identify support
At its simplest level canvassing is about identifying your supporters so you can encourage them to vote. If you imagine a constituency in which exactly half the population support the Conservatives and exactly half support the Labour party the winner would be decided by who was best at getting their supporters out to vote for them.

Canvassing as an opinion poll
But it also works as a simple opinion poll. Because we are continually canvassing on issues and support we can track changes. It isn’t as statistically valid as proper opinion research, we can’t select a ‘representative’ sample that reflects the country as a whole, but we do get an idea of the way things are going. If you canvass ten people and one has switched, that’s a 10% swing.

I will say from the outset that I don’t actually know any of the figures in Wandsworth or Battersea, I’m no longer involved at that level of political campaigning – I’m just an activist who goes where I’m told. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get a feel from the doorstep.

The feel on the doorstep
And that doorstep feel is an important indicator. The 1992 general election was the first I was actively involved in, and many will remember that, when called, it was seen as being incredibly close. A few days before the actual election one of the older and wiser heads in the association I was involved in told me that we’d win nationally. Not because of the polls, but because “you can see people aren’t ready for Labour”. I wrote it off until some months later when Neil Kinnock, in a documentary interview, said he knew he was going to lose not because of any polling, but because when he met members of the public he could “see it in their eyes”.

Its important to remember that while opinion polls give broad projections, it’s the people who go and vote that decide the result of elections, not the people who answer pollsters.

These are my opinions based on my own experience and during this campaign almost all my canvassing has been in Wandsworth, most in Battersea and the largest part of that in my own ward. If someone tells you its totally different next door in Lambeth or Richmond, they may well be right.

It’s a real pleasure to be able to say that I’ve only canvassed a few BNP supporters, indeed I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who have told me they are voting for the BNP. In Wandsworth, at least, they are not a political force. Hopefully that is the case everywhere else in the country.

Minor parties
Again, these have not featured on the doorstep, which is totally at odds with the recent polls showing UKIP in third place ahead of Labour. They may well achieve that level of support, but it won’t be in Wandsworth.

By far the most popular of the smaller parties has been the Greens. Not a huge number of them, to be sure, but certainly more than any other party.

I’m also going to include the Liberal Democrats in this category, although I do so with some caution. Wandsworth has traditionally been a two party borough, there are no Lib Dems on the council, although there are some areas in the borough where the Lib Dems are active. It might be because I’ve not been in those areas that I’ve met so few intending to vote that way.

It’s safe to say Labour are not having a good time of it. And it shows on the doorstep.

Their vote is definitely soft. Many who rejected the Conservatives in favour of Blair’s Labour Party are returning to the Conservatives if they hadn’t already. But I think the real problem Labour face are their supporter who just won’t go out and vote. It was very much the problem we faced in 1997, people wouldn’t vote against us, but we couldn’t get them to vote for us either. Around three million people fewer people voted in 1997 than had in 1992. Less people voted Labour in 1997 than had voted Conservative in 1992. Blair won not just because Tories switched to him, but also because they stayed home in huge numbers.

Oddly, one of the ways I see this relates to ‘Myth 3’ from yesterday’s post. It means that people can tell us they aren’t voting for us, but give us good news as well: “I always voted Labour, but I’m not doing that again.”

I find it hard to believe this isn’t going to be Labour’s 1997. The electorate want to punish Labour, and will; the question is whether they will be satisfied by this election, or whether the anger will carry over into the general election when Brown or his successor calls it.

Who’s winning?
Easy one for me. The Conservatives. As a Conservative each successive election since 1997 has been nicer than the last, but the change has been much more marked over the past two years. People are pleased to see us and enthusiastic about voting for us again.

Of course, the electoral system for this election means it’s impossible to predict a result. The final scores depend as much on the spread of votes between minor parties as it does on the Conservatives’ lead. I wouldn’t put a bet on the numbers of seats. But I’d put a bet on Cameron being the leader with the biggest smile when the results come in on Sunday.

Election date speculation has, fairly consistently, focused on 2010 for quite a while now.  Aside from the current speculation about Brown being pushed and who would be doing the pushing it still seems a fairly likely election date.  Who would really want to take over now?  If you’re an ambitious Labour MP you’re best off letting Brown take the fall and try and get the leadership afterwards, untainted by massive electoral defeat.

The election would have to be held by 3 June at the latest, and the most likely date would be the same as the local elections, 6 May 2010.  3 June is very unlikely since the effect of a drubbing at the local elections would be disastrous on Labour in a general election.

So, the good news is that we only have one more year of all of this.

The bad news?  Can you imagine another 52 weeks like the last one?

I’m sure he wouldn’t want my sympathy, if he even knew he’d got it, after all he looked very happy in his recent YouTube video.  But I can’t help myself, my opinions remain the same as the beginning of the year.

To add to his woes someone has set up a petition calling on him to resign.  Amazingly this seems to have gathered over 22,000 signatures in just a few days and is the fifth most popular petition on the Number 10 site.  You can see for yourself at

Of course, one of the problems with petitions is that they don’t allow people to put forward the opposing view.  Luckily, someone has set up a petition calling on the Prime Minister to stay.  It hasn’t got quite as many signatures yet (currently 10, including Joy Wendy Endcomes and D N Disnigh) but I’m sure it will soon have thousands.  You can sign that one at

And now I’m going to be serious and slightly sniffy.  These petitions are a bit of political fun.  In practice they are going to make no difference.

While it is interesting that the resignation petition has gained such traction, 22,000 people is still a long way short of the 15,000,000 who voted for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the 2005 election.  Labour, under Tony Blair, formed the government and no-one seriously claiming they lacked legitimacy or called for his resignation.  And every day opinion polls shows a significant lead for the Conservatives suggesting that more people want another guy in Number 10.

Even when you have a popular Prime Minister the nature of politics means that there will still be millions who would not support them.  You could argue on that basis that the relatively small number of petitioners shows there is general support for the PM.

So while I’m happy to participate and advertise the petition I also recognise that petitions, by their very nature, push a single issue.  They do not require people to consider the alternatives or potential consequences and are often signed by people largely ignorant of the issues (the majority of people will willingly sign a petition calling for a ban on Dihydrogen Monoxide).  Of course I think Britain would be better without Brown, and without a Labour government, but know that what does matter and will make a difference are votes at the ballot box.

(As a small codicile, one benefit of petitions is that they can raise awareness and make governments and councils consider an issue.  If you are happy to sign the petition calling on Gordon Brown to go, or even calling on him to stay, then perhaps you could spare a moment to add a signature to some of these lesser known causes:

  • Maternal Health – raised by Jessica’s Trust calling for monitoring of new mothers to help provide early warning of a potentially fatal condition.
  • Bletchley Park – which calls on the Prime Minister to save Bletchley Park, home of Britain’s code-breaking which proved crucial in the Second World War.
  • Photo restrict – which asks for a change in the law to remove the ludicrous restrictions on photography in public places.

I’m sure there are many more, feel free to advertise any causes in the comments of this post.)

I just do not understand why it has taken so long.

One of my recurrent themes is ‘being human’.  For some reason politicians often seem to equate signs of humanity as signs of weakness.  So when the Prime Minister’s staff were planning smear campaigns it took him days to do what any decent human being would do, and say sorry.

As a total aside I did a little spot on engagement for the Improvement and Development Agency in which I suggested the Muppet-Superman continuum on which politicians are judged (the description comes in at 2:05):

This video is also available on YouTube.

This whole episode reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s household budgeting analogy, and for some reason I couldn’t help but bring it down to a household level. If your children had accidentally damaged your neighbour’s property, say a football through a window, the first thing you would do is march them round, apologise and make the child apologise and offer to make amends.

So it wasn’t actually that much of a surprise to come across Matthew Parris’ column in today’s Times. Her approach, when an aide had offended a member of the public, was to demand an apology immediately. Obviously, politics played their part, but behind it is a realisation that sometimes saying sorry is both appropriate and necessary.

Unfortunately it’s not something the Prime Minister has worked out and he, instead, behaves like a petulant child refusing to accept that something is very wrong in his government. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I find myself wishing we had Blair back.

And this is where the Muppet-Superman continuum comes in. Brown has spent years portraying himself as the ‘Iron Chancellor’, a son of the manse, straightforward and honest. A sort of super politician who would provide competent, unshowy, government with principle after the years of Blair/Campbell spin.

And instead we have a muppet, a Prime Minister who sort of co-ordinates the show, but without the hilarity and, most definitely, without Kermit’s charm.

I’ve tried to resist, I really have.  But I can’t help but post on Jacqui Smith submitting a claim for her husband’s porn.   But it’s just too good a story to let pass by.  And it isn’t just a case of taking the high moral ground, although I did oppose the government’s attempt to conceal MPs’ expenses.  Nor is it a case of believing that MPs’ should wear hair-shirts.

If anything, I’m a bit uncomfortable about the whole row because I think MPs are entitled to expenses for second homes.  What’s more, I have no problem with them using it for a bit of luxury.  If you are expecting most of them to divide their lives between two homes I do not see how they would be made more effective if one was a ‘home’ and the other the political equivalent of a monk’s cell.  People need a degree of comfort.

Where the line is drawn is a matter for debate.  What I might consider a perfectly acceptable comfort might be a luxury too far for someone else.  Indeed, I don’t think I’d object to a media package, why shouldn’t MPs be able to unwind with a bit of mindless TV or a movie?  But even having said that, paying for porn for the other half is surely a step too far.  What really gets me on this is that the Home Secretary submitted this claim nearly a year ago.  Only now it’s in the news has it become a problem.  But didn’t she check the claims made in her name?  Didn’t she spot the curiously titled items on her Virgin Media bill?

To me, the worst sin here is not a husband who likes porn when his wife is away, but the culture in which an MP can claim for anything they want without any sort of moral check.  Now it might be that Jacqui Smith doesn’t do her own expenses claims, and that would be even worse; you then have people in her office (and I know her husband is one of them) who don’t check the claims, or if they do, don’t feel they can challenge what is a blatant abuse of public money.  Whatever way you look at it the whole culture around MPs expenses in corrupt.

Unemployment claims nationally have hit 2,000,000 and if you follow this blog you’ll know I regularly report the JobSeeker’s Allowance JSA claims for Wandsworth.  The figures for February were released yesterday and showed a 13.6% jump from January.

JSA claimants Feb 08 - Feb 09

The increase means I’ve had to change the scale on the graph I was using (which only went to 5,000).  I’ve added 1,000 to the scale, but suspect it won’t last long.

In total 5,481 people were claiming JSA in Wandsworth in February.  This is an increase of 658 (13.6%) since January this year and an increase of 1,697 (44.8%) since February last year.  This figure contributes to a total 20,700 (10%) people who are claiming working age benefits in Wandsworth.

Gordon Brown still hasn’t said sorry.

It’s worth pointing out that unemployment and JSA claims are not the same thing.  You can be unemployed but, for whatever reason, not claim JSA.  The most recent total unemployment figures for Wandsworth are for June 2008 when 9,000 people were listed as unemployed but only 3,741 people were claiming JSA.

I’ve been mulling over whether I should post something on this for a few days.  I mean, who would speak out in support of Sir Fred Goodwin?  He’s a national enemy.

But I’m have become increasingly concerned about the way this whole issue is being handled by the Government.  This isn’t really an issue about Sir Fred.  It probably isn’t possible to defend that size of pension for failure, but there is no question it is entirely legal.  Harriet Harman herself made the comment that:

It might be enforceable in a court of law this contract but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that’s where the Government steps in

This is not only bizarre.  It’s worrying.

For a start it was the Government who approved the pension.  Lord Myners approved the deal, either knowing how big the pension was or not even bothering to ask.  It’s also not as if Goodwin’s huge pension was secret until recently; the Dizzy Thinks blog links to a number of media articles dating back to last October on the subject.  And let’s be honest, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the billions the Government are splashing over the public sector.  I’m prepared to bet the recession won’t end a single second earlier if the pension is surrendered.

However indefensible the pension is, it is a diversion.  The government are using it to divert attention from their own failings, and doing it in a particularly unpleasant way.

Sir Fred got his pension legally and with the Government’s consent, and it’s a matter for his conscience how he deals with it.  But the government, from Brown down, seems to be enjoying stirring the mob – suddenly deciding that the court of public opinion is all important.

But oddly, we have representative government when it comes to other issues, the court of public opinion has been ignored over issues like:

  • The war in Iraq
  • The abolition of the 10p tax rate
  • Jacqui Smith’s £100,000 second ‘home’, which is a room at her sister’s house

We might all feel uncomfortable about Sir Fred’s pension, but I feel even more uncomfortable about a government that devotes so much energy to convenient scape-goating one man to distract attention from its own failings.

This rabble-rousing is not driven by principle, if it were then the pension would not have been approved in October, it is driven simply because the court of public opinion puts Labour miles behind in the polls.

COMMENTS I rather expected to be criticised for this post, but it was not to be. However, something in it has attracted spammers like crazy. Rather than delete 40-50 spam comments from this post every day I’ve closed the comments about half-way through the current 60 day commenting period.