Today’s news that all the Labour councils in London are to freeze council tax next year (I say all, they only have eight) came as something of a shock.

First of all, I don’t think London Labour have a particularly good track record of keeping council tax low. If you take the inner London Labour boroughs at band D they charge an average of £1,276. Conservative authorities charge an average of just £899. And those bald figures hide other facts. The most expensive Conservative borough, Hammersmith and Fulham has only been Conservative controlled since 2006, and in each year since then has actually reduced the council tax. And I would hope I don’t need to point out that Wandsworth has the lowest council tax in the country.

But what really gets me is that all eight find themselves in a position to declare no increase, when a year ago almost to the day they all rejected exactly that suggestion.

Conservative policy is to freeze council tax for the first two years of an administration. A popular policy you might think… but not, unfortunately, with London’s Labour councils who all declared they would not participate.

Apparently when the Conservatives suggested it (along with extra funding to help councils manage the freeze) such a freeze would result in “years of misery” as Labour leader’s across the capital second guessed what funding they would get from central government. This year, however, at exactly the same place in the budget setting process, with no promise of cash from the government they can all announce a freeze as a celebration of Labour efficiency.

The only conclusion you can draw is that when it comes to using council tax to buy a few votes for the beleaguered Prime Minister different rules apply.

Obama hope posterPolitics are about hope. Or, at least, the best politics are about hope. Politics can represent a way to find freedom from tyranny, or simply highlight a future with a higher disposable income and more security. Entire campaigns can be run on hope and little else (President Obama’s, for example).

Politics should be about inviting the electorate to see your particular vision of tomorrow, and asking them to help you get there.

And that’s why I’m enjoying the Labour Party conference so much. I always felt this would be the main event and I haven’t been disappointed. Admittedly, they haven’t really outlined a vision of how a fourth term Labour government would look. But maybe they have provided hope to their supporters.

It was meant to be a wake. A last gathering of the party faithful to rally them for the coming massacre. But is it, instead, providing a glimmer of hope?

Andrew Marr’s popping of the anti-depressant question may have been the turning point. Instead of questions about the PM’s competence there was a mood swing; such questions are, rightly, inappropriate and instead of leading to further questions of the PM, it resulted in investigation of the rumour’s source and questions about the journalistic merit of the interview.

And while there have been some depressing polls for the government (even seeing them in third place), there have been some far more heartening polls undertaken more recently. YouGov’s daily tracking has already given them a 5% conference bounce. Another poll (and I apologise for the News of The World link) suggests that half the population can still envisage a Labour win.

Given that the electoral system has a significant built in advantage for the Labour party (a Conservative victory would break a number of records) maybe the faithful in Brighton needn’t be so glum.

Brighton has seen a few good performances by Mandelson and Darling, and if Brown can follow it up later today then the election starts getting interesting.

Of course, the next election has never been taken for granted by the Conservatives – either locally or nationally – but it was clear that Labour activists were not enthused. So while in Tooting Labour’s Sadiq Khan is clearly fighting hard to hold what has become a marginal seat, in neighbouring Putney you get the feeling Stuart King’s game plan is for the Tooting nomination in 2014.

The biggest danger any party faces is when its most loyal supporters give up hope. It’s the equivalent of turning off life support. It happened to the Tories in ’97; activists suddenly found themselves otherwise engaged, supporters just didn’t have the time to vote.

Until now exactly the same was happening to the Labour party, but maybe there’s life in the old dog yet: and where there’s life, there’s hope.


Gordon Brown HopeAND AFTER BROWN’S SPEECH… The problem with expressing opinions that are, basically, dependent on a future event, is that if said event let’s you down you are screwed.

Having watched the big speech I just don’t think Brown rose to the pressure. A lot of recycled policies, but no passion or even much of a sense of purpose beyond not letting the Tories in. If I were a Labour activist, I don’t think I’d be describing myself as enthused. What do you think?

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.

Union Jack at WandsworthThe Union Jack now flies over Wandsworth Town Hall every day.  Not the greatest picture, but I’m rather pleased with the result from a phone camera.

The council had previously taken a ‘high days and holidays’ approach to flag flying, but recently changed this to keeping the Union Jack flying every day and to be replaced with special flags as required (e.g. the Armed Forces Day flag, or the council flag on full council days).  I’m pleased with the decision.  Flag flying is a small thing, but makes an enormous difference – there’s certainly something uplifting about seeing the two flags flying when you are coming down East Hill.

Meeting the Chamber of Commerce
The Leader and I had one of our regular meetings with the Chamber of Commerce this week. The meetings serve a ‘keeping in touch’ purpose as much an anything, and allow both sides to raise issues, concerns or just share information. Of course, one of the key topics over recent months has been the recession and the impact it is having. While the mood hasn’t changed dramatically I think it can now be best described as a ‘weary optimism’ – there’s still a feeling that it’s hard, and will continue to be hard, but a sense that we can weather the storm fairly well – along with the knowledge that there are a lot of bright lights on the horizon in Wandsworth.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC
I attended the Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee last night. I have to say these meetings are usually fun, but last night’s was a little flat. While the items on the agenda were all interesting and useful, they weren’t the type to spark off some of the debates and discussions that can make council meetings incredibly interesting.

Perhaps the closest we came to a disagreement was over the US Embassy. Tony Belton (who is also the Labour leader) suggested the embassy’s move to Wandsworth might not be unalloyed good news. His argument was that the security cordon might leave an isolated and sterile building, while little or no employment would be created because staff would move from Grosvenor Square. While he was putting a potential point of view – I think he was acting more as a devil’s advocate than putting across his own views – I would not claim the arguments are entirely without merit, but there are huge positives to the embassy move.

Employment benefits may not be immediate, but embassies everywhere employ a lot of local staff – and as current US Embassy staff retire and resign they will need to be replaced. There are also indirect benefits, from the businesses that will develop nearby to serve the staff there (cafes and even shops) to the people who will now move to Wandsworth in order to be closer to the embassy. Perhaps more important is how it will serve as a catalyst to kick start the development of the area.

You can’t put a value on is the kudos such a development brings. While a large parcel of industrial land in Battersea may be attractive, I think that providing the home to one of the United States premier embassies, makes makes it even more attractive – it proves that it is a viable destination and base for investment, and highlights the area’s potential as an international centre. While it might bring some disadvantages, I think these will be massively outweighed by the advantages.

As I said last week I was stopping doing my weekly report because it didn’t quite work, and, instead, replacing it with a weekly round-up.  Already, I’ve broken the promise (a politician, a broken promise, never!) by changing the name.  I obviously don’t know if this will work any better – only time will tell.

Dealing with a backlog
For anyone going on holiday having work build up while you are away is just one of those things you have to live with.  For most people you can delegate or ask someone to cover for you while you are away.  For a councillor, that just isn’t possible.  We don’t have admin support and don’t work in an office where people can keep an eye on your desk.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to chip away at the back-log of emails and mail that built up – while all the time new stuff is arriving.  Of course, much of this falls into the spam category (for example, as a councillor there are an amazing number of companies who think the council would like to pay several hundred pounds for me to attend their latest conference) but I don’t know that until I’ve opened the envelope or double clicked the email and read it.

As someone who likes to keep his inbox empty it is frustrating.  And if you are waiting for a reply from me and haven’t had one yet.  I apologise, I promise it will be coming as soon as possible.

Tooting
One of the real highlights of the week has been Tooting.  We had a bit of a review of how the work under the Tooting Together programme has been going – and I hope most will agree that it’s made a real difference and has been a great example of how all the council’s departments can work together to astonishing results.

One of the real successes has been the time-banded waste collection, which has meant Tooting’s streets are much much cleaner.  It has also meant that we have identified a lot of businesses that were illegally dumping their waste.  It was a common cry from Labour that Wandsworth wasn’t cleaning the streets enough.  In fact Tooting was (jointly with Clapham Junction) the most cleaned area in Wandsworth, some parts were cleaned every couple of hours.  But Labour’s political convenience ignored the fact that it wasn’t the council littering the streets in the first place.

The subsequent crack-down has made a huge difference – even though there are still a few businesses resisting, feeling they have the right to dump their rubbish on our streets.

Hopefully the successes from Tooting can be copied in our other Town Centres in coming months.

Shaftesbury Ward News
We’ve also started putting together the July/August edition of the new ward newsletter.  Summer is always a quiet time, with people going on holiday and the formal business of the council taking a mini-recess (though that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how often I am there).  The newsletter should be out in a week or two, but if there’s anything you’d like to see in there, or even any local events you’d like to advertise, let me know.

Later today Battersea will be blessed with not one, but two, ministerial visits.

My own ward of Shaftesbury will be blessed by the Home Secretary visiting Battersea Arts Centre to give a keynote speech on crime and anti-social behaviour – so look forward to the latest government initiative there – and just down the road the Parliamentary Undersecretary for Health Services will be at the St John’s Therapy Centre.

Now there is a long tradition of high profile visits by ministers and shadow ministers to marginal seats – back in 1997 John Bowis received many ministers in his unsuccessful bid to retain Battersea for the Conservatives. This time it seems Martin Linton may well be benefiting as he bids to defend his 163 vote majority for the Labour Party.

These events allow the local MP to welcome the dignitary, be seen with the great and the good, and with a bit of luck feature in some of the media coverage. All valuable when you are trying to raise your profile with the local electorate. Especially when the events are on key concerns, crime and health.

What makes the St John’s Therapy Centre visit even more special is that it will be officially opened by the minister, Ann Keen. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with a new NHS facility?

Well, new-ish. While it might not have been officially opened yet, the patients who have been using it for two years since it actually opened probably haven’t noticed. But why should two years ruin a great photo op?

It was a fairly good night for the Conservatives in London – three of London’s eight MEPs were returned as Conservatives.  Congratulations to Charles Tannock, Syed Kamall and Marina Yannakoudakis on their elections.

It’s also pleasing that the BNP did not win a seat here.  Though disturbing that they managed to take two seats in the north.  Personally, I’m most depressed about the seat they won in Yorkshire and Humber since that area also covers the part of Linconshire in which I was born.

The results in Wandsworth were very good for the Conservatives, where we got just over twice as many votes as the second place Labour party.  In fact, it generally followed my impression from the doorstep.  The Greens took third place, beating the Liberal Democrats into 4th.  The BNP came seventh – and polled much worse in Wandsworth than in London as a whole, in keeping with my feeling that Wandsworth is generally an inclusive borough.  They certainly have nothing like the level of support to even come close to seriously contesting a council seat.

Having said that, one BNP vote is one too many.  While some are quick to condemn any BNP voter, I do not believe most are motivated by racism (a characteristic the BNP do a lot to hide) but instead because they have concerns or frustrations the main parties have failed to address.  Certainly something the major parties in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber need to consider.

Parties getting more than 1,000 votes in Wandsworth were:

Party Wandsworth votes Wandsworth %age London votes London %age
Conservative 26,819 39.04% 479,037 27.36%
Labour 13,041 18.98% 372,590 21.28%
Green 9,050 13.17% 190,589 10.88%
Liberal Democrat 8,240 11.99% 240,156 13.72%
UKIP 4,441 6.46% 188,440 10.76%
Christian Party 1,598 2.33% 51,336 2.93%
BNP 1,588 2.31% 86,420 4.94%

You can get the full results for Wandsworth from the Wandsworth Council website and for London from the BBC News website

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.

The BNP
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.

Labour
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.

Robin Askwith will not be getting any casting enquiries on the back of this. While canvassing may be many things it would make a very bad film, even by the standard of the British film industry in the 70s.

But since it’s taken up so much of my time over the past few weeks – just as it will have for anyone who is really involved in politics – I thought I’d come clean over it. Today, a few words on what canvassing is, and more importantly, isn’t. Tomorrow, my reflection on what we’ve learnt on the doorstep in this campaign.

I’ve hesitated a lot about this post. Part of me wonders if being in a party isn’t a bit like the Magic Circle or the Masons. By talking about canvassing and revealing some of the secrets isn’t it just the same as saying “look, I want my tongue cut out, then buried at the low water mark by moonlight”? But of course the ‘secrets’ are known to every party, on the ground we all campaign in pretty much the same way. It’s actually the public who don’t always know how and why we campaign the way we do.

Myth 1: You’re here to spend an age trying to convert me
I almost feel cynical in saying that no main party will send a canvasser around to try and ‘convert’ you. Actually though, the clue is in the name, canvass means to question (someone) in order to ascertain their opinion on something. This becomes especially true during elections, when time is limited. In my ward of Shaftesbury, for example, there are over 11,000 electors living in something like 6,500 houses and flats, there just isn’t time to go to each house and try and persuade people of the merits of my party.

This is not to say you can’t ask a canvasser about party policy, but they aren’t there to try and force it down your throat. After all, even if we did spend 20 minutes persuading you to vote for us, what is there to stop another party coming round tomorrow and undoing all our hard work.

Myth 2: You only come round at election time
How I wish this were true! If it were I’d only have to canvass for four or so weeks a year. I obviously can’t speak for other parts of the country, or, indeed, for the other parties in Wandsworth, but we make an effort all year around to get out and speaking with people.

We have a regular programme of canvassing and surveying. It is certainly more relaxed outside of election periods, but it’s still there. And just like election canvassing it is still heavily focussed on your opinions, often taking more of a ‘street surgery’ style when we try and find out what you think about local and national issues as well as giving you an opportunity to raise problems or concerns that we might be able to tackle for you.

Of course, what may well be the case that we’ve not spoken to you outside of an election, but it’s a pretty fair bet we’ve knocked on your door at some stage and just not got you in. If that’s the case I can only apologise that we missed you before, but also congratulate you on having better things to do than wait in for Conservative canvassers.

Myth 3: You don’t want to hear bad news
This is a myth you probably didn’t even know existed, because if you’d even thought about it you’d have guessed that we get a lot of doors slammed in our faces. In fact, that’s pretty far from the truth (I’m not including 1997, which was a real exception to this rule) and the vast majority of people are polite. In fact, they are too polite.

An odd concept, you might think, but you find many people actually don’t like giving the ‘bad news’ that they will be voting for the other guys. Part of it is human nature, most people are pre-disposed to be positive towards our fellow man, and it’s actually quite hard to let people down, even the complete stranger on your doorstep asking about your vote.

Something a regular canvasser quickly learns are all the ways that people try and let you down gently. A common one is the phrase “yes, I’ll be voting.” A phrase which doesn’t actually mean “yes, I’ll be voting for you” even if it sounds similar. Also common are the “I’m too busy right now because…” which might be true, but even quicker would be “I’m too busy to talk right now, but I’m voting for…”

The fact is we know lots of people vote for the other parties. We have the most unpopular government ever, but 1 in 5 people still intend to vote Labour. The last time we had a deeply unpopular government, in 1997, there were still over 9,600,000 (out of 31 million) votes cast for the Conservatives.

So if you don’t support us, or just don’t want to say, just tell us – we won’t mind and won’t try and change your mind.

A few people have had the dreadful BNP leaflet land on their doormat recently and asked me if this means the BNP is active in Battersea.  Luckily, I think the answer is no.

In each case the leaflet has been their badly researched election communication featuring a Polish Spitfire, American models and an elderly Italian couple.  Given the BNP’s references to the Second World War on the leaflet I think the inclusion of the Spitfire from the 303 Polish Fighter Squadron (who claimed the highest number of kills during the Battle of Britain, and were certainly one of the most effective squadrons in the war) particularly amusing.  The BNP’s argument is, essentially, that the brave Polish pilots defended our country from invasion so we could refuse the brave Polish pilots’ descendants any right to live here.

So how did the leaflet get through your door?  Well, it was delivered by Royal Mail.

Every party in a European Election (and every candidate in a General Election) has to right to have one ‘election communication’ delivered to each elector in the relevant constituency.  The major parties, Conservative and Labour, have been individually addressing their leaflets.  Minor parties, like the BNP, take the simpler option of having one leaflet delivered per household.  The Royal Mail delivered leaflets can be identified as they will carry the words ‘Election Communication’ along with the constituency, type and date of election – in this case the London constituency, European Parliamentary election and 4 June respectively.

So, as far as I know, the BNP do not have activists working in Wandsworth.  But that does not mean we should rest easy.  The leaked BNP membership lists revealed a small number of members in Wandsworth and the BNP have boasted about successful meetings within the borough, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for activity (I’d be interested to know if anyone has heard from them).  It’s then for the mainstream political parties to provide an alternative to their anger-fuelled policies.