Ed Miliband is getting lots of stick for his speech, suggesting he’s damning photo ops despite being a culprit. Having read his speech I don’t think that’s what he is doing at all, and even if he were, would he ever have got to his position were he not guilty of an occasional photo opportunity?

Welcoming the 'Welcome to Battersea sign'
Balloons + sign = photo op
They pervade every level of politics. Even in local government, where I’ve found myself having my photo taken with a man in a nappy to posing with balloons and a sign (probably my last photo op ever, since I won’t be in any council ones any more and doubt I’ll be allowed in any party ones either).

He accepts that photo op and soundbite are pervasive. But also argue that there should be more to politics.

The middle of his speech contains the following passage:

so often the terms of trade of politics—the way it is discussed and rated— has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational.

Politics is played out as showbiz, a game, who is up and who is down.

Rather than the best chance a lot of people have to change their lives.

That last line, for me, is the killer. Do I think Ed Miliband has the right ideas or politics? No, not really. But do I agree with him on that point? Yes, absolutely.

The silly focus on how photogenic he is (or isn’t), doesn’t belittle him, it belittles politics, which should be about a battle of ideas and how they can be practically applied to improve people’s lives.

I’ve been guilty, I know, of finding fun in Miliband photos. But equally I’ve always believed that politics should be better, and more about ideas. I highlighted the speech by Cllr Jones at the last council meeting which continues to intrigue me, because—I think—it stuck out as a speech that was ultimately about how politics can affect people’s lives and, ultimately, invited disagreement and argument. Too often political speeches seem to be written as if they are the only logical viewpoint, negating the possibility that perfectly sensible people can have opposing opinions.

But politics, those opposing opinions, are why people sit in council chambers or in Parliament. It would be interesting to see if, when the current trolling of Ed Miliband with his past photo ops ends, we might be able to move on and discuss political ideas. I’m confident the nation is intelligent enough, if the media and politicians can rise to that level.

I am excited to see the Wandsworth Challenge finally launch a public face this week. I know that some might be sceptical, even cynical, about it; but I’m not one of them.

I’m excited in large part because it marks a new way of working for the council. Wandsworth has been remarkably successful at running a strongly managed council over the years, but as times – and people – change so must the council. They may be fads to some, but the latest thinking on things like nudge, the impact of our social network, or collective wisdom can only add to the strong foundation of effective management and financial control.

I’m also excited because there has been some interest expressed already. It may be that I’m more aware of it but I don’t recall any other time while I’ve been on the council that I’ve had such extensive conversations with people about how the council works.

And part of my excitement is because I believe in the Big Society. Let’s be clear, Wandsworth Challenge is not the Big Society, but there are considerable overlaps and you it’s possible to consider one a subset of the other (or as two parallel policies). That we have launched a Big Society fund adds to the potential for small projects to take off.

But if anything troubles me it is the what the public response will be. Will it consist mainly of accusatory suggestions (sack Town Hall fat cats?), or ideas that are entirely outside of our remit (bring back hanging, or at least hard labour), or will it be the worst of all: a deafening silence (because people are so used to the public sector doing everything, they do not see any value in contributing).

One of the key success criteria will be the amount of workable ideas that come from frontline staff and the public. I’ve spent time today hopefully encouraging one of the teams in my portfolio to throw themselves into the Challenge. And something I’ve given a lot of thought too (and had a lot of good advice from others, but still not fully reconciled) is how we make the process transparent; there can’t be anything worse than seeing your idea disappear into a black hole never to return.

But there must be hundreds, thousands of good ideas out there. Some may be radical, some might be simple. Some impossible to implement and some done in a day. But every single one of us has been in the situation of dealing with a public service and thinking “this would be so much better if only…”

So what are your experiences? Is there a small tweak or a radical overhaul would make your dealings with the council better?

It’s not even a year since I started this blog, and I have to say that I’m incredibly pleased I did. If I have any regret it is that I didn’t start it sooner. The response has been far better than I ever anticipated, I’ve had some truly interesting conversations as a result and I would like to think that it’s made me think a lot more about some of the issues and subjects about which I’ve written.

And while I suspect the quality of my writing has remained at a pre-GCSE level (and by that I mean GCSEs when I took them, when they were hard) I hope that at least some of the posts have proved informative and perhaps even sparked some thinking within you, the reader.

One thing that hasn’t changed that much is the content. It’s remained a resolutely local blog, with occasional flashes of the personal and political. And that is going to change slightly – there’ll be a few more political posts than usual.

In part this is because I have become much more interested in politics. I have touched on my previous passion to be an MP, and how it disappeared somewhere before 2005. If I’m honest, that loss of that ambition saw a diminuation in my interest in politics. I remained a loyal Conservative foot-soldier, but I also began to recognise that the battle of ideas that first attracted me to politics and the Conservatives just didn’t exist anymore, it was largely a discussion over who would best manage the country. Now, of course, we are starting to see a real difference emerge between the parties on how to tackle the spending crisis we face – and politics are becoming interesting again.

And in part it’s because I’ve been asked to be one of the regular Conservative contributors to House of Twits (a very interesting site that started aggregating political discussion on Twitter and has expanded into blogging and YouTube, well worth a visit if you are interested in politics.) Clearly this is purely ego. For that I make no apology. Even despite my boycotting of the Total Politics blogging awards I recognise any blog is partly an exercise in ego because the blogger, for whatever reason, thinks people will want to give their time to read the blogger’s thoughts. This is my blog, and while – as I have said – I hope some people have found some of the posts of use, I recognise that it’s an awful lot to ask people to give up their time to read me.

Additionally, given that I spend a lot of time knocking on doors and hoping people will vote Conservative (both locally and nationally) next year I don’t suppose it is unreasonable for me to post some commentary on why I think that’s the best vote.

The change will not be substantial. I still recognise this is largely a local blog and don’t anticipate more than one or two political posts per week (which will be cross-posted here and on the House of Twits site) and I have no idea how long the arrangement will last. While it does I would be interested in any feedback you have on the change (good or bad).

I am trying to come to terms with Esther Rantzen’s decision to stand in Luton South at the next election as an anti-sleaze candidate (even though the wrong-doing MP has already announced her resignation).

Now many will see this as something of a joke since, despite being an intelligent and capable woman with many fine achievements, she has become irrevocably linked with carrots featuring rudimentary genitalia.

But for me Esther Rantzen only has bad memories because she marked the end of the weekend. The That’s Life theme tune and seamless transition from phallic vegetables to tragically dying children and then onto an amusing ditty about postmen wasn’t light entertainment – but the terminal hour before bed and the start of another school week.

For those bad memories alone I could never vote for her.

But the odd thing is that I am actually rather happy that she has made the decision to stand. Likewise, I believe politics are better because David Van Day is hoping to stand in Mid Bedfordshire.

Now I don’t say that because I believe that either would be the best candidate – slavish party loyalty forces me to suggest voters in the two constituencies should vote for Nigel Huddleston and Nadine Dorries – but because I believe in democracy, and any candidate who can add to the debate, raise awareness and make the electorate better informed can only be good for democracy.  Esther Rantzen isn’t the solution to the expenses scandal, but that does not mean her candidature is bereft of benefit.

But the other reason is that I can’t help but feel it’s like 1997 again,  we have a broken government clinging to power and all and sundry are throwing their hats into the ring – each feeling they might just benefit from the coming landslide (there were over 3,500 candidates in the 1997 election, up from about 2,900 in 1992 – in any election you can expect about 2,100 candidates from the main UK and national parties).  There’s an almost palpable feeling the rot has set in on the government, and that it might be worth being around when the collapse finally comes.

This blog is coming up to its half-birthday.  Well, sort of – there are all sorts of dates I can use, for example the blog went live on 17 December, a great time when everyone is thinking about Christmas and no-one gives a stuff about a mere councillor blog.  However, before it went live I had it as a private blog to see if I could actually keep the posting momentum going; I don’t think there’s anything sadder than an abandoned blog.

The earliest of those blog entries I’ve kept was from 24 November, in which I questioned the value of the VAT cut.  So merely for my convenience I’m using that date since I can then say six months is a good time to re-assess the value of the blog and my Twittering.

First of all though, thank-you.  I want to say thank-you to all those who read this little effort at blogging.  Thank-you to all those who comment, and thank-you in advance to all those who will comment (seriously, just write something, no need to register and you can use a fake email address if you want – comments are there for discussion, nothing else).  And while I’m at it, thank-you to everyone who follows me on Twitter.  I was genuinely flattered, when I was openly thinking of quitting Twitter, to have people tell me I should stay and was adding value to it.  I should, of course, thank all sorts of other people, like my parents, or Mrs Robinson (my English teacher who never seduced me) but I shall refrain.

But most importantly I’d appreciate some feedback on the blog and my efforts, and don’t feel you have to pull punches.  I started off blogging and using Twitter as a way of engaging and would like to know how you find it.  Are there elements you don’t like?  Are there things you think are missing?  Is there anything you think it particularly good?

And there are two questions that I have been thinking about specifically:

  1. Should I keep the content solely to politics and the council?  While I know that is why most people come here I do have some (not much, but some) life outside of the two and wonder if possibly letting some of that on here would provide a bit more flavour and balance.
  2. Should I start using other media?  I really want to have a play with AudioBoo and have been toying with Vimeo and YouTube as well.  Would they add value, and what sort of content would you be interested in seeing?

So it’s over to you; either that or tumble-weed blowing through the comments while a bell tolls, slowly…

One of the books in me is The Aborted Politician, a look at those people who created an embryonic political career and contested a parliamentary seat and then – for whatever reason – did not pursue politics any further. Luckily for the book-buying public no publisher would touch me. My Comprehensive school education barely got beyond ‘doing words’ and ‘describing words’ and while I use semi-colons to appear clever; deep down I know I’m not using them properly.

Unfortunately the internet gives a forum to anyone dull enough, angry enough or self-obsessed enough to set up a blog.

So, prompted by ConservativeHome’s look at the 27 ‘A list’ candidates (from the original 100) who are no longer looking for a seat I started thinking about the issues around this again.  The article is interesting partly because a single internet page has probably ruined my book idea.  And interesting because I’m guessing this is about as close to an exit interview any of these people have got.

My interest in this is that I, too, am one of those aborted politicians.  When younger I was determined to become an MP and in 2001 found myself fighting my unwinnable, the apprenticeship seat, which I enjoyed enormously.  Obviously I lost (only 11,000 or so votes in it), but did a good enough job to get myself on the approved list of candidates for the 2005 election.

And that was it.  I never applied for another seat.

In the run up to the 2005 election I gave myself all sorts of excuses for not applying for seats.  No suitable vacancies…  I wanted to get more life experience…  My time was more valuably spent working in Battersea…  But deep down I think I knew that I just didn’t really want to be an MP anymore, even if I could not pin-point actually taking that decision.

Now I don’t think I’m typical.  And don’t think I’m a great loss to Parliament.  But looking through the list on ConservativeHome, and knowing others who were not even allowed on the list in the first place, I think Parliament and this country has missed out on some very able potential MPs.  And if we want to improve the government of this country we need to work out why those talented people get so close,  invest so much of their time, energy and money, and then walk away.

Maybe I fall into the self-obsessed category (I’m not angry about it, and hope I’m not dull) but I feel an examination of those abortive political careers would cast an interesting light on the political system.  While the Conservative and Labour Parties have fairly professional looking assessment procedures, the whole process is slightly odd.

For my assessment I had to go to Melton Mowbray, home of the pork pie and a rather nice conference hotel venue, where I sat psychometric tests, took part in role plays, did desk-top exercises and was interviewed but – very curiously – encouraged not to talk about politics.  The reasoning was that they were looking for people who could bring real life experience to the party.  But I couldn’t, and still can’t, help but think it’s a bit odd.  Would you want a doctor who has no curiosity about the human body?  A musician with no passion for music?

The problem is that parties only have a veneer of professionalism and, while it’s getting better, we still have amateurs running the country.  There isn’t an HR department identifying training needs, nor a proper disciplinary process to deal with problem members (you can’t pretend elections serve this purpose when the majority of seats never change hands).  The fact is that initiatives like the Conservative ‘A list’ are window dressing, the aims are noble, but they do not address the underlying issues that need tackling to improve female or ethnic minority representation in Parliament.  My suspicion is that despite all the initiatives on both sides of the political divide the basic profile of the MP hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 20 or 30 years.

Of course, I can imagine what the Daily Mail’s response would be if MPs were to vote themselves a decent training allowance, or Parliament were to start giving political parties money to develop talented grassroots activists who may have something to offer on a wider stage.  So, instead, we end up with the legislature and executive we deserve, just because that’s the way politics is done in this country.

It is not a terribly fashionable thing for anyone who is British to admit, but I am, and always have been, a great fan of America. And today, I believe, shows all that is great about the country.

The United States Capitol, Washington DC

I’m not particularly speaking about Barack Obama, but instead about the inaugural process.

That is not to say I am not a fan of the British political system, which has a lot to commend it. But when it comes to the transition of one government to another we have always been fairly ruthless. A party loses an election, and within hours its leader will be at the palace handing in their resignation. Meanwhile all his (we’ve never had a female Prime Minister defeated at an election) belongings will be packed up and moved out the back door while the incoming Prime Minister comes in the front. It is unceremonious.

And perhaps this is where we can learn something from the Americans. The process of transition allows a degree of separation, you can recover from the exhaustion of campaigning before you have to get down to the business of government, you can reflect and take stock rather than react immediately. But most of all I think there is something very special about the act of inauguration.

It’s a transparent (you get to see the President-elect become the President), open celebration of democracy – not a celebration of a particular candidate or party but of the peaceful democratic process as one government ends and another begins.

And it can serve as a rallying point – partly because of the distance from the electoral process the partisan politics can be left behind and a country’s President, rather than a party’s candidate, can speak.

A classic example is Kennedy’s first, and only, inauguration. Most will have heard phrases from it like “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Few remember that he had won the preceding election only narrowly – winning fewer states than Nixon and with only a 0.1% lead in the popular vote.

Indeed, how many today discuss the hard battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. If anything it was that process (and the peculiarities of the Democrat’s primary process) that meant today’s ‘history-in-the-making’ will be the first African-American, rather than female, President.

But the sordid details of electoral politics are behind us now. And rather than dwelling on the past there is a poetry to the occasion, which gives it the ability to unite and focus a nation. Something clearly apparent today as millions crowd into DC to see Barack Obama become the 44th President.

It is incredibly self-indulgent of me to offer my thoughts on the occasion. There will be no shortage of opinions on the media or the internet about the significance of today’s event. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s achievement (and know I couldn’t even if I did) it is worth reflecting on and celebrating the system that made it possible, just as much as the man who did it.

Wandsworth Borough NewsIf not a total surprise, I was saddened to hear that Wandsworth’s local paper is no more.  Even more so that it passed with no-one noticing, the issue published just before Christmas, it was announced, was the last.  It has now been merged with the Wandsworth Guardian meaning, effectively, it is no more.

As I said, it was not a surprise, we all knew that its circulation was low and I suspect that it may well have been reliant on advertising revenue from all the ads the council are legally required to publish in their local press.  But it is worth remembering it was not always like that.

When I first got involved in Wandsworth politics it was viewed with the utmost importance.  As a council candidate I was encouraged to get letters published in it so I would have some name recognition, and I remember pushing press releases and photos (taken with old fashioned film and developed at Snappy Snaps) through the door of their offices on West Hill.  But while it might seem horribly naive, it really wasn’t that long ago that local newspapers were the main, if not the only, source of local news.

The rise of the internet
The internet wasn’t always the pervasive font of all knowledge it is now.  Many people simply did not have access, those that did were forced to endure tortuously long downloads on a dial-up connection that got cut off when someone used the phone in the other room.  Even when you were connected, there just weren’t trusted sources of local news or if there were, Google didn’t exist to help you find them.

But now the Internet is everywhere, on our computers at work and at home, sitting in our pockets on our phones or waiting to be summoned, like a genie, from our low-cost netbook.  And with it comes an expectation that curiosity about news will be satisfied immediately, not when the local paper is published next Wednesday.

The regionalisation of news
Alongside came a change in the way we view ourselves.  It has always been there, to a degree, but I think we are far more Londoners now than we were.  Most people, if asked to name their local paper, would immediately answer the Evening Standard (and some might even suggest the Metro or thelondonpaper or London Lite).  After all, many people spend the daylight hours at work in the City or Westminster rather than at home in Wandsworth.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: I have enormous pride in being a Londoner, and being a very small part of the greatest city the world will ever know.  But I don’t think that pride is incompatible with my pride in being a part of Wandsworth, or Battersea, or even a resident of the Shaftesbury Park Estate.  Each one brings with it a unique source of pride – whether it’s the joy of the Wandsworth diversity, living so close to Battersea Park or being a temporary resident in a fabulous Victorian housing project – that I just can’t get from living anywhere else.

Defending our communities
My sadness comes from the fact that a little symbol of one of those communities, Wandsworth, has now gone.  We don’t really have a local paper anymore, that you could nip to your newsagent once a week to get with some milk.  That does not mean we have lost the fight and are all part of a big homogenous London and nothing else.

The council has always defended our town centres, which provide distinct and vibrant hubs rather than giant anonymous shopping centres.  We have the amenity societies in Battersea, Putney and Wandsworth that stand up for what they believe is best about their patches.  In Battersea there is even the SW11tch campaign fighting hard against the dreadful Clapham-creep that estate agents seemed determined to impose on us good Battersea folk.

Communities will change.  That is inevitable.  Be it 100 years or 1,000 years some historian with a niche interest will look back on the communities I am passionate about with a mixture of bemusement and intellectual curiosity because the concepts and areas are as alien to him as the feudal system is to children in our schools.  But that does not mean we shouldn’t fight for the communities we love, and it does mean we should spare a moment to pay our respects to a fallen comrade:  The Wandsworth Borough News: 1885 – 2008.

What will make you feel safer?  400 more politicians or 700 more police?I missed the news yesterday that the government has u-turned on having directly elected members on police authorities.

I cannot deny that I think this particular u-turn is good news – just the other day I  highlighted the petition on the Number 10 website against it.  But I’m also a bit shocked by Jacqui Smith’s comments.

Apparently her decision was motivated by her desire to avoid ‘politicising’ the police.  This shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness by the Home Secretary, since I can’t think of any government who have been more responsible for politicising the police than the one in which she serves.

She even tries to pin the blame for this on Boris Johnson and Damien Green.  Boris, she claims, was wrong to have no confidence in Sir Ian Blair.  Given the number of times Sir Ian was in the news for the wrong reasons I would have thought the Mayor’s lack of confidence entirely rational.  And then to suggest that Damien Green somehow provoked the police into arresting him by receiving a Home Office leak beggars belief.

Above all I’m shocked by her comments because she is just plain wrong about politics; she seems to think that politics are somehow bad or sordid and should be avoided wherever possible.  Now this might be because she is a rare self-loathing politician, or, more likely, she wants to keep policing power centralised in the Home Office.

In fact, politics are about matching public resources to public priorities.  The police are no different.  They have to follow the priorities set down for them, whether by legislation or government policy.  The problem is that these priorities are set far too far away from the people who will have their own views on what they should be;  on one street it might be anti-social behaviour, on one estate it might be a spate of car crime.  People want and need a way of having a dialogue with the police to express these priorities and hear what the police are doing, and a way of passing judgement on what they see happening.

And some of the best people at communicating with their communities are their local politicians, it’s what they do – they listen to their residents, the act on their behalf, and then they are answerable at the ballot box.

The Home Secretary shouldn’t be worrying about politicisation of the police force, she’s already part of that.  What she should be worried about is that the politicisation she’s overseen is one of increasing centralist control, and she’s not doing anything to move power back towards the people.

Mayor of London, Boris JohnsonIsn’t it odd to hear the Labour and Green Party GLA members belittling Boris Johnson’s council freeze because it will only save 11p a week on council tax? These are the same people who presumably believe that 2.5% off VAT will save the world.

What they fail to realise is that we finally have a Mayor who is serious about controlling the City Hall budget, and that’s good news that doesn’t just last until the end of next year.

In his 8 years as Mayor Ken Livingstone managed to double the precept City Hall took to run the GLA from £150 to over £300 – that’s about 11% a year. Assuming past record is a good indicator of future performance (and I reckon eight years is enough to get a handle on him) it means the difference between a Johnson and Livingstone mayoralty is that the average household will be £400 better off.