Today I (technically) start my fourth term as a Wandsworth Councillor after a long and hard election.

It’s been an interesting campaign. There’s no shortage of commentary about the national campaign, so I will add little to it, suffice to say I’m pleased to see Justine re-elected in Putney and Jane elected in Battersea. Obviously it’s disappointing that we didn’t get the clean sweep and Sadiq Khan held on in Tooting. I only wish he and his supporters could have exhibited the grace in victory shown in the Putney and Battersea results declared before his, but I think I always knew that would be too much to ask.

But moving onto the local results, I can’t help but think how good they were for the Conservatives and wonder how disappointed the Labour Party must be think weekend. The combined general and local election poll was a great opportunity for them to increase their representation on the council but now they must bitterly reflect that it was an opportunity missed.

Most of their gains came in Tooting, getting one seat that had been held by the Conservatives in Furzedown and two in Tooting ward. Fuzedown has always been an ‘odd’ ward, regularly returning a split and this is the first time in my memory that all three councillors have been from the same party. Tooting was always seen as a Labour safe seat and it was an upset when we took two seats there, defeating the then Labour leader Stuart King (who must also be disappointed with the night’s results for other reasons). This time our candidates in both wards put up a hard fight, but it wasn’t enough.

However, Labour failed to make any in-roads into any of the other wards, most notably Bedford, where they must have been hopeful of a Labour gain, but found themselves 350 votes short of taking a seat and over 1,300 short of all three.

Labour’s only other gain of the evening was in Roehampton. This was a ward we won in 1998 (totally against the odds, the Conservative candidates were so sure of defeat they’d gone for a curry instead of to the count) and have managed to hold ever since. But despite another fierce Labour campaign they only managed to gain one seat, instead of all three. And they totally failed to make an impression in West Hill, the other Putney ward they had been targeting.

In Battersea no seats changed hands, Labour held onto Latchmere, but failed to take their target seat of Queenstown. I think this must be one of the few constituencies in London were all council seats were successfully defended, no mean feat and a credit to all the candidates and activists involved.

The net result is a gain of four seats for Labour, giving them 13 councillors to our 47. But given that they must have been expecting at least 15-21 seats doing worse can’t be a good feeling for them.

The challenge for them now is making sure they use what they have effectively. I do not think they were a strong team over the past four years, and were heavily reliant on their leader, Tony Belton (for whom I have a great deal of respect). Time will tell if this will change.

The Balham and Tooting Community Association (BATCA) held another open forum last night and invited the council along to talk about Tooting Together. This had been something of an on and off affair, since it was running a little close to the council’s formal election embargo (when it stops pretty much all publicity and events in case they are seen as political) and our attendance nearly cancelled when Sadiq Khan wanted to attend and address the meeting. To Sadiq’s credit, he immediately agreed to stay away when it was explained that would put the council in a tricky position so close to an election.

And, as ever for BATCA, it was an overwhelmingly positive affair, focused on the good of Tooting rather than politics.

I’ve embedded a slideshare of my presentation above, which is largely images. But it concentrated on a few key themes.

First was litter; where there was a perception that Tooting was dirty, despite being (along with Clapham Junction) the most cleaned area of Wandsworth, getting 12 cleans a day. A number of measures have improved this. We’ve put more bins in, and adapted other bins with receptacles for cigarette butts. Along with the police we’ve introduced stricter enforcement, issuing fixed penalty notices to offenders. We’ve cleaned out a lot of the private alleyways (even though they are private land). But I think the biggest difference has come from time-banded waste collection, which has meant that rubbish from retailers and businesses clutters the streets for as short a time as possible. It has been so successful it is being rolled out across the borough.

Second was clutter; on the narrow and busy pavements there’s a real problem with shops spilling out of their premises, especially when there’s extra obstructions from sign-posts and bus-stops. We’ve worked, where possible, to minimise the obstructions from street furniture (as the signs and fixtures are called), but the biggest success has come from the trial organised with TfL that allowed the council to enforce restrictions. This meant for the first time the council could stop traders spreading over the pavement where they didn’t have the right.

Next was police; thanks and congratulations here are due to Wandsworth Police, and particularly the borough Commander Stewart Low, who have created a dedicated town centre team. The council have been asking for something similar for a number of years – so it was great when Stewart made it happen. The team have had a number of successes in their short time there.

Finally are better shops; this is something the council, and most others have little control over. We have long been trying to encourage retailers to Tooting, but with little success. In part this is down to the nature of town centre, the retail units are generally small, and not attractive to many large retail chains. It’s also down to the success of the town centre, even during the recession there were relatively few vacancies, and those there were ended up being filled quickly. My worst fears of a high street of empty shops didn’t come close to fruition. But one thing we can do is encourage improvement among existing retailers – the Good Neighbour Scheme is one way we are doing it, accrediting shops that meet minimum standards and encouraging them to share tips with their neighbours.

To me though, the most important point of the whole exercise is the ‘Together’ element of it, simply because it is together that the problems are solved. At it’s most basic, it’s a shared responsibility to keep basic standards in our town centres (the council were not littering the streets, for example), but it’s also a shared opportunity for everyone to play a part in the improvement. Whether it’s TfL delegating their enforcement powers, the police actively patrolling the town centre, retailers striving to make their shops as good as possible or shoppers boosting the local economy we all can play a small part that makes a big difference.

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?

In all his time at Tooting Broadway, Edward VII has never pestered anyone for a direct debit.
In all his time at Tooting Broadway, Edward VII has never pestered anyone for a direct debit.

There’s been a good response to my, and others, various mutterings about chuggers.

One of the most exciting is that as a result of yesterday’s council press release Sadiq Khan’s office have been making enquiries about the problem (and as far as I know all have confirmed that a problem exists). If the local MP backs the council’s campaign it will be a huge boost, especially as we need Government ministers to activate clauses from the Charities Act 2006 so the council can regulate chugging.

So far, I’ve yet to see or hear someone criticising our concerns. Comments from my previous post include:

  • Chugging is “by it’s very nature an intrusive and pressurising pest, in the busiest areas at the busiest times… Is it fair to expect all of society, including vulnerable individuals, to be harrassed on the street, whatever the cause?”
  • “High pressure guilt-based selling should not be allowed on the streets.”
  • “I’m sick and tired of being approached four or five times a day … and being guilt tripped, insulted, followed down the road and generally harrassed for money.”

And on the council’s website:

  • “it is time this blight was removed from the streets and shopping centers. I am not surprised businesses are suffering as a result of their irritating presence.”
  • “I also cross the street to avoid these individuals.”

One repeated comment is that it’s good we’re trying to do something at Tooting Broadway, but what about the other town centres.  The simple fact is that we don’t have any power to do anything anywhere – we are campaigning on Tooting Broadway because that is where the problem seems to be worse.  However, if successful, we’ll will be looking at regulating chugging across the borough and not just in Tooting.

If you want to have your say you can either comment below, or have your say on the council press release.

First of all I must congratulate Chloe Smith everyone involved in the Norwich North by-election on their victory. It is no mean achievement to see a 16.5% swing, which would be more than enough, if repeated across the country to see a Conservative government.

The numbers geek in me wondered what this would mean for Wandsworth.

This needs prefacing with lots of caveats. Swing is a very imperfect measure. It is never uniform and local issues and campaigns mean it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from it. The method I’m using (the Butler Swing) only takes account of the top two parties, so it also ignores the impact of a strong campaign from minor parties. However, since Norwich North and all the Wandsworth seats are fairly straightforward Labour/Conservative fights, it’s not entirely unreasonable to put the numbers in and see what happens.

The Butler Swing basically takes the average of the change in vote share for the top two parties. So in Norwich North the Conservative vote share increased by 6.29% and the Labour vote share dropped by 26.70% – an average swing of 16.49% from Labour to Conservative.

In Wandsworth this would mean, very simply, all three seats would be Conservative – a 16.49% swing from the 2005 result would see:

  • In Battersea Martin Linton’s 163 majority would easily be overturned, becoming a 13,374 vote majority for Jane Ellison.
  • In Putney Justine Greening would see her 1,766 majority increase to a 13,828 majority over Labour’s Stuart King.
  • Even in the ‘safe’ Labour seat of Tooting, Sadiq Khan would see his 5,381 majority turn into a Conservative majority of 8,328 for Mark Clarke.

Even at half the swing, 8.25% from Labour to the Conservatives, all three seats would return Conservatives (majorities of 6,610, 7,801 and 1,477 in Battersea, Putney and Tooting respectively).

I’ve compared the current situation to 1997, which I saw from the losing side. Twelve years later the Norwich North result is almost a mirror image of the Wirral South by-election in 1997, which saw a 17% swing from the Conservatives to Labour and preceded the landslide Labour victory in the general election when they got a national swing of over 10%.

There’s no doubt that the Labour candidates in all three seats will be looking at the results and making the same comparisons. There’s going to be some fierce campaigning over the next year.

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.

After Tuesday night’s BATCA Open Forum I was pointed in the direction of Sadiq Khan’s website, and, specifically, his coverage of the news that Tooting town centre is to get its own police team.

Sadiq Khan welcomes Tooting police teamObviously I’m glad that he also welcomes the team. But I was drawn to the comment that “Labour Councillors and Sadiq have lobbied Wandsworth Council to introduce” the new team.

I have to take issue with this for two reasons:

  1. I’m not aware of Sadiq ever asking Wandsworth Council to introduce a police team in Tooting.  As the Cabinet Member responsible for community safety I would expect council officers to have told me if he had. However, even if he had I wouldn’t be that disappointed if officers hadn’t let me know because of my second point…
  2. Wandsworth Council (like every other council in the country) does not control, manage or in any other way direct the police.  We may work in partnership with them, but we do not have any operational control.

Now Sadiq is a minister in the Department for Local Government.  He was also a Wandworth Councillor for many years before becoming an MP.  I suppose it’s entirely possible you could do both those roles without  knowing what’s going on (Gordon Brown was Chancellor for ten years, after all), but it is stretching credibility a bit far.

The more realistic explanation is that he knows the council is not responsible for the police, but took the gamble many people don’t know.  And to his credit it’s actually a pretty good gamble, I’ve spoken to many residents who assume the police are just a part of the council.  And it makes good political sense for a Labour MP in a marginal seat.  You take credit for good news, and get to imply the Conservative council are the bad guys.

So, lesson one: if it’s good, take credit for it.  If possible, do this while suggesting your opponents were to blame for whatever wasn’t so good before.

I won’t pretend that I or my party are whiter than white.  Only this morning I was accused of doing much the same thing, and re-reading my announcement of the news feel I should add to it.

I will still give some credit to this to the Mayor, neighbourhood resources are allocated centrally and very little flexibility is allowed.  When we’d previously tried to address this, by seeing if resources could be moved to priority areas it was refused out of hand: Boris deserves credit for allowing a more pragmatic approach.

And I will still point out that we have repeatedly asked for town centre teams for Tooting and Clapham Junction.  What’s more, we were asking the right people.

However, I didn’t give credit to the police borough commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low, who actually made it possible by re-organising his teams to free up the sergeant, constables and community support officers necessary to create the team.  If there is a single individual who deserves credit it is him, and I’m happy to apologise for not pointing that out when I first had the opportunity.

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestLabour did not cover themselves in glory at last night’s meeting.

You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?  But actually I’m rather disappointed in them.  I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them.  Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.

“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget.  We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency.  Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come.  But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing.  If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.

It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best.  Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services.  But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax.  They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.

Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems.  One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan.  Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them.  We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.

And dog fouling raised its ugly head.  It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements.  Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state.  The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.

To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.

It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves.  Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people.  Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.

It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.