Dissenting voices should be welcomed by all parties

Politics, and party politics in particular, has a way to go to recover from the depths in terms of public credibility. Estate agents have been more trusted than politicians. I am not talking about expenses. I always thought that apart from excesses regarding duck ponds and moats, the debate about expenses was unfortunate. Elected politicians should be well paid and well resourced, equally so their support staff. Who would want to see Momma Grizzly having to seek out a second part time job down at Asda because she struggles to get by on the salary of a diary secretary for a Member of Parliament?

What has damaged politics is the party political system that favours party loyalists well above independent thinkers or those with experience beyond the political world. Too may special advisers, with no experience of the real world, get elected. The certain ending of political enhancement is to speak, let alone vote, with ones conscience.

This is particularly true in Westminster, but not unknown locally. Labour has a very sad record of stifling talent because it was ‘off message’. I am told that probably the brightest of all Labour councillors was Richard Stanton, a brilliant economist with a grasp of local government finance second to none, including council officers. He was kicked off the Council for his campaigning against the Poll Tax (as well as to settle a few scores for his support for the Troops Out of Ireland Movement).

More recently the likes of Joyce Edmond-Smith, Francis Tonks and Jack Hazelgrove found themselves at odds with the party establishment. How Labour would benefit from their likes again.

But all is not lost for Labour. Far from it. They have, in the wings, a number of excellent activists who have an element of independence of thought yet committed to the Party’s cause. To be successful in the local elections in 2015 the Labour Party will need to reach out well beyond its ranks and engage with those not yet supporters and, possibly more importantly, those who were once supporters, members and even activists.

The Green Party has achieved that over the past decade, attracting a broad base, from community activists (may I mention library campaigners?), LGBT campaigners, to traditional environmentalist types. It can cate unlikely bed-follows, if you pardon the expression, with the likes of Phelim MacCafferty and Christina Summers standing together, noted, under the same banner. Which is why I think the ‘process’ started against councillor Summers is ill-judged.  There is little the public likes less is the appearance of internal party divisions and the suppression of independent thought amongst elected representation.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have created an eclectic group of councillors, from Tory-grandee types like Geoffrey Theobald to street fighters represented by Graham Cox. It is an uneasy coalition, one that ultimately could split. Indeed, where Labour has had the foresight to create a single district party, the Tories remain divided between the Hove and Brighton Pavilion association on the one had and the Kemptown association on the other.
But where the Conservatives appear weak is the damning of each and everything that the Greens say. Their opposition, and the of their MP’s , to everything the Green Administration does, weakens them since, frankly, I am bored of the press releases put out in the name of Mike Weatherley by Momma Grizzly and the other Bright Young Things between their shifts at Asda.

Some Labour activists fall into this trap as well. I would rather hear positive stories from Labour about their plans and policies. I have enough independence of thought to make my mind up about how the Green Administration is doing. Perhaps Labour could produce and widely consult on a range of policies that could form the basis of its 2015 manifesto. But if it is to do that, it must be more than lip-service, and party officers should not be looking for approval from their masters in Westminster.

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State of the City – Labour

Good and bad things come in threes, so they say. Before my summer sojourn, there was a report entitled ‘State of the City’ prepared by the City Council, loaded with facts and figures. It is well worth a read. Then there was a debate, ‘State of the City’, organised by the other BHCC, the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce, with speakers including Bill Randall, Simon Fanshawe and Roger French.

And now I present the Brighton Politics ‘State of the City’ a review of the political fortunes.

Before I went away I rather tongue in cheek suggested that the top politicians in the City were John Barradell and the Fab Four Super Directors for surviving the change in administration. And still they remain in post and likely to remain so. Here is what I really think.

Starting today with Labour, I have been impressed, as always, with the leadership and determination displayed by the East End ‘Family’. Gill Mitchell has held the group together as they have morphed from being the Labour Group to becoming the Labour and Co-operative Group. Warren Morgan and Craig Turton continue with their best Mitchell Brothers impression, and I for one am determined not to get on the wrong side of them.

Some of the newly elected councillors, not least those in Hove, (Penny Gilbey and Anne Pissadirou), have shown early promise, Penny following in the footsteps of her father, the late George Humphrey, and Anne active in Wish Ward. (She will have to work consistently hard as Wish is now seen as a natural Green target in 2015). A Labour activist that continues to impress is Caroline Penn, on Twitter as @ThePennyDrops – worth following.

But what Labour needs to do locally (because Ed Milliband isn’t doing it for them nationally) is capture the imagination of the people of Brighton and Hove. Labour needs a ‘Big Idea’ that will be seen to be transformational for the City.

Before the local elections, Warren Morgan kept emphasising that Labour was gaining in wards across the City. They may have polled well overall, but they were still a million miles away from forming an administration. If their Big Idea is to wait for the Greens to screw up, they will remain out of power of another decade or more. The Tories are as likely to benefit from a loss of support for the Greens than Labour is.

But the problem for Labour is that it has, since the time of Kinnock, looked almost exclusively to its leader for salvation. But politics has moved on and the electorate are looking for something new, and it isn’t whether Ed or brother David is the one to lead Labour into the next election. Can Labour move beyond the internecine squabbles of recent years? I doubt it in the short term.

What can Labour do that will turn the party’s fortunes around? Perhaps it needs to build a mass base, at it had in the 1980’s before the Kinnockites took over the asylum. Slowly and surely, the life blood was drained from the party. The Party could do worse than engaging once again with those who brought it success, left and right alike – Joyce Edmond Smith, Richard Stanton, Steve Bassam, Gill Sweeting, Andy Winter, etc. Their campaigning ability, their ability to engage with the electorate, is what the Party needs right now.

But there remain elements within the Labour Party that sees activists as a threat. It is fine to have ‘dependable’ people turning out to deliver leaflets, help with telephone banks, and occasionally knock on doors. But they shouldn’t get above and beyond themselves, and certainly should never question the leadership, locally or nationally.

Perhaps I look back on days that cannot be relived and successes that cannot be repeated. This is where I will incurr the wrath of Morgan and Turton. The Greens are the ones with the campaigning ability, the ones who have captured the imagination, and who still enjoy the Big Mo – momentum.

Labour has to decide on its parliamentary candidates in the not too distant future, and which should be all-women shortlists. Conventional wisdom has it that boundary changes will see Labour’s chances erode further in Brighton Kemptown. Brighton Pavilion will be a two-way fight between the Greens and the Tories, leaving Hove as its best chance. The Party leadership looks after its own and has ensured that Hove does not have an all-women shortlist, opening the way for Simon Burgess to become the candidate.

And here again, Labour will get it wrong. As I have always said, Simon is a decent, hard-working type who is an asset to Labour, working in a support role. There are few better. But as a candidate, in what could be a three-way marginal between Mike Weatherley, a Green (particularly a dynamic woman candidate) and Labour, he would be destined to be an also ran.

Perhaps Labour locally will need a further drubbing at the polls before it moves on and finds candidates who can match the appeal of Caroline Lucas and whoever the Greens field in Hove. I have an insight who that might be, and Labour will have little chance of matching her appeal.

Is there any place for comedy in politics?

The excellent piece by Pearl Ahrens got me thinking about humour in politics. Here’s a start: A man with a crocodile walks into a pub and asks the barman: “Do you serve Lib Dems?” “Sure”, says the barman. Man: “Could I have a pint of beer and a Lib Dem for my croc”. Not very funny, I know, and I adapted it from a joke told by Kevin Maguire on Twitter the other night. The butt of Kevin’s version were social workers, so I am showing some bias in the telling.

Politicians of all parties can be funny, but I am not sure whether they (we) as a breed are naturally funny. The ‘jokes’ at Prime Minister’s Questions are often very laboured, well prepared, and delivered with the same gentle touch that Vinnie Jones employs when he arranges flowers.

In Britain we have been blessed by generations of amazing satirists who have brought pompous politicians down to earth. Among my favourites is Brighton’s own Steve Bell. I’m not sure what kind of mind he has. How does someone think to picture John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers? I heard from the great man himself (Bell, not Major) that Michael Hesseltine had loved being portrayed as Tarzan, even offering to pay a large sum of money for an original until Bell told Tarzan’s assistant that the cheque should be made payable to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament!

Much political humour is aimed at putting down one’s political opponents. Much of Churchill’s humour had a nasty edge, saying that Clem Atlee had a lot to be humble about, his reference to an empty taxi pulling up outside No 10 and out stepped Mr Attlee, and saying to a woman who had accused him of being drunk that she was ugly but at least he would be sober in the morning.

I can be accused of name calling on this blog, and I apologise if anyone has taken offence, although I think that secretly – or not so secretly – my ‘victims’ quite like my feeble attempts at humour. Momma Grizzly uses that description on her Twitter profile. The Estate Agent enjoys his title not so much, nor le Toothbrush or la Toothbrush. I’m not sure what Lady Everton, the Bishop, and others think of their names. I am advised, and The Ghost of Nobby Clarke can tell me if this is true, that the former Labour rebel, Richard Stanton used to refer to a very macho Labour Chief Whip (whose name I can’t remember) as Skippy (as in the Kangaroo). He apparently hated it.

Actually, the reason for this post is so that I can tell a couple of feeble jokes, and hopefully you can respond in kind. So here goes –

A politician went to see his doctor: “Doctor, I’m addicted to Twitter”. The doctor replied: “I’m sorry, I don’t follow you”.

At a political meeting I met a young women. I asked her her name. “Chantelle”, she said. I said “Go on”.

And finally, a joke I’ve told on this blog before: A man goes into the Lib Dem bookshop and asks the assistant: “Can I have a copy of your manifesto?”. “Sorry, we’ve sold out”. “I know that, but can I have a copy of your manifesto?”.

Some of my favourite things about politics in Brighton and Hove

The Greens: Thank goodness we live in a city that has the variety of politics and an openness to new ideas that allows a party like the Greens to thrive and enjoy electoral success. As a tribal Labour loyalist who voted Labour in May, I can’t imagine how very boring politics would be if we were still locked in a two-party dog fight, year in, year out. The Greens are forcing Labour and the Tories to rethink their strategy and policies, and (who knows when) both the old parties may just one day change for the better!

Warren Morgan: Warren will hate to be included in this list but he represents the fighting spirit that remains in parts of the local Labour Party. I can rely on Warren to spill his Sugar Puffs each time I post my latest take on the Greens. For him, it is the Evil Princess and All Her Works (i.e. Caroline Lucas) that personifies everything that is wrong with Brighton politics. Without the likes of Warren, Labour’s decline would be almost terminal.

The Young Tories: Rob Buckwell, Michael Ireland, Mike MacFarlane, George Dore, Kerry Underhill, Robert Nemeth and the incomparable Momma Grizzly, Rachael Bates. The Tory Party needs ‘modernising’ but not in the Blair/Cameron sense (which are no more than a cover for the worst traditions of paternalistic old-fashion politics). This new breed of young Tories will help the Tories break with their past and will challenge Blue Labour, sometimes from the left. Momma Grizzly is an enigma: a right wing, anti-monarchist, pro-Palin, capitalist. Other than her anti-monarchist tendencies, she represents much of what I oppose, but at least she has a sense of humour and passion, but that could make her all the more dangerous.

Community Gardeners: These groups represent the free spirit of campaigning that has long existed in Brightn and Hove. They are bottom up campaigners that genuinely ‘shape place’ to use the jargon of the City Council. Co-operative and communal, they bring forward a model of how things can improve, without consultants and council officers.

Christopher Hawtree: Chris is the latest in a long line of characters that have graced and enriched the political scene in Brighton and Hove over many years: Dennis Hobden, Ruth Larkin, Doreen Radford (the lady who it is said wore a new hat at every Council meeting), Richard Stanton, Sheila Hall, etc. Christopher’s election sent greater shockwaves around senior officers of the Council more than any other result on the night. It is said his election sent shockwaves around the Green Party as well!

The Blogosphere and Twiteratti: My life was sad, lacking in focus, days passing into weeks and weeks into years. I am the shy, retiring type. But then I discovered a whole new world and made loads of new friends: The Ghost, Zombie, Doris Day (she never returns my calls), Baron Pepperpot, Momma Grizzly, Rosa’s Lovely Daughter, Dr Faust, etc. Social media has enriched the political world locally, although no party has yet worked out how to make the most of it. When one party fully utilises Twitter, they can expect to reap electoral success.

The future: I don’t mean the young Tories (see above) or even the impressive young activists in Labour (Harris Fitch, Clare Calder, etc.) or in the Greens (Luke Walter, Allie Cannell, Alex Phillips, etc.) but those who active in their early and mid teens, such as Pearl Ahrens. With committed young activists like her, we can take courage for the future health of the political process.

Dave Hill, aka Peter Stringfellow (what?) and David Essex (huh?) is a rare character in today’s politics

The Daddy of the Left in Brighton and Hove has shown that he has lost nothing of his ability for self-promotion. If you were to ask the TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate for Brighton Kemptown, Dave Hill, whethere his campaign was about policy or personalities, he would reply “policy”.

But look at this weekend’s Argus.  Front page – Dave Hill saying that he is being confused with Peter Stringfellow.  Photos of Mr Stringfellow appear alongside Mr Hill, sorry Professor Hill.  Dave, did someone really ask if you were PS or was it an inspired way of comanding the attention of the Argus in what is otherwise a completely dull campaign in Brighton Kemptown? 

But not content with this dubious comparison, Dave Hill says that as a younger man he used to be confused with David Essex.  What?  But fair play to him, on the inside of the Argus are more photos of Dave Hill, today and as a young man.

But what I did love was how the Argus presented Dave Hill as the main candidate, mentioning as an aside that the other candidates inclue Simon Burgess, etc.

What it does sho is the lack of ‘characters’ in politics today.  In the 1980s Dave Hill was forever creating stories, controversies and campaigns.  His equal was former councillor Brian Fitch.  More measured but equally effective was the late Dennis Hobden, and younger councillors like Steve (now Lord) Bassam, Richard Stanton and Andy Winter (who co-incidentally also appeared on the front page of the Argus today in a story about debt).

Now debt is an issue that Dave Hill could campaign on.

The Laughable Left

I have always identified myself as being to the left of Labour. Well, that’s not hard these days with even Roy Hattersley coming across as a dangerous left-wing extremist!

The best characterisation of the left is the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the People’s Front of Judaea hate the “enemy” separatist faction, the Judaean People’s Front, more than they hate the Romans

So to does it sometimes appear on the left of British politics. The number of left wing factions is laughable.

The Socialist Workers Party is largely made up of middle age men, still fighting student union battles of the 70s and 80s, with slogans to match.

Disillusioned lefties, such as Dave Hill, have left Labour yet dream of great victories by gathering in new parties such as No2euYes2democracy or the Socialist Labour Party.

Even those leaders of the left during the halcyon days of the poll tax are sidelined. Whatever happened to Richard Stanton? Sheila Hall emigrated to Spain, Jean Calder ended up writing for the Argus (although she does not seem to have betrayed her feminist and left-wing credentials), and Andy Winter  does little more than watch and write about cricket!

There are two main consequences of all this. Young people and campaigners are focusing their time and effort into single issue campaigns, with the wider Labour movement becoming increasingly moribund.

The rightward drift of Labour has created perfect conditions for the growth of the BNP. The rise of the far right is not the fault of the left. It is the failures of the Labour government that has caused division and disillusionment.

A strong “opposition” within the Labour Party could have prevented this.