Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Anyone who has ever knocked on doors seeking support for their party has heard the words: “I’m not interested in politics or in voting; I never vote; you politicians are all the same, you’re just out for yourselves.”

I have sympathy for those who don’t believe that their views are properly represented, or who feel that their vote can have little influence in a first-past-the-post voting system, but I have none at all for those who can’t be bothered to vote even as a gesture of protest.

Hearing the news each day from the Middle East brings home the stark contrast between those in Britain who hold our democracy in contempt and those who fight for it elsewhere.

People in Tunisia, people in Egypt, people in Libya have taken to the streets and laid down their lives for the sake of having what the complacent non-voters in our country appear to despise so much – the chance to influence the way they are governed through the ballot box.

I doubt that I would have the courage to face the wrath of authoritarian regimes as those seeking democracy in the Middle East are doing now, but I cherish what we have in Britain. It is very far from perfect but, in the words of Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Some 37 years ago I joined the Liberal Party and first knocked on a door to ask for support. Over the years I have grown to respect supporters of all political parties who have done the same. Politics in Britain is tame by the standards of many places elsewhere but those who try to influence the decision-making process are standing up for the fundamental values of freedom all the same.

Maybe it’s time that the candidates of all parties, the people who put their heads above the parapet and engage with the democratic process, got together to tell the non-voters what we really think of them.

I cannot be alone in finding that a great many non-voters tend to be smug, superior and disdainful. So often they give the impression that they think it’s clever not to vote. In their arrogance they express the view that politics and politicians are simply beneath them. Some simply have no appreciation of the idea that anyone could be motivated by concepts of public service, or by a desire to achieve change for the greater good, probably because the thought of doing the same has never crossed their minds.

Non-voters can despise practising politicians all they like, the reality is that they have cast aside their chance of having any influence and have opted instead for impotency. The vote is power, and we who use it are pretty contemptuous of those who do not.

So, non-voters, hear it from one practising politician:

“You insult the memory of those who fought for the vote in Britain and who are fighting across the world for it now. Our law gives you the right to emasculate yourselves by choosing not to vote but don’t imagine that this wins you respect.

“We live in a democracy and while the views of voters matter the views of non-voters do not. By not voting you have made yourself irrelevant.

“We don’t care what you think. You have made the decision that you want no influence. So be it, you have none.”

I feel so much better for writing that. Maybe I’ll get some cards printed that I can carry with me to give to non-voters when next I go knocking on doors.

“SORRY,” they might read. “Sorry for having disturbed you and sorry too that I wasted my time. Perhaps if you suffered under authoritarian rule you might appreciate why the chance to vote is something to value and use.

“Fortunately we live in a democracy, but please don’t expect politicians to take any notice of your views, we serve at the whim of voters and you have chosen not to be one..

“If this annoys you there is always something you can do about it. USE YOUR VOTE!”

Saturday, 12 February 2011


‘Team Davies’ has been on our annual Awayday; two of them in fact. Staff from my Stockport and Brussels offices got together at a Tudor mansion in the Peak District National Park to talk about just about every aspect of our work. We combined the work (and occasional heated dispute) with some hearty breakfasts, substantial evening meals, and an afternoon walk in Dovedale.

I have always thought these occasions useful, but perhaps this was the best. Maybe the fact that there was no signal for mobile phones helped concentrate the minds; it certainly made it difficult to follow developments in Egypt.

Grudgingly I now accept, as someone who long regarded a simple word processor as the most advanced aid to communication that I ever wanted to master, that times are changing even faster than I had appreciated. Perhaps one day I shall even read a ‘tweet’.

Most important, we agreed my campaign priorities for the year ahead. They are, in order:

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and introduction of sustainable practices while we still have fish left in our seas to save;

Better implementation of EU environment laws in every Member State, and securing the adoption of correlation tables in new legislation;

Advancing measures to curb climate change, especially development of carbon capture and storage technology;

Identifying measures to protect biodiversity, particularly to arrest the decline in insect numbers;

Championing the case for legislation to permit medically assisted dying.

By the way, the Tudor mansion was Hartington Hall. It’s a Youth Hostel, and great value.

Monday, 17 January 2011


It reveals naivety on my part that it was only after the polls had closed in Oldham East & Saddleworth that I learnt that no opposition party had lost a by-election in a seat it held since 1982, when Labour was beaten by the Conservatives at a time when the latter were riding the crest of the wave after Britain had recaptured the Falkland Isles. Had I known this beforehand I would not have placed a small bet on the Liberal Democrats to win, even with the odds at 10-1 against.

We campaigned to win OE&S. There may have been some in the organising team who realised from the beginning that a respectable second place was the best that could be achieved but if so they did a remarkable job at maintaining morale by keeping such sentiments to themselves. They showed great dedication to the job, leading from the front and working themselves into the ground. For weeks on end they also braved the lowest temperatures that most of us have ever experienced in an election campaign.

If the election had taken place in the immediate aftermath of the Court case that saw the MP disbarred then all might have been well. But parliamentary by-elections are not mere local affairs, they command national attention, and it was inevitable that the agenda would move on quickly from Phil Woolas to the record of the Coalition Government.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats were neck and neck last May, separated by just 103 votes. Since then, according to the polls, Labour’s support has risen by 10 points and ours has fallen by at least 13. The tide hasn’t simply turned since May, it has raced out in a torrent. How could we possibly have won such a by-election in these circumstances?

The challenge was clear enough on the doorstep. During every canvassing session I met a couple of people who had voted Lib Dem in the past but who were not going to do so this time. The mere fact that we were in coalition with the Conservatives was repellent to some, the impression of broken trust over tuition fees saw off the rest. Each time I would return to the campaign HQ feeling that a few more grains of sand had slipped through our fingers.

Anyone who assumed that Labour supporters might feel betrayed by the actions of Phil Woolas were quickly disabused. However bad the nature of the divisive and racist (“make the white folks angry”) campaign he ran, Woolas’s past supporters didn’t like him having been thrown out by the Courts. That said, I’m still pleased that Elwyn Watkins mounted his legal challenge; his success drew a line that candidates and agents everywhere may be reluctant to cross in future elections.

On the other hand we DID mount one of the most effective third party squeeze effort in the history of parliamentary by-elections. The Tory vote collapsed as their supporters took the tactical decision to back the Liberal Democrats. But we needed to gain two votes from the Tories for every vote we lost to Labour, and that was too tall an order.

Political commentators question whether the Tories pulled their punches and mounted a campaign that was less than wholehearted. It’s true that they didn’t launch an all out assault on their coalition partners but the Tories don’t have a single borough councillor in the constituency and no party organisation worth mentioning. They were always going to come third, and a more vigorous Tory campaign would have had only one consequence – to increase the size of the Labour majority over the Liberal Democrats. How would that benefit the Coalition Government?

We didn’t win, and realistically we couldn’t have won, but Liberal Democrats secured a creditable result in the circumstances. The question that has to be asked now, as it should be after every such event, is what could we have done differently and better? The OE&S campaign left me convinced that we need to review our approach and learn some lessons for the future.

I have no complaints about the organisation; administratively it seemed close to flawless. Campaigns Department pulled together a team of dedicated young people, some of whom were not born when I set about the task of turning derelict wards in the constituency into strongholds of local Liberalism. Amongst them was a great esprit de corps, with apparent rivalry to demonstrate who could go without sleep for the longest period and drink the greatest amount of Diet Coke. Their efforts and tactical planning suffered initially from having too little outside support (it was before Christmas and weather conditions across much of Britain were terrible), yet even with the pavements covered in snow a great many leaflets got delivered.

My concerns are not with the organisation but with the politics, and particularly with the belief that in some quarters seems to have taken on the mantra of religious doctrine that elections are won by pushing out more paper than our opponents, and that sheer hard work will win the day. I do not share this view. Good graphics and technical wizardry (“look, we are so clever that we can produce individual leaflets with the elector’s own name on them”) do not make up for the lack of effective political content.

Too much of our election literature in OE&S was simply vacuous, and for all that the Tory squeeze was effective there were some examples (‘personal’ letters in particular) whose content made me squirm with embarrassment. On a number of occasions I delivered pieces of literature that I thought would not persuade a single extra person to vote for us, and sometimes I feared that they might do us actual harm. Voters complained that they were assaulted by the sheer number of leaflets, but a criticism of greater concern is that too much of the paper we distributed said nothing worth saying. If electors felt that our approach was condescending they had good reason.

Why do we do this? I learnt many political lessons in Liverpool from Sir Trevor Jones (‘Jones the Vote’), who used to tell me never to underestimate the stupidity of the electorate. By this he meant that we should distil the messages, keep them simple, and repeat them often. But he countered this by telling me that at the same time I should never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, by which he warned not to patronise the voters and to make sure that I had something worthwhile to offer and that would hold their attention. I’m not convinced that our present strategists have got the balance right.

It might be argued that Labour’s campaign literature in OE&S was wholly negative; they attacked us for broken pledges on tuition fees and imposing excessive cuts. But if the position had been reversed we would have done the same. We didn’t confront criticisms that found a strong resonance amongst the voters. More importantly, we did very little to counter them by promoting the achievements of Liberal Democrats in office. I know the arguments about not allowing opponents to dictate the agenda but if we are not to celebrate the role of the first Liberal Democrat ministers in our lifetimes then what is the point of us fighting elections in the first place? We surely should adjust our mindsets, treat the voters as adults, and be prepared to address serious issues - while doing it in a way that ensures that the appearance of our literature secures sufficient attention to pass the doormat to dustbin test.

It’s difficult to write these words without implying criticism of people I like and for whose efforts I have admiration, and I am well aware of the rebuttals that can be made. Whatever flaws I might suggest, surely the fact that we not only held our own against the outgoing tide but made a tiny advance in percentage terms speaks for the success of the strategy? How can I prove that the result would not have been worse had we done differently?

It’s possible that we would have done less well if we had devoted more space in our election literature to putting across the arguments of Liberal Democrats in government. It is indeed a risk, but it’s not a question that can be answered because we have not attempted to convey the achievements of our party in an attractive manner. Now we are in government we must start to do so.

I want Liberal Democrats to do well in elections. I also want us to be proud of ourselves and of the political messages we convey. There are lessons to be learnt from the Oldham East & Saddleworth campaign, and there are new approaches that must be explored.

Friday, 24 December 2010


I don't have a problem with the indiscrete things that Liberal Democrat ministers have said about their Conservative opposite numbers within the Coalition. I expect most Liberal Democrat party members will be reassured to learn that their ministers have not been subsumed into Conservative culture, and despite an amicable working relationship the two parties within the government remain very definitely distinct.

In fact the indiscrete comments will help us in all sorts of situations: "You think we LIKE having to work with the Conservatives? Well now you know, we don't, but it's the price that has to be paid for having Liberal Democrat influence within the government of Britain."

I DO have a problem with Vince Cable losing himself influence over the decision as to whether Murdoch and News International should gain control of BSkyB. Not because I disagree with Vince's views one iota, but because the consequence of their expression is that the Murdoch bid has been given a massive step up. That can only be bad. If I had my way Americans/Australians would not be allowed any control whatsoever over the British media.

I am very familiar after 11 years in the European Parliament with working across parties to try and build consensus for particular changes. It doesn't mean I have suddenly embraced another party's philosophy that I am able to do a deal with opponents as individuals with a different approach to my own; I think it's an honest and healthy demonstration of democracy in a open society. Coalition governments are the same, only with knobs on.

But I DO have a problem with our insular and immature media that presents all this as somehow revelational, when it is in fact just 'normal'. I don't expect a majority of the public to understand this; too many people appear to think that the artificial public expression of unity is 'good' and honestly expressed differences ultimately resolved through negotiation are somehow 'bad'.

And I have a really BIG problem with what people too often appear to think of as 'proper' government, viz. the elected dictatorship of one party that has formed a government despite having secured a minority of votes - in the case of Tony Blair just 35% of the total cast.

Britain has been ruled by governments that have not commanded a majority of votes for decade after decade, Tory after Labour after Tory. An electoral system that would be worthy only of a Banana Republic may have given them a huge majority in the House of Commons, but in truth they have never represented the country.

The Coalition Government is formed of parties that secured 60% of the votes last May. It is the first true majority government that Britain has had since 1945 (ok - Labour then only won 49.7% of votes, but it was near enough).

It has the potential still to be one of the great reforming governments of all time, and I believe that Liberal Democrat influence will ensure that those reforms steer us towards a society that is more fair, more free, more democratic and more green.

It continues to have my strong support.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


I contested and won the Littleborough & Saddleworth by-election in July 1995. The weather during the weeks of campaigning was glorious. The summer sun beat down, cracking the pavements.

What a contrast with the record low temperatures being experienced by campaign workers helping now in the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election. If the pavements are cracking it can only be because the ice is breaking them up. Not that we would know as the pavements are covered in snow, although for the moment it is at least nice and crisp.

On the basis of my experience I can offer the Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, one useful piece of advice.

I spent the last two days of my election campaign touring the constituency in shirt sleeves, waving cheerily at potential voters from the front of an open top double decker bus.

Elwyn, when our campaign organisers suggest that you spend two days waving from an open top double decker bus, just say "thanks, but no thanks"!

Sunday, 19 December 2010


After returning with frozen fingers from a twilight run on snow covered moorland I turned on the computer. Jim Hansen at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies provides data each month on global temperatures. These are his latest conclusions:

"This has been the the warmest January-November in the GISS analysis, which covers 131 years. However, it is only a few hundredths of a degree warmer than 2005, so it is possible that the final GISS results for the full year will find 2010 and 2005 to have the same temperature within the margin of error.

"The cold anomaly in Northern Europe in November has continued and strengthened in the first half of December. Combined with the unusual cold winter of 2009-2010 in Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, this regional cold spell has caused widespread commentary that global warming has ended. That is hardly the case. On the contrary, globally November 2010 is the warmest November in the GISS record."

Saturday, 18 December 2010


There is a certain familiarity to the words used by Bob Ainsworth, the former Labour Home Office and latterly Defence Minister, who has announced his conversion to the belief that possession of all drugs should be decriminalised.

“Prohibition has failed to protect us,” he said. Billions of pounds are being spent on enforcement policies “without preventing the wide availability of drugs.”

“Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harm to individuals, communities and entire countries.

“We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.

“It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation to make the world a safer, healthier place.”

The words sound familiar to me because, in speeches and in articles over the past decade and more, I have used them all myself.

It’s a pity that they are expressed now only by a FORMER Home Office minister. The emperor is not wearing any clothes, but his serving ministers never dare say it.