Wednesday, 21 April 2010


The political situation is extraordinary. For the opinion polls to move by as much as 14 points overnight in favour of one party is unprecedented. And for it to happen in favour of the Liberal Democrats is a delight It reveals just how many people would prefer not to have to vote for David Cameron as an alternative to Gordon Brown, and just how much latent support there is for our party that comes to light only when we get the rare opportunity to be treated as equals.

I am revelling in having been a Clegg-for-Leader advocate from the day he told me that he wanted to stand for the House of Commons (after I had failed to dissuade him from leaving Brussels that is). As I now occupy Nick’s former office in the European Parliament maybe I should try to raise party funds by charging visitors to see it.

The enthusiasm should be savoured and bottled for it will not last. I have no doubt that Nick will do well in the next debates but expectations of him are now completely unreasonable. If he defends the principles and policies of the party then he will inevitably lose some support – they would not be principles worth fighting for if our opponents agreed with them.

Friday, 9 April 2010


An election system that does not give equal value to every vote has for many decades prevented the Liberal Democrats from exerting real influence over government policy. The outrageous insult to democracy demonstrated by the Liberals winning 18% of the votes yet less than 2% of the seats in February 1974 was the spur that made me apply for membership. More recently the scale of our under representation has been reduced. At the last election we won some 20% of the votes and more than 9% of the seats. Not fair, but less awful.

The success of the Liberal Democrats’ targeting strategy has been hailed as one reason for the improvement. We have concentrated our money and resources into a limited number of target seats where we have the greatest chance of making a breakthrough. For the most part the target seats are self-evident, they are the places where we have won more than 50% of the places on the local council, gaining electoral credibility from people knowing that when they vote Liberal Democrat they often get Liberal Democrats elected. This is usually achieved between general elections not at them.

But targeting has its limits. It has not really sunk into the consciousness of party members outside the targets. Once a general election is called a great proportion of local activists (not that we have many in the first place) feel obliged to campaign locally. They want to make a creditable effort, or perhaps “frighten” the incumbent Tory MP. A mist comes over their eyes that blinds them to the reality that a ‘creditable’ third place counts for absolutely nothing. It’s an utter defeat. If there are no prizes for coming second do you have to give them away yourself if you come third?

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats in a target seat just a short distance away may be crying out for extra help that could make all the difference between victory and a near miss, yet too often they can’t get their neighbours to set aside their local loyalties.

In Warrington South, where I am giving a bit of help myself, we are working to build the necessary bridges. By letter and telephone we are trying to explain the necessity for the approach. By encouraging some teams from Cheshire constituencies each to “adopt” a South Warrington ward we are trying to create an alternative element of loyalty.

Maybe the targeting ball is starting to move in our favour. Whether it gains momentum, and allows us to demonstrate that targeting is more than just a word, remains to be seen.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


UK elections attract a good degree of interest amongst European MEPs. Our continental colleagues are interested in the fortunes of their political kin, they wonder whether the Conservatives might prove as hostile to the European Union as some of their spokesmen suggest, and they never cease to be amazed that we tolerate an election system that can give a party with 34% of the vote a huge overall majority in the House of Commons. So there was an undercurrent running through debates in the European Parliament's environment committee last Tuesday - enlivened I think by a bit of good humoured banter between the British representatives present.

Most of us face the same dilemma, should we be working on legislation in Brussels or devoting all our time to campaigning in our regions? The general election had been called that morning. BNP leader Nick Griffin was not present, and nor was UKIP's Paul Nuttall (he rarely is), but Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader (contesting Brighton Pavilion), was sitting behind me moving proposals to outlaw the sale of imported timber from sources that cannot be proven sustainable. I supported her in that, but then was on my feet myself attacking the Greens for opposing EU plans to promote carbon capture and storage projects. (I noticed that Caroline left the room before that exchange took place - environmentalists in the UK are mostly supportive of CCS development).

Labour and Conservative MEPs joined with me in other debates about legislation to improve the recycling of electrical waste. With questions also about how we improve upon the EU's dismal performance at the recent world conference on trade in endangered species (hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the Japanese), and an exchange with the EU's excellent new environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, my own portfolio was well exercised that day. I'm glad I was there.

But a big part of me wanted to be back in the North West, campaigning in our target seats. Our prospects look good, and having fought five British parliamentary elections myself it is still a delight to know that my own neck is not on the line. There's a lot going on now in the European Parliament so I have to be back and forth, but it will be less of back to Brussels and a lot more forth to the North West election frontline.