Today I made a speech at the European Union of Women lunch at Crostwick and this afternoon I paid a visit to the Anglican nuns in Walsingham. They're a feisty lot! Tomorrow it's out on the campaign trail in the eastern part of the constituency. We're delivering my new newspaper and doing some doorstep canvassing.
The two by-elections last night were not exactly a success. It certainly wasn't due to a lack of effort, but there's no doubt about it, we should have done better. Mind you, how John Reid kept a straight face when he called the results a score draw I do not know. The LibDems are understandably feeling smug, but I suspect it will be shortlived. Two surefire certainties on election night: Brent East and Leicester South: Labour Gains. Oh, and another one. North Norfolk, Conservative Gain!
Hi Iain, Noni here. I love your confidence. Can we assume that you will publicly eat your hat if North Norfolk doesn't go Conservative at the next election?
Hats don't form part of my diet. However, I do make a habit of eating Liberal Democrats for breakfast.
You comment that a lot of effort was put in but the Conservatives could have done better. Given that you went across to Leicester and saw the campaign, what exactly do you think should have been done better? Was it principally a problem with the candidate, with campaign literature etc, with policies, lack of credible national leadership or a combination of all these factors?
James, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions and I'll draw mine!
Okay, Iain. My conclusions are as follows:
1. Michael Howard only really appeals to the core Tory vote. He does not connect with very many people who haven't voted Tory in recent times. The trouble is, all the very "politically aware" Tories think he does well at Prime Minister's Questions, but the truth is that his style of debating goes down poorly among normal people even if they bother listening (which most of course do not).
2. People give the Lib Dems (Kennedy and Campbell in particular) a great deal of credit over Iraq, even those who disagree with them on the issue. It took a lot of nerve to oppose the war and their judgement was good in that many of the concerns they expressed at the time proved well founded. Howard, by contrast, looks as if he supported it when it started and is desperately retreating now (witness the Butler Inquiry fiasco when Howard said it was all great, then withdrew but failed to square it with his own representative, Michael Mates MP, who stayed on the committee!).
3. You have a lot of rather lacklustre nonentities in key shadow jobs. Oliver Letwin comes across as a lightweight toff, Michael Ancram as a pompous toff and David Davis doesn't seem to be bothered about coming across at all since he didn't get the leadership. It is shameful that Ken Clarke and William Hague refused to serve even though they are happy to stay as MPs (Portillo is excused as he is leaving anyway).
4. Your policy agenda is confused and confusing. You do not know whether to be revolutionary like Thatcher or competent and managerial like MacMillan. As a result, nobody else knows either. You say you would renegotiate with Europe but under no circumstances withdraw, that you would give people vouchers for schools but not let them top the vouchers up, that you would remove university fees but not address the funding crisis, that you favour low taxes but would not cut them in the immediate future. These policies are poorly thought through and (the ultimate criticism the Conservatives used to level at the Liberals) woolly-minded. There are also policy holes in important areas such as Council Tax which the Lib Dems have filled.
5. Local elections are important not just because they determine who is in charge locally but because they establish national credibility. You have made council election gains, but hoovering up stray Labour and Lib Dem district councillors in Tunbridge Wells or Randomshire South is all a bit pointless. You need to start winning big prizes to be seen as a national force again. Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, Edinburgh, Cardiff are all places people have actually heard of but where it just hasn't happened for you in any serious way (while the Lib Dems have done well and are first or second to Labour). Smaller regional centres like Norwich and Leicester have also seen pretty awful displays. There are exceptions of course, but so few that they only really serve to prove the rule.
Now I have shown you my conclusions, Iain, I believe you are under some sort of obligation to show me yours (as it were)!
Well that's certainly a bit of an essay. And it's very thought provoking too. Let me take your paragraphs in order.
1. I don't agree. Even if I did agree, the same could be said of Charles Kennedy. In my experience Michael Howard commands a respect among non-Tory voters which was absent in our two previous leaders. He certainly does do well at PMQs but that is not where elections are won and lost. When he came to Cromer he surprised me at how easy he was during the walkabout in the town centre. People were rushing up to him and slapping him on the back giving him encouragement. These people were not political groupies.
2. I don't agree with your analysis. The LibDems opposed the war for very different reasons to those they like to give now. I would agree that some of the concerns expressed turned out to be well-founded. The mistake IDS, MH and the rest of us made was to believe a Prime Minister who said he had intelligence that there were WMDs. Blair has undermined his office, not just himself. Like MH, I supported the war (still do, for that matter) but as he said, if you look at the wording of the March 18th resolution it is difficult to see now how one could have voted for it. That is not having your cake and eating it, it's juding a motion on its wording. On Butler I totally agreed with our decision not to be part of it.
3. It is always difficult for Oppositions because all their shadow spokespeople always tend to be described as lasklustre nonentities. For the real thing have a look at the LibDem front bench. Dear oh dear. My views on Hague and Clarke are not as extreme as yours, but I do think that everyone in the Parliamentary Party should come to the aid of the Party a year ahead of a General Election and that includes William Hague and Ken Clarke.
4. As you know, I am running my campaign on predominantly local issues, but quite how you can say that our policies are not radical I do not know. Yes there are still policy holes to be filled, especially on tax and spending, but to say that the LibDems have filled these holes is laughable. As usual they can promise the earth in the full knowledge that they'll never have to follow through on the promise - witness the £100 off council tax pledge. What a ridiculous gimmick that was - and most people have seen through it. I make no bones about it - I am on the radical wing of the Party and believe that you don't get anywhere by saying to the electorate "Vote for me, we'll raise your taxes a little less slowly than the other guys". No wonder people don't turn out to vote on a wet Thursday if that's the best politicians can do. Are you seriously saying these are not clear and radical proposals?
a) Abolition tuition fees
b) Restore the earnings link for pensioners
c) 40,000 extra Police
d) Give parents the right to decide on their childrens' schooling
d) Give hospitals greater independence and parents the right to choose
e) No to the euro and the constitution (obviously a difficult one for Mr Lamb)
f) I could go on...
You may disagree with some or all of these but you cannot argue that they are not distinctive.
5. You obviously did not study the local election results very well. We picked up councillors all over the place - indeed twice as many as the LibDems. We made gains in metropolitan areas for the first time in years. I am not complacent. I think we should be doing much better in the cities than we are, but it is clear that we are moving in the right direction. That's why I was not at all happy with Liam Fox describing Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill as "not natural Tory areas". Well they should be, and it's his job and our job to make sure that one day they are again. In Norwich (where the LibDems lost control) we came within a hair's breadth of winning 5 council seats. In the end we only got one. This was the best result in Norwich since I first became involved in Norfolk politics in 1983.
Best if I ignore your last comment. I'll only get into trouble!
You say one seat in Norwich is your best performance for twenty odd years. That says it all.
Obviously, Iain, there is a lot you say above that I disagree with but I will restrict it to a couple of points:
1. Contrary to your comments, Charles Kennedy has a proven record of appealing to people who have not voted Lib Dem previously. This was proved in seats like North Norfolk in 2001 and more recently in by elections and polls (particularly of ethnic minority voters). The fact that your case for Howard's "appeal" is purely anecdotal is telling.
2. Quick game of shadow cabinet showdown: Menzies Campbell vs Michael Ancram and Vincent Cable vs Oliver Letwin. I will let your readers judge.
3. I think you have missed my point on the policy agenda, and it is interesting that you merely parrot the key slogans in response. The point is that the headlines do not stand up to the slightest scrutiny - please read my earlier comments on this again.
4. On Iraq, the Conservatives did take part in Butler! Yes, Howard "withdrew" after initially agreeing the remit, but he left his representative (Michael Mates) on the committee so it is unclear in what sense this constitutes withdrawal. In any event, yesterday's debate was an embarrassment for him. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Kennedy and Blair looked serious and resolute. Howard just twisted in the wind.
I am sorry you feel unable to give us your personal views on the reasons for defeat in the recent by elections. I had rather hoped that this blog was a chance to air personal views rather than merely recite the party line.
I think it you who is toeing the LibDem Party line. If you seriously think Charles Kennedy is seen by the public as a realstic alternative Prime Minister then I'm a Dutchman. Nice guy but you wouldn't want him to run your country. I know that, you know that, and so does the electorate. He suffers from the Kinnock factor.
I'm not quite sure why you are so interested in my views on why we didn't win the by-elections. I would be very interested in your views on one aspect of the campaign. Why did the LibDems call their candidate Parmjit Singh Gill in the Asian areas of the constituency but conveniently miss out the word Singh in the leaflets in predominantly white areas. This sort of racist campaigning stinks and the LibDems should be ashamed of it. I doubt whether even you James, even wearing your orange tinted glasses, could bring yourself to justify that.
This strikes me as a curious accusation (about the use of "Singh"). Given that;
1. he is called Parmjit; and
2. taking a look at the Leicester Liberals' website, it appears all their leaflets had huge photos of him on them
I cannot see how you can accuse them of pulling the wool over anybody's eyes as to the man's ethnicity!
It strikes me as a much more reasonable explanation that quite a few people in Asian areas were interested in whether Parmjit was a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh (all three communities are well represented in Leicester, I understand) and this was a subtle way of answering that question for those who were interested to know without making religion into an "issue" (I believe "Singh" is a specifically Sikh name and may even be taken on by all Sikhs, but this is old GCSE religious studies and I stand to be corrected!).
Elsewhere Parmjit Gill was used presumably as it is less of a mouthful. Is it racist to answer a question that was being asked in Asian areas but not predominantly white areas? I guess you could make an ultra-politically correct argument that it was.
And don't do yourself down, Iain! I am sure lots of people are interested in your views on matters political, by-elections and other matters!
A further possible explanation has been given to me by a colleague who knows about such things. Apparently I am right that almost all Sikh men have the middle name "Singh" although some Hindus do too. Likewise, almost all Sikh women have the middle name "Kaur". However, most Sikh forenames, including Parmjit, are used by both men and women.
Thus, referring to "Parmjit Singh Gill" identifies gender in a way that "Parmjit Gill" cannot and is less formal than saying "Mr Parmjit Gill". This point would be understood by many Asian people but probably not by most white people (I hope this is not too un-PC but I guess you and I have amply demonstrated the fact).
I think the evidence is stacking up here and, in the interests of fair play, you might want to reconsider your charge of racism.
You can bleat on about this as much as you like but there is only one explanation for the use of the full name in one area and the shorter name in white areas and you and I both know what it is. I have seen much of the LibDem literature in Leicester and it is typically LibDem - blue paper for leaflets designed to attract Tory voters and red paper for Labour voters, with hardly a mention of the world LibDem on them. How on earth the LibDems are considered the 'nice' party I just do not know. "Be shameless. Stir endlessly". Do I need to recite the entire ALDC document to you?
Political knockabout is all very well, Iain, but I really think you should be more cautious before throwing around charges of racism. A few basic questions:
1. You were in Leicester - was it not the case that the major Lib Dem newspapers had huge pictures of Parmjit Gill on them? Here is a link - go to the download area and tell me which obviously Asian man is seen in a massive front page picture on the final newspaper shaking hands with Charles Kennedy. www.leicester-libdems.org.uk
2. His name's Parmjit for heaven's sake! How many white Parmjits have you met over the years?
3. Are you really denying that the middle names "Singh" or "Kaur" are conventionally used in Asian communities to differentiate male and female Sikhs due to the unisex nature of Sikh forenames?
Really, Iain, you have made a very serious charge about your opponents which does not stand up to any scrutiny. In all seriousness, I do feel you should retract the charge as it does not reflect well on you simply to make casual and baseless accusations of racism.
I'll leave people to draw their own conclusions. I can see only one conclusion here and I've made it clear what it is. I withdraw nothing.
Dear Mr Dale
I find your intransigence deeply concerning in the face of James's explanation for the change in name on the Lib Dem leaflets depending on the ethnic background of voters in Leicester. I feel James's point about the name Parmjit is fairly self-evident; if Parmjit Gill had happened to be white, I think most people would have been forgiven for making the assumption he wasn't - due to his name. Having had a similarly patchy religious education experience to James, I assumed the middle name Singh denoted Mr Gill as a sikh. It makes sense to me that this information would probably be irrelevant to the white community. I don't understand, however, why 2 sets of leaflets were printed up. Any ideas James?
In the meantime, perhaps Mr Dale could list for us the ethnic minority PPCs in the Conservative Party, with their names (so we can guess what ethnic background they may or may not be from). We can then be on the look out for leaflets trumpeting their ethnicity accompanied by colour photographs in the run up to the general election.
Or would this type of debate in fact be as pointless and empty as the original - and clearly debunked - charge of racism.
There's nothing worse than a bad loser...
Not quite sure how I managed to post that up twice - apologies!
Complete and utter rubbish - and typically anyonymous rubbish at that. And just for your information we have several ethnic minority candidates in safe Tory seats and many more in marginals. I can assure you that their literature will be consistent throughout their constituencies - we don't play stupid games like the LibDems.
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