Labour lost nationally by forgetting who actually votes…

There are a lot of discussions in Labour circles at the moment trying to work out why the election result was so decisive.   The first rule of any election is that the public are always right even if you don’t like what they have told you.  The second rule is even more important – unless you win, you cannot impact the lives of those for whom we care about.

So lesson 1 for the Labour Party is really very simple – to win an election, you have to get the most votes at least 326 seats for a general election.  This means that even if we had won every single seat in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives would still have had a majority in this election. Therefore to win a future election, Labour has to do one of two things:-

1) Get enough non-voters into the Labour column

This is being argued by some on the grounds that only 70% of the electorate did vote. Their argument is that if Labour attracted most of this group, there would be enough people to overtake Tories in their marginal seats.  My own view is that this is doomed for failure. It’s a sad fact borne out by years successfully polling in this marginal southern Council seat that those who are most in need of our support are also those least likely to vote. Those living in social housing flats will rarely vote because they don’t see the point, don’t understand it or their lives are so difficult and chaotic that voting is just not a priority for them. I met numerous residents with desperately sad stories impacted by the bedroom tax, benefit changes and using food banks but none of them voted according to our records.  Why? Because they never have done. Their lives are dominated by worrying about their kids, heating or food and the idea of walking 20 mins down the road with a double buggy would be irrelevant to them and it always will be for many. Our poorest roads were around the 20% turnout mark and this is common around the country. No amount of pleading or persuasion would change this.

2) Get enough Tory voters to switch

I have heard some anecdotal stories about Labour canvassing only those they believed to vote Labour. That’s fine but you will never win a marginal seat just on strong Labour promises. You have to take the “don’t knows” with you as well at least get more don’t knows than the Conservatives. These are people who do vote but often switch between elections without any particular tribal leaning.  The issue here is that you know they will vote and if they do switch, they also take one off the opponent as well. It’s actually easy to track who votes and who doesn’t as you can get a marked register from previous elections.

To win an election, you need to get the support of those who do vote rather than those who don’t. This inevitably means that the middle of the electorate is therefore to the right of society as a whole. For Labour to get a majority, they will have to win in England by getting votes from people that have never been on zero hour contracts, benefits, the minimum wage or used a foodbank. This means being relevant to them offering security in an uncertain time.

Two issues were critical to many in this group – the economy and the SNP. Their view was that the Conservatives were trusted more with the country finances and they definitely did not want the Scottish National Party potentially involved in Government.

I don’t have a preferred choice of leader or deputy but do support a longer think before rushing towards particular people. The direction of the ship is more important than the ship’s captain at this point of the electoral cycle.

Surrey Heath elections – a local view

All the votes have been counted and the final result is 36 Conservatives, 2 Independents in Chobham, 1 Lab in Old Dean and 1 Liberal Democrat in Bagshot.  This is almost identical to the previous Council except that the Conservatives gained 2 seats taking one seat comfortably from the Lib Dems in Frimley Green and another by 20 votes from Lab in Old Dean. The Lib Dems took one seat in Bagshot from the Conservatives making it a net gain of 1.

However, this masks a number of surprising local results all round.

The first point to make here is that Surrey Heath is an extremely Conservative area with a high profile MP.  Michael Gove won a majority of almost 25000 which makes Surrey Heath the 24th safest seat in the entire UK (out of 650) and the 16th safest Conservative seat.  During a general election year particularly where there has been a large Conservative swing, it would have been no surprise if the Conservatives had won all 40 seats as per the 1970s and 80s.

However, this huge majority did not reflect in many areas to local voting.

Personally, I was astonished that the Lib Dems won a seat in Bagshot when you consider the national picture. They only put up one candidate albeit a local community campaigner and Parish Cllr when 3 seats were available. This seems to have been a total surprise to them as well as most of their team went home before the result was announced . This seat had been previously held by Lib Dems albeit narrowly in 2007 but even so, it was unexpected. There seems to have been an exceptionally large amount of personal or split voting with huge differences in the Conservative candidates vote for reasons I do not know.

Next, Independent candidates did well holding both seats in Chobham and only missing in West End by 54 votes. Other lone Independents polled well in Bisley and Mytchett. A lone Lib Dem also got very close in Heatherside almost taking the 3rd seat.

The Conservatives in turn were surprised to win one seat in Old Dean. Whilst personally disappointed, Old Dean has historically been a marginal and I was always expecting a tight result. The 2007 election was only won by 14 votes and two subsequent elections split the Con vote due to UKIP standing which didn’t happen this time. I doubt this was a personal vote effect as the successful Con is not a local activist nor live in the area. Turnout was much lower in Old Dean and initial checks suggest that Cons turned out but many Lab voters did not.  There is a national trend which I will blog about in due course.

So Surrey Heath remains a local community where 90% of those elected are Conservative but only with about 60% of the vote. However, at least opposition voices will be there and it will be our job to ensure that the 40% are also heard loud and clear.

“So this voting then, how does it work??”

Here is the 2nd part of some genuine election queries I’ve heard and tried to answer but this time all associated with voting itself.

Q: What do I do to vote?

A: Walk into your local designated polling station, tell the staff who you are and present your polling card (if you have it).  The officer will then cross out your name on the electoral roll and then issue you with two marked ballot papers (or three if you live in an area with parish elections).  Then go into a private booth.

Q:  Then what?

A: Mark the ballot papers by putting a cross against your preferred candidate(s).  For Old Dean local election, you can make up to 2 crosses on the ballot paper but only one on the parliamentary paper.

Q: What happens if I make a mistake or mark the paper and then change my mind?

A: You can cross out and remark as long as your voting intention is clear. If not, go back to the officer and say you have made a mistake, and would like a new paper. Do not put your mistaken ballot paper in the box or you will not be issued with a new one but give it to them and they will dispose. Under no circumstances should you sign and initial any changes as this will invalidate your vote (which has to be secret)

Q: What if I don’t know who to vote for – can I ask the officers for any advice?

A: No – the poll clerks can only answer questions relating to the process. They cannot tell you any further information other than that contained on the ballot papers or in the booths. For example, they cannot tell you which candidates are in the same party as David Cameron or Ed Miliband.

Q:  Does it have to be a cross?

A: No although this is strongly encouraged. It has to be a clear mark so for example a tick would be acceptable whereas a smiley face has been argued. It does have to be clearly within the candidate section so for example if someone put a large cross covering their paper, this would be classed as spoilt rather than a vote for a middle candidate.

Q: What if I want to deliberately spoil my vote because I don’t like any of the candidates?

A: A ballot paper can be spoilt if it is left blank, voted for too many candidates, has no official mark or is void due to uncertainty.  All spoilt papers are put to one side at the count and then the returning officer will look at each one with the candidate agents  and adjudicate.  Any ballot paper which is signed or has other writing that could identify the voter is also invalid. Don’t bother using your ballot paper to complain about Council services as these will just be ignored. (it has been known!)

Q: When will we know the results?

A: Around 5am on Friday morning for Surrey Heath parliamentary. The local election count starts at 1pm on Friday and should be known by 5pm/6pm.

Q: Who are the people who hang about outside the polling station and what do they do?

A: Called party tellers and have no official status. Their job is to try and find out who has voted so they can remind their supporters later in the day. You are under no legal obligation to tell them your voter number but if you don’t, you may get a knock on your door later on from various party activists which would be a waste of time all round.  They are only interested in your elector number (on your card) and not who you may be voting for. They should work together regardless of the colour of their rosette so tell any of them.

Q:  What if I need help due to disability or visual impairment?

A: The officers in the polling station will offer practical assistance to ensure that you can vote and make every effort to ensure this is done privately. If you need help in the polling booth, officers can give this as a last resort but are legally compelled to keep your vote confidential.

Q: I have a postal vote but haven’t got round to posting it. Can I vote at the polling station instead?

A: No – if you turn up, you will not be given another vote. However, you can drop off your postal vote at a polling station in Surrey Heath.

If you are ill on the day, you can get an emergency proxy vote up until 5pm on voting day.

A simple guide to the elections

So the starting gun has now been officially fired for the 2015 election and lots of politicians of all parties are now desperately scrambling around for votes.

But whilst some are politically engaged, there are huge numbers of people who don’t really understand what this is all about.  Some years ago when not politically active, I actually helped to administer a general election polling station and was genuinely surprised how many people came up with questions that polling staff were not mainly allowed to answer. Other questions have come up socially, colleagues, young people or when knocking on the doors. So here goes with the first instalment (all of which are genuine questions asked)…

Q:  What am I actually voting for?

A:  Every adult in Surrey Heath has 1 vote (about 70 000 people) to decide who they want to be their representative (or MP). That person will then go to Parliament and vote on national issues like health, education, transport and defence. There are 650 MPs in total and they cover the whole of the UK namely England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Q: Who are my candidates?

A: We don’t know for sure as the list of candidates will be published by the local Council on Friday 10th April. However, there are currently 7 people that have stated they wish to stand for election in Surrey Heath.

Q: Can I vote for David Cameron/Ed Miliband/Nigel Farage/Boris Johnson etc? Why are they not on the ballot paper?

A: No – You can only vote for one of the candidates standing in Surrey Heath.  David Cameron is a candidate in Oxfordshire, Ed Miliband in Doncaster, Nigel Farage in Kent and Boris Johnson in London.

Q: I don’t understand all the party stuff – what’s that about?

A: Most candidates standing in the national (or general) election are doing so on behalf of a political party. Therefore, in Surrey Heath, the candidates are from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, United Kingdom Independence Party, Green Party, Art Party and Christian Party. You can just stand as yourself (or Independent) if you want. All of the parties have different ideas (or policies) on what they would do if they won. The names of the parties will be on the ballot paper along with their party logo.

Q: I’m Scottish and want to vote for the Scottish National Party – can I do this here?

A: No – Not in Surrey Heath – they have decided only to put up candidates in Scotland.

Q: But I thought that  being a Councillor was the same as being an MP?

A:No – there are also local elections taking place on the same day and that decides who is your local rep. In Surrey Heath, there are currently 16 different areas (called wards) and 40 people will be elected. These people will decide local issues like refuse collection, planning and parks and they meet in Camberley.

Q: Can I vote on the internet?

A: No  – you either have to turn up in person to your local polling station or make an application in advance to vote by post.

Q: Can I go to any polling station – there will be one near where I work?

A: No  – You should receive a card in the post in the next week or so from the Council and this will tell you where you need to go. If you don’t get a card or don’t know, the Council should be able to help especially if you have moved house over the last year.

Will tweet any more questions and do a 2nd instalment nearer Election Day all about voting.

Why Surrey Heath Council Tax should not have gone up

Here is a summary of my speech to Full Council tonight opposing the 1.94% Council Tax increase.

Our responsibility as local politicians is to use our resources wisely.  Whilst Surrey Heath cannot help the cuts made by the government, they are responsible for decisions on the monies they have been given and to spend those wisely.

1) Are there any areas of wasteful or questionable spending?

– Really enjoy going to the theatre but should we really be spending £279 000 subsidising a theatre when huge cuts have to be made?  Even this appears to be the low side making an assumption that the theatre café would make £85 000 income over the year? This is not a sustainable level of subsidy.

·  We need some advertising and marketing but do we need 13 different advertising/marketing budgets? This needs to be sharper and more innovative in approach using the internet wherever we can.

– No more pet projects of councillors – we cannot afford to waste Council money on camel statues or other similar schemes.

– Cllr allowances – There are far too many highly questionable “non-jobs” for Cllrs with a total cost of £282k. Almost every Conservative Cllr has received a “special” allowance at some point over the last 4 years.  At a County level, it is completely appalling for Conservative Cllrs to vote for increases of up to 60% whilst considering closing Pinehurst residential home and Mytchett Children’s Centre serving our community. Even many Conservatives recognise that this is an embarrassment.

2) Are there any areas for potential income?

Need to be far more innovative thinking about funding for discretionary services such as museum, theatre and parks. We have areas of poverty but also areas of huge affluence and especially around wills and legacies where families of loved ones would want to have a permanent recognition through trees, benches, exhibitions, artefacts, sponsorship. Other public bodies do this – so should we.

3) If you have addressed waste and ensured you have considered all income streams, raising Council Tax should then be considered as a last resort and only to the level which is necessary.

As this Council is still wasting money and not looking at all alternative income streams, I cannot support the proposed rise of 1.94%.

Local flytipping

There was a local issue in this week’s Camberley News and as I hadn’t written a blog for a while, I thought it was a good time to go through this one.  The local reporter did try to contact me just before their deadline but due to work, I wasn’t able to add my update.

A local resident has rightly complained to the newspaper about a piece of land in Old Dean which is between Kingston Road and Surbiton Road which has been prone to flytipping for some time.  In fact, some residents contacted me about this some months ago and I went out to go and see them and the problems first hand.

The land in question is not owned by the Borough Council as some believe but by Accent Housing Association.  For many years, it has been a wasteland although many residents have access rights to their back garages and believe that the land was transferred over initially to Surrey Heath Housing Association and then to Accent where Surrey Heath Borough Council transferred their housing stock.  The land has two other potentially useful purposes namely to house secure storage containers for kitchen and bathroom units and in the long-term, potentially houses.

So some months ago and after speaking to residents, I contacted the local Housing Officer for Accent to express my concerns and ask for action to be taken. This resulted in some immediate action namely that storage containers were secured and a skip was removed. After further follow-up from myself and a visiting Rushmoor colleague, Accent took action with their on-site contractors and the containers were all removed.   This meant that the only remaining problem was the litter and flytipping.

Since then, we have entered a semi regular cycle of flytipping by unknown persons followed by clearance by Accent. The site cannot be completely secured due to the local access rights but does have a locked gate to stop other drivers.

It’s important to correct one aspect of this story namely that Accent are responsible for regular clearing regardless of whether they know the offending person or not. Of course, they would like to identify and prosecute the offenders as they are not Accent contractors as some believe. However, they are not legally obliged to remove unless an Environmental Health hazard.

Another resident belief is that the site can be easily redeveloped for housing but unfortunately this is not correct. We would love to have more social housing in Old Dean but our location is so close to the Special Protection Area that it virtually rules out any new housing development.

So the options now are:-

– Accent gather enough evidence to take legal action against the offenders. This could include evidence from local residents and possibly CCTV if a suitable site for the camera existed. My preferred option but not easy and takes time.

– Close the site and secure – This would mean residents waiving their access rights so unlikely to be an option.

– Alternative use for land – Potentially worth progressing as a community garden but should be recognised that this may not reduce the flytipping as other community gardens know.

So none of these are great but I will be contacting Accent again and ask them to consider all options as well as asking them to do a local resident letter to explain the situation in more detail. I have a lot of sympathy with these local residents and agree that they should not suffer due to the selfishness of a tiny minority.

Using emotional arguments FOR immigration

Some years ago, I used to work in the training field and learnt loads of really interesting stuff about how people think. Without getting too scientific, lots of people make decisions based on logic (weighing up the evidence before coming to a conclusion) whereas others make decisions based on emotion (how something feels to them)  It’s all to do with brain makeup and how people use the left and right side of their brains more. Now I admit that doesn’t sound very interesting for a political blog until you start linking in to certain key political issues and in particular the rise of UKIP.

In this country, most politicians in most parties are logical thinkers and you can tell that by the way they speak. So for example, they will talk about facts and figures and talk in detail about policies to try and address the issue. Problem is that many people in the population don’t think like that and that is because they are emotive thinkers – they decide due to their emotions such as what makes them happy, sad, angry, anxious etc. without using any particular logic or reason and many politicians don’t understand that.

So let’s take a controversial subject such as immigration – generally recognised as one of the top 3 issues raised in public polling. We have all heard people on the doorstep who say that “There are too many foreigners, they take our jobs, my kids can’t get a house, they use up our NHS” etc. etc

Mainstream political thinking when faced with a resident like this is to spout facts & figures at them, examples in other countries, argue with them or find some way of ending the conversation quickly. However, this is usually a bad idea and doesn’t actually address what the voter is saying and more particularly, HOW they are saying it.  This then leaves parties such as UKIP who cleverly use emotional connections with the voter such as fear and anxiety to their advantage and ultimately are currently picking up more of their votes.

The reason is that the overwhelming majority of the public are either not interested in politics or only have a passing interest and therefore are simply not interested in detailed analysis of policies. Obviously some people are and that is why parties look for serious and detailed policies but for others, it doesn’t matter and they don’t care about any policies, it is what they feel that counts.

So for something like immigration, I think there are 3 ways that the mainstream parties can improve on this issue without getting involved in policy arguments:-

1) Be willing to listen to a resident who raises immigration and in particular listen to their story and WHY they are concerned. Is it jobs? Is it housing? Is it worry about family security? Have they read something negative?  Even if their views are based on complete myths or exaggerations, it is real to them and they have one vote just like everyone. Let them get any anger out of their system and just listen without trying to argue with them even if their views are uncomfortable listening..

2)   If they allow, acknowledge their experience and agree (if you can) that this sounds terrible and accept why they therefore feel as they do,  Acknowledge that there have been bad examples of immigration which have been in the news and that those examples also make you feel angry, sad, upset or whatever emotion they have put to you.

3) Once a common emotional bond is established, that’s the point to then share the positive aspects about immigration.  Not in some meaningless facts and figures way but talking about real people that they know.  So, did they know that the following people were immigrants or came from immigrant families? (there are many examples – here are just some)

– Winston Churchill (grandparents from France/America)

– Prince Philip (Greek) – therefore meaning Prince William and Prince George have immigrant ancestry.

– John Lennon (Irish parents)

– Dame Helen Mirren – well known for playing the Queen but in fact had Russian parents and real birth name is Russian.

Even William Marks (from Marks & Spencers) was actually a Polish immigrant

You can also have TS Eliot, the composer Handel, Andrew Strauss who captained England cricke, Mo Farah and of course the numerous footballers at Premier League football clubs – all of whom contribute massively to British society.  So it’s fair to say that whilst there are some “bad” immigrants, there are also some very good ones and most people (apart from a few BNP supporters) would accept that point.

Ah – but it is not those people they say, it’s those others who come into the country now – what about them? They just take our benefits and housing and there are too many etc.

Well, an emotive argument to use at this point would be to give specific examples in the local community of people who are immigrants and contributing such as specifically naming my local doctor (Indian) and dentist (South African) and try to get them to agree he or she are good people in the area. There are probably immigrant teachers, business leaders, faith groups, sport teams or others in their friendship circles where they can think of positive role models. I even had someone in Old Dean who was very angry about immigration who then realised that they were good friends with their next door neighbours (a Pakistani couple) and actually it wasn’t so bad after all!

At that point, the debate is redefined and you have got people emotively thinking of particular immigrants as positives and real examples of friends rather than them immediately thinking of immigrants as terrorists or in some way, threatening their way of life.

Of course, this doesn’t work with everyone but it does work with lots more than you might think- the question is whether any of the mainstream parties will try this approach and start talking publicly in “the language of the pub” or just carry on coming up with soundbite policies instead.