How Britain’s Political parties still campaign in an age of steam

Very 19th century: Ed Miliband campaigning, Pic credit:BBC

Very 19th century: Ed Miliband campaigning, Pic credit:BBC

The county council elections are upon us. Ed Miliband goes on a soapbox, leaflets are pushed through doors, canvassers turn up on doorsteps and people are supposed to rush to polling stations.

How brilliantly nineteenth century when  Gladstone and Disraeli drew crowds of thousands or even early twentieth when  Churchill (then a Liberal like Clegg) and Balfour campaigned across Manchester.

Politicians seem wedded to the old ways – like our splendid heritage railways – harking back to the glorious age of steam.

But this is the twenty-first century – the age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and the rise of the blogger. – and the parties still – especially Labour – seem totally oblivious.

Indeed it is said that Tony Blair never communicated by computer – always getting a gopher to do his work – and  Gordon Brown tried to – but I gather his mistyping and mispelling are going to provide a field day  for commentators when his 5.30 am  e-mails are eventually released in 20 odd years time.

I see from my lobby colleague Oliver Wright ( http://ind.pn/11rWoWi)  – that Ed Miliband has asked Matthew McGregor, the British savvy computer guy who helped Obama attack dog Mitt Romney  to work on a new project for them. But this is but a straw.

Compare this to the massive success of campaigns since 2010 by groups like  38 degrees  and the glimmering of fights between Political Scrapbook and Guido Fawkes blog on the net , the rapid rise of hyper local blogs across London  from Barnet to Kidbrooke and  rural Derbyshire to West Wales. Compare  this also to the end of newspaper buying (unless free)  by almost anybody under 40, TV losing ratings, and most news being confined to a few sentences on an I phone.

Yet many politicians still behave as though the entire public still engage in debate in the same way as the crowds listening to Gladstone and Disraeli and avidly reading the morning newspapers. Sorry, I do not see people on the Berkhamsted Flyer debating the merits of Matthew Ancona versus Polly Toynbee.

It is time that  Britain’s political parties looked at how 38 degrees harnessed public opinion and not only used the net to find out what people want but engaged with their own members.

Otherwise David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are little more than replicas of Squire Boldwood in Far From the Madding Crowd They are sad political estate owners who give an annual Christmas party ( substitute party conferences) for their labourers who till the land (  the party faithful). Why not use  the net for dialogue with their members and bring in the public to debate the issues.

Deference is dead, people want to communicate on an equal basis. They have great freedom to express themselves, from praise to local attack dog, and through the net  reach a wider audience  than they could possibly dream about a decade ago.

But politicians cling to being patricians, all not only out of touch but out of date. None of them has to live on £50 or even £250 a week. No wonder an  old fashioned election campaign is encouraging a party harking back to a Golden Britain, UKIP. Wake up you dozy leaders, get a grip.

Election Campaign:What the politicians and civil servants didn’t tell us

Are you voting without them telling you all the facts?

The election is virtually over. Tomorrow  you can cast your vote.  The parties will concentrate on their key messages over the last hours before polling day. But have all the issues been covered? No way.
 
Just as there is a black hole in all the parties’ planned spending cuts, there are lots of issues that have not been properly covered and many more that have been completely ignored.
They fall into three groups: there are issues that have been discussed but  not properly explored; there are issues that have been ignored by the political parties; and, perhaps surprisingly, there have been issues that Whitehall – not the politicians – has buried under the carpet.
 
The biggest issue that has not been properly explored is immigration. It was partly catapulted into the election by Gordon Brown’s “Bigotgate” gaffe after meeting pensioner Gillian Duffy, but the parties have tried to obscure the facts.
 
The Tories have promised to introduce a cap on immigration – but it will not apply to the 27 existing members of the European Community. They account for 80 per cent of immigration – according to Channel Four’s fact check file – almost 1.8 million people coming into Britain against 1 million Brits going to live in the EU.
 
While those coming from outside the EU account for only 20 per cent of immigration, according to a BBC analysis for the last recorded year, 8,000 more people left than came in. In effect this makes Cameron’s cap almost meaningless.
 
The Liberal Democrats, while promising to give an amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years, estimate it could help 600,000 – but, as Nick Clegg admits himself, nobody knows where they are. UKIP would block immigration altogether – but that will mean leaving the EU as well. The Liberal Democrats’ policy would mean hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants paying taxes, while Labour say they would deport them all, if they can find them. So more heat than light.
 
Then there are buried issues. The biggest is pensions and how we are going to fund an ageing population. The Tories have promised to raise the pension age to 66 but not until 2016, after the next election.
 
And while the election is taking place, more companies are ending final salary schemes, which will make it more difficult to get a good pension, and the cost of providing care is going up all the time. The parties have touched on the cost of care but the multi billion pounds for pensions has not even been debated. Anyone thinking seriously about this would know that something has got to give.
 
Similarly, for younger people, one issue that might have been raised is the draconian measure – rushed through Parliament just before the election – to curb illegal file-sharing.  There is now a law that could give the music and video business powers to demand internet providers disconnect people from the internet. This has been barely mentioned.
 
Other issues hardly touched on include the environment, overseas aid, transport and housing.
 
But probably the most surprising thing that happened during the election was a decision by Whitehall – which runs the country while the PM is busy campaigning – to ban the release of new statistics which would have revealed how much you are funding farmers and agribusiness through the European Union.
 
Last Friday the EU expected every one of their 27 members to release details of the billions of euros spent subsidising farmers and big companies to produce food for last year. Every country except the UK published these figures.
 
In Whitehall, civil servants took the decision that to release this information in the middle of an election campaign would be wrong. They justified this on the grounds that some Parliamentary candidates might be receiving the  subsidies. I quote the explanation: “This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that … payment  information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.” Possibly as many as 80 candidates, mainly Conservative, and a few UKIP and Liberal Democrats are benefitting from this.
 
Extraordinarily, in Scotland – where there is a devolved government – the figures were released. They showed that 19,000 farmers and businesses shared nearly £600m of taxpayers’ money. The figure for the UK was over £3 billion the previous year.
 
But the effect was to close down any political debate on the cost of the EU to the taxpayer. Other statistics like hospital admissions, road statistics and all the economic data have all been released.
 
So it is not only politicians who have limited debate during the election.

This blog is also on the msn website as part of their general election coverage.

Whitehall’s censorship of farming subsidies spares Tories (and UKIP’s) blushes

tucking into censored farm subsidy pic courtesy daily mail

Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public  from seeing  information because  they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.

They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.

 What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3 billion from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.

On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.

But in London – against an EU directive – the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: “Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election.”

A letter from a DEFRA official to Jack Thurston, head of farmsubsidy.org, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why:

“This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that CAP payment  information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.”

Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads just to name two. And in Scotland because of devolved government – they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend –revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.

So who does this protect? Initial research by farmsubsidy.org reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen UKIP candidates- who campaign against the EU- could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat and BNP candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year’s subsidy figures.

 Yet we won’t know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election- even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.

Frankly disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in “ hung Parliament “ territory when Whitehall  will be effectively  running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief.

This blog is also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.