Labour annual conference 2014More of politics in action:

1) Say you want more young people to get more involved and interested in politics.
2) Young people get interested in politician and discuss him.
3) say ‘oh, not like that’.

As ever, people talking to the young have forgotten what it was like to be young. Imagine if Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the rest had been around 20-30 years ago – what embarrassing sites created by journalists and politicians would now be in the archive for us to discover? How many current Tory MPs would have had Thatcher shrines, how many times would Neil Kinnock’s appearance in a Tracy Ullman video have been shared and how many arguments would there have been over what portmanteau name to give to the David Owen/David Steel fandom?

Sure, some future politicians act like they were born aged 50 and would never have done anything so embarrassing as squeeing over a speech, but why should politics be solely the realm of the serious? And aren’t teenagers in cheap suits just cosplaying as their favourite political characters, anyway?

Most political parties are just organised fandoms for a political ideology or slice of political history, it';s just that they’ve been around so long people treat them as something different and respectable. But just like science fiction fans, they gather in obscure places every year for conventions (sorry, ‘conferences’) where they can dress up like their heroes, hear them talk, discuss their favourite elements of the fandom at panel discussions, and occasionally get to meet and be photographed with their favourites.

You’re already in the politics fandom, you just like to pretend it’s not.


Two and a half weeks in, three weeks to go and it feels to me that we might have had the first big moment of the election tonight. There’d been a lot of pre-event discounting of tonight’s debate: Farage was guaranteed to win as the only right-wing voice, everyone would gang up on Miliband, Cameron would look good for staying out of the fray and much more. Instead, it felt like everyone had made a similar calculation: why go for Miliband when he’s there and can fight back when you could take as many free hits at David Cameron as you wanted?

Sure, Miliband had a few clashes with the others but note how many of those were based on ‘if you were Prime Minister’-style questions and except for the clash at the end with Nicola Sturgeon, how he responded pretty well to them all. He got to stand there, look calm, collected, human and Prime Ministerial while David Cameron sat at home, probably gritting his teeth more and more as the night went on. The polling bears it out too – Miliband seems not only to have ‘won’ the debate, but amongst people who watched the debate appears to have edged ahead of Cameron on the preferred Prime Minister question.

The Tory strategy, which seems to have imagined that Ed Miliband would do what he hasn’t done for the past four or more years and fall apart under pressure, is looking worse and worse every day. I mean, Ed Miliband might suddenly collapse into a gibbering wreck in an interview tomorrow, but it’s seeming increasingly unlikely, and probably less likely than the rage that seems to seethe under David Cameron whenever anyone criticises him finally bursting to the surface.

Of course, we now need to see what gets picked up and played on more over the next few days. So far, there seems to be a rather muted response to Miliband’s request to Cameron for a head-to-head debate, but Labour could keep the pressure up on that, as they likely know there’s no way it could actually happen, even if Cameron were to say yes. There’s also the question of how Farage blowing up and insulting the audience is going to be taken up, because it was a moment where he looked like he’d finally realised that he wasn’t speaking for the majority and instead looked like the pub bore challenging someone to a fight. Still, we now know what two hundred people simultaneously having a sharp intake of breath sounds like.

I’ll probably look back on this in three weeks time and wonder ‘what was I thinking?’ but things seem to have become interesting at last. That probably means we’ll see everything derailed by ridiculous tabloid claims over the weekend, but for now things might just have taken flight.

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The important thing to remember here is that there are still four weeks until election day. As I’m writing this, nominations are still open and agents are making their last minute dashes to the council office to get their final nomination forms in, and there’s probably someone, somewhere in the country who decided last night that ‘hey, why don’t I stand for Parliament?’ who’s spent today getting their form filled in and found £500 to pay their deposit.

Just as a comparison, at this point in the 2010 election, Parliament was just being dissolved and the election campaign was really only just beginning. Four weeks is a hell of a long time in electioneering, and in years gone by, we’d have seen the entire election campaign unwinding in a shorter period.

Which is why I’m wondering what’s gone wrong with the Tory campaign that’s made them decide to go nuclear with so long to go? Literally, in the case of deciding that this is the right time to talk about Trident, and figuratively in allowing Michael Fallon to launch an extraordinarily personal and nasty attack against Ed Miliband while discussing the Tory nuclear policy? Beyond the sheer nastiness of the attack, it was based on some rather shoddy logic.

It’s hard to work out where to start with the faults in the argument. Is it that Miliband standing in the Labour leadership election was a ‘shabby manoeuvre’, in which case should every Tory candidate be apologising to their rivals for doing it? Is it the whole ‘he stabbed his brother in the back’ nonsense, as though David had some sort of divine right to be party leader? Or is that the supposedly weak and chaotic Miliband the Tories have been telling us about for years is actually some secretly ruthless Macchiavellian (Mandelsonian, even) evil genius of politics? And in terms of the policy itself, are they suggesting that they would oppose a Labour-led government in a vote on replacing Trident? Because that’s what it would take to give SNP MPs, no matter how many of them there are, a decisive say on the issue.

There was a clear hitting of the ‘oh God, we’re not going to get a majority’ panic button by the Tories about a week before the last election when things went a bit crazy, but this is with four weeks to go? Was their plan based on the idea that Miliband would suddenly disintegrate under the pressure – in exactly the way he hasn’t for the past five years – and then they’d coast to the majority they believe is theirs by right? They’ve known this election was coming, at this time, for years but it really does feel like they’ve constantly put off coming up with a strategy for it in the hope that someone will come up at the last minute to mean they don’t have to. Now the deadline for submitting is here, and they’re pulling the political equivalent of an all-night essay writing session, with all the shoddy research and scant respect for facts you’d expect.

However, in a surprise development, Fallon managed to avoid winning the title of nastiest campaign move of the day. First, there was a challenge from his Tory colleague Nick Boles, implying that Miliband was Vladimir Putin’s choice for Prime Minister, but even that was trumped by George ‘still a thing’ Galloway. Yes, the sole MP for the Courage, Strength and Indefatigability Respect Party, proved there were no campaigning depths off limits to him by bickering over the age at which his Labour opponent was forced into marriage. When you find yourself in a position where you don’t deny getting someone to impersonate someone’s dead father in order to ‘prove’ they were slightly older than thought while being married against their will, there may not be much left of the barrel for you to scrape. But again, there are still four weeks to go, and never underestimate Galloway’s ability to sink even lower into the gutter.

Nominations are now closed, so hopefully by the time I get to do a post tomorrow we’ll have an idea of how many candidates there are across the country, and just how many strange new parties have appeared for the election. Lambeth are quick of the mark in publishing their lists of candidates, and Vauxhall constituency is straight into the contest for most candidates in a seat with 10. Last time, we managed nine in Colchester, but there are only six confirmed here so far – are we going to be higher or lower this time?

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secretrobot‘Ed’s Secret Robo Plot’ is going to take a lot of beating as both the best and most disappointing headline of the election campaign. On first sight, one might think it refers to Ed Miliband having a secret plot to build robots (probably to carry out nefarious socialist plots that will sap the precious bodily fluids of good healthy News International customers), but instead it’s merely the news that he’d rehearsed and made some notes before the leaders’ debate. I’m expecting that by the end of the campaign, his visiting a hospital will be described as how his breathing stole vital air from patients, while a leaked memo reveals that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t need oxygen to survive.

In the end, it’s just another Giant Death Ray.

In the campaign proper, things remained in a bit of a bank holiday slumber with most of the day appearing to be not much more than shouting back and forth, every side claiming all the others are lying while there’s is the only unalloyed truth. Meanwhile, Danny Alexander is supposedly surprised that the Tories are taking credit for someone else’s popular policy. I know Tories are a rare breed in Scotland, but surely even Danny must realise that’s the sort of thing Tories do instinctively, like breathing?

One semi-concrete piece of information we do now have is the Press Association’s list of expected declaration times for every constituency. At the moment, we appear to be starting with the Sunderland seats from around 11pm on May 7th, and finishing at the other end of England with St Ives expected at 1pm on May 8th. Presumably, the St Ives time is because of the trouble of getting ballot boxes back from the Scilly Isles, though that does raise the question of how Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney & Shetland get their counts done on election night. Of course, St Ives likely won’t be the last to declare as there are always one of two constituencies requiring multiple recounts that end up going well into the day after.

Today’s plunge into the Election Leaflets website brings us our first featured independent candidate of the campaign, the splendidly named Sandy Pratt, standing in East Surrey. This will be Mr Pratt’s second Parliamentary election campaign, having finished sixth in the same constituency in 2010, and I’m sure this time he’ll be hoping to get the 0.05% swing that should take him past the Monster Raving Loonies into fifth place. However, he may want to consider his approach to fundraising, as putting your bank account details on a leaflets and asking for people to deposit funds directly seems to me to be slightly risky, and probably hard to get donor details that meet the legal requirements for election candidates and agents.

Still, he does have a full list of 25 policies on national affairs, which is more than many candidates will have, and should be congratulated for taking a risk, putting himself forward and standing for election.

Looking back five years ago, the 6th April was the day Gordon Brown went to the Palace, and the election campaign started. So yes, if you were wondering, this year’s campaign is longer than last time.

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Another day, another debate. It didn’t turn into the seven-way shoutathon that I feared, but there were points when there were lots of people talking over each other – usually 2 or 3 of the men – though Julie Etchingham managed to keep them away from the worst of it.

The polling results seem to be coming up with a variety of results, and I think that’s because of two factors. First, there’s a partisanship factor, as people are inclined to think ‘their’ leader won, but secondly because it’s very hard for people to consistently judge who ‘won’ the debate. A lot of the variation between the polls could well be a result of question design – the criteria people are applying will vary a lot according to how they’re asked.

I think that to get a more useful response, you’d need to combine the result of various questions, but that would take a lot more time than the snap judgments required by the media. For a simple take, I think the ‘who did worst?’ questions may give a more honest response. Invert the scores from those and who’s ‘least worst’ may be more of an indication of the national mood than ‘who won?’

For me, there were no knockout blows or career-ending gaffes – though the fact-checking on Farage’s HIV claim could have some interesting results – and I think they’ll all come away from it thinking they did what they needed.

I think Nicola Sturgeon delivered the best performance of the night, and if she was leading a party that stood outside Scotland, things would get very interesting. Farage isn’t trying to broaden UKIP’s appeal, but is trying to work up their base and make sure it gets out to vote, but I also expect a lot of potential UKIP voters wouldn’t have been watching tonight.

Clegg, Miliband and Cameron all came out pretty evenly across the night, and while I can see Cameron’s reasons for not going to the debate on the 16th (even if I still think he should be empty chaired for doing so), I don’t know why Clegg isn’t going to be there. Is it too late for him to change his mind? Miliband wins by being equal to Cameron, so he’ll be relatively happy, but someone should tell him not to stare down the camera every time he talks.

For Bennett and Wood, just being on the stage was a boost for their parties, and like Farage they were aiming for a certain section of the audience. What might be the biggest boost for the Greens is Sturgeon criticising the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour. English voters enthused by her message might well go to the Greens as the nearest alternative.

And one final thought: I’d love to see a survey that looked at how much people thought the women talked compared to the men. They might be surprised by this finding:

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Battle for Number 10: Morning after thoughts

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

In no particular order:

The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.

Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.

No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.

‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.

We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.

Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?

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How to be a leading political commentator

So, we had some news last night that Ed Miliband wants to bring in rules to organise and regulate General Election leaders’ debates. For the avoidance of doubt, here’s what the article says:

The Observer has learnt that a Labour government, in a significant constitutional move, would put the requirement to stage “fair and impartial leaders’ debates” on a statutory footing. The new system would work on similar lines to the current rules for planning the number, length and timing of party political broadcasts, under which parties are consulted but not given the power to stop them happening. This could be done by establishing the body which negotiates the terms of debates as a trust in statute with responsibility for determining the dates, format, volume and attendees.

Now, you may agree or disagree on whether we should have leaders’ debates, but I think the proposal is quite clear. It’s not proposing to compel anyone to attend – just as the current system doesn’t compel anyone to submit party political broadcasts – merely proposing an independent body (likely the Electoral Commission) oversee the format and organisation of debates.

Having read the article that seems pretty obvious to me, but maybe my reading comprehension skills are of an advanced level, because that understanding seems to be beyond some people:

Yes, this is a man who is paid to interpret and comment on the news completely failing to understand a simple proposal. ‘Compel’ (along wih ‘force’, ‘order’ and other similar words) isn’t anywhere in the proposal or the article, which makes me wonder just where he might have found it from, and if his editors ought to be having a word.

Of course, I could be misunderstanding things myself and mistaking an overpromoted Tory shill who’ll happily manipulate any piece of news to fit his preconceived ideas and propaganda aims for a serious and objective columnist. But then I might end up calling for my own law that stops columnists pretending that pushing their own agenda is somehow objective.

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