It came as a bit of a surprise to me to find that this will be the 40th column I’ve written for this paper. My first, written at 48 hours notice, appeared in November 1997 – shortly after the first of Tony Blair’s hat-trick of general election wins, the others appearing at fairly regular intervals since, in a sense giving one person’s commentary on the Blair decade.
It’s very tempting to make this a review of the Blair years – but we’re going to get quite enough of those from other commentators over the next few weeks, and few of them will say anything very interesting.
Instead, let me congratulate Jackie Dillnutt on becoming the new Liberal Democrat councillor for Sweyne Park ward in Rayleigh. She beat the Conservatives by 30 votes in the only genuine surprise of the May 3rd elections. I say surprise – but some of us were more surprised than others. The local press had already written us off, suggesting that we might even lose the two seats we were defending. But June Lumley and Ron Oatham won their Grange and Downhall seats with increased majorities.
Jackie’s win reflects a year of hard work, during which she distributed regular Focus leaflets to all the residents in the ward, and knocked on hundreds of doors to talk to people and listen to their concerns. The over-development of Rayleigh is top of the list. People don’t simply object to more houses and flats – it’s the lack of thought about amenities that bothers them. People don’t just need houses – they need doctors, dentists, schools, parks, sports pitches and playgrounds.
The Lib Dems got more than half the votes in Rayleigh – and that’s obviously given the Tories a prod. They have acknowledged that they are not doing enough, and have promised more leaflets. Well: it’s good to see that the Conservatives are waking up at last. But they need to be aware that people don’t just want more leaflets. They want their voices to be heard, and they feel they are not heard at present. The people of Rayleigh are now lucky enough to have five Lib Dem councillors who will keep them informed and who will listen to their concerns.
One of the interesting features of the May elections was the complete absence locally of the so-called ‘Cameron factor’. No one mentioned him on the doorstep (except for one resident who said Cameron reminded him of an estate agent), and the Tories lost two of their Rochford District seats. They also lost control in Thurrock, held on to Castle Point by the skin of their teeth, and even lost their leader in Southend (to the Lib Dems, of course). The people of Essex are obviously too sensible to be taken in!
And now I’m afraid I can’t resist – surely the passing of Blair is too momentous an occasion for me not to offer a brief comment. There have been good things – the minimum wage, independence for the Bank of England, the economy generally, Northern Ireland. And there have been bad – you won’t be surprised to know that for me, as a member of the only major party to oppose the war, Blair’s Iraq fiasco is plainly the worst by a long chalk.
There have also been many might-have-beens – where Blair’s initial intentions were good, but where he failed to carry them through. Constitutional reform is one – we had devolution for Scotland and Wales, followed by a half-baked reform of the House of Lords. I believe we desperately need voting reform in this country. Blair was quite keen, but having achieved a huge majority under our antiquated system, he was happy to kick the issue into the long grass. Which means that in the fullness of time, what goes around will come around, and we may well find the Conservatives winning a landslide with a third of the votes and implementing policies that most of us don’t want and didn’t vote for.
Blair’s courage also failed him when it came to dealing with the popular press. The response of his government to tabloid demands has always been appeasement. When the Daily Mail has screamed about immigrants or prison places or single mothers or Europe, the response of Blair and his ministers has invariably been to agree that there is a problem and to outline the steps they were taking to sort things out. This has lent legitimacy to the tabloids’ bigotry, and has made this country a less pleasant place to live.
It has also obscured the government’s message, and made it difficult to discern New Labour’s principles. I recently came across this quote from Seneca, writing nearly 2000 years ago: ‘Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.’ That seems to me to sum up Blair quite neatly. If he knows which harbour he has been heading for, he certainly hasn’t been able to communicate it to the rest of us.
Better still, and slightly more up-to-date, is this exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. Alice says ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
(If you want to read any of my other 39 articles, by the way, they’re all at www.rayleighlibdems.co.uk – and some of them are jolly good! For more up-to-date information, try www.onlinefocus.org.)