Wednesday 5 May 2010

Lewisham mayoral candidates

It's that time of the year again when the postal vote papers come plopping through the door and my spirits take a huge dip as I survey the democratic duty/opportunity (delete as you wish) that lies before me. This time it's even more dispiriting/exciting in Lewisham borough as we have no less than THREE ballots to participate in. Hurrah/oh shit!

Today I'm going to take a slightly cynical but hopefully fair look at the candidates for the post of Mayor of Lewisham. This is probably the ballot that offers local voters the greatest direct influence on how their lives will be run in the coming four years, given the powers that the mayor holds. Ironically the vast majority of the electorate are not aware of true extent of the mayor's powers, for a number of reasons, the most influential of which, in my opinion, is the title.

He's called the mayor. Isn't that just the longest-serving councillor of the majority party, who gets to wear a big gold chain and attend posh dinners for a year? Why on earth they couldn't come up with a new title is beyond me - voters are confused about why they now have to vote for a mayor. If you too are confused, take a look at the Wiki entry for elected mayors, and educate yourself to what Steve Bullock is hoping to continue doing for the next four years, at your expense.

Or read this rather cosy explanation from Lewisham Council's home page:
"Steve leads the Council and proposes the Council’s budget and policy framework, unlike many authorities, where the role of Mayor is ceremonial. Once the framework is set, the Mayor then implements these policies and takes all day to day decisions to run the Council except those that have to be taken by full council by law (such as changing the Council’s constitution)."

As well as the opportunity for the ultimate power trip, the mayoral post currently attracts a salary of almost £80k.

Although the Labour government introduced the option of directly-elected mayors more than 10 years ago, only 12 local authorities chose to follow this model of governance (not counting the Mayor of London) and Stoke-on-Trent subsequently voted to abolish it. Each authority was obliged to hold a referendum to ask its electorate if they wanted a directly-elected mayor. Turnout in these referendums was generally appalling - in Lewisham only 18% (yes you read that correctly) of voters bothered to tick a box. Of these, the vote was very narrowly split, with 51% voting for, and 49% against.

In the first mayoral vote in 2002, Steve Bullock polled well ahead of the other four candidates, taking 20,000 of the first choice votes and 4,500 of the second choice votes. The Tories scraped second place with Lib Dems and Greens not far behind.

By the second vote in 2006, the incumbent was holding on strongly with about 22,000 of the first choice votes, but turnout was clearly much higher with the Lib Dems surging to 12,000 and the Tories bringing up the rear with 10,000. The interesting part about this vote, however, was the allocation of second choice votes. While Steve Bullock only got 3,000 of the second choice votes, Chris Maines for the Lib Dems added more than 6,000 extras with the second choice votes, bringing him up to 18,000 total. He was still well behind Bullock's 25,000 total but it's an interesting reflection on the voting procedure, which is not just the usual 'first past the post' system.

The lesson is to think carefully about where you place your first AND your second votes. You can't vote twice for the same person, by the way, although you don't have to put a second choice down.

So who are you going to choose? You have probably received your booklet from Lewisham Council by now, which includes statements from all the mayoral candidates.

They are listed in seemingly random order in the book, so I'm going to take them as they come.

1. Graham Dare, English Democrats: At the last London Mayoral elections I reviewed the policies of Graham's stablemate Matt O'Connor as being 'stop giving money to the Scots and give us a bank holiday on St George's Day'. It seems things have moved on since then, as Graham has a list of promises and priorities that cover a whole page in small writing. But reading them puts me in mind of being in a slightly dodgy pub late at night observing a load of pissed-up white-van-driving middle aged men having a bit of a rant. Phrases like 'zero tolerance' are scattered liberally through the list, and he's very keen on scrapping 'politically incorrect non-jobs', 'seeking out waste' and cancelling funding for things such as translation services, ethic history months, gay pride marches, the Olympics, huge pay offers to council managers, twin towns, extensions of tram systems....what? He's going to cut the number of councillors (doesn't say how or by how many), cut the mayoral salary (doesn't give a figure) and cut the council tax (this gets two mentions - presumably saving the money from all the things he's going to cancel). His election photo does make him look quite friendly, but it made me rather curious as to whether he was wearing an England rugby shirt or had adopted Martin Bell's white suit as a sign of trusty independence.

Graham has had a chequered past - he doesn't seem to be able to find a party that really suits him. Nor a constituency, since he's also standing for the Croydon Central seat in the general election. At this point his opposition to extensions of tram systems seems to make sense, he's clearly using the same election address for all his bids for power. His experience: "Medium and spiritualist healer. Croydon councillor 1998-2002, originally for the Conservative party but defected to the Liberal Democrats 2001. Contested Croydon South 2005 for Veritas, Barnet and Camden 2008 London elections for Veritas. Contested London in 2009 European elections."

And in case you don't remember Veritas, here's a link to their 'core values' for your delectation.

2. Tess Culnane, British National Party. Tess likes pithy statements. It's time for common sense, she says. We're not afraid to tell it the way it is. She is a voice for the silent majority, mostly about immigration, anti-social behaviour and crime which are all out of control she says. Naturally her three 'policies' involve deporting people, clamping down on floods of asylum seekers, and suspending foreign aid. As extensive as the powers of Lewisham Mayor are, I don't believe they exert any influence on national immigration policies. In her publicity photo Tess is fixing the viewer with an expression that is part friendly, part quizzical, and part confusion/squinting into the sun. However she does present herself as 'Lewisham Candidate for the London Mayoral Election' which suggests that confusion is central to her campaign.

Tess can't be arsed with the rest of the BNP's policies, she just wants to get rid of all those nasty foreigners - having stood for the National Front in recent elections, she probably regards the BNP as a bit namby pamby, perhaps even too left wing for her liking. But the BNP have actually gone to the trouble of developing a full 'manifesto' for this year's election and it would seem a little churlish not to read it. I particularly enjoyed the argument that stopping immigration and hence reducing the population would solve our environmental problems. 'The BNP is the only party to recognise that overpopulation – whose primary driver is immigration, as revealed by the government’s own figures – is the cause of the destruction of our environment'. While I'm inclined to agree on the overpopulation argument, haven't any of these clowns heard of birth control? They also say that they will allow an airport to be built in the Thames Estuary to relieve pressure on London's airports. This is under 'environmental' policy, don't forget!

3. John Hamilton, People Before Profit. Despite his appalling colour choices and rabbit-in-the-headlights publicity photograph, I admit that I see John Hamilton as a credible independent. For a start, I like the fact that his two top priorities are to scrap the mayoral role (although since only a referendum can do this, so he is reliant on the electorate to agree with him), and to take a salary of just £24k, the average salary in the borough. He's been putting in the legwork by getting out on the streets and meeting people, and apart from our local councillors, is the only candidate who seems to have been campaigning in Deptford. His policies are very Lewisham-centric, as I would expect from a mayoral candidate, and he does seem to have given serious thought to particular aspects of the job, mostly education and facilities for children. However there's a rather endearing naivity to some of his pledges, for example that the council will build housing using its own direct labour department. With the best will in the world I struggle to see how he's going to achieve this in just four years.

4. Simon Nundy, Conservative. As you might expect, we're back on predictable territory with our Tory candidate - despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact that he runs the New Cross Inn. Cash and crime are top of his list, the usual Tory attempt to woo voters with financial gain while promising to save them from murderers. Simon's going to cut council tax next year and then freeze it till 2015, and he's going to create a police liaison office to ensure a coherent approach to crime. He also says he will keep up pressure on the government to ensure 'proposed tube extensions go ahead'. Let's just hope he's not referring to Crossrail, as the Tories have already said they can't promise to build it if they get in.

Simon's got some very interesting statistics on his pages, claiming that 'only the Conservatives can stop Labour on May 6th'. His graph showing the split of the votes in the last mayoral election suggest that Labour polled 37% while the Tories got 24% and the Lib Dems only got 9% with the Greens coming in at 4%. I had to check my figures again before I realised that these figures came from the 2008 Mayoral Election......that for London mayor! I can't help thinking that this is not only rather hopeful, it's also a bit underhand - while he's not claiming anything incorrect, labelling the graph with '2008 Mayoral election: how Lewisham voted' is in my opinion designed to mislead. Clearly a man whose glass is always four-eighths full.

5. Dean Walton, Green Party. Both Simon Nundy and Dean Walton decided that the best place to pose for their election photos would be in front of Lewisham Town Hall, presumably to give the electorate the opportunity to judge the aesthetic possibilities of electing them as mayor. Whereas Simon's photo exudes a confident smugness, you might say bordering on sleazy, Dean has the air of a cheeky schoolboy daring his best friend to take the photo for a laugh. Ironically Dean is probably much more familiar with the Town Hall than Simon, having been a local councillor in Brockley - centre of Lewisham's Green revolution - for the past four years since the Ladywell Pool debacle caused a major threat to the Labour majority. As well as offering some good solid measurable pledges relating to composting and insulation, he throws in a few (not so easy to measure) crowd-pleasers about schools, policing and the elderly. Although there's no bar chart, Dean's also chosen his statistics carefully to prove that the Greens can win it! Apparently in the 'most recent borough-wide elections, last June, Greens came second across the whole borough'. In case you're wondering, that's the European elections. Remember them? Me neither!

6. Steve Bullock, Labour Party. By this stage of the booklet I'm starting to flag a little, so it's probably time for a little photo to keep me going and remind me why I'm reading all this crap.

Ah, that's better, although I can't help wondering what's going on in this picture. Perhaps the photographer forgot to bring a wide-angle lens so has had to ask his subjects to crouch slightly so he can get them all in.
I'm sure I don't really need to tell you about Mayor Steve, as he likes to be known - clearly keen to cultivate a cuddly image. He's used his two pages to remind us what he's done so far and make some rather wishy washy pledges such as 'prioritising those with the greatest need' which of course can vary depending on what angle you're viewing it from. I can't say I think he's been a particularly bad mayor, but I do think he is guilty of taking the electorate for granted in many ways, and failing to engage as much as he should.

7. Chris Maines, Lib Dem. It's quite a relief to reach the end of the booklet, even though Chris has done his best to wake me up with his choice of lurid colours and badly-laid-out pages. This is one of those times when I realise that not all of the things we have gained with greater access to computers are necessarily good.
But it's worth hanging on for Chris - he's a credible candidate if perhaps a little colour blind. He's also got a bar chart, but this time it's a relevant one! He is the only candidate in the booklet able to claim that he came second last time - in this poll. He is a strong local candidate with good support in the area, and could be carried further forward on the tide of Clegg mania. His top pledges are to freeze council tax for two years and to build some new council housing, although he doesn't explain how he will fund the latter while maintaining the former. On his website he also says that he will campaign to abolish the mayoral post, although this doesn't appear in the book. A cynic might infer that this was added later in response to the positive reaction to John Hamilton's pledge, but I like the idea, so I'll let him off this time.

So there you go. My votes are cast and in the post by now (it's taken me more than a week to conquer my lethargy for long enough to finish this!) and Chez Dame is drowning in election literature, which suggests that all the main parties are slightly nervous about the outcome.

If you've had enough cynicism and want to read some more mature election coverage, I suggest you hop over to Brockley Central where they have been working hard to give the main candidates some tough questions in their virtual hustings.


CarolineLD said...

Thank you for the summary. It's very useful as I've lost my booklet and have a rather limited leaflet collection: seemingly the stairs (all one flight of them) are just too much for many canvassers!

Marmoset said...

Cynical? I suppose so, but it's engaged cynicism.

Deptford dame said...

@Caroline we have two flights and hundreds of leaflets! Perhaps they are too tired by the time they get to your door!

@Marmoset - thanks, I suppose at least I've read it, more than many of the electorate will do, even if I've then mocked it..

Gareth Gardner said...

Love the Crouching! The best photo. Ever.