Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Equality of the Count

The Count for the local elections this year was the second one I've been to, and it's been a really odd experience both times. It's often the only time you meet and talk to your political opponents (apart from hustings), and you're all in the same boat - you just have to stand there and watch all the votes being processed. There's nothing you can do to change the result, you just need to stand there next to an opposition member and watch.

If you stand or are heavily involved in an election, the relationship with your political opponents is a strange one, and it's taken me a while to get used to it. Often the only communication you have is through leaflets and twitter, and it's really easy to think of them as 'the other' whom you have to beat - it's a trap I've fallen into several times before. This is exacerbated if there's attacks on you or your party in the opposition literature, or if there's members of the opposition team who, because you're with a certain party, attack you simply for getting in their way.

However, the truth is that most of the people working in the opposition party are doing it for exactly the same reason as you - because they want to make their area and city better, they want to help people. Sure, they may disagree with you about what that means or what the priorities are, and may make some decisions that you think are bad, but their intentions are (generally) good.

But it's difficult when there's attacks in the literature and online. The campaign in Romsey was quite positive on all sides (and my thanks to Noel for that), but there have been some shocking attacks and leaflets elsewhere in the city. Local politics in Cambridge has a tendency to be rather adversarial, and there are many people - some from historical experience - who interpret all opposition work as bad or wrong, just because it's the opposition. And that results in a negative atmosphere all round, to the detriment of all.

But they're the opposition, and democracy forces us to compete. I want to make a difference to my local community, I want to help make people's lives better. But, often, the only people who actually have the power to fix things and to set overall priority are the councillors. Of course, I email the council, or the officers. Maybe a junction needs to be redesigned, or some trees need pruning or moving. Often there's no reply from the council, or there's no money, or it's not a priority. After all, I'm just a local busybody sticking his nose in.

So to really make a difference, to improve people's day-to-day lives, I need to be elected, because councillors have that power. Unfortunately, there are other people who want it as well, and there's only one seat in the council chamber.

So you campaign - putting out your different opinions about what should happen, what needs to change, what you have done and what you will do, so the electorate can choose. There may be policies or decisions taken by the opposition that you feel are wrong or detrimental to the area, or there may be an issue they've ignored - and so that's one of your campaign points. But sometimes those campaigns can degenerate from positive campaigns about you and what you've managed to get fixed, and turn into negative attacks on the opposition, or even personal attacks on the candidate directly, and local democracy quickly turns poisonous.

It's a really tricky balance, and it's so easy to turn negative. But, ultimately, you all want the same thing, and you'll all end up at the count, watching those ballot papers move across the table, just waiting for the result.

Monday, 1 May 2017

What happens on Polling Day?

With less than a week to go to the local elections, the local parties are gearing up for their polling day operations. Not many people outside party activists are generally aware of the work that goes into polling day and the count itself, and it's an important part of how our local democracy works.

Polling Day

On polling day, each of the political parties in the area run a well-honed polling day operation to encourage people to go to their polling station to vote, and to vote for them. There are several different roles - tellers, doorknockers, and people helping with data entry.

Firstly, the doorknockers. Each party has got a team of people going round the area and knocking on people's doors encouraging them to go and vote. There's also normally a series of leaflets put through doors reminding people to go and vote. This is especially important for local elections, as the turnout is generally quite low.

Next, the tellers. These are the people sitting at the polling station, noting down who has gone to the polling station, usually by noting down the number on each poll card. This data is then passed onto the doorknockers, to remove that house from their list of doors to knock on.

The tellers aren't an official part of proceedings, and they can't go inside the polling station itself - you're not obliged to give them any information about who you are. However, letting them know you've voted will mean you don't get people knocking or leaflets through the door later in the day. All the registered political parties get the official record of who has voted afterwards, so it's information that the parties will get anyway.

Then there's all the people handling the large amount of data coming in - each party has several committee rooms set up across the city, normally at a friendly activist's house. This is where all the data is handled, lists of houses are generated, and a regular supply of tea, coffee, and various sugary snacks are kept for the doorknockers to replenish themselves.

This operation carries on all throughout the day - people get ticked off, and the remaining houses get further and further apart. Then, when the polls close at 10pm, we're off to the count.

The Count

This where all the hard work by canidates and activists over the last few months is decided. In Cambridge, the counting happens in the Guildhall, in the main hall. The number of people allowed at the count is quite strict - the candidates and a +1, the election agents, all the Council employees running the election, and the counters themselves - volunteers from across the city. A certain number of impartial observers are allowed as well. Press are normally cordoned off from the counting hall (in Cambridge, the Press are only allowed in the gallery).

The counters are all sat by long tables, and split into wards. Over the next hour or so after polls close, the ballot boxes arrive from across the city, are unsealed, and the contents are dumped on the tables in front of the counters for sorting. The only people who can touch the ballot papers are the counters themselves, the observers can't handle anything, or even touch the tables.

The count itself is split into two sections:

1. Verification
The first stage - the ballot papers are simply counted. If there's multiple elections in the same box, the papers are separated out, but there's no attempt to split by vote. This step is simply to verify that the number of ballot papers present at the Guildhall match the number of papers given out at each polling station, and check that none have gone missing. The ballot papers are then bundled into sets of 25 for the next stage.

2. Counting
Once all the papers are verified, and any missing ballots accounted for, then the actual counting can begin. The papers are then sorted by vote, and counted up. This stage normally begins around 2am in the morning. Any disputed or unclear ballots are set aside for determination by the counting officials. All the votes are then bundled into sets of 25 for final tallying for the result. If it's a multi-stage count, for example the PCC or mayoral votes, there may be multiple counting stages.

If something doesn't add up at some point, there'll be a recount of that ballot box or division, and if the overall result is close, a full recount may be called to confirm the result.

The observers are there to check that everything is done correctly, and to watch for any errors that are inadvertently made - everyone's really tired by this point, and it's easy to mis-count or skip papers. But the party observers also make notes of the proportions of votes for each candidate during the verification step, as the observers can see what's on each paper. This means the parties present at the vote normally have a pretty good idea of the result by the verification stage, if the vote isn't too close.

For the local elections, only the verification is done overnight - the actual count itself will happen on Friday morning, followed by the count for the mayoral election. But for general elections, the counting happens overnight. It's normally completed at around 5am, if there weren't too many recounts, and the winner is officially announced. Then everyone - counters included - head home for some well-earned sleep.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Romsey County Council elections

As you may be aware, I’ll be a candidate in the County Council elections in May for Romsey division. As your candidate, I think it’s important that voters have information on who’s on the ballot paper so that you can make an informed decision at the ballot box.

Who am I?
I live on Hobart Road (the Coleridge Road section). I grew up in Newcastle, and came to Cambridge as a student at Homerton College in 2004, studying Computer Science. After graduating in 2007, I got a job with a software company on the Business Park just south of Milton, and I now work as a senior software engineer for a software company based in West Cambridge, next to the Cavendish Lab. I lived in the city centre after graduating, and moved to Hobart Road in 2010.

I first joined the Liberal Democrats in 2013 - I was getting fed up with how little information there was about the local council and local councillors, and so decided to do something about it. I stood for election in the City Council elections of 2015 in my local ward, Coleridge. I got over 1000 votes and a swing of 12%, although unfortunately that wasn’t enough to win. I’m now standing in my local division for the County elections, Romsey (after the boundary changes this year).

My wife and I are active in the local community - we’re both regular members of St Martin’s Church on Suez Road, and my wife helps run Girlguiding for the south-east area of Cambridge, as well as running a Guide group of her own. I’ve been involved in local politics - knocking on people’s doors, speaking to residents, trying to fix problems, for over 3 years now. I’ve also played the cello in several local orchestras, and my folk band performs all around East Anglia.

Why vote on the 4th May?
Local elections usually get turnouts of around 30-40%, general elections around 60-70%. Local elections are generally seen as less important than national elections, but they actually play a really important part in the day-to-day running of the city and county. It is the City and County Councils that handle regular maintenance and management of the city, as well as being responsible for social care, schools, parks & open areas, bin collections, and many other things that you only really notice if they go wrong.

Whilst there are certain tasks that the councils must do, there’s a lot of scope for councillors to prioritise funding to certain schemes and not others, to change policy in certain areas, to enforce laws and bylaws to different extents, and so on. This means the political makeup of the councils can have a huge effect on provided services that people depend on, and can drastically change the ‘feel’ of the city, with significant decisions or policies having long-lasting positive or negative effects on the city and county as a whole.

One example is the current wrangling over the City Deal and how to deal with congestion in Cambridge, with the various political parties having very different views on what to do. The outcome of any decisions made will affect Cambridge for many decades to come, and it’s the local councillors making those decisions

Why vote for me?
As I’ve said, I’ve lived in the area for many years. I know what a unique place Romsey is - the cafes & shops, churches, pubs, the terraced streets, the parks - and I also know what problems it’s got - lots of pressure from commuter parking, too few school places, and of course the many, many potholes!

There are some very significant changes coming to Cambridge in the next few years, which will affect the city and the surrounding area for many years to come. Romsey will be right in the middle of any city-wide changes, containing 2 of the main roads into the city, as well as being right next to the station. 

These changes have the potential to drastically affect Romsey as an area and as a community, and so Romsey needs a councillor who will listen to residents, who will communicate what is going on and what is being planned, and will work to ensure the changes don’t destroy Romsey’s unique character. That is what I will do, if elected as Romsey’s county councillor.

One of the reasons I decided to stand was that I didn’t feel like I knew what the council or my local councillors were doing. I didn’t really hear from them, and didn’t know what they did. If I’m elected, I will make sure that that is not the case for me - you will hear from me and know what I am doing, I will actually come and talk to you, and I will represent our area to the best of my ability, with regular updates posted on the Romsey Lib Dems website.

So, on the 4th May, please do vote. It’s important. Vote for who you think will be the best councillor for Romsey - as it will make a huge difference in the next few years.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Canvassing with a stammer

When I go canvassing round Cambridge, when I talk to someone on the doorstep, the first thing they usually notice is that I have a stammer (also called a stutter). Basically, I can have problems articulating words, which in my case usually manifest at the start of words or sentances.

If you've seen the film The King's Speech, that's a very good portrayal of what a stammer is. Stammering is generally considered to be a neurological condition, although the causes are unknown, and it affects people in different ways and to different severities. It usually starts in early childhood, during initial speech development, and can cause someone to repeat certain syllables, or to not be able to say anything at all. It has no effect on thought patterns or intelligence, only on the neurological functions needed to speak. In my cause, it's relatively minor - it doesn't affect my day-to-day speech too much, although it can be accentuated in certain situations, or when I'm stressed or nervous. There's no outright cure, although there are some ways to lessen the impact.

The best way I can describe what it feels like to me is that my brain moves faster than my mouth - I know exactly what I want to say, but my mouth and facial muscles don't move fast enough, and so they lock up - and I can't say anything. It's mostly just annoying, but it can get really frustrating, especially when there's someone who is standing there, wondering why I knocked on their door just to gawp at them like a fish! There are a few strategies I use to help - running words together, avoiding words starting with certain syllables - but how much it affects me on a particular day can vary hugely, depending on how I'm feeling, what's happened that day, how busy I am, and many other things.

I'm naturally quite an introverted chap (my stammer probably has something to do with that), so speaking to people on the doorstep doesn't come naturally to me - so I tend to stammer more when canvassing than in day-to-day life. But, after all, someone has to do it, and I want to make a difference to my area - to actually listen to people who aren't normally listened to. So I talk to people, and try to solve problems people are having, and try to make my community just that bit better.

And if you want to get involved in your local community, you want to go speak to people, but you're worried about canvassing - don't be. It's really not that bad. The vast majority of people are very friendly; the worst you'll get is someone saying 'Now's not a good time' and they shut the door again. In over 3 years of canvassing with a stammer, the number of times people have sweared at me or reacted angrily (which really doesn't help my stammer by the way) I can count on my fingers. If I can do it with a mild-to-moderate stammer, so can you!

So if I come to your doorstep, and it's a particularly bad day for my stammer - maybe someone told me to 'Get on with it!' a few doors down - thank you for your patience. I know exactly what I want to say, I will get there in the end, there's not much you or anyone can do to help at that moment, but I'll get there. And I'll listen to you, and hopefully I can help you instead.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Council cuts?

At the full County Council meeting in December, the Council voted to reverse both the cuts to the gritting routes, and the dimming & switching off of streetlights in towns and cities in Cambridgeshire (rural roads will still be affected). These are much-needed reversals - the dimmed streetlights in particular caused significant problems around Cambridge - but these reversals have been paid for out of the general reserves.

This is in no way sustainable, and highlights the bind the council is in - over the next 5 years, the Council is forced to make £123 million of savings due to cuts in funding from national government. This is around a quarter of the council's budget (for comparison, the total cost of services in 2015-16 was £412.2 million, and the council spent £147.3 million in capital investments). In 2016-17 alone, the council has to make £40 million in savings. The reduction in streetlights and gritting was meant to be around £1 million of this.

Most of these cuts are due to the government grant being removed - in 2014, the council received £84 million from the government; in 2019, it will be £0. The general reserves lets the council cushion service cuts like the streetlights & gritting in the short term, but at some point there will be no more reserves left - and then, irregardless of the impact or outcry, vital services that people depend on will have to reduce or stop altogether. And this will reduce the quality of life for thousands of the most vulnerable across the county, and potentially cost lives.

Last month we had the cross-county manifesto conference for the County & Mayoral elections in May. The completed manifesto is due to come out at the end of February, but in all our discussions the sheer scale of the budgetary challenge facing the council affected everything we talked about, from transport to social care to schools to the environment.

The maximum council tax raise the council can apply each year is 2%, plus an additional 2%-3% for social care (a 2% rise is an extra 45p a week for a Band C property); if the council applied this raise over the next few years, this will really help ameliorate the cuts and cushion the reduced funding to council services. But the Conservative and UKIP groups on the council refuse to raise council tax; the Conservatives are only willing to accept the 2% social care levy, and UKIP are against any raise whatsoever.

At some point, if no council tax raise is forthcoming, councillors will be forced to make decisions on which services must be cut - services that people depend on. I hope it doesn't reach that stage.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Future of Work

Last week I went to a Lib Dem policy discussion on 'The Future of Work' - discussing policy positions on the oncoming disruptive changes in employment caused by increased automation and more powerful software algorithms.

It was an interesting evening - we didn't come to any firm conclusions, but one thing was clear - the current economic and political systems are incapable of dealing with the forthcoming revolution in work, production, employment and economics. Without policies to help mitigate or smooth the changes, we risk an unprecedented consolidation of power that will be very hard to reverse.

Briefly, a bit of background. Over the past couple of decades, computers have become more and more adept at tasks that previously humans would do, and they are often better at it than us. Slowly our society and economy has become more computer-centric. Now, in the next few years, these changes will start moving into the physical world - driverless cars and 3D printers being the obvious examples. What will happen when these new tools become as ubiqutous as smartphones and algorithms are now? What will happen when whole sectors of the economy are replaced by computers and machines?

These changes are covered in much more detail in books such as Homo Deus and The Economic Singularity, but the conclusions are clear - we are on the verge of a fundamental change in how our world works, and we need to work out how to deal with it before it happens.

Now, obviously, we're dealing with the future here. This could all be rendered incorrect by some changes that we're not aware of at the moment. But the signs are increasingly pointing towards an economic shift that we haven't prepared for, and that have some troubling consequences.

The most obvious change is that, maybe, 10-20% of existing jobs could be replaced by computers (although some say it's much higher). That immediately raises the question of what happens to all those people who are suddenly out of a job, or, if part-time work becomes the norm, what everyone will do with their free time.

There is an argument that, just like in the industrial revolution, new jobs will be created that will fill the void. However, I would argue this is a quite different situation - we're on the verge of changes that will render the entire supply chain - design (algorithic iteration), raw material extraction, manufacture/assembly (3D printing, automated production), transport (driverless cars, drones), and waste disposal - requiring very few or no people involved on a day-to-day basis. The only role of humans would be consuming the manufactured goods in the middle. The economy would change from being human-centric to computer-centric - humans would just be a small part of the great machine we've built up around us. There wouldn't be many people required to keep the whole thing ticking along. This is in contrast to the industrial revolution, which supercharged the existing economic system, allowing human actions to be amplified far beyond what people could do by themselves.

This would mean that we could have a significant proportion of the population not needed to do anything, and the economy would happily carry on regardless. You could 3D-print most items, food would be grown, new products designed, with a minimal amount of human input.

However, the current economic and political systems are based on the premise that it is better to have a job than not, and a full-time job is better than a part-time job. Will we just end up with busywork; jobs existing for their own sake? What will happen to the wellbeing of such people doing 'useless' jobs? Or, if more and more people start to go part-time, what will they do with all their free time? Will you still be defined, and derive your self-image, largely from your job? What about income - how will the economy still run when the amount of cumulative income across the country drops? The need of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' becomes superfluous, as the economy can still happily carry on with most people working 50% of the time.

But the Protestant Work Ethic is what our government, society, self-image, and indeed what capitalism itself is based on! When the government is aways seeking to lower unemployment numbers and to get people into work, what will happen to those ideals when the jobs simply become unneeded and superfluous? Is it even possible for the mind-set of the Conservative and Labour parties to adapt to these changes? What will that mean for government policy?

One idea which was brought up very early on was the 'Citizens Income' - giving everyone a basic income irregardless of situation, need, or other income sources (it's already getting a few small-scale trials in a few countries). However, any large-scale implemetation of such an idea has some significant issues - where does all the money come from? Will we need to massively tax the well-off to pay for the Citizens Income to the rest of the population? What does that do to concepts of 'fairness' and capitalist fundamentals of 'you keep what you earn'? And how do we get there from where we are now?

Moving the focus to the owners of the computers - moving more and more of the economy to computers and machines gives a huge amount of power to the people and the companies that control and own said computers - but that is where our economy is going, based on the current ideas of ownership and control that have been the basis of our society and legal system for the past 200 years. The network effects that have given Google, Facebook, and Twitter so much power will be amplified by the move into the real world. Left unchecked, we'll be in a dystopic situation of the 'Gods and the useless' - a few people control the machines, with most people just consuming the products of those machines. And there would be nothing that they could do to wrest power away from those at the top, as they control everything (see China's Social Credit System). And if they attempt to disrupt, they risk destroying the basis of the entire economy.

But that situation follows on directly from our existing capitalist ideals of ownership and control. To avoid the 'Gods and the useless' requires work now to change our societal ideals and goals. And no one's sure that is possible, or how we go about doing it. But it does and it will affect everything, and any future policy, produced by the Lib Dems or anyone else, has to bear this in mind, else it will simply be irrelevant.