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Archives for April 2010

Pearson's party poopers and Cornish independence

Martyn Oates | 19:49 UK time, Friday, 30 April 2010


Lord Pearson

The bold new spirit of cross-party caring and sharing on the UKIP kibbutz ran into another snag this week.

Party leader Lord Pearson has been telling the good people of Somerset, in no uncertain terms, exactly who to vote for on May 6. That is, of course, precisely what party leaders are supposed to get up to during an election campaign. But they usually do so from the standpoint that their own party's candidates are, all things considered, the best chaps for the job.

Pearson, though, is cheerfully urging the voters of Wells, Somerset & Frome, and Taunton Deane to vote Conservative. He'd previously asked his own candidates to stand aside in favour of their Tory rivals - a magnanimous gesture they clearly have no intention of making. While expressing "the greatest respect" for their leader, a South West party spokesman said: "To be told to not only stand down but to urge people to vote for another party is frankly beyond belief".

Election fever hasn't quite yet reached the stage where other party leaders are going around telling people to vote for other parties' candidates.

But neither should it be thought that the UKIPers' kindness has gone entirely unreciprocated. In Cornwall, the county's four Liberal candidates have all stood aside in favour of the purple party.

Cornwall is, as we all know, is just the kind of place you'd expect to find those of an independent streak doing their stuff.

On Tuesday, a sizeable chunk of the BBC (including me) descended on the St Austell & Newquay constituency for our final "Town Hall Debate" in the run-up to the election.


The subject of public sector cuts quickly raised its head. That was about as surprising as a party leader telling us which way to vote.

But what the Labour candidate had to say on the matter was at least as surprising as Lord Pearson's campaign strategy in Somerset.

Asked where he would make cuts, Lee Jameson replied that "he wouldn't cut anything". "No cuts?" asked a visibly surprised Gavin Esler, chairing the debate. "No", Mr Jameson assured him.

Alistair Darling (who's warned voters to expect cuts in public spending "deeper and tougher" than Margaret Thatcher's) would probably have something to say about the Jameson take on fiscal policy. But it might well be unprintable.

None of the other candidates went quite so far as to launch their own independent policy initiatives. But, Cornwall being the independently-minded place it is, most of the candidates got a bit, well, personal from time to time.

Not personal in a nasty way, I hasten to add. Indeed, questioned as to whether their respective campaigns had reflected a "cleaner, fairer, more honest style of politics", they all rushed to denounce any slights - real or imagined - which might have sullied the political cut and thrust.

But the debate was shot through with a string of, often highly entertaining, personal references.

Mebyon Kernow's Dick Cole felt pretty sure he'd trumped his rivals' agricultural credentials by identifying himself as the proud owner of a "Certificate in Animal Castration".

Picking up the gauntlet, Conservative candidate Caroline Righton promised to put the "F" back into farming.

She also clamed she'd launched her campaign "in a milking parlour, in her milking suit and got covered in all kinds of things".

As she warmed to her theme, we also learnt that she'd been "taken to market" where she "didn't fetch a very high price".

Based on the 2005 vote share, the Liberal Democrats would be defending the new St Austell & Newquay seat at this election.

But Lib Dem candidate Stephen Gilbert revealed that his foothold in the constituency is aspirational in more ways than one.

Like many of the people he wants to represent, he can't actually afford to buy a house here.

The other candidates standing in St Austell & Newquay are:

Clive Medway - UKIP

James Fitton - BNP

Election roadshow at Duchy College

Martyn Oates | 15:58 UK time, Friday, 30 April 2010


Martyn Oates at Duchy College with guestsIf you missed our Politics Show debate on bovine TB at Duchy College you can see it here - plus some backstage photos of the OB team at work.

A very big thank you again to the wonderful staff at Duchy College for being such superb hosts.

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Major to minor - party coverage on the BBC

Martyn Oates | 15:58 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010


BBC election guidance online

Recent comments on this blog have shown a lot of interest in the way the BBC provides coverage of minor parties.

The BBC is committed to fair and unbiased treatment of all political parties.

During an election campaign, we follow clear and transparent principles set out in the corporation's Election Guidelines. These are publicly available and govern all BBC journalists during the election period.

The three largest parties - Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - are given broadly equal coverage everywhere in the UK.

The amount of coverage smaller parties receive is mostly based on their electoral track record in the various BBC areas. The main way of gauging this is to see how many people voted for them in the last comparable election. So the yardstick for this election is the last General Election in 2005.

In the South West, Labour polled 18.7% of the overall vote, the Conservatives 37% and the Liberal Democrats 36.9%. Then we have UKIP (5.2%), the Green Party (0.9%), the Liberal Party (0.5%) and Mebyon Kernow (0.3% - and 1.4% in Cornwall which is, of course, the only place the party stands).

Clearly, then, UKIP (which also retained two MEPs during last year's European elections) can expect significantly more coverage than parties which have attracted much less proven electoral support. And that's exactly what's happened in this campaign.

Parties which polled tiny percentages (and haven't made a significant breakthrough in local or European elections since) can expect relatively little coverage by comparison.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the judgements voters actually made in the polling booths - not crystal ball-gazing on the part of the BBC. Future coverage will depend on the choices the electorate makes on May 6. If one or more smaller parties see a big jump in their vote share, they can anticipate more coverage next time round.

The Election Guidelines also guarantee minimum coverage for parties which are standing a large number of candidates and mounting serious campaigns - even if their electoral track record is slight. Parties which fall into that category in the South West have received far more than the minimum level of coverage.

The BBC's national coverage of smaller parties will also be proportionate in exactly the same way.

I hope this clears up some of the apparent confusion: there is nothing mysterious, let alone arbitary, in the way these editorial decision are made.

People are, of course, free to disagree with the principles on which the guidelines are based.

That, however, is a matter for the BBC's senior policy makers and the BBC Trust - not journalists like me.

Cameron 'unrattled' by eggs and Cleggs

Martyn Oates | 19:07 UK time, Sunday, 25 April 2010


David Cameron on trip to the South West

Two-thirds of the latest hit reality TV show took time out between performances to lovebomb Cornwall this week, as the campaign reached the half-way point.

As my editor had predicted, David Cameron breezed into Cornwall College, Saltash, in his shirtsleeves. This left me, sporting my double-breasted Jacob Rees-Mogg tribute chalkstripe, feeling a trifle over-dressed for our little tête à tête. However, before this particular meeting of minds could take place, Dave had - apparently quixotically - donned a jacket.

Stung and shamed into this course of action by my own sartorial rectitude, perhaps.

Sadly, it almost certainly had nothing to do with the silent reproof offered by my tailoring, and everything to do with the egg which had besmirched his shirt a few moments earlier.

By the time the camera was rolling he was ready to get down to the weighty business of cracking gags about chicken and eggs. And, while he was about it, pouring scorn on the idea that he might be even remotely rattled by Nick Clegg's bounce in the polls.

The proof, he pointed out, was before my very eyes: if he had been rattled he wouldn't have bothered pitching up at all, with or without his jacket. I was puzzled by this line of reasoning. I hadn't been suggesting he was so rattled he might just throw in the towel and head home to Witney to put up his feet with a good book.

Quite the opposite, in fact. But working this patch even more intensively than the Tories are already would probably require the cloning of shadow cabinet members.

Which brings me to the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg was hailed - even by the utterly unrattled - as the star turn of the first prime ministerial debate, and went on to hold his own in the second. He was in Cornwall too, though sixty miles away in Redruth. (Unless they've got a formal gig, the boy band members studiously avoid performing on the same stage). Despite the fact that half the campaign was already behind him, this was the first time Clegg had ventured west of Bristol since it began.

Nick Clegg

Defence of the party's south-western fiefdoms has been left largely in the hands of former leader Lord Ashdown. As reported in an earlier post, the ubiquity of the Lib Dems' favourite uncle almost makes one suspect he has been cloned. And we know, as also previously reported, that his Tory-baiting one-liners certainly have been.

I suspect we might now see more of party's present leader, lured by the tantalising prospect of extending the flight of the Yellow Bird into virgin territory, rather than simply protecting its existing nesting sites.

Sadly, the third member of Westminster's Fun Boy Three didn't put in an appearance - even for a quick solo performance.

A pity, as the ground had already been prepared in Plymouth with an upbeat warm-up act by former Deputy Prime Minster, John Prescott. "Didn't we do well?", he rasped to an enthusiastic gaggle of acolytes in the city centre.

Prezza's defenders always insist he's a deceptively sharp operator. Was this a subtle (here I go again, challenging another Prescott stereotype) homage to the king of the catchphrases, Bruce Forsyth (whose national fan club is, of course, based in Plymouth).

When it comes to consistently riding high in the public's affections, Brucie could teach Prezza, Gordon and MPs of every stripe a lesson or two.

But this catchphrase thing can only be taken so far.

When Forsyth says "nice to see you", he can be pretty confident his audience will return the compliment.

A politician, on the other hand, would instinctively know he was pushing his luck.

Marginalia - the seats that really matter

Martyn Oates | 18:51 UK time, Friday, 23 April 2010


I've spent the past couple of months poking around a few of the region's more interesting marginal seats and, of course, pressing the flesh with some of the public-spirited characters vying to represent us in the next Parliament.

Here are my despatches from the front, in words, moving pictures and, in some cases, even music.

Profile - Truro & Falmouth

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Meet some of candidates fighting to take the brand new constituency of Truro & Falmouth.

Profile - Camborne & Redruth

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The three-way marginal of Camborne & Redruth is home to the biggest conurbation in Cornwall, with a huge, sprawling population and a legacy of post-industrial decline - plus some of the county's most spectacular coastline.

Profile - Plymouth Sutton & Devonport

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A look at the election battleground in the new constituency of Plymouth Sutton & Devonport.

This maritime seat occupies the southern part of the city of Plymouth, including the famous naval base and dockyard.

Profile - Torbay

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A look at Torbay, one of the most marginal seats in South West England where the Liberal Democrats are defending a slim majority of 2,700.

Very different from the countryside and coastal towns that surround it, Torbay is one of the most deprived areas in the South West.

Profile - South East Cornwall

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Inside the election battleground of South East Cornwall, the seat which could have a decisive role to play in who ends up governing the country on May 7.

Profile - Taunton

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The new constituency of Taunton Deane (the old Taunton seat minus most of its rural hinterland) is in the front line of the election battle in the South West.

A full list of candidates for all these marginal seats can be found on the BBC Election 2010 website.

Class war in Casterbridge

Martyn Oates | 15:47 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010


Thomas Hardy dramaA "hat tip" (as we like to say here in the blogosphere) to my good friend and colleague Peter Henley, Political Editor for the neighbouring BBC South Region.

He's been out covering campaigning in the highly marginal seat of South Dorset (a constituency in which we both take a keen interest).

According to him - and improbable though it may seem - class war is rearing its head in the heart of Hardy's Wessex.

So who is this running up the red flag in Mellstock and dancing sans culottes under the Greenwood Tree?

Not Gabriel Oak or Sergeant Troy, but an even more unlikely culprit - the Liberal Democrat candidate for South Dorset, Ros Kayes.

That's right, a representative of the centre ground in British politics, a party which has previously described itself as "beyond left and right".

Here she was, though, clambering across the barricades towards her Conservative opponent Richard Drax. Mr Drax, an old Harrovian (and a former BBC South journalist), has a stately home and a large chunk of Dorset to his name. And what a name it is. "Drax" is just a bit of shorthand: officially he rejoices in the quadruple-barrelled "Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax".

All of which places him in an entirely unenviable position vis a vis the electorate, according to his Lib Dem rival: "He probably has difficulty understanding the lives of people in on a low income," she said. "I think that is a serious handicap." She certainly wouldn't want to be in his (doubtless, handmade) shoes.

In the face of this Lib Dem offensive, Drax daringly adopted the tactic of pinching some of the enemy's ammunition (I forgot to mention that he's also a former soldier): "I don't think it's where you come from that counts," he quipped back. "It's where you're going."

Paraphrasing, of course, the famous words of a political giant; no Tory luminary, though, but Labour's working class hero Aneurin Bevan. (The same Bevan, by the bye, who advocated the "complete political extinction of the Tory party" in another general election campaign).

And of course, it's the Bevanites - if you can apply that description to New Labour - who are defending this seat.

In the midst of all the musket fire, Labour's Jim Knight is desperate to hang on to his slim majority. And the New Labour Minister wasn't to be lured into any Old Labour toff-bashing.

But with Tory grandees going around quoting Nye Bevan, he probably thought he should make it quite clear that the People's Party still stood shoulder to shoulder with the masses.

"I'm standing for the working people of this constituency," he said. "That's what I worry about."

Then the punchline, which may or may not have been rehearsed: "Not his long name or his long wall".

His long what? Well, nobody who drives along the A31 from Dorchester to Wimborne can miss Mr Drax's garden wall. The estate enclosure of Charborough Park, replete with gatehouses and monumental stone animals, really does seem to go on for ever.

With his wall, his name, and people like Ros Kayes helpfully pointing out to everybody how posh he is, Richard Drax probably doesn't need to own up to being a man of means.

However, perhaps in the spirit of openness sweeping the political classes since the expenses scandal, Mr Drax has obligingly given us a peep at his personal finances. His website accordingly lists his "woodland, farmland, residential and commercial property" in Dorset, Hampshire and London.

We are also kept abreast of financial planning in the Drax household. Should they honour him with their votes and return him to Westminster, the people of South Dorset are assured that Mr Drax has no intention of acquiring "further land or property" or, indeed, "taking on any additional employment".

The other declared candidates contesting the South Dorset seat are:

Mike Hobson - UKIP
Brian Heatley - Green Party

Caring and sharing, UKIP-style

Martyn Oates | 16:18 UK time, Thursday, 15 April 2010


Radio microphoneCandidates tend not to be shrinking violets. Not in general. And certainly not in the middle of a general election campaign.

I'd put the apparent camera shyness of some of our parliamentary hopefuls last week down to the unseasonably warm weather.

I was sure it was an absolute one-off. A freak. An affront to the natural order of all things electoral.

This week, I felt with relief, all would once again be right with the world: the lark on the wing, the snail on the thorn, God in his heaven and the parliamentary candidate shamelessly seizing each and every opportunity to foist his opinions on anybody who'll listen.

Then I sat in on Radio Devon's first election debate with four of the county's candidates - Linda Gilroy (Labour), Gary Streeter (Conservative), Julian Brazil (Liberal Democrat) and Andrew Leigh (UKIP).

Now, UKIP has been very hungry for a bigger share of BBC coverage during this campaign, following the party's continued success in last year's European Elections. In this case, not only did they get their coveted place on the panel - they also got the first bite at the first question.

Imagine my surprise, then, when UKIP's Andrew Leigh emphatically waved the microphone away... and suggested one of his rivals was better qualified to answer:

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Gary Streeter ploughed straight in, followed by Linda Gilroy and Julian Brazil... at which point Mr Leigh decided he would, after all, have a stab at it.

We've heard a lot this week about informal co-operation between UKIP and certain favoured Conservatives; at least to the extent of UKIP candidates being told by their leadership not to stand against Tories with sufficiently cast-iron Eurosceptic credentials. Had we just witnessed a spontaneous development of this doctrine? Does Mr Leigh know something we don't?

Or was he just leading by example towards a more considerate and gentlemanly style of political discourse: not so much "yah boo" politics as "after you, my dear sir, I insist" politics.

I can't see see it taking off in the Commons, though, can you?

Does the hunting ban extend to talking about it?

Martyn Oates | 18:01 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Martyn Oates with guestsBBC journalists prepare almost as meticulously for a general election campaign as the political parties themselves.

But, like them, we know that there are bound to be a few surprises and departures from the script once the campaign actually gets underway.

Our first election debate for the Politics Show looked like being one of the more predictable elements.

We are taking the programme on the road throughout the campaign to stage live debates with candidates and an audience.

Exmoor was our first destination. The issue was hunting: could it - and should it - be made legal again by the next Parliament?

The hunting ban notoriously occupied 700 hours of parliamentary time and has aroused enormous passions on both sides of the argument here in the South West.

Hunting has now been banned for more than five years. But the Conservatives are offering voters the possibility of repealing the ban by a free vote in the Commons. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats have any plans to revisit the issue.

As anticipated, we found both pro- and anti-hunting campaigners very keen to take part in our programme. To begin with, that is.

The Countryside Alliance - the principal organisation campaigning against the hunting ban for more than a decade - then told us it didn't, after all, want to take part. The Alliance's Regional Director told us hunting "wasn't an election issue".

Martyn Oates and TV debate

This seemed rather surprising given its record of tireless campaigning, first against the introduction of a ban and subsequently for its repeal. And even more mystifying after a glance at the Countryside Alliance website. Repeal of the Hunting Act is listed as one of five "key areas" in the Countryside Alliance election manifesto.

Representatives of individual hunts, equally eager to participate at the outset, also announced they were withdrawing from the debate.

There was no such reluctance among the anti-hunting lobby. So we were beginning to have a problem finding an audience which represented both sides of the issue.

Casting the panel of candidates was likely to be much more straightforward - or so we thought.

Candidates from all parties are usually queueing up for television and radio coverage during a general election campaign. Even former MPs who generally refuse all requests to appear on a Sunday mysteriously make an exception during these magical four weeks.

But this, too, turned into an unexpectedly uphill struggle. Finding Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates was plain sailing. Getting Conservatives - the people who've put hunting on the election agenda - to accept our invitation was a different matter. We ended up contacting every single Conservative candidate in the South West, from Somerton & Frome to Land's End. None were available to join us - and a third of them made it clear that this was one policy they'd rather not discuss.

Eventually we had no choice but to go ahead, reluctantly, without them - the second largest party in the last House of Commons and the party proposing the policy under discussion.

Early on Sunday we duly headed up to the Somerset village of Exford, home of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds (who also declined our invitation to take part). The setting proved as beautiful as ever and the staff of the White Horse Inn took good care of us.

By the time we went on air, we'd managed to assemble a number of hunt supporters for our audience. But even one of these, an hour or so before we broadcast, claimed he thought the debate was about "farming" and said he wanted to ask a question about animal health issues...

I think we gave the subject a decent airing despite the highly unusual circumstances.

Back in Plymouth, I took another look at the Countryside Alliance website. Strangely enough, repeal of the hunting ban was still there near the top of their election wishlist.

Perhaps their website editor is on holiday and hasn't been told about the change of policy yet. I'll let you know if - and when - it's updated to reflect their current thinking.

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Family-friendly politics

Martyn Oates | 17:47 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Annunziata Rees-Mogg Voters in Somerset could end up with a Conservative brother and sister double act at Westminster next month.

The Hon Jacob and the Hon Annunziata Rees-Mogg (children of life peer and former Times Editor Lord Rees-Mogg) are contesting the neighbouring seats of North East Somerset and Somerton & Frome.

In Cornwall, another baronial clan is swinging into action. Lady (Terrye) Teverson is standing for the Liberal Democrats in the new seat of Truro & Falmouth (having previously contested the old Falmouth & Camborne seat twice in the 90s).

Her husband, Lord (Robin) Teverson is a Liberal Democrat life peer and former MEP for West Plymouth & Cornwall.

None of this, though, matches the Election of the Three Feet in 1945.

In that year Isaac Foot stood for the Liberals in Tavistock, while his son John (also destined for the House of Lords) did likewise in Bodmin.

At the same time, John's brother Michael (the future Labour leader) was contesting Plymouth Devonport for Labour.

Faced with this embarrassment of Feet, the voters ultimately plumped for a one-legged solution.

Only Michael - the Left Foot, obviously - actually got elected.

The other known candidates in these seats (2010 rather than 1945) are:

North East Somerset

Dan Norris - Labour
Gail Coleshill - Liberal Democrat
Peter Sandell - UKIP
Michael Jay - Green Party

Somerton & Frome

David Heath - Liberal Democrat
David Oakensen - Labour
Barry Harding - UKIP

Truro & Falmouth

Sarah Newton - Conservative
Charlotte MacKenzie- Labour
Harry Blakeley - UKIP
Loic Rich - Mebyon Kernow
Ian Wright - Green Party

Paddy's peer pressure

Martyn Oates | 19:10 UK time, Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Lord AshdownFormer Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown is popping up all over the region in his role as the party's election supremo in the South West.

The silver-tongued ex-MP for Yeovil has coined a batch of snappy catch phrases and slogans which the troops are taking up with gusto.

If only I were to be a given a pound every time a Lib Dem candidate told me that "we can't afford a Conservative Government because we're still paying for the last one". A line which even one of our Labour MPs admitted to me was really rather good.

Another favourite is his claim that the last Conservative Government shunned the South West when it came to doling out Cabinet jobs.

That's strictly true of John Major's final administration (1992-97), but arguably a bit unfair to Sir John Nott (St Ives), Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, and certainly to Lord King (Bridgwater).

Tom King was successively Secretary of State for the Transport, Employment, Northern Ireland and Defence and sat in every Cabinet from 1983 to 1992.

In a recent interview with me, Paddy also appeared to doubt the existence of the region's four Labour MPs.

Wishful thinking, my lord. For the next month or so, at least.

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