Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Day at Westminster

Head down after the Corby by-election, as I have my (final?) Postgraduate Progress Meeting before I submit my thesis on Friday. The weekend was spent writing and tidying up the near 200 page document and other papers which had to be emailed to Hull by Monday morning.

Yesterday was a day for tidying up - and planning for the future. This morning, I took a very early morning train down to London - and on to Westminster where I now am. My previous Washminster  post raised issues which led to an interview on BBC Radio Northampton. Then some interviews with former whips to test my findings and conclusions.

So now I am enjoying a late breakfast, and have a copy of "House of Lords Business" (the 'Order Paper' for today in the Lords.) at my side. After the half an hour of questions, the third day of the Report Stage of the Financial Services Bill will be taken. In the "Dinner Break" there will be a short debate airing from Baroness Ford's question, "what progress has been made in improving neurological services, and in particular the provision of epilepsy services, in the United Kindom."

Both Houses allow many opportunities for specific issues to be raised and discussed. The House of Commons has its 'Westminster Hall' debates; daily 'Adjournment debates' and a host of other means. Citizens with concerns can contact their MP or a Peer (contact details can be found on the Parliamentary website - www.parliament.uk ) and seek to get an issue discussed.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Corby - and its lessons

Washminster has been silent for a few days - one of the reasons is the by-election which was fought in Corby, Northamptonshire. I was up there for the last few days - and of course Election day itself. It has been interesting to participate in an English election so soon after completing a period in an American election. Some of the practices (and the language) were very different - but the lessons to be learned are the same.

(1) The need for planning and preparation - the superb operations to get out the vote ('GOTV' in the jargon) depended upon the hard slog in the months before contacting voters - by phone or in person. Although the by-election wasn't expected until Louise Mensch made her surprise announcement that she was quitting Parliament (6th August 2012), Andy Sawford had been selected as the candidate to challenge her in the next General Election due in May 2015. For months he - and many Labour activists in the Corby constituency had been reaching out to voters, finding out who might be supportive of Andy Sawford and Labour. This effort was taken to a new level after Mrs Mensch's announcement. When we went out on Thursday - we knew who had indicated that they would be voting Labour. Much work was done behind the scenes plotting out walking routes on the day to ensure that Labour turnout was high.

(2) The value of co-operative efforts - a superb team went out on Thursday, prepped by the staff and volunteers who had done so much to make the operation smooth and effective. I was really impressed by the dedication and sheer hard work put in. People from around the country came to Corby to help. I'd seen similar things in North Virginia. In particular, there are some impressive young people volunteering - who put my generation to shame.

(3) The message was explained - in person - to voters. It is easy to become reliant on computers - and TV ads (in the USA) and glossy leaflets. They have their role - but nothing beats talking to voters and answering their questions. On the day, few knew that there was an election and who Andy Sawford was - or what he stood for. This was in sharp contrast to the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections. The turnout was abysmal and few knew who was standing; why & what the job was about. Big money in the USA goes towards short TV ads that may be pejorative, but aren't high in useful information content. In the UK the Police Commissioner elections had a handful of "public information" ads, but there was not the money - or the volunteer manpower available to get the necessary information out. In a democracy we need an informed electorate - relying on big money or volunteers clearly isn't sufficient.

(4) There was much more emphasis in the States on voting as a duty of citizenship. This was stressed before election day - and voters are given a badge when they have voted. We are priviliged to live in democracies - where we choose our representatives. Failing to vote is an abdication of responsibility. I understand that many people feel that politicians aren't giving good service. The answer is not to put one's head in the sand and refuse to participate in elections. Voting makes politicians accountable. Tell them what you want. If they are third-raters only interested in lining their own pockets - take them on. Turn up to the occasional council meeting - write to your MP who has been behaving like a schoolboy in Prime Minister's Question Time. I've found that an adult discussion between voters and politicians helps both understand each other better - and the challenges we face as a community (whether it be the problems in a particular street or international problems). Most people (voters and politicians) are reasonable - and can accomplish more if they exchange ideas. Politicians should stop blaming the electorate for being switched off - you need to do more to engage the public - and individuals should take their duties as citizens seriously - and participate in decision making. That might be by becoming a school governor or a parish councillor. It might involve telling politicians that you want to see more action on facing the threat from climate change or demanding answers when your money is misspent - but at the very least it should involve weighing up the choices at an election and voting.

I'd appreciate your comments on what I've written - and please do share with others. Yes, I write as a Labour/Democratic supporting activist. But the issues apply across the political spectrum. We may disgree on the solutions to today's challenges - but a healthy democracy needs involvement from all who have a brain to use.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

CRS Reports on the election process

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of the quality work done by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), part of the Library of Congress. Their reports are written for Members of Congress, and exacting standards are required. Unlike the British House of Commons, these reports are not published to their paymasters - (in CRS's case - the US taxpayer), though many have campaigned for that. However "Open CRS" does publish reports that have been sent to it.

"Open CRS" states on its website - "American taxpayers spend over $100 million a year to fund the Congressional Research Service, a "think tank" that provides reports to members of Congress on a variety of topics relevant to current political events. Yet, these reports are not made available to the public in a way that they can be easily obtained. Open CRS provides citizens access to CRS Reports that are already in the public domain.

CRS Reports do not become public until a member of Congress releases the report. A number of libraries and non-profit organizations have sought to collect as many of the released reports as possible. Open CRS is a centralized utility that brings together these reports.

Unfortunately, there is no systematic way to obtain all CRS reports. Because of this, not all reports appear on the Open CRS web site. We believe that it would be far preferable for Congress to make available to the public all CRS Reports.

For more information, please see our Frequently Asked Questions"

Some useful reports on the presidential election process include   The Electoral College: How It Works in Contemporary Presidential Elections
RL32611 - October 22, 2012

Contemporary Developments in Presidential Elections
R42139 - October 18, 2012

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The PAC - and Starbucks, Amazon & Google

Yesterday the Public Accounts Committee gave a grilling to executives from the three multinational companies listed above - who stand accused of paying less than their fair share of UK Corporation tax. The PAC is one of the oldest committees, pre-dating the departmental select committees by a century. Further information on its work can be found at

The Inland Revenue site explains Corporation Tax - "Corporation Tax is a tax on the taxable profits of limited companies and some organisations including clubs, societies, associations, co-operatives, charities and other unincorporated bodies.

Taxable profits for Corporation Tax include:

•profits from taxable income such as trading profits and investment profits (except dividend income which is taxed differently)
•capital gains - known as 'chargeable gains' for Corporation Tax purposes

If your company or organisation is based in the UK, you'll have to pay Corporation Tax on all your taxable profits - wherever in the world those profits come from.

If your company isn't based in the UK but operates in the UK - for example through an office or branch (known to HMRC as a 'permanent establishment') - you'll only have to pay Corporation Tax on any taxable profits arising from your UK activities."

The companies are accused of arranging their affairs purely for the purpose of transferring their tax liability to lower tax areas.

The recording doesn't start for a little while - either fast forward, or allow a little time for the visual and audio feed to start.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Back in England

With the election completed in the United States, I have now returned to England. Washminster will be returning to a more predictable publication schedule. My activities in elections will however be continuing for a few more days. Thursday will see a parliamentary by-election in Corby. I used to live in Northamptonshire and the constituency is not very far from my current home. The Labour Candidate is Andy Sawford, son of Phil Sawford - the former MP for neighbouring Kettering. Details of the by-election and its many candidates can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-19635837

Thursday also sees elections across England for the newly created Police and Crime Commissioners. There is an informative website about these elections at http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/pcc.aspx

Today sees the annual speech by the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs at the Lord Mayor's Banquet.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Election Night

I will be tweeting from Mount Vernon, northern Virginia from now on - at


I have lots of pictures and videos to upload - hope to be able to do that before I leave for home on Thursday. As they used to say - "stay tuned"

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election Day

The day has finally arrived. The Iowa caucuses seem such a long time ago - and the long run up to them as various Republicans positioned themselves to take on President Obama. In fact it seems that this election has been running for the last four years. But finally election day 2012 is here.

Yesterday saw a remarkable operation run from our office. Voters were contacted on the phone or in person on their doorsteps. They were reminded of their polling station and the new requirements for voter ID. Volunteers sat in every available chair using landlines, campaign supplied mobiles and their own "cellphones". When there were no seats left, people sat on the floor. Canvassers were dispatched to a number of centres around the Fairfax county area. From high school students (yesterday was a school holiday) to retirees, volunteers flooded in and were set to work.

As I write this in bed (it's not yet 04-30), work is underway in Huntington and hundreds of offices around the country to get today's operation underway. Polls open at 6-00 in Virginia. They will close at 7pm. Then afterwards the results will be awaited. Unlike in the UK, there is no central place where candidates of all parties and their supporters attend 'the count'. Instead results are phoned in from each of the counts at every polling station. The candidates will be based at their own Headquarters. Many of my colleagues who have been working on the Tim Kaine campaign will be heading down to Richmond, where the Democratic senatorial candidate will await the result along with his supporters. I'll remain in North Virginia to follow the national, state and local results. It's going a long day and night - and I'll be getting up in just 15 minutes! At five....

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Friday, 2 November 2012


The nature of campaigning is changing. Until now the emphasis has been on persuading voters and identifying supporters. With the election just days away, the focus has changed - now it's about getting supporters out to vote. Tomorrow is the last day for "in person absentee voting" (early voting) in Virginia. Tuesday is polling day.

My morning was spent counting out pieces of literature, putting them into batches small enough that they can be taken to personally deliver to people who have indicated that they will vote for some or all of the Democratic candidates. I got quite an assembly line going  - but nothing compared to the line I worked on in the afternoon. Two hours were spent on the mailing out of literature. The machine handled 20,000 pieces an hour - my job was to pick up the printed literature, bend it both ways and ensure that the pieces weren't stuck together and were facing in the right direction. So I was constantly building a pile of literature for the machine operator to add. The machine, linked to a computer database, printed a name and address on each sheet, and these were collected up by another worker who handed a bunch over for tying up and placing in a mailbag. In my short time in the factory, I helped process about the number of pieces of mails that would serve half the number of households in an average sized English constituency! It was quite a bit of bending and lifting - and the factory was warm and very noisy.

I relaxed in the evening! Today I'm in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill - and will be heading out for a business meeting which will be conducted over Skype between participants in London and Washington.

I'm very excited about tomorrow. I have my E-ticket for a rally to be addressed by former President Clinton and President Obama. A group of us will be heading out together. Some lucky ticket holders will be selected at random to meet with President Obama backstage - I have my fingers crossed!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Why the negative campaigning?

...because, sadly, it works.

Potential supporters of your opponent might be dissuaded from going to the polls. There are some people who will never vote for you, but a bit of negative advertising about the person they might vote for could make them stay at home.

Or you might provoke voters to give you their vote to stop the scoundrel from being elected.

That's why all kind of outrageous assertions are being made - and there are no "Queensberry Rules" - Democrat X "is corrupt", Republican Y "is reckless". Candidates have "either profited off victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks or refused to honour them on the floor of the House of Representatives". All these examples come from the Wisconsin contest for the US Senate, but I'm seeing similar allegations aired frequently in Virginia.

Candidates, their campaigns, and "independent" groups do it - because it works, and there is no punishment. Romney keeps repeating the claim that Obama went on an "Apology Tour", despite the fact that all the "Fact Checkers" have repeatedly disproved the allegation. It's a technique the Nazis knew how to use - the Big Lie. The more outrageous the better.

Until campaigns have to pay a price - they will carry on doing it. Individual voters need to fight back - tell the candidates "lie about your opponent - and you forfeit my vote". Perhaps it's time to tear up the "Don't tread on me" signs - and start wearing badges "Don't LIE to ME"

How do you think this tide of mendacity could be reversed?

The Last Few Days

Campaigning is back - and the race is on to get out the vote before polls close on Tuesday. This is being written in a coffee shop in Old Town, Alexandria as the dawn breaks. When I arrived at King Street Metro it was still dark - but after a brisk walk eastwards, I'm now enjoying a coffee. Later on I'll be heading back to the Huntington Metro Station. The Kaine campaign office is near there.

Sandy has passed, though later today King Street may again suffer some flooding, as the heavy volume of rain upstream on the Potomac makes its way towards the sea.

Yesterday morning was spent on "The Hill" - first in a coffee shop, where I did a bit more work on my thesis, then in the Congressional Research Service and finally the Rayburn Office Building. Members of Congress have their offices in the Capitol Building itself, or the three House Office Buildings. Rayburn is the largest - and it is named after the legendary Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. I had the opportunity to chat about US and British politics - and the challenges for the future.

Later on I went to New Hampshire Avenue, then in the evening returned via Alexandria to the home I'm staying at in Mount Vernon. There is a free trolley bus which operates along King Street, Alexandria. It was full of parents and children making their way to a Halloween event, and me (dressed in my suit with a shiny pink tie - I don't know what was more scary!)

Before I move on I will be reading 'Politico', which is available at a box by King Street Metro, it is also available online. Then it's off for a day working on the joint Obama-Kaine-Moran/Connolly  campaigns.