Yesterday, I got letters from two men who want to be the Labour candidate for the constituency in 2015. One is Mr Marris, the slavishly loyal New Labour former MP who narrowly lost in 2010. The other is Dr Sundar Thavapalasundaram of, er, London.
Here's the joint letter I've just sent them.
Dear Mr Marris and Dr Thavapalasundaram,
thank you for your canvassing letters which both arrived yesterday. I thought I would reply jointly so you can see where I stand on both your pitches. Please be assured that as a Labour member, I will work hard to get the candidate elected, whichever one of you wins the selection.
Dr Thavapalasundaram, I am less than impressed by the crudely photocopied header and footer on your letter, which appear to use the official party typeface, background, logo and discourse: I hope this isn't an attempt to look as though you've been endorsed by the party hierarchy. Additionally, 'Serving to Lead', 'Working and Winning for WSW' aren't proper sentences. They lack subjects and objects and are therefore meaningless, though reminiscent of the New Labour project. What do 'Serving to Lead' and 'Working & Winning' actually mean in this context? I note they're in the continuous present tense. What 'serving', 'leading', 'working' and 'winning' have you done in this constituency, and elsewhere.
You twice refer to yourself as the 'perspective candidate'. Is this a sophisticated political joke, or do you actually mean 'prospective'? Certainly your body text gives no indication of political 'perspective'. Furthermore, 'honor' has a 'u' in it in UK English. Labour has been slavishly loyal to US political direction in government: let's at least retain our own spelling, eh?
I notice that Mr Marris provides a full Wolverhampton address and landline telephone number. Don't worry, Rob: I won't be popping round for a chat! But Dr Thavapalasundaram only gives a mobile telephone number. Is that because you work and live in London and in fact have no links to or knowledge of this city at all?
Mr Marris, you stress your long experience in the constituency, though you slightly gloss over losing the previous election, and you don't mention your work as a solicitor. Dr Thavapalasundaram, however, says that he is an NHS GP and a veteran of two wars. Now, that's not entirely accurate, is it? GPs are of course private contractors, and in your case, you work for (perhaps part-own?) Caversham Group Practice, which is incorporated as a company. Will you be gaining financially from the NHS reorganisation? What if any is your connection to Centrium Freehold Limited?
Mr Marris, you provide a long list of political principles, opposing privatisation, making the case for an empowering state, opposing student tuition fees, academies and free schools and deregulation, while supporting the nationalisation of railways, higher taxes for the rich, banking break-ups and so on. I tend to agree with most of these positions. However, I was a constituent while you were an MP. I distinctly remember you voting for most of the things you now oppose. Time and time again you behaved as lobby fodder for a government which established academy schools, curtailed civil liberties, introduced tuition fees (though you did oppose this), voted for one illegal and two foolish wars, strengthened NHS privatisation, deregulated the finance system, reduced taxation for the rich until very late on (and was 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich', failed to build social housing, oversaw the disastrous railway franchising scheme, and systematically weakened employees rights. I distinctly remember Mr Blair boasting about British workers having the least protection in Europe (the 'flexible' workforce).
So my worry is this, Mr Marris: either you believed in what you did then, or you believed in what you say now. Which is it? Or perhaps you simply did what you were told, despite being a member of a massive majority. If re-elected, will you simply follow the party line once more, or will you vote according to your principles?
Dr Thavapalasundaram: if anything, I'm even less impressed by your political principles, or rather, the total lack of them enunciated in your letter. Mr Marris has listed a number of specific positions. You do not name a single thing in which you believe. Instead, we're asked to accept a vague and fuzzy list of adjectives. Firstly, why do you think this is 'the toughest election battle in the recent history' of the constituency. I suspect Mr Marris might think that the election he lost would qualify for this honour. Or perhaps the many occasions on which our party lost? As far as I can see, running against a lazy, dishonest Tory who could only win by 691 votes against Gordon Brown's (unfairly demonised) government, with Labour strongly ahead in the polls, constitutes a relatively easy battle. I have conducted a running battle with Mr Uppal since the election, investigating and challenging his statements and behaviour forensically: I can't say I've noticed the CLP doing the same.
You say victory demands 'strong leadership, vision, and decisive action'. Well, I'm a bit sick of 'strong leadership' actually: I'd prefer a little consensual democracy. Particularly as 'vision' and 'decisive action' require political clarity, something entirely absent from your letter. You stress your service in Afghanistan and Iraq. What are we meant to make of this? You draw from it 'duty, honor, service and sacrifice'. Nobody opposes any of these things in principle. Yet none of them help in the day to day business of a constituency MP. What do you stand for? In terms of these wars: did you oppose them or did you support them? Mr Marris supported them - I disagree with him but I know where he stands. You, on the other hand, reach for the traditional clichés of patriotism and masculinity. You also say that you 'know what it takes to lead by the courage of your convictions and from the front'. What was your rank and role in the military? What are your convictions?
You say you can 'unite the CLP'. Is it divided? Is this the extent of your 'vision'? How does 'leading from the front' equate with uniting the local party?
The closest you get to espousing a political principle is your vow to 'defend our most precious institution, the NHS'. Adding to my specific enquiry about your relationship to the NHS, can you explain what you mean? I have watched David Cameron saying that he will 'defend the NHS' and that the Conservative Party is 'the party of the NHS'. What you say is no more specific or meaningful than when he says it. You say 'I bring real life experience gained not in a policy seminar, but at the sharp end'. What do you mean? Mr Marris is or was a solicitor. You are a doctor and you've been a soldier. You've both worked outside politics. I suspect that you've both spent a fair amount of time in policy seminars however: I note that Dr Thavapalasundaram is a executive member of the Fabian Society: not exactly a proletarian, coal-face operation.
Your 'pledges' only just stop short of proclaiming your love of babies and blue skies: being 'faithful to the Constituency and our shared vision of electoral victory' is minimal to the point of meaninglessness. Imagine being opposed to party loyalty and wanting to win! Similarly, holding surgeries and doing casework shouldn't be a noble pledge: it's what MPs do, every single day.
I hope you see my quandary. In Mr Marris we have a good, hard-working former constituency MP who enabled the worst excesses of the previous government and rarely displayed any independent principles, who now promises to oppose most of the things he supported. In Dr Thavapalasundaram we have a carpet-bagger candidate who appears to have no political beliefs at all and appeals to the constituency on the basis of aspirational boiler-plate and personal qualities.
I'm not kidding myself that my vote will swing the selection in either direction, nor that my particular political beliefs are the majority in the CLP. But I do think that you both need to address my objections.