A bit of mourning before getting organised

By-election defeat, dirty Tory tactics and the festive season party circuit

Moan, moan, moan, moan, moan. OK, I’m in a bit of a bad mood this week, so that’s what this blog is going to be - just one long moan. Sorry ...

Turns out we didn’t win the Kentish Town by-election on Thursday. Although it would have been something of a miracle for us to move straight from third place to first, particularly with the Lib Dems wanting the seat so badly, we did think we stood a chance. And it wasn’t just us. Rumours reaching us from activists in the other parties ranged from ‘you might just win’ to ‘you’ve got it in the bag’.

We ran a very decent campaign in the end. Natalie, our national internal communications co-ordinator (also from Camden) edited and designed some really professional leaflets, and I think she spent more time canvassing than I did as well. Councillors and key Greens from all over the country also joined us for doorstep duties at various points over the past six weeks, and Peter Tatchell came along for a special session to push Labour voters our way last week (Peter was in Labour for over twenty years before joining the Green Party in 2004).

Thursday started at 6am, with a queue of two dozen Greens outside my flat ready to deliver our ‘it’s election day’ postcards.Our polling day HQ was run like clockwork by London Assembly Member Darren Johnson, who took Lewisham from one Green councillor to six this year. But still, about half way through the afternoon we realised how outnumbered we were by LibDems on the streets – we could see about five of them ‘knocking up’ voters for every one of our people.

I was also a bit shocked to see a Tory leaflet going out on the eve of the election with a 'truth table' stating baldly that I am not a local school governor (I am, and my school is in the ward). I'm sure that can't have helped - voters put a lot of store in local connections - and it's not as if the Tories couldn't have easily found out the facts. We mentioned it in several of our leaflets, and the details come up immediately if you put my name into Camden Council’s website.

The Tories of course didn’t stand a chance in Kentish Town and Labour - defending the seat - were similarly outnumbered by the LibDems, so we did manage to take second place, which is a bit of a result at least. This was only confirmed after two (yes two!) recounts. At the first count we were two votes ahead and after a recount this rose to four. But they still called for another count, so it wasn’t until 1am that we finally had the result, with us still four votes ahead. Luckily, the new laws mean it was easy to find a pub still open near the Town Hall in Kings Cross for a team celebration after all the excitement.

Having caught up on my sleep now, I’m feeling a lot less grumpy, and the fact that 28% of the voters put all their faith in the Greens this time (not just one of their three possible votes, which happened a lot in May) is very touching. We are well set up for next time too – after three more years of a LibDem-Tory coalition messing up running the council, ‘we were second last time’ will be an excellent campaign slogan!

More depressing is the amount of paper the parties have gone through in the course of this election. As predicted in my previous blog, with four parties all working hard, the number of leaflets got really out of hand, particularly from the LibDems. I know it works - and fools a lot of voters - but I just can’t bring myself to put out things like their tricksy pretend-handwritten letters (usually printed on twee blue notepaper) which will be familiar to people living in LibDem target wards across the country (‘Dear Friend…’ eugh).

I have been collecting all the leaflets that have come through my door and, including what the Greens delivered, it all weighs in at just over 300 grams. This probably doesn’t include everything, as I’m unlikely to be a target voter for any of the other parties myself, but it’s a reasonable working figure. Multiplied by the 5,800 households in the ward, this means the campaign as a whole used up almost two tons of paper. Sorry forests! I hope it all gets recycled. My collection of blue, yellow and red paper is going in the ‘dodgy propaganda’ file for the time being.

Now I’ve got all that moaning out of my system, I’m looking forward to a few weeks of relative rest. By happy coincidence, the Christmas party season is just starting up and my new job as Principal Speaker means my invitation list includes the odd swanky do this year as well – good timing indeed.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad