Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Liberal Democrats: try and keep your head up to the sky?

If all that I knew of the Liberal Democrats was the pronouncements from the centre and the debate on Liberal Democrat Voice, I would probably be pretty depressed. That isn't to say that it hasn't been a bit grim of late, as the fire of the Party seems to be turned on itself, aided and abetted by outsiders with little fondness for liberalism or, in some cases, interest in its survival in our country.

In some cases, where people have been hurt, or failed by the Party, I understand their unhappiness, even whilst wishing that it wasn't so. And if they feel that, having tried every other way to seek remedy for what happened, their only option is to attack the Party in a public forum, then those of us who remain will just have to take it on the chin.

We are promised change by our leaders, and maybe it will come. But it won't be quick, and it won't be certain. Not every member of the Liberal Democrats is a liberal or a democrat, political parties attract some people who, given half a chance, will demonstrate just how astute Lord Acton's comment on power and its ability to corrupt was, and one person's morality is not that of another. And, in judgement of such things, we are ultimately reliant on humans, with all their multiplicity of faults and failings.

Process is not, in itself, the solution to the mess that the Party finds itself in, as, unless the culture changes, the process is only good for punishing people after they have hurt others. It might act as a deterrent, and I hope that it does, but it won't prevent such events entirely, and I worry about the current level of expectation that it might. In an organisation which is predominantly run and led at local level by volunteers without experience of handling complaints, and where awareness of best practice is patchy at best - trust me, I have plenty of practical experience on the subject - you are only as strong as your weakest link.

So, we must strive to build confidence in our members and supporters that, where wrongdoing is discovered, that it will be acted upon swiftly, and with due process. But we must also stand prepared for the weaknesses of individuals and the randomness of misfortune...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

ALDE: listen as your day unfolds, challenge what the future holds...

It's getting towards the time of year when thoughts turn to re-election, and as my second term as a member of the Liberal Democrat delegation to the Council of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) comes to an end on 31 December, I should be giving some thought towards a manifesto.

There are some new complications this year, in that gender balance will be more strictly enforced, which given that more men than women generally run, makes my prospects somewhat less rosy - c'est la vie, I guess. I am, it is true, somewhat more low profile than once I was, which probably doesn't help either, and I belong to a smallish, rather out of the way Local Party.

It would be nice to think that I could run on my record, but as hardly anyone knows what ALDE does, and even less what the Council is for, I'll be up against people who have views on European policy (even though it is Congress that makes policy, not Council), and have little or no interest in what Council does - it's the administrative bit of ALDE.

But I would rather like to get elected for another term. I like the way politics is done at European level, more collaborative, more consensual, I enjoy working with others to reach a policy solution that brings people together rather than driving them apart. And, at a time when domestic politics both within and beyond the Liberal Democrats is, to be frank, a bit depressing, doing something rather more positive is important.

So, I'll be pondering over the messages for my campaign, and working on the text of what will probably be just an A5 page in a large booklet of similar pleas for support. And whilst it might be premature for me to express a wish that you might look kindly upon my candidacy, do remember that, like most other candidates for elected Party office, I'm doing this because I want to serve my Party, not as some sort of quest for fame.

Crossing the path of Erik XIV once again, this time in Turku

That Erik XIV certainly got around, albeit somewhat unwillingly. This is Turku Castle, or Åbo Slott, as Swedish speakers would refer to it, where our friend was imprisoned. It would seem that he was moved around quite a lot, to prevent anyone getting any ideas about putting him back on the throne, until it was eventually decided that poisoning him was best for everyone (except Erik, presumably).

Turku was our third stop on our circumnavigation of the northern Baltic Sea, having left Mariehamn on a surprisingly perfect afternoon, on the M/S Viking Grace, a vast, rather snazzy ferry which travels backwards and forwards between Stockholm and Turku, calling in the Åland Islands en route. It was, in retrospect, too early to leave Mariehamn and, likewise, too early to reach Turku. But that's part of the travel experience and, as I always tell Ros, we can always go back.

In truth, Turku is not an obvious tourist destination, and despite its status as one of the two EU Capitals of Culture in 2011 - Tallinn was the other - there is little to keep the questing traveller. We went to Naantali, a rather lovely old town masquerading as a ferry terminal - we stood where the map suggested that the terminal should be, but couldn't find any evidence that a ferry travels from there to Kapelskär via Längnas, even though it actually does. 

On our second day, we visited the castle. It is rather something, notable for having had, as one of its defences, bears which would savage unwary attackers. Apparently, this would now be considered cruel and unusual punishment, although anyone attacking a castle rather deserves all that they get, if you ask me. The English-speaking guide was very good value for the €2.50 that she cost, with a lot of interesting stories and some very un-Finnish humour.

The riverfront makes for a pleasant walk too, and the cathedral is imposing, but it isn't enough to make me think that I really ought to go back - just watch, there'll be an ALDE event there next year, now that I've said that...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Âland of gentle surprises, set in a chilly sea...

There was a time, not so long ago, when a travelling bureaucrat would have been in some big city, looking at big things, flying on big planes. But times change, and so have my, or should I say, our travels.

The Äland Islands are a Swedish-speaking collection of Islands and skerries which form the western end of an archipelago that reaches out from Turku, in south-western Finland, across the lower Gulf of Bothnia towards Sweden. 25,000 or so people live in what is an autonomous province under Finnish sovereignty. That autonomy is such that they have their own flag, their own post office, a parliament and a bunch of exemptions from European Union regulations, and all of this is the result of a 1921 ruling by the League of Nations that was the talk of international jurists everywhere.

But enough history, why come here?

Mariehamn, the capital, isn't big - just ten thousand or so people - and it isn't exactly bustling. What it is though, is gentle, especially out of season - the summer bus timetable ends in mid-August, and most museums close for the year in mid-September, not to reopen until May. You can walk across from shore to shore in about fifteen minutes - there is sea to the east and west - and the bus service is slightly erratic.

It is a maritime town, with a history that looks to the sea, of brave men who set sail for the four corners of the world but whose roots were in the small communities and rocky outcrops that were their island home, of the women who raised their families and waited patiently for them to come home.

Perhaps it is the fact that, unlike some island communities, the locals are pretty friendly and very helpful, and, on a sunny day, with the sun reflecting off the water and the wooden houses, it is just the place I might live for a while. And then one is gently reminded that the average temperature is above ten degrees centigrade for four months of the year,  Stockholm is six hours away by ferry (it's five to Turku), and in the depths of winter the average temperature is below freezing for three months or more. Hmmmm... maybe not...

So, come to Mariehamn, bring a sweater and perhaps a hat to keep the rain out of your hair. Take a walk, catch a bus, grab an ice cream and some herring - but not at the same time, perhaps. And, at the end of the day, kick back with a beer and relax in the knowledge that, tomorrow, you won't be in a hurry...

Is the only good Tory a kauppatori*?

Ah yes, Finnish humour - a concept somewhat less likely than the same nation's historic fascination with tango. But I digress, and not for the first time.

There can be little doubt that the process of differentiation between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives has begun in earnest. Odd, really, because the Conservatives have had very little trouble in that regard - there are very few serious commentators outside of the Coalition parties suggesting that they are much more 'wet liberal' than a Cameron-led, Conservative-only administration would have been, and in cutting welfare spending, they're doing what most people would expect them to, even if they don't like it much.

No, the expectation is that it is for the Liberal Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives, and that this is to be done against a backdrop of public cynicism, media vendetta and the hypocrisy of Labour activists who chastise the Coalition for its treatment of the poor and vulnerable whilst their leadership talk of being tougher on welfare and immigrants.

I'll be frank - doing a post-election deal with Labour isn't attractive to this rural bureaucrat. The catch is, would five years of continuing to try to mitigate Conservative incompetence any more worthwhile. I had thought that, whilst they might not be very nice, they were more likely to rebuild the economy than Labour, and on civil liberties issues, they couldn't be much worse than Labour were. I had not given much thought to the question of basic competence...

And it is competence, as opposed to 'right-wing evil' (message to some social liberals and most Labour activists - they aren't evil, it's simply that their view of society is radically different to yours), that has been the problem. In an attempt to win over the media, the Conservatives in government have effectively conceded that, whatever it is that journalists say must be done, regardless of the evidence. So, for example, when talk was of migration, the Conservatives came up with their absurd net migration target, something which has brought about a series of inane measures whilst failing utterly to convince those for whom the pledge was intended to placate and attract.

The 'bedroom tax', Europe, legal aid, anti-terrorism legislation, and so much more, where it is either clear that it didn't work and is being reworked, or is having consequences that thinking people had predicted from the beginning, too much of it is Conservative-inspired.

So, in the event that the British public throw up their hands as if to say, "we don't know, you sort it out", Liberal Democrats will find themselves with a rather harder puzzle to solve. And I really couldn't tell you, at this stage, how I might lean if it came to it...

* a kauppatori is the Finnish for a market square - perhaps as good a description of some Conservatives as you could hope to find...

Interim Peers List - so where do we stand now?

So, let's summate;
  • the original 1999 list saw nine out of its fifty members get the call, although two more went on to get one eventually
  • its 2004 replacement saw just two successful candidates, although that was better than...
  • the 2006 list, of which only one member was preferred...
  • but not as good as the 2008 list, which has seen five successes, and another from its subsequent 2010 top-up
My calculation tells me that, therefore, there are still thirty-nine names available to the Glorious Leader. That is, theoretically. Sadly, Viv Bingham is no longer with us, following his death in 2012. Meanwhile, John Stevens quit the Party in 2010 to fight John Bercow in his Buckingham constituency, and Jeremy Ambache is now a Labour councillor in Wandsworth, rather ruling them out, I suspect.

On the positive side, Catherine Bearder is unlikely to give up her seat in the European Parliament, thus taking her out of the frame, although even were she to tire of the charms of Brussels and Strasbourg and accept a peerage, her replacement, Antony Hook, would then be out of the frame instead.

But, to be frank, there may not be very many opportunities for anyone left on the list until next year's General Election... and possibly even fewer after that...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The slightly mysterious Interim Peers top-up list of 2010

It is entirely a coincidence that the 2010 top-up list was announced on 13 November 2010 - although it was my birthday - and a new list of appointments to the Lords was announced six days later. It did lead to an interesting occurrence, however.

A list of fifteen, to be added to the remainder from the 2008 list, was elected as follows (those actually appointed highlighted);
  1. Sal Brinton - count 1 (19 November 2010)
  2. Mark Pack - count 1
  3. David Boyle - count 2
  4. Kay Barnard - count 2
  5. Flick Rea - count 20
  6. Sue Baring - count 22
  7. Mike Tuffrey - count 23
  8. Val Cox - count 27
  9. Alan Butt-Philip - count 28
  10. Jon Ball - count 28
  11. Chris Wiggin - count 28
  12. Richard Church - count 28
  13. Liz Leffman - count 28
  14. Chris Bones - count 28
  15. Antony Hook - count 28
It was almost certainly a coincidence that Sal was appointed six days later - whilst nominees are warned some time before the official announcement, the timing is rather longer than that. And there have been no other appointments since from the top-up list...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ah yes, the 2008 Interim Peers List. And how, exactly, did they get on?...

Yesterday, I caught up with the first three elected Interim Peers lists, as elected by Federal Conference delegates in 1999, 2004 and 2006. Today, it's time to move on to the 2008 list, and the 2010 'top-up' list that went with it.

Here's the 2008 list, in order of election (successful candidates highlighted in red=;
  1. Brian Paddick - count 1 (1 August 2013)
  2. Duncan Brack - count 1
  3. Viv Bingham - count 1
  4. Ramesh Dewan - count 1
  5. Ben Stoneham - count 1 (19 November 2010)
  6. Julie Smith - count 1 (8 August 2014)
  7. Jonathan Fryer - count 1
  8. Gordon Lishman - count 1
  9. David Williams - count 1
  10. Catherine Bearder - count 2
  11. Jonathan Marks - count 2 (19 November 2010)
  12. Chris White - count 3
  13. Jock Gallagher - count 4
  14. Ruth Coleman - count 4
  15. Jackie Pearcey - count 5
  16. Justine McGuinness - count 6
  17. James Kempton - count 6
  18. Bill le Breton - count 7
  19. Robert Adamson - count 15
  20. Josephine Hayes - count 23
  21. Peter Price - count 27
  22. Qassim Afzal - count 27
  23. Monroe Palmer - count 27 (19 November 2010)
  24. Fiyaz Mughal - count 29
  25. Bernard Greaves - count 30
  26. Jane Smithard - count 31
  27. Alan Sherwell - count 31
  28. Jeremy Ambache - count 31
  29. John Stevens - count 31
  30. Tony Vickers - count 31

In which I discover that I am, in fact, a Viking...

No, I don't possess a helmet with horns, nor do I partake of looting, pillage or any of the other stuff that Scandinavian tourists used to get up to in less enlightened times, although I do enjoy the occasional beer... but where on Earth has the idea come from that I might be a Viking? Let's go back to the beginning, shall we?...

Tuesday morning dawned a bit grey, it had to be said, but Ros and I had a boat to catch. And as it made its way west from the city, we began to realise just how close to Stockholm the great outdoors starts. The islands are dotted with cottages near the water, with their own mooring and a small boat, and it is all very tranquil.

Our destination, however, was Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an important trading centre in the eighth, ninth and early tenth centuries. It was a place where the world came for wood, furs and iron, bringing silks and silver, amongst other things. And, from there, Swedes brought drama, albeit very brief drama, into the lives of others.

As our guide explained, the people who went off on expeditions were called vikings - it was a job description, as in he's a plumber, she's a brain surgeon, they're vikings. The use of the term Vikings only really developed during the eighteenth century cultural revival, when the concept became romanticised - and let's be honest, the romanticised version is always rather more positive than the truth.

There isn't much in the way of visible evidence of the thriving town that was Birka. It was made of wood, after all, and the town went into decline as early as 950 AD, but archeologists have gradually unearthed its secrets, some of which can be seen in the on site museum.

And, even on a rather grey day, with the aid of our excellent guide, it is an evocative place to hear stories of adventure and exploration, of trade and of kingship - an excellent place for Ros and I to have visited on our expedition.

I think that we won't be wearing helmets though, as we head further east...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Whatever happened to the Interim Peers List... Redux

More than four years ago, I took a look back at the Party's concept of electing its nominees to the House of Lords, a concept that, to be honest, I had some scepticism about at the time, and to some extent still do.

I started with a look at the 1999 list, from which nine, including the woman who had subsequently become my wife, had been selected. Since then, Monroe Palmer - number 17 on that list - and Dee Doocey - number 38 - were elevated in the first Coalition list in November 2010 (the May 2010 list was Gordon Brown's dissolution list).

Next, the 2004 list. Two people, Robin Teverson and Celia Thomas, were preferred in 2006,  and Monroe was on that list too - at number 4 this time - whilst Dee had chosen not to run. However, there were three more names on that list who went on to get a peerage. Ben Stoneham, at number 12, was another on the November 2010 list, as was Jonathan Marks (number 28). And, loosely sandwiched between the two at number 24, was Julie Smith, whose peerage was announced earlier this month.

The 2006 list drew an even shorter straw, with only four appointments made during its lifetime - Sue Garden (number 7) got a thoroughly justified nomination in September 2007. However, four more women on that list - Dee Doocey (number 2 and already mentioned above), Kate Parminter (number 3), Olly Grender (number 9) and Meral Ece (number 21) - went to get peerages, Kate and Meral in May 2010, and Olly in August last year.


So, what has happened since then?...

The race for the Party Presidency - and then there were three...

Pauline Pearce's dramatic withdrawal from the contest came as a bit of a surprise to your absentee bureaucrat, although, to be fair, her emergence as a contender in the first place was itself a bit unexpected.

I don't want to touch upon the grounds she has given - I haven't been involved in her campaign, nor that of any other candidate, as I mean to be an interested, neutral observer in this contest - but perhaps I might examine the four questions that I put to her some time ago, and never got an answer for;
  • What do you think the role of the President should be in the year of a General Election?
  • What do you think should be the relationship between the President and the Party Leader?
  • What do you think should be the relationship between the President and the voluntary party, i.e. the activists and volunteers?
  • Name three personal attributes that would help you perform the role of Party President and why?
To be honest, I don't know Pauline at all, although I knew a little from some of the coverage she had received. But it was never entirely clear to me why she was running for the Party Presidency, or what she hoped to achieve both through her campaign and if she were to be elected. And, whilst the other candidates were beginning to campaign or, at least, raise their profiles, there were rather less obvious signs that Pauline was doing the same.

Running for the Presidency is not easy. The requirement to persuade ordinary members to support you means that, especially in a crowded field, you need to have a strategy to reach beyond the usual suspects - Parliamentarians, bloggers and other social media devotees - to Local Party Officers, councillors and the like, who offer a means to reach those armchair members who don't pay that much attention to internal Party affairs.

If you don't have a national profile already - and I'm not convinced that Pauline did yet - you need to develop one, and to grow a supporter base of people who can and will lobby their local members to vote for you.

In a General Election year, especially one that looks as difficult as 2015 does, I personally see the role of an incoming President as being at least twofold. In the run-up to May, it is about 'rallying the troops' to win as many seats as possible. It won't be glamorous, especially as the campaign organisers will have little or no idea what to do with you, and won't want you to draw attention away from the Leader.

Afterwards, if there is another hung Parliament, and the Liberal Democrats are relevant, being an honest broker during the decision making process and acting as a conduit for the views of the members and activists is critical. Otherwise, if the result is a bad one, keeping the Party together and dealing with a potential leadership contest will be the new key tasks.

Could Pauline have done those things successfully? I guess that we'll never know now, and I'm not sure that there were developed answers to my questions, not that any candidate will convince everyone of their potential in the role.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Still ahead of par, as country number 55 is ticked off...

One of my personal aims is to have visited more countries than I have had birthdays. As a child, I didn't travel that much, and I only really got going when I took up international youth politics. Then, of course, having married, the travel really took off and now, with Ros, we are lucky enough to have a number of opportunities to see new places.

But my travel has been somewhat erratic - I've been to nine Latin American countries but not Norway, for example - and there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit left. And so, having decided that we wanted to see a little more of Northern Europe, I found myself with a chance to add a new country - Sweden. I had, technically, been to Sweden before, having stood on the roof of Gothenburg's Landvetter Airport once whilst connecting en route from Frankfurt to Helsinki, but you can't really count that, can you?

And so, on Saturday, Ros and I set off for Stockholm, flying SAS (not a wildly impressive experience, I must say) out of Heathrow's Terminal 3. It's not a long flight, and after a fairly uneventful journey, we reached the apartment we had rented in Södermalm, the now hip and trendy suburb just south of Gamla Stan, the historic core of Stockholm.

I'm afraid that, as a fan of the Muppet Show's Swedish Chef, I have to resist a temptation to mutter in mock-Swedish, but having overcome that, we were off to dinner at a restaurant where I had taken the precaution of booking a table in advance. One problem we often face is finding somewhere to eat on a Saturday night, as all the good places are reserved by the time we arrive. But now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can beat the locals - after all, you probably know your plans well before they do.

Pelikan is a rather stylish, modern Swedish restaurant, and having recovered from the slight heart murmur caused by the price of everything - Sweden is really quite painful on the budget - we enjoyed a good meal. There was, I admit, herring involved, and there may have been meatballs too, with lingonberries, but it was all good.

All in all, a good start to our trip...

Erik XIV lived here...

... albeit unwillingly. This is Kastelholm Castle, now a quiet corner of Åland, and the only medieval castle on the islands, founded in the 1380s, and one of the many castles where Erik, his morganatic wife and their two children were imprisoned after he was deposed as King of Sweden by his brother, John III, in 1571.

It is a very peaceful spot, something that its inhabitants in its days as an active castle would have found hard to imagine, and not necessarily the easiest place to get to by public transport.

However, Ros and I had decided that it was worth it and, after a pleasant walk around Mariehamn, we caught an early afternoon bus towards Prästö. Åland is a surprisingly pretty place, and our bus glided through small communities and forests before reaching Kastelholm, where, along with a pair of German tourists, we were deposited and then abandoned.

Åland is like that, and even coming from somewhere as rural as Creeting St Peter, the silence is a mite unnerving. But we could see the castle, and as we crested a rise, the open air museum and a new, and apparently rather swish, restaurant called Smakbyn appeared. Time for lunch, we thought.

It was a good choice, as Ros had the pea soup (warning, it's not vegetarian!) whilst I had the salmon - both were excellent - followed by the Åland pancakes with plum sauce - also very good. But we had a castle to visit.

It would be fair to say, now that summer had apparently left Åland, that being a tourist here makes you something of a comparative rarity. The winter timetable for the local buses started a week ago, things start to close for the season - the open air museum will close its doors for the year in mid-September - and whilst our hotel is busy, it isn't exactly full. And so, the discovery that there were half a dozen of us in the castle was not quite as much of a surprise as it might have been. It did mean that we could gently potter about, enjoying the views and wondering about witch burning - they did that here too.

Next, we had a look around the open air museum, with its post mills and red-painted buildings whilst the sun put in an unexpected but welcome appearance.

Sightseeing done, we headed back to the bus stop, expecting a lengthy wait for what we thought was an hourly bus service. The unexpected sight of a bus somewhat earlier than promised by the timetable came as yet another pleasant surprise, as we returned to Mariehamn via a rather more direct route and were back in time to do a little shopping.

Tonight, we're eating out again, at one of Mariehamn's best restaurants. This might not ordinarily be saying much, but we have eaten remarkably well so far, and the reviews are good...