Saturday, October 25, 2014

I, candidate, who are about to place myself in the hands of Federal Conference delegates, salute you

It is that time again that comes around every two years when I take a deep breath, fill in a nomination form, agonise over the drafting of a manifesto and file it all in the hope that enough friends, colleagues and complete strangers will see it within themselves to put their faith in a mildly bemused bureaucrat to perform some service or another to the Party.

Historically, I ran for things that no sane person did too willingly - I served five terms as a Regional Secretary and was opposed just once - but now find myself wanting the sorts of roles that others, often more assertive than I, want too. Self-promotion does not come easy, which given the successful career that my father has built in the advertising industry, is perhaps counter-intuitive. But, being a nice person is not enough, I need to give people reason to vote for me over the other guys/girls/sea otters.

And so a Valladares manifesto goes through a number of iterations, filtered through the eyes of people better at this sort of thing than I am - Ros, for example - until a document exists that reflects me well enough. I then file it with the Returning Officer and wait.

Campaigning is not easy - you have no access to the electoral register and must rely on the network of friends and acquaintances, of contacts made through years of Returning Officer gigs, committee meetings and those small acts of kindness that are hopefully remembered when the manifesto booklet is studied. My blog helps, as does my reportage on ALDE activities for Liberal Democrat Voice, as I seek to report back on my activities as one of the Party's representatives. I have, radically, done things, and so have a record to run on.

It is, nonetheless, with a sense of trepidation that I await the verdict of the electorate, especially as I would really like to win - ALDE has been a valuable experience personally and, I like to think, I have played a part in helping it to work effectively and in its policy making, seeking compromises that bring different sister parties together in establishing a shared, liberal vision for Europe.

No doubt my opponents will all want to win too, and will offer up their skills, knowledge and experience. I hope some of them win too, just not so many of them that I don't...

Dwelling on an imagined past - a bureaucrat on the shore

At some point, way back in my family's history, someone important boarded a wooden sailing ship somewhere in Portugal and set off into, if not the unknown, something a bit riskier than a trip along the coast. They probably weren't historically important - indeed, I have no idea who they were or whether or not they even existed - but if they did, they are likely to have had a not insignificant role in the life of this rural, liberal bureaucrat.

That's a bit cryptic, I guess, so perhaps a little context is in order.

My father's family is from the Catholic, East Indian community of what is now Mumbai, but which was, until 1662, a Portuguese colony consisting of seven or so swampy islands inhabited by fishing communities. It was sufficiently important to have at least one church, however, and there has been one on the site of the Valladares family parish of St Michael's since 1534. Naturally, being a prosletising faith, especially in that era, the colonists sought to convert the locals, aided and abetted by Jesuit missionaries.

They were clearly successful, for when the British decided that Bombay was to be the commercial capital of Western India, a relatively well-educated Catholic community was ready and willing to fit in, one that my ancestors were part of.

Yes, the connection is a bit tenuous but a logical one nonetheless, and it for that reason that I always feel a curious sense of wistfulness when in Lisbon, where Ros and I were the weekend before last. Ros was there to work, naturally, whilst I was... well, just there, really, tagging along for the ride.

And, although I hadn't been there for some years, Lisbon feels comfortable. I can walk the streets and absorb the atmosphere of city life, ride the wonderful rickety trams as they make their switchback journeys up to the castle and the Alfama district, I can slip discreetly into the great São and light candles for my late grandmother and for my father in the hopes of preserving his health and strength, I can eat bacalhau and drink some of the fantastic and relatively unknown wines from the north of the country. It seems like the sort of lifestyle I could have handled had life turned out differently.

But enough mawkishness.

One of the advantages of this trip was that I got to scope out the city in preparation for my return visit in less than four weeks, for the ALDE Congress is taking place there next month and, as an elected member of the ALDE Council, I am expected to attend. It is, I admit, not an onerous responsibility given my relationship with the city. I've found a hotel that works, restaurants worthy of repeat custom and have a good idea as to how the public transport system works. I even know where the sea otters are...

There is, however, the small matter of a trip to the Eternal City to deal with first...

Friday, October 24, 2014

A little night music...

I have always had a fondness for classical music and, thanks to a former neighbour, Ian Harwood, I discovered a previously untapped love of (relatively) early music. Ian was a lutenist, and an inspiration to many in the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. And it was his passion for the work of the likes of Henry Purcell that acted as a bridge from there to the works of one of music's great pioneers, Claudio Monteverdi.

And so, as a distraction from the rather chaotic, often unnecessarily harsh world of politics, I offer you L'Arpegiatta, performing the Vespro della Beata Vergine - Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.

At 24:15, you'll find Psalm 122: Laetatus sum, which some Catholic readers in particular might be familiar with. Have a listen, I'll be back tomorrow with another take on it...

It's time for another absurd microstate... Welcome to country number 56, the Vatican City

I find myself, slightly unexpectedly, in Rome this weekend.

I have, curiously, never here before, and whilst I only have two days to look around, I intend to 'collect' another of the great Catholic sites, the Vatican - I've already been to Lourdes and Jerusalem (I've walked the Stations of the Cross). For a self-described failed Catholic - I feel vaguely guilty about it but not actually guilty enough to do anything - I've been in a surprising number of Catholic Churches across the globe, and what sort of liberal bureaucrat could miss the home of the world's greatest religious bureaucracy?

And yes, I guess the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and gelato will all put in an appearance before Sunday, when my time here comes to an end.

For on Monday, I have a plane to catch... in Zurich. It's a long story...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sometimes, the art of good bureaucracy is broadly defining just what isn't there...

Today has been, in turns, frustrating and mildly exhilarating (actually, can you be mildly exhilarated?). Frustrating because, courtesy of Liberal Democrat Voice, I have been reminded that younger people can be reactionary, ageist and intolerant just as convincingly as older people. I've also spent forty-five minutes waiting for British Airways to answer what seemed, on the face of it, to be a pretty simple request, only for it to be made to appear like the height of optimism.

On the other hand, people close to me have had good news regarding their careers and, perhaps most surprisingly, I appear to finally have a grasp on my new(ish) job.

It would be harsh to say that I haven't been entirely happy in my current role. Bemused and slightly unsettled, yes, unhappy, no. After many years of bureaucracy in an environment where certainty is hard-wired into process, and backed up with legislation, I had grown deeply comfortable with the idea that, confronted with a new situation, I could come up with a definitive answer. As a liberal bureaucrat, that feels right, in that a rules-based environment is one in which good administration can flourish, as long as those rules have built-in safeguards and offer everyone equality before the law.

My new job, however, which I can't actually talk about, is more of an evaluating one. I am presented with a lot of data, and a range of operational tools with which to analyse it. It may, or may not be, complete, it may, or may not be, accurate. There is, if you like, uncertainty - definitely not in my comfort zone.

And so, it has been necessary to adapt. That's easier said than done - I'm not as young as I was, and increasingly set in my slightly idiosyncratic ways, and I respond less well to direct philosophical challenges than perhaps I once did. It has not come easily. The challenge, if you like, has been to put it into a context which sits comfortably and yet allows me to be as effective as I can be.

But, this week, things have fallen into place. In our half-yearly performance assessment, my manager declared her puzzlement that I see my work as a logic problem, feeling as she does that there doesn't have to be an exact answer - often, there can't be. What you can achieve, she believes, is a position where you have an argument that stands up to rigorous, independent scrutiny if necessary.

That makes sense, I think, but appals my inner control freak. And so, I have dwelt on what she said, and carried out some analysis on some of the data sets requiring my attention as a means of developing a modus operandi that sits more comfortably. Interestingly, I'm not sure that I agree exactly with her analysis, but have realised that there is a way in which I can achieve a similar result.

You see, if I can establish all of the areas of certainty, I can then define the area of uncertainty in terms of a series of expressed doubts, which can then be queried by means of interrogation and, if necessary, testing of hypotheses. There is, if you like, an internal logic which might not provide for exactitude, but does produce an 'exactly about' outcome which feels fair and reasonable.

It was, if you like, that light bulb moment, a realisation that this feels right and good and philosophically sound, not something that most people would associate with bureaucracy, but then, perhaps, I'm not your typical bureaucrat...

Thursday, October 09, 2014

A different take on the Shipping Forecast...

Ah yes, the Shipping Forecast, a boon to mariners of all sorts, and a curiously beguiling element of the Test Match Special experience on Radio 4 - listeners on long wave have the commentary interrupted for it occasionally.

Ros and I have, as part of our routine, the occasional dinner at the Pier Hotel, Harwich - Ros has business in the town in her role as a member of the Board of the Harwich Haven Authority. One evening, I had retired to use the facilities and, whilst in there, was surprised to hear a voice, even though there was nobody in there.

Listening more closely, it appeared to be the Shipping Forecast, which seemed appropriate, given that Harwich is very much a naval town. But then I listened more closely...

And so, courtesy of Brian Perkins, here is Les Barker's version of "The Shipping Forecast", from a 4-CD set entitled "Guide Cats for the Blind". Take it away, Brian...

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Is understanding the implications of coalition really that difficult?

There are moments when, as someone who places quite a lot of faith in the basic decency and common sense of the British public, I get a bit depressed. Today saw an example of the sort of seemingly wilful blindness that makes our politics so frustrating.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceA commenter on Liberal Democrat Voice, who shall remain nameless, but is a supporter of a political party beginning with L but without a D in it, was raging against the Party for the bedroom tax and the reduction in the top rate of tax to 45%. Liberal Democrats will, he claimed, get wiped out because there are so many people who won't forgive us for enabling the Conservatives to do these things.

One finds oneself wondering what his response will be if Labour have to go into a coalition in order to form a government. Will he expect them to deliver all of their programme, regardless of the view of any junior partner, or will he be comfortable with a degree of compromise in order to deliver key planks of the manifesto? Clearly, he is of the 'no compromise' school of politics, and perhaps he is lucky enough not to have ever been in a position where political compromises have to be made.

I don't like a number of things that Conservatives have wanted to do in government. However, in order that we might do some of the things that we believe are right for the country, we have to let them do likewise, otherwise nothing gets done at all. And, some of the things that Conservatives have required in exchange for taking the working poor out of income tax, long-term pension reform, the Pupil Premium and action on climate change are pretty stupid, or delivered by means that are almost catastrophically inept - the bedroom tax, a cap on net migration, free schools, to name but three. But, if they don't get those, we don't get our stuff.

It is, if you like, a business arrangement.

"But,", I hear my Labour supporting commenter cry, "if you hadn't allowed them to form a government, they couldn't have done all of those terrible things!". And, I must admit, that is true. At least, they wouldn't have been able to do them yet. My Labour friend would have then expected Liberal Democrats to vote down a Queen's Speech, in which the Conservatives would have outlined their plans, even though there was no alternative platform on offer. The result, another General Election, the result of which would have been what exactly?

Labour certainly couldn't have formed a majority administration. They would have had to outline how they were going to address the deficit, or hope that nobody really did, in which case why would those voters who had deserted them return? The Conservatives might have taken some seats from the Liberal Democrats, campaigning on the basis that the country needs a majority government, so wavering Lib Dems should switch to them instead. And, as a better funded party, they might have gained a majority - that would have been a far more likely outcome, although not a guaranteed one.

And, with a majority, you now know what you would have got. Not pretty, eh?

There are, of course, a whole series of counterfactuals, any of which might have come to pass in a second 2010 election, all of them less likely than an outcome where the Conservatives had a majority or were the largest party.

For Labour, it is easy. They will probably never know what it is like to be the junior partner in a coalition at Westminster, or indeed, in Edinburgh or Cardiff. They will expect to dominate any coalition arrangement. But if their members, activists and supporters are incapable of accepting that a third party might have an option other than a partnership with Labour, or that a junior partner might have a wishlist of its own that doesn't sit entirely comfortably with Labour policy, then finding a dancing partner after an inconclusive 2015 General Election might be surprisingly difficult...

Monday, October 06, 2014

"Don't let's be beastly to the Tories"

One of the rather depressing aspects of this political conference season is the general unpleasantness with which senior party figures attack their political rivals. You would never guess, would you, that a General Election is just seven months away...

When Noel Coward sang "Don't let's be beastly to the Germans", he was, of course, being ironic, attacking those who wanted to go easy on the defeated Germans after World War II. And I don't particularly want to go easy on the Conservatives - I'm not one, I don't want to be one, and I don't agree with the basic philosophy of conservatism. However, I dimly recall that my party has been in coalition with them for the past four years, and so I do wonder whether there is any point to the rudeness that has been so commonplace over the past few days.

Yes, I acknowledge that the Conservatives have been pretty unpleasant about us over the past week or so - they don't like us, I understand that - but that is rather their problem than ours. We are a barrier between what they can do and what they would like to do. And yes, they might benefit from a little reflection on why they didn't get a majority given the absence of a credible right-wing alternative in 2010, but it would go against the generality of Conservatism thinking for them to do so. They believe that they should exercise power, after all.

We are, however, supposed to be different - more cerebral, more contemplative, believers in a new style of politics that is collaborative and pluralist. Abusing one's opponents makes us just like them.

A new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats saying that, whilst we have worked with the Conservatives since 2010 because we felt that it was what the country had voted for, and that we were able to agree a programme of action with them that allowed us to achieve some of our long-term aims for our country, we have ideas of our own and intend to campaign upon them.

A new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats treat our opponents with respect on the grounds that, regardless of whether or not we agree with them on a particular issue, we respect their right to hold that stance and disagree with it because of X, or Y. Sometimes, we might agree with it because of Z.

And, perhaps most importantly, given the growing disconnect between party politics and the public at large, a new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats encouraging voters to engage with them, and to challenge all politicians to explain what they would do and why they deserved positive support, rather than engender fear or loathing, as is so often the case now.

Liberal Democrats are at their best when they campaign positively, emphasising hope over fear, treating voters like adults. In 2010, we attracted support by being positive and, whilst 2015 is likely to be rather less uplifting, if we are to rebuild, we need to remember what it was like to stand on a doorstep, leaflet in hand, knowing that we were a bit different.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A reminder of what we have to look forward to, after winter has passed...

This is Woodbridge, looking upstream from the riverbank, on a sunny Sunday morning. And, as summer has turned to autumn, and winter approaches, it's nice to know that there will be something to look forward to as spring returns...

Sweden: and if you thought being the junior partner in a coalition was bad here...

I may have noted, if only on my Twitter feed, that Ros and I had recently found ourselves in Stockholm as a General Election campaign for the Riksdag was underway. The ruling four-party centre-right coalition consisting of the Moderates, the Liberal People's Party (Folkpartiet), the Centre Party (Centerpartiet) and the Christian Democrats were up against a centre-left coalition consisting of the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Feminist Alternative and the Left Party, with the ultra-nationalist and generally beyond the pale Swedish Democrats as an increasingly prominent repository for protest votes.

The election finally took place on 14 September and produced an astonishingly inconclusive result;
  • Social Democrats - 113 seats (+1)
  • Moderates - 84 seats (-23)
  • Swedish Democrats - 49 seats (+29)
  • Greens - 25 seats (no change)
  • Centre Party - 22 seats (-1)
  • Left Party - 21 seats (+2)
  • Liberal People's Party - 19 seats (-5)
  • Christian Democrats - 16 seats (-3)

The outgoing Coalition were left with 141 seats, the opposition from the left 159 seats, and with 175 needed to gain a majority and the Swedish Democrats ruled out by everyone else, it was time to negotiate.

The Social Democrats reached out to the Centre Party and the Liberal People's Party without success, and concluded that the Left Party was simply unviable as a partner in government. And so, on Friday, Social Democrat leader, Stefan Lofven, announced the formation of an administration consisting of just his party and the Greens, holding just 138 seats, with 211 opposition representatives.

The Greens have never been in government before, the Social Democrats have never been in coalition and, in order to win votes, they will need to win over other parties. Anything that attracts the Left will probably repel the two liberal parties, and vice versa.

Life is going to be very interesting in the coming months, I suspect...