Sunday, January 12, 2020

Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats have a new Secretary...

So, the absence from frontline politics lasted less than a fortnight before I found myself a new project, that of my own dear Local Party.

In fairness, I had made a promise to take over as Secretary, as our previous Secretary had served six years in the role and was keen to hand it on. Admittedly, she and I had made it a personal bargain, so much so that, at Thursday's AGM, it required drawing the attention of the Chair to the fact that it wasn't simply a case of re-electing the incumbent. And so, I have a new job.

One of my first tasks is to establish what our Local Party Constitution looks like, which isn't necessarily the simple task it sounds. The Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats only came into existence on 1 January 2014, following a reorganisation of the County's Local Parties from Parliamentary boundaries to District/Borough boundaries. Ros and I may have had something to do with that...

There are two places where the Constitution should be;
  • The Regional Party - a copy of the Constitution should be lodged with the Regional Secretary after each adoption/revision. Admittedly, that doesn't always happen...
  • The Local Party Secretary - if they were handed one by their predecessor...
In our case, a copy turned out to have been held by our former Agent. It isn't entirely clear that what he held was actually adopted in that form, but we'll see. It can always be readopted at the next Annual General Meeting to ensure peace of mind...

Another task is to establish who is actually on the Executive Committee. Thus far, some people who probably think that they are on the Committee don't appear to be, which may lead to fun and games.

And, finally, I'm trying to create a directory for the Local Party, in the first instance for my own use, so that I know who to contact as and when, but perhaps for wider circulation if it appears to be of value.

So, I have my role, and an outline plan for delivery. Let bureaucracy commence...

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Getting back into the rhythm...

So, I’m home after a pleasantly restful visit to the US, but despite the fact that I  hold only one minor post, I’m surprisingly busy with Returning Officer stuff. I’ve got meetings to go to, paperwork to organise, and even a ruling to make. 

And that’s fine, I guess, because a bureaucrat’s work is never done, is it?...

Friday, January 03, 2020

Dominic Cummings and me - merely a coincidence, your Honour...

It was entirely coincidental that, more than 3,500 miles apart, Dominic and I were both blogging about his suggestions about changing the way Government is done. Trust me, my typing speed isn’t really that quick, and my drafting far too cautious to allow me to have responded that quickly. But now I’ve had a chance to read his blog, and reflect upon its content a little, perhaps I ought to offer some thoughts.

Firstly, the sort of people he indicates that he’s looking for. Smart, “weird” people, he suggests. Bright, young, without any baggage. And in at least one sense, he’s absolutely right, of course. The Civil Service requires regular infusions of talent, people who can rise through the ranks quickly, and in due course be the leaders going forward. How you recruit them, and how you retain them, he’s rather less clear about.

He could tear up the existing pay scales, the merit-based recruitment systems that exist, and he might even be right to do so. Do the basic rules of supply and demand apply in the public sector? Should they, and if the answer is yes, no matter how qualified, is there a will to change things? Do Civil Service entrance processes actually test the right things, do they discourage talented individuals from under-represented groups, do they promote the best skill sets going forward? Are they actually reflective of current best practice? As a relatively junior official, I’m not privy to that sort of information, nor is there any reason why I should be.

The sort of people he feels are needed are, I think, the subject of broad agreement, although fashions are, how can I put it, just that, fashions. The long-term impacts of individual reforms are often never truly known because so little time is given to allow them to bed in, and the transition is often under-resourced. Perpetual revolution means instability and caution amongst those who might at any time become victims of said revolution.

And the problem with instability in one of the three legs of the structure of the unwritten constitutional settlement is that it risks destabilising the whole arrangement. Now, if what I read is to be believed, that’s what Dominic wants, at least in the short term. How the effects of change are managed, controlled and limited to the specific field of battle is something he may well have thought through, and one would hope that this was the case. But he is, as I said before, more restricted by a legislative framework than he was as a campaigner.

He’s also at the mercy of someone who needs to get re-elected, which can be an uncomfortable place to be, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill discovered. Does he really have carte blanche, or are there limits when push comes to shove?

The general response so far has been anger and ridicule. Anger that he proposes to tear up something that, in the minds of some, works pretty well as it is, and ridicule in terms of how he proposes to go about things.

I personally wouldn’t recommend either. Dominic doesn’t play by the conventional rules - he seems to think that many of them are absurd and protectionist. He also has a record of getting what he wants, and given Boris’s reputation for granting wide discretion to his advisors, there is no obvious reason to assume that he can’t get his way. And, just because he’s Dominic Cummings, that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong.

“Bombshell” - worth seeing, and an insight into how harassment can prevail

We had an awkward four hours or so between being “evicted” from our cosy hotel room and an appropriate time to head for the airport, and given the fairly frigid temperatures outside, catching a movie seemed like a good idea. Our choice, “Bombshell”, a dramatised version of the events which brought about the end of the career of Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News.

Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow, the film charts the story of Megyn Kelly, the news anchor who, after Roger Ailes was sued for sexual harassment by a former colleague, discovers that a series of female colleagues were similarly harassed by him, and that it wasn’t just her.

Her discreet investigation uncovers the scale of Ailes’s behaviour, whilst other colleagues, including female ones, attempt to rally support for him, pressuring co-workers to visibly declare his innocence.

Fox News is made out to be a pretty dysfunctional place, with female staff behaving out of fear of their CEO and for their potential careers, and a bunch of  men who, to put it mildly, appear to think that, even if he is guilty as charged, it doesn’t much matter.

Now there isn’t much of a plot to ruin, given that the script is based on actual events, well publicised. We know the ending and, as Roger Ailes died in 2017, most of the facts are presumed to be out there, although it should be noted that Megyn Kelly herself has indicated that the film contains material inaccuracies.

But it offers an interesting insight into how peer pressure, competition and egos can combine to repress any attempt to combat wrongdoing at the highest levels of an organisation.

And, for those who seem to think that whistle blowing is easy, or that taking on a corporate behemoth is what you should do because it is right, it should be recommended viewing. The notion that people’s actions have consequences is one thing, but what if those consequences impact on innocent parties - your co-workers, your family, your friends? Is it so easy then?

Is it a great movie? Probably not, but it is a good one. Will it appeal to those with a fascination with politics, the media and where the two collide? It probably will.

And I am reminded that we really ought to go to the movies more often...

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Dominic Cummings vs the Civil Service - fated to end badly?

You can’t deny that, in terms of winning, Dominic Cummings has so far been very effective. Yes, he has driven a coach and horses through many of the conventions in terms of behaviour, and his tactics come with their own long-term issues, but I suspect that he is of the view that, in the long-term, we’re all dead, so that isn’t important.

The thing about a campaign though is that once it’s over, you generally move on to the next thing, preferably something interesting, where the results are visible. Civil service reform is seldom like that, because unlike a campaign, delivery of government happens day after bloody day. It operates within a rule-based structure which can be limiting rather than liberating to those both within it and served by it. Indeed, what most people want is not something radical, but something effective.

So, if Dominic really wants to change the way the Civil Service functions, he needs to take a holistic view across not only the Civil Service but Government too, and that’s an “interesting” challenge. If he thinks that civil servants are, for the most part, useless, cautious and obstructive, then perhaps he needs to consider why that might be.

There are issues of supply and demand, in that salaries for senior civil servants (and some relatively junior ones) are increasingly out of line with their private sector counterparts, especially in terms of skills such as procurement, IT and tax compliance. Do you really believe that you going to get, and more importantly, keep, talent if it is so easily lured away by the promise of higher salaries elsewhere? The pension schemes have been devalued somewhat by recent government reform, and you can’t live off of a knighthood, even were you to be far enough up the food chain to get one.

Another issue is the quality of legislation that emerges from Parliament. The House of Commons has an increasingly poor record in terms of scrutiny of new proposals, and whilst the Lords is far better, relying on increasingly partisan administrations to accept credible ideas for improvement is a gamble at best, a pipe dream at worst. Civil servants work with what they’re given, especially on the frontline, and if what they’re given is endlessly tinkered with as foreseen glitches begin to pinch, application of government intent is jeopardised.

A good point has been made about stability, i.e. leaving senior managers in post long enough to see through changes. Many frontline staff grow weary of a new senior appointment arriving, forcing through major changes against sometimes reasoned objections only to disappear before the effects are known. By the same token, attempts at cultural change tend to fall foul of corporate inertia - “if we wait long enough, leader X will leave, to be replaced by leader Y who will be enthused by something else”.

It is being suggested that there will be a focus on cutting out perceived deadwood. Removing the supposed feckless and incompetent has been an aspiration of ministers for the more than three decades that I’ve been employed, and the tendency is to apply blunt tools such as picking on, say, the worst-performing 10% of staff. Such broad brush approaches ironically punished relatively well-performing offices, leaving badly run ones roughly unchanged, because of the challenge in selecting 10% out of a broader pool including different types of work, in different offices, with varying managerial standards.

The answer, it is suggested, is a system of ongoing examination. That’s interesting, because it increases the risk of three things - an increased lack of stability, an aversion to risk and a disincentive to recruitment - that run counter to what Dominic wants. If you stick your head above the parapet, will you survive the experience? If you’re looking over your shoulder all of the time, can you take in the horizon? And if your job is as much at risk in the public sector as it would be in the private sector, why not just take the money?

I suppose that I am, in bureaucrat terms, something of a conservative, in that I want things to work, I want there to be a proper balance between state and individual, and I want the state to be a force for good in people’s lives. Ironically, that might be seen as radical in some quarters, and even more ironically, many junior civil servants would certainly support the first and third elements of my wishlist (the second is a bit esoteric, I accept).

So, we’ll see what Dominic and his friends have in mind for the bureaucracy. One can only hope that he can grasp the difference between resistance to change and genuine critique and alternative perspective. My door is always open though...

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The beginning of another year arrives, so what do I do with it?

After more than a decade of being deeply engaged with all things Liberal Democrat, I find myself entering a new year with surprisingly little responsibility. Term limits meant that my time as a member of the ALDE Party’s Financial Advisory Committee came to an end in October after eight satisfying years, and I lost my place on Federal International Relations Committee which, given how surprised I was to have been elected to it in the first place, came as no great shock. At least I lost to some good people...

What this means is that I only hold one formal role as a Liberal Democrat, that of the East of England member of the Appeals Board for England which, whilst not something which takes up a lot of my time, is quite onerous when my services are required. I do have three Returning Officer jobs to deliver in the New Year, but they shouldn’t detain me for too long, and there is my day editorship of Liberal Democrat Voice, which, if I let it, could expand to fill the time newly available to me.

There is a danger, therefore, that I rush headlong into some new role. And that would probably be a mistake, as there are things in the rest of my life which possibly merit more attention.

I could make some New Year resolutions, but why make commitments out of a sense of duty when it would be better to make changes because they would improve my life and that of those close to me. Besides, change should be organic rather than regimented.

So, I think that I’ll leave 2020 uncommitted for the time being. There’s much to look forward to, and much that would be better avoided.

And a Happy New Year to you all!

Here in Boston, we’re five hours behind most of you, but I wish you all the best, nonetheless. Sleep well!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

India - a challenge ahead for HMS Brexit...

Declaring an interest as someone of half-Indian extraction, I’ve argued on occasion that, whilst much attention is given to China’s emergence as a world power, both military and economic, there should be more attention given to its democratic counterpart, India. It’s an uphill struggle, I acknowledge, but still an important one.

In terms of the domestic debate here, India falls under the category of “obvious trading partner” post-Brexit, i.e. someone we can increase exports to. Now, putting aside the fact that United Kingdom governments have treated Indian citizens in a manner akin to leprosy victims in terms of visa access over the years, the action of Theresa May in effectively vetoing the proposed EU/India Free Trade Agreement, is hardly an encouragement to the Indian Government to prioritise us over, say, the European Union.

But, of course, some of the more lacking in self-awareness supporters of Brexit believe that, as part of the (jolly old) Empire, the Indians will be only too eager to sign something - fifth largest economy in the world, you know, Commonwealth ties, old boy.

Except that, according to the Centre for Business Economics and Research, with its Conservative-friendly world view, Britain’s economy is already smaller than India’s, and with India’s trend growth rate far higher than that of the United Kingdom, the gap will grow fast. In whose interests is a trade deal then, who will be able to drive the harder bargain? Not a difficult question to answer, is it?

Any trade deal will require significant visa liberalisation, and thus more Indians coming to Britain to work and study - a tough sell to those who voted for Brexit, and indeed for the Conservatives, in order to reduce immigration. And the net figure will be worse still, as the chances are that few British citizens will wish to make the reverse journey.

It gets better though. By 2034, India is predicted to be the third largest economy, with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh in the top twenty-five. And they know that. The bargain will get harder, not easier, and the Hindu nationalist administration that runs India is hardly likely to hold back from  using that growing power imbalance to settle some old scores.

Meanwhile, the European Union will be keen to gain preferential access to the Indian market. It has quite a lot to offer, isn’t as attractive to Indians seeking to work abroad but offers plenty of opportunities for the rapidly growing number of middle-class Indians to spend money as tourists. It also offers access to a market six times larger and, in significant cases, wealthier than that of the United Kingdom.

Negotiations with the Modi administration should be interesting, and something of an eye opener for the Johnson-led Conservative Government. How they respond to the challenge may be a guide to the future economic prospects of the United Kingdom, and the ability of the Conservatives to deliver their rather generous promises.

They’d better learn fast...

Monday, December 30, 2019

More adventures in media choice...

I wrote, a fortnight or so ago, about giving up The Times, in part because of its recruitment of Quentin Letts, but in truth because it has become a source of anger rather than disagreement. The unremittingly negative coverage of transgender issues, the continuing employment of Rod Liddle, the increasingly desperate attempts to smear Jeremy Corbyn (and, for that matter, anyone who isn’t a Conservative Party politician), all added up to a conclusion that giving them £10 per week to annoy me was a pretty poor use of the funds.

So, how am I getting on? 

Well, it’s early days yet, and as my subscription doesn’t expire for another three weeks, I’m still taking advantage of it, but I’ve made two financial commitments and taken up one newspaper that is still free online and apparently not looking for money.

I’ve always enjoyed The Economist, and whilst it can be a little dry at times, its tendency to rely on facts and, where an opinion is being offered, its clarity as to the difference, is welcome in a time where the line between news reporting and opinion is increasingly blurred. For £215 per year, I receive my weekly copy of the dead tree version, plus access to the digital version online, as well as daily e-mails with stories that might interest me. I’m still £305 a year better off, and probably less annoyed.

Ros reads the New York Times, and is quite impressed with their coverage of British politics, but there seems little point in both of us paying for it, so I’ve signed up to The Washington Post. They ask a mere $30 for an initial annual subscription to the digital edition, rising to $100 thereafter, and whilst that may turn out to be more than I really want to pay, at that price, what do I have to lose? And I’m still £282 a year better off...

I know that The Guardian is free online, merely begging for money endlessly. A bit of me wants to give them some, for I am taking advantage of their largesse whilst only offering them potential advertising revenue. But, for the time being, I will resist the temptation to contribute towards Polly Toynbee’s salary. Instead, I’ve downloaded the app for The Times of India, a newspaper my great uncle once worked for. They appear not to want any payment, although that may of course change in the future. It offers me a very different perspective on the world, links me to the family home and is likely to give me an insight into what is likely to be one of the world’s top five economies before very long.

So, there you have it, three very different mediums, each offering a very different perspective, all of which are highly respected. We’ll see how it goes...