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...

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Congratulations to Jonathan Calder, double Auld Johnstons all round!

The news that Jonathan Calder has won the Liberal Democrat Voice 'Blog of the Year' contest has reached Creeting St Peter and it is all the more welcome for being thoroughly hard-earned.

I have, in the past, written of the sheer quality and diversity of his writing, and my vague suspicion that the character that is Lord Bonkers has rather overshadowed his other work. He has, over the years, gathered more bridesmaid outfits than one might believe credible.

There is a dark side to this success, however, in that the history of the award does not bode well for the survival of the blog - most winners end up drifting away either from the Party, or blogging, or in some cases, both.

I can only express a wish that you keep up the good work... and enjoy your turn judging next year's award nominees...

Liberal Democrats, candidates and diversity (part 2) - why do so few people apply to be Parliamentary candidates?

Yesterday, I took a look back at some of what has happened over the past decade. Today, I want to start to explore some of the general barriers that prevent many perfectly capable people from playing an active role in national politics.

Let's start at the beginning (as Julie Andrews put it, a very good place to start). To be a Parliamentary candidate, one rather needs to be a member of a political party - the almost total lack of success of independents since the introduction of universal suffrage (and political parties were relatively loosely affiliated until the mid-nineteenth century) demonstrates only too powerfully that, if you want to be an MP, you need friends, supporters and, most importantly, a structure which makes use of resources effectively.

There was a time when people joined political parties in large numbers. In the 1950’s, Conservative Party membership peaked at nearly 3,000,000, whilst Labour Party membership was just over 1,000,000. Liberal Party membership data appears only to go back to the beginning of the sixties, but at that time, the Party had a membership in excess of 250,000. Many more people were at least affiliated to a political movement, regardless of the level of their active involvement and, theoretically, the pool of potential candidates was much larger.

Those membership figures have declined so dramatically over the subsequent half-century that, if replicated in most other volunteer-based organisations, the word ‘crisis’ would barely cover it. Conservative Party membership is now about 134,000 – down more than 95% from its peak – and Labour claim 190,000 – down more than 80% - whilst the Liberal Democrats claim about 45,000 – down more than 80% as well.

So, a much smaller pool of potential candidates is one reason why ‘ordinary’ people don’t enter Parliament – ‘ordinary’ people don’t join political parties any more.

Being a Parliamentary candidate is resource intensive. Attending meetings, campaigning, organising, developing strategy – all of these things take time, and in our increasingly hectic world, many people are time poor or. With both elements of a couple now working in most cases, all of the other stuff that needs to get done, childcare, housework, shopping, for example, falls more equally than it did in the fifties, when a wife was far more likely to be at home to do all of those things, and there is far less time to do it all.

At the end of a long day, the idea of going out to meet strangers, some of whom are likely to be less than entirely welcoming, and persuade them to vote for you is a tough sell. And, as membership levels drop, your party has less support to offer, so you’ll be doing more and more of yourself.

Increasingly, the expectation is that candidates will be more and more full-time as a campaign approaches, which means giving up income, if you are lucky enough to be self-employed, or perhaps your job, if it is impossible to combine extensive campaigning with it. That means a significant drop in household income, which may require you to have significant savings to tide you over, or for your partner to earn enough to tide you both over, or the accrual of debt. I know of candidates who have taken years to repair their finances after an intensive campaign to win a Parliamentary seat.

I remember one former MP remarking that, before he won his seat, he had spent over £30,000 of his own money campaigning, and that he didn’t think that he was alone in that regard. Travelling the country to approval and selection meetings, attending training sessions and party conferences, buying clothes that make you look the part – the public can be so shallow like that – none of these come cheap, and that’s before you become the candidate for a winnable seat.

There aren’t many 'ordinary' people who have the means, let alone the will, to spend that much money just to create the possibility of becoming an MP – how many people do you know who have that much money to hand, and how representative of the wider community are they likely to be?

And, if you belong to a political party which is less likely to have safe seats, the risk/reward calculation is even less promising...

Friday, October 03, 2014

Apparently, most highflyers in the private sector don’t think of themselves as monkeys…

On Tuesday, I wrote here about the issue of public sector pay in the light of George Osborne’s announcement inflicting further pay restraint in the sector. And so, it was with interest that I read in The Times of the appointment of a Chief Executive for the Civil Service, John Manzoni, described as a Whitehall insider. Manzoni is the Head of the Major Projects Authority, having taken up that role nine months ago following a spell as Chief Executive of a Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy Inc. Hardly an insider, I would suggest.

In July, following the decision to separate Sir Bob Kerslake from his job, David Cameron announced that he wanted someone with substantial experience of running a big private-sector organisation but, as the summer progressed, it became clear that very few business leaders were interested in the job.

Might the salary, a relatively meagre £190,000 per annum, have been a factor in their disinterest?...

Random walrus corner...

Handsome devil, isn't he?
It isn't often that walruses are in the news, so the coverage of large gatherings of walruses on the shores of Alaska has been very interesting, even if the news is somewhat troubling.
 
Climate change means that the icefloes which walruses use to raise their young and to rest between clam-digging expeditions have not formed this year, and so beaches are the only alternative. And they do so in huge groups, which seems a bit unlikely when you consider the number of likely enemies they would have onshore.
 
According to the Guardian, walruses are rather skittish - at least, as skittish as a creature weighing up to two tonnes with long, curved tusks can be.
 
Let's hope that this ends well, because whilst walruses are never going to get as much attention as pandas, whales or tigers, they are amazing creatures with personality...

Liberal Democrats, candidates and diversity (part 1) - a look back over my shoulder

It's been about a decade since I returned to what I would describe as active involvement within the Liberal Democrats after a partly, but not wholly, self-imposed exile, and one of the common threads in that time has been the issue of diversity, especially in relation to Parliamentary candidacy. This can be broken into two parts - gender and ethnicity.

In some ways, gender has been easier to deal with, even if the results have not reflected the efforts made. All of the data that I saw in my time as a member of the English Candidates Committee indicated that, the rate at which women were approved and selected was broadly reflective of the rate at which they applied. Indeed, women appeared slightly more likely to succeed in getting approved, and marginally more successful at getting selected, than their male counterparts. It just appeared that, for reasons that have never become clear to me, that they weren't able to get through the one process that the Party doesn't control, i.e. the electorate.

In 2010, a number of excellent women candidates were selected to contest either top target seats or held seats where a male incumbent had chosen to retire.  And, had they been elected, the gender balance of the Commons Parliamentary Party would have been radically better than it now is.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, has proved to be more difficult. Given that the gender split amongst the population at large is broadly even everywhere, getting the processes right should mean that the outcome is broadly reflective of the community in the most simplistic sense. However, ethnicity is not homogeneous, nor are BAME communities evenly spread across the country. There isn't even a satisfactory definition of BAME that, in process terms, you can comfortably rely upon.

In Brent North, where I grew up, the various South Asian communities form nearly half of the population and Brent as a whole is a white minority borough. You might reasonably expect BAME candidates to be prominent and highly likely to be selected and elected. I now live in Bury St Edmunds, with a BAME population nearer 2%. If you believe that politics should reflect the community, then having one BAME district councillor might be a reasonable statistical outcome.

Therefore, if you want to take affirmative action, the nature of that action might be different in London than it might be in Suffolk. And yet, the Party's first effort at affirmative action, for the European Parliamentary selections in 2012, offered up the blunt instrument of a guaranteed place on the list in every Region. Worse still, it offered the illusionary benefit of being selected to be a candidate whilst offering no guarantee that any such candidate could be elected.

History shows that, even if you were top of your Regional list, you weren't going to get elected given the catastrophe that was the Liberal Democrat result in 2014, but even if our vote had trebled, it isn't clear to me that any BAME candidate would have been elected anyway. One might have given respectable marks for trying, but I would have failed the initiative for proportionality, process and outcome.

So, what are the problems, and are there any possible solutions out there?