Monday, September 29, 2008
It's been a difficult year for the feline element of the family, with Victoria dying from cancer, Franklin from old age aggravated by a meeting of my Local Party Executive, and then Eleanor from renal failure. They had all had a pretty good innings, so to speak, all of them making it to the cat equivalent of their eighties, but it has been something of a blow nonetheless.
I'm left with Cincinnati, a big orange and white bruiser of a cat (at least, he looks like one yet is a gentle soul at heart) and Katherine, who has suddenly given up her Greta Garbo approach to the world to become affectionate and demanding. Cincinnati is struggling a bit with the sudden lack of company, and has become more clingy in recent months.
Ros has been thrust into a world of cat fur, litter trays and 'cat food breath' and I have to say that she has borne this new world with surprising equanimity. However, the impact of two cats plus a cleaner is far less than that of five cats, and I have noticed that the house is easier to manage than it was.
Given the age of Cincinnati (15) and Katherine (16), they aren't going to be around forever, and I've already decided that our lifestyle is ill-suited to pets, so they won't be replaced, but I admit to a sense of foreboding about their age. Cincinnati, particularly, has been a major feature in my life, with his loud, reassuring purr and his sense of ownership over me.
Nobody ever said that pet ownership would be so emotionally testing...
Sunday, September 28, 2008
However, we managed to find a little time to spend doing something that I enjoy particularly, i.e. a trip to a zoo, in this case, Marwell Zoo in Hampshire. Now I fully accept that zoos are not perfect, and there are always questions about the size of enclosures, diet, activity and, to be frank, whether or not it isn't simply better to leave them in the wild.
My view has always been that less is better, and zoos should be encouraged to maintain less animals in bigger enclosures. However, the reality is that such conditions are uneconomic, and that many zoos would go to the wall in the face of spiralling costs. Zoos perform a vital role in protecting endangered species, maintaining a viable gene pool and providing an opportunity for young people to see animals for themselves. The hope is that, having seen them in captivity, they might be moved to ensure that, one day, they might have an opportunity to see them in their natural state.
It was the perfect day for visiting a zoo, warm sunshine but not too warm, a gentle stroll between exhibits, and a nice variety of animals to look at, including a few that you don't usually see.
And now, back to the campaign...
Friday, September 19, 2008
For a change, I'm meeting Ros at our hotel, which requires an hour long bus ride. This is an unexpected pleasure, as I've always enjoyed country bus rides since my years at the University of East Anglia in the mid-eighties. Eastern Counties buses were always a pleasure, and a front row seat upstairs always allowed an opportunity to soak in the gentle countryside of Norfolk and Suffolk. The odd stop at a country inn for lunch never did any harm either...
In recent years, without the time to ride the country buses at home, I'd taken to riding the buses elsewhere, in Mauritius or Fiji, for example. It's an unpressured way of both seeing a country and getting a feel for its people.
You also get to see places that the tourists don't go, and I remember a journey a few years ago when my bus suddenly veered off of the road down a track through a sugarcane field for no adequately explained reason. Eventually, we arrived in a small village of about 100 people, before lurching off in some other random direction. I did get to where I was going in the end...
Ah well, better dash! Aha, me hearties, avast behind!
So, I'll be the pirate with the white robes, the silver sickle and the blood sacrifice of a hedge fund manager then... So splice the merchant banker and sing with me
"Fifteen men stuck to their vests, yo ho ho and a bottle of gum..."
There are those who say that losing your job is enough of a punishment but, until recently, even that was unlikely. The new rich have drawn vast amounts out of the system yet suffered very little during less successful times.
So, perhaps we should ask them for our money back. We, the taxpayer, have picked up the tab for their foolishness, and don't we deserve compensation?
How times change. Two years ago, Vince stood in at the last moment and was considered worthy if not the biggest draw in the world. Now, he is a hero, bestriding the world of liberal democracy like a colossus. Unsurprisingly, there was a good turnout for what has become a pretty good draw on the speaker circuit. Brent's Annual Dinners normally include entertainment, homemade food and decent supplies of wine, and tonight was no exception, as Vince very graciously pointed out. This time, we had a steel band and salsa dancers, and I noticed that Vince was paying close attention to the dancers. I wonder if he does the salsa?
Vince spoke of the crisis in the financial markets, and the action that will be necessary to stabilise matters. As usual, he made a compelling case for stronger regulation and action to deal with personal debt.
Brent Liberal Democrats have seen the best of times in recent years, and a great deal of that stems from the event whose fifth anniversary we were celebrating, the by-election win in Brent East. At that time, we had nine councillors, the most we had ever had. Three years later, we had twenty-seven, and were leading a joint administration with the Conservatives.
The work ethic that applies here is quite something, and Paul Lorber leads from the front, never asking anyone to do anything that he isn't willing to do himself. Sarah Teather may not be everyone's cup of tea (the lack of respect from her opponents is quite horrendous), but she has inspired a cadre of activists to seize power and use it.
And so we look to the future with confidence, and rightly so...
Thursday, September 18, 2008
However, we have clearly begun to see the unravelling of a financial edifice which, it is now apparent, was reliant on people who were too clever by half. The financial markets have never been a zero sum game of relative values but are a theatre of sentiment and herd mentality.
Whilst the markets were dominated by people of a conservative ilk, people who understood how a balance sheet worked and looked for the fundamentals, things worked reasonably well. Alright, gains were generally unspectacular, but there was an understanding that brokers were playing with somebody's money, even if it wasn't theirs. Indeed, they had a pretty good idea whose money it actually was.
Nowadays, with vastly increased numbers of participants, and huge waves of money coming into play, the whole thing has become depersonalised, and the sense that 'this is somebody's money' has been lost. Financial instruments have become more and more complex, to the point where senior managers are reliant on terribly clever young men to deal with ever more leveraged transactions. Indeed, the game has become one of shifting risk in less and less transparent ways in the hope that someone whose greed exceeds their judgement will snap up the 'opportunity'.
The catch, and there is always a catch, isn't there, is that in a financial market riddled with interconnections, the fall of one institution leads to tremors across the piece. Banks and brokerages that are fine as long as things stay positive suddenly look vulnerable, and other fearfully clever people behave like a lion with a wounded antelope.
Ironically, it's the rather dull players, the mutuals, those who seek security over adventure, who are best placed to survive. Whilst their shareholders moan about a lack of ambition, they now have an asset with value, unlike, for example, shareholders in Lehman Brothers.
After the crash of 1929, rules and markets were tightened up. We see history repeating itself, as short-selling is prohibited, with doubtless more regulation to follow. It would appear that freedom to gamble means the freedom to lose, after all...
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
And so it is with political parties, especially at conference time. Inside, spirits are high, enthusiasm for the electoral battles to come is abundant, and thoughts turn to potential victory. Meantime, out in the 'real world', the media are painting a different picture, one that suits their agenda, the simplistic left versus right, A versus B. They wish to talk of winners and losers, whereas we think of winning, and what we might do if we were fortunate enough to achieve victory. We think of principles and grand ideas, of philosophy and theory, whilst journalists are looking to blame someone for whatever is exciting them this week.
"If only we could reach out to the public to tell them of our plans to do X or Y", all would be well. It is my view that there is a danger that it will become more and more difficult to do so as the media fragment. Our views will increasingly be refracted through a prism of bias, often by no means malicious, in favour of the perceived voice of the mob, personified by opinion makers whose volume and tenor obscure their utter lack of mandate.
As one fears for any individual who is defined by what others say as opposed to what they themselves do, one fears for a democracy whose flaws are magnified yet whose virtues are overlooked.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The movers of the amendment had every right to seek to steer (note, not commit) the Party towards the fight against poverty and inequality. Indeed, there are few in the Party who would disagree. Those defending the language of the original document, likewise, had every right to seek to highlight the possibility (note, not certainty) of tax cuts. And, likewise, there are few who would disagree with that either.
I am generally of the view that there are areas of life where government has a core role in terms of service provision. However, there are some fields of human endeavour where unwieldy and cumbersome government dinosaurs shouls steer clear. Thus, once you have raised enough money to cover the costs of your obligations and promises, it makes sense to stop raising funds. Empowering people does mean providing them with the means to make a decision from a range of options, and part of that requires money.
I'm not clear that the debate as to the role of government has been settled yet within the Liberal Democrats and, ironically, I suspect that the debate yesterday was in part a surrogate for that debate. On one side, those whose faith rests in the ability of good government to improve lives and communities. On the other, those who believe in empowering individuals.
There is an underlying caveat to both stances, however. It assumes that, on one hand, that government is efficient, a self-evident fallacy based on the performance of local and central government, and on the other, that individuals have real freedom to make their choices, something which poverty and lack of information make a mere illusion for too many of our disadvantaged fellow citizens.
I freely admit that I voted with the leadership in the end. I'm not convinced that either side has particularly lost or won. A marker has been laid down, a reminder left, and we move on towards a General Election with a sensible degree of honest flexibility.
Monday, September 15, 2008
I am perfectly happy to go on record and state, categorically that this is untrue. Until yesterday morning, there had been no consultation. We don't agree with some of the key recommendations, and I don't think that we are likely to... ever. When someone can stand up and oppose something on behalf of ECC, in the certain knowledge that, actually, they do represent all of us, who should you believe?
Perhaps if Paul would like to take up his permanent invitation to meet us, he might be (better) informed. Until then, I will doubt his credibility on this issue...
We've just debated the governance proposals, and a series of speakers have stepped up to the microphone, generally welcomed the Report, and then condemned the proposed Chief Officers Group (COG), for a range of reasons related to diversity, scrutiny and, in the case of John Smithson, a former Regional Chair, basic distrust of the leadership.
Distrust of the leadership? Sadly, yes, there is, and there always will be. It isn't necessarily the Leader himself, more the people around him. We can't see them, they seek to control access, and we don't have any meaningful scrutiny over them or their roles. In such an atmosphere, distrust grows, especially in an organisation with a noble tradition of bloody-minded radicalism.
I would urge the Commission and the Leadership to pay heed to our concerns. It will be a clear indicator of the direction of travel of the Party if they are ignored. Indeed, if a vote were to be called for (and it won't be in this instance), the governance element might well have been rejected or referred back. That does not augur well for lasting, effective reform.
There is no support for their complete abolition - that was merely a dream of mine - but I think that I've finally won the argument for a simplified process for non-target, non-Moving Forward seats, whereby we skip the selection committee phase, and go straight from advert to campaign phase. I can see that this would take weeks off of the schedule and remove the necessity of dragging unwilling volunteers to diversity awareness training, as well as reducing the number of pre-meetings for the volunteer Returning Officer to attend. We may also have found a way of reducing the costs to Local Parties of selecting their PPCs. I'll leave that for another day...
Tamsin and I do agree on one thing though. We think that televised cage matches would be a solution for the campaign phase...
Sunday, September 14, 2008
I was even more surprised to be accepted... clearly, pachyderms have no sense of conflict of interest...
As others have already mentioned, I did ask some fairly searching questions. Not out of malice, but because they were the questions I would have asked anyway - I honestly believe that the stated view of Liberal Democrat Voice readers as to Lembit's effectiveness as our Housing spokesman is a legitimate subject to enquire into.
I thought that, in terms of his brief, he came across as initially shallow but, when pressed further by Mary, he was able to demonstrate that he has a grasp of his brief. His housing portfolio is a key one in terms of helping us to convince potential supporters, and I wish him well in his efforts to make our case.
I also raised the issue of the headline on the front of GQ Magazine where he was interviewed by Piers Morgan, on the basis that it was part of finding out why, or more saliently, how he ticks. My more dispassionate colleagues, Mary and Millennium, have already covered his response, and I feel that it would be fairer to a neutral reader to guide him/her towards their thoughts.
There are two policies that Lembit would go to the wall for. One is the right of medical professionals to prescribe hard drugs to addicts. You could argue about the politics of it, and I have more than enough colleagues who would do so, but it is a principled stance. The other is hunting with hounds...
Lembit has changed his mind. A leading advocate of a compromise between pro- and anti- lobbies, he has now come down in favour of hunting with dogs. He quoted evidence from multiple sources in support of the contention that hunting a fox with hounds, who then tear the fox to death, is less cruel than shooting. I beg to differ. However, I come from an urban constituency and he doesn't.
I'm told that this was the most 'edgy' of the blogger interviews so far. Perhaps I'm missing the point a bit, but shouldn't we be, albeit thoughtfully and constructively, challenging our senior figures? Praise where praise is due, yes. But kindly questioning designed to make everyone look good, regardless of merit? I think not...
It's curious, because there are those who see us as part of the problem. And there is something of a dilemma here. We have spent many years, individually and collectively, striving to establish a level playing field. We really believe in creating a process that is 'colour-blind' in every sense of the word, and it matters deeply to us.
Bones talks about two-tier selection, and about cash bonuses for Local Parties who select BME candidates for good seats. We don't like it, we're simply not comfortable with it. In many ways, our fixation on process rather than outcome makes us ill-equipped to address the call for affirmative action. We mean well, we really do. We genuinely want everyone to come forward and get on.
So, the challenge for us is to find ways in which we can advance the diversity agenda and retain our principles. Suggestions, anyone?
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Firstly, it's a question of naivety. Gordon insists that he doesn't expect the cost to be passed on to the consumer. The chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers says, "Whenever people impose costs on an industry, the bill to some extent always ends up with the customer.". One of these gentlemen is likely to be right, and sadly, I have a nasty feeling which one of them it's going to be. What were the negotiations like, I wonder...
Gordon Brown. "I would really like you to meet me part way here."
Energy Companies "Why should we, what are you going to do if we don't?"
Gordon Brown "I'll be very unhappy and the Conservatives will win the next election."
Energy Companies "And?"
Gordon had his trump card, the threat of a windfall tax. The chances are that it would have been popular (forget the economics for a moment) and he would have been looking for a lot more than £910 million. So the energy companies will take most of the credit at relatively little cost.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have responded through Alan Duncan. "(it is) not clear how this announcement will help the millions of people who will struggle to heat their homes this winter". Genius. But what about a solution? Oh no, that would risk having a policy, and we can't have that, can we?
You will, as Secretary, encounter colleagues who can irritate to Olympic standards. A few years ago, one of my colleagues would assiduously circulate his report in advance, and then, in the meeting, equally assiduously read the entire report out. After a couple of meetings, I interrupted him, seeking clarification that he was adding new material not already reported. My colleague never did it again and, given that he’s gone on to become Chair of the English Party, he clearly wasn’t too badly traumatised… Sarcasm, irony and the occasional flash of barbed wit will make people stop and think, and allow you to influence their behaviour - in a good way, of course.
Understanding the constitution gives a Secretary a real advantage, and I strongly commend reading it. Quote from it frequently in your early meetings as Secretary and people will assume that you know it off by heart - even if you don’t. Let them believe that, and when you really need to get something done, you can use that perceived knowledge to get something you really want, or stop someone from doing something you don’t like. Trust me, they won’t have read the constitution, so even if you’re making it up, they won’t know.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you control information, and your minutes, as the only contemporaneous record, frame the perception of events. By emphasising one view over others, you can convince waverers of the rightness of the position reached, or otherwise, if you didn’t get your way. You can, by selectively quoting individuals, impact on their credibility by only quoting them when they’re on the losing side (if you don’t like them) or only when they are on the side of truth, beauty and good administration (that’s your side, by the way).
I will finish with a quotation from Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote, “The prince must think about how to keep his minister good, honouring him, enriching him, making him feel a sense of obligation, sharing honours and responsibilities with him…”. For prince, read Chair, for minister, read Secretary…
Thursday, September 11, 2008
It should be a pretty good event, especially with Chris Huhne as our guest speaker. There will be a European flavour to the event, especially as we're just nine months away from the next round of European Parliamentary elections.
There'll be a chance to question the Regional Executive, and this might be your best chance to ask questions about our recent campaign for the London Assembly. There'll also be a session where you'll have an opportunity to question a panel of elected representatives. We'll bring them all together at one time so that you can get an 'integrated' response. We might even get a little debate going amongst them...
In the breakout room, there will be consultation sessions on proposals for a new candidate selection system and the review of the GLA selection process.
Training will be provided by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, who have already announced an exciting programme of activities, intended to help you (yes, you sir, you at the back eating that knit-your-own muesli bar!) fight and win elections - 2010 isn't that far away, you know.
We're hoping to get a guest speaker (or two), once Conference Committee has 'met' - I'm keen on establishing a virtual committee so as to avoid meetings - and there'll be more news on that as we get nearer to the event.
A mailing has already gone out to all duly nominated Regional Conference representatives, but if you aren't one, get in touch with your Local Party Secretary and find out if there's a vacancy for a substitute. Or just come along as a non-voting representative, you'll be more than welcome!
Millennium has advised me that I shall go to the ball or, in this instance, get to take part in the blogger interview with Lembit Opik. I've promised to bring my bestest notebook (the one with the pressed flower on the cover) and a full set of coloured pens. I've got a bunch of questions to ask him and look forward to reporting back on what he has to say.
I'll be going straight from that to the launch of our diversity engagement programme, before attending the rally, a book launch, two Regional Receptions (London and East of England - we're a bi-regional family) and then the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards, where Ros has been nominated for three awards.
I just hope that I can keep up the pace...
In England, the State Party provide a very useful CD which contains all of the information you need to fulfil your obligations (I'm not sure if the Scottish and Welsh Parties do likewise), including all of your report forms, model nomination forms and job descriptions. I got mine this morning, and very good it is too.
However, you need to set things up. Firstly, you need to agree a date, which must fall between 1 October and 30 November. Make sure that your key personnel (MP, PPC and Chair) can make it, and that a venue is available. Have you left yourself enough time to issue a calling notice (a minimum of twenty-one days)?
Excellent! Now you need a calling notice, which should include:
- an agenda
- a copy of the minutes of the last meeting
- reports from the Chair, Treasurer and Membership Secretary
- a report from your Conference Representatives
- a report from your Council Group(s)
- any constitutional amendments
- a copy of the accounts for the preceding year
Alright, you've issued the paperwork. What about the meeting? Your task, should you wish to accept it, is to minute the meeting. It isn't actually that difficult a job, given that there is usually little in the way of debate, but it is important to make sure that you know who gets elected and, preferably, their contact details. I won't go into any more details on minuting, as you've already read that...
And that's about it. There's just one more lesson, and it is based on a personal theory of mine...
Now I admit that, as a civil servant who believes in value for money and better government (two concepts which are mutually inclusive), I'm not naturally irreconcilable with the stated aims of the TaxPayers' Alliance, i.e. to expose waste in our public sector. However, if their report on the Barnett Formula is anything to go by, they've decided that going for the cheap, inaccurate shot is easier than making a meaningful case.
Mike Denham starts by a headline that claims, "The Barnett Formula has cost taxpayers £200 billion". This is broken down as follows:
- Scotland - £102 billion
- Wales - £43 billion
- Northern Ireland - £57 billion
Mike then goes on to outline the history of government redistribution from England to the other states, noting that there was little in the way of formal, democratically determined policy or even scrutiny. He then points out that the Barnett Formula applies to education, health and social services, as well as law and order (although Wales is included with England for funding purposes in the latter area) whilst excluding most areas of public spending that are of a national nature, plus social security and pensions.
What I object to most of all is the sense that he acknowledges that there might be a case for higher spending in two out of three states,
"whereas Northern Ireland’s position is arguably justified on the basis of peace and reconstruction"
"they (Welsh politicians) point to the high cost of running public services in a territory that suffers problems of urban poverty combined with the challenges of rural inaccessibility"and then simply ignores this, despite the fact that they might account for half of the £200 billion. All that is left is Scotland. If the arguments put by Welsh politicians are accepted, and Mike has, remember, not seen fit to challenge them, then surely the argument is similar for Scotland, with its significant tracts of urban poverty (and I've been to Glasgow East) and comparatively vast rural hinterland. As Scotland's population is that much larger than that of Wales, the comparative fiscal transfers per head are not vastly different.
So, I would suggest that if you accept the arguments made by Welsh and Northern Irish politicians, as Mike has, his £200 billion becomes a much more anaemic figure.
It's a real pity, because we desperately need more transparency in terms of fiscal transfers betwen the states and regions. It doesn't help when you quote vast figures in your defence, wilfully misrepresent them and then resort to an attack on Scottish Nationalists.
This is claimed to be a definitive report on the Barnett Formula. I would suggest that it is a partisan attack on the general concept of government spending, on politicians, and on the idea that choice only applies if you live somewhere convenient, because you could argue that opposition to additional funding support for rural parts of our nation will make such places economically unviable.
Mike, nice try, but back to the drawing board, I'm afraid...
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Many of you will have noticed that I’ve been a bit busy this year, what with getting married, playing a discreet but time-consuming role in a campaign for the Party Presidency and travelling around the country with Ros.
Unsurprisingly, this has had an impact on my other responsibilities, some of which I wanted, some of which were accepted out of a sense of duty. One of the latter roles was that of Regional Conference Chair, which I was persuaded to take on and, in a moment of weakness, accepted. Now I freely admit that I haven’t been fully engaged, and likewise would confess that I probably needed a nudge to get down to work.
However, in the usual wonderful way that the Party tends to work, I was confronted at Monday’s Executive Committee meeting with the phrase, “a few of us have been worried about the lack of apparent progress and have been talking about it”. Or, in other words, “we don’t believe that Mark is doing anything about it and we’ll slag him off behind his back”. My dear colleagues, wouldn’t it have been easier to get in touch with me? After all, I was notionally directly elected to the position (alright, I was unopposed but that was hardly my fault)…
- date – Saturday, November 15th
- venue – Haverstock School, Chalk Farm – booked and paid for
- star speaker – Chris Huhne – confirmed, with a time slot, awaiting speech topic
- ALDC training – confirmed, although they haven’t told me what it is yet
- AGM – boring, but necessary, will include an opportunity to hold the Executive Officers accountable (they won’t like it, I’m not sure that I care)
- Parliamentary report – concept decided upon, invitations awaiting issue
- London Councils strand, agreed in principle, details to be determined
- Conference guide design – graphic designer engaged in exchange for an advert
- Fringe meetings – sessions by the English and Regional Candidates Committees confirmed, two bids for further sessions received and awaiting consideration by Conference Committee
- Policy debate – I’ve sought submissions, let’s see what comes in…
I don’t think that it’s going too badly, but I’m sure that my colleagues will find something to kibitz about…
Five years on, Sarah is still representing the people of Brent East in her usual energetic manner, and we now lead Brent Council as part of a joint administration with the Conservatives (I know, but it was better than the alternative) with a group of twenty-six councillors (twenty-one Labour, thirteen Conservatives, two Independent Conservatives and an Independent). Brent has changed, yet our campaign team march on regardless, taking the fight to Labour in the newly created Brent Central seat.
So, it’s perhaps time to celebrate our success, and we’re holding a dinner to do just that on Thursday week (18 September) at 7 p.m. Vince Cable, the man Labour fear and Conservatives envy, is our guest speaker, there’ll be good food, a steel band and other entertainment, and all for just £28 (a bargain, believe me).
If you want to come along, and we’d really love to see you, the details can be found on Flock Together…
Until recently, I was a technology free zone, minuting in hard copy, typing up my notes afterwards. Without a mobile phone, I was unreachable by colleagues, who had to find me at work, at home (a challenge) or at meetings.
Technology, not essential, but certainly helpful…
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
The problem is that there is a danger of falling into 'talking head syndrome', whereby there are lots of sessions whereby someone talks to an audience, leaving little opportunity for interaction. It all gets a bit dull. In my first attempt, in the Spring, I went for something a bit different, with debates and a little humour. People seemed to like it, and I'd like to try something similar this time.
Amongst my ideas are a question and answer session for the Regional Executive, and a session for questioning representatives from both Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament, the London Assembly and London Councils (all at the same time), allowing multiple perspectives on the same topic.
However, I would be interested to hear what might attract you to a Regional Conference, so what do you think?
Minuting is an art. What you’re trying to do is the bureaucratic equivalent of juggling whilst riding a unicycle through a vat of custard. Your primary responsibility is to make sure that you have an accurate record of what happened, reflecting any debate that takes place. This does not mean a verbatim record, especially as there will usually be someone who has no idea what is going on, makes no contribution worth valuing, and likes to hear their own voice. Stopping them is, fortunately, the Chair’s problem…
However, this is where your preparations pay off. You don’t have to minute the reports, only the matters that arise from them. If those tabling reports are any good, there won’t be many questions. Better yet, and everyone will appreciate this, the only serious discussion will be about things that actually matter. And everyone can leave early…
Make sure that all of the business is done by checking each item off the agenda as it is completed, particularly useful if the Chair decides to vary the agenda for some reason. At the end of the meeting, make certain to pick a date for the next meeting, preferably the next three, as well as a venue. It’s one less thing to worry about in the run-up to the next meeting…
Step forward, James Graham, and congratulations, although how he finds the time to hone his prop forward skills between working for Unlock Democracy and writing his acclaimed blog, I don't know.
Monday, September 08, 2008
Welcome to Cowley Street, where the London Regional Executive is in session. I'm listening to Leonard Cohen...
Need I say more?
For the real story about the campaign and the amazing team behind it, check out Ros's blog...
My London Region colleague, Jeremy Hargreaves, has noted that Regional Conferences are far more accessible yet don't tend to be fora for policy discussions. He is, unsurprisingly, quite right.
So here's a challenge. I'm willing to sponsor a motion at the Regional Conference if someone has anything they want debated. It doesn't have to be on an issue that relates solely to London, although if it was relevant to Londoners, that would help. Some ideas that might be a starting point include the shape of London government - we've had eight years of the GLA, what would we like to see changed? Perhaps a policy for usage of the Olympic facilities post-2012, or the question of airport development for London.
If someone wants to start the ball rolling, I'd be delighted to hear from you...
It will start with ‘Apologies’, move on to ‘Minutes of the last meeting’, where the previous effort is judged for accuracy, before reaching ‘Matters arising’, where members of the Executive will raise issues that were discussed then and they missed due to absence, sorry, didn't understand the first time... If the reports are up to the mark, it can be noted that the points are already covered there, and members will learn to read them before they come.
Next come the reports, and then ‘Any Other Business’. Don’t forget to include ‘Date and venue of the next meeting’, as it is much harder to agree a date after everyone has gone home.
If a written report has been provided, include it with the agenda. If not, note that on the agenda, as it will confirm that the failure is down to the person who was supposed to report. It might encourage them to supply a report, which you can then circulate using your e-group. Ah yes, an e-group. The party provides a really useful e-list function which, if you’re organised enough, you can use to ensure that you can quickly and efficiently distribute material. Best of all, you can set it so that the Executive can use it to talk to each other, rather than require you to do it all for them.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
However, promising tax cuts implies that you have a pretty good idea as to the role of government. I'm yet to be entirely convinced that we really do. The question of what government is for is one that has been left hanging amidst the debate over social versus economic liberalism, possibly because it would be potentially messy and divisive.
Such a debate is all the messier for the fact that we tend to see things in shades of grey, rather then the black and white of our primary opponents. Labour strongly believe that government can and should do things for you because it's big - the dinosaur theory of government. Our Conservative f(r)iends believe that government can't and shouldn't do things for you because it's too incompetent to be trusted - the small furry mammal theory. We tend to be more equivical about things.
Unfortunately, we tend to sound rather wishy-washy when addressing such issues instead of saying, "We don't give a f**k who delivers services, as long as they're the best we can afford and there is democratic accountability.". I deeply suspect that such a view reflects the attitude of a large swathe of voters.
There are a number of big ticket items which, in the short term, would allow a Liberal Democrat government to reduce the burden of taxation on what Americans like to call 'hard-working families'. However, the secret to gaining long term credibility is to make tax cuts that last. Voters now routinely expect tax cuts or very low increases in the year before an election, and are entirely cynical about the motivation for politicians in doing so. If we want to change the political culture, we need to overcome that cynicism.
So, the promise of tax cuts is easy and cheap to make. Without a credible means of delivery though, it risks engendering further cynicism amomgst voters. I hope that you know what you're doing, Nick...
Sarah Palin believes that her trip to Germany and her residential proximity to Russia and Canada give her foreign affairs experience. My wife served on the European Union's Committee of the Regions, as well as the North Sea Commission.
Sarah Palin believes that she has the right to tell you how you should live your life. My wife believes that, as long as your actions don't impact negatively on others, you should be empowered to make your own choices.
Sarah Palin vetoed a state grant to a distance learning education program for native Alaskans. My wife improved nursery school provision.
So the answer's obvious. Vote for Ros for Party President, and then persuade any American friends you might have to vote Ros Scott for Vice President of the United States!
Admittedly, most of this is the fault of the Chair (not anyone I know though, no sirree Bob…) but you can help make it easier. What you want is written reports, circulated in sufficient time that people can read them before they turn up. That way, they are less likely to ask questions, the meeting will reach decisions quickly, and you can all go home. If people ask questions that could be answered by reading a report, you can suggest to them that they do. After a while, they will learn. If they don’t, perhaps a seat on the Executive is not for them…
It is usual to give a week’s notice of a meeting of the Executive Committee. Get into the habit of giving two weeks notice, so that those due to submit written reports can do so, leaving time to distribute them onwards. This will have two effects;
- everyone will have the same information
- you won’t have to minute a rambling stream of consciousness of whatever the individual can remember
Also, ask for any items of business to be included on the agenda under ‘Any Other Business’. That way, you encourage people to think about what they might need in advance. There is nothing more dispiriting at the need of a long meeting, just when your hopes are raised at the prospect of escape, than someone saying, “One item of any other business, Chair”. If it’s on the agenda, the Chair can move matters along more effectively.
Thank individuals who comply with your requests, as this will encourage them to continue doing so. Politely chide those who don’t, and note that you have not received their report, indicating that any time lost whilst people ask them questions is time not spent effectively, especially if they then complain about the length of the meeting (I love irony).
Saturday, September 06, 2008
As a former South Londoner, and a non-driver, I had been fairly reliant on Go-Ahead, the holder of the rail franchises for Southern and Southeastern trains. Despite the usual moaning, I'd always found them to be pretty reliable, and it appears that I'm not the only one who's been convinced.
Yesterday, Go-Ahead announced that passengers numbers were up by approximately 6.5%, an impressive amount indeed. They aren't cheap, but given the marginal costs of driving these days, many have little alternative but to switch from car to train.
My concern is that the rail franchises will take advantage of an opportunity to raise prices and make more profit, a typically short term view, and one that risks driving people back to their cars. As the price of crude oil drops back towards the $100 per barrel mark, the likelihood that the purely economic logic of a switch to public transport ebbs away increases.
An argument is often made that cutting tax rates increases tax take. It seems likely that the same logic applies to the cost of a rail season ticket. So, how about cutting the cost of a season ticket, if only in real terms, gentlemen?
In fairness, a windfall tax would probably be very good politics, in that there are many people in this country who would happily see the likes of BP and Shell get a 'good kicking'. Higher petrol prices and higher fuel bills add more pain to already suffering consumers, and an opportunity for revenge, encouraged by the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Express, will be willingly taken.
However, simply grabbing the money is one thing, what you do with it is more important. This government has often demonstrated an enthusiasm to raise money which, once raised, it tends to redistribute ineptly. How would the funds raised be used? How do you ensure that those in most need actually get the support they deserve? Labour struggle with the concept that government is a blunt implement, not a scalpel.
Liberal Democrats have opposed a windfall tax, believing that working with the utilities to target help towards the most vulnerable is the way forward. They know who their customers are, they have the power to adjust their rates, offer discounts and they can work out who is struggling long before the Government can come to the rescue.
However, there are other factors to be considered. If you are a major company operating in the United Kingdom, the prospect of the Government picking on you because you're successful will lead your finance director to ask the question, "should I be looking for a new fiscal residence?". It's a cruel world, international corporate taxation. Your assumptions in government can be shattered by corporate tax rate cuts in neighbouring jurisdictions, and company law is wonderfully opaque, certainly as far as the public are concerned.
There are already signs that our tax base is vulnerable. The process of company migration has begun, with a number of companies upping sticks and moving towards low tax economies in search of competitive advantage. Whilst corporation tax is a relatively small proportion of the overall tax take, when you're in the red as much as Alastair Darling is, every billion counts.
The Conservatives are likely to take a similar view to ours in private. Whether they hold the line in public is a different matter altogether, as there is little short-term advantage to taking an orthodox economic position. It will be a sign of their readiness for government if they bottle this one for short-term political popularity.
So, what does an Executive Committee need to know? You’ll need reports from the Local Party Officers (Chair, Treasurer, Membership Secretary), whoever organises social events, the Council Group, the PPC(s) and any branches. Where there is no specific source, find one (ensuring that they’re reliable). Explain to them that, in return for providing a written report in advance, the meeting will be shorter and they can go home/to the pub/leafleting earlier. Most people hate sitting in meetings when they could be doing something more useful/fun. Take advantage of that.
Make sure that your Regional Party knows who you are. After the Annual General Meeting, the Secretary is required to report the contact details of the Officers, as well as the Federal and Regional Conference representatives to Cowley Street. Make sure that, if you weren’t responsible then, that it has been done. In return, they’ll send you information about conferences, and use you as a conduit for reaching Local Parties when they have something to disseminate, as will the Federal Party.
Friday, September 05, 2008
The first task of an incoming Secretary should be to find out who your stakeholders are. Naturally, the identity of the members of the Executive Committee is important, but is there anyone else who needs to know what the Local Party is doing? If you have an MP, they should probably be on the mailing list, although they aren’t always, and the same goes for any PPCs you might have knocking about. Is their head of office on the list? They should be. Is your Council Group Leader there, and/or the Group Whip? Add them too. Do you have branches? Don’t forget the Branch Chairs then. And, of course, you’re part of a Regional Party. Is there a contact from the Regional Executive (some Regions do this)? Help them to help you by including them.
You’ve got the names, now make up a spreadsheet, which will include their names, roles (if appropriate), addresses, contact telephone and e-mail addresses. Make sure that you distribute it to everyone concerned, so that they can check the details and correct any errors. That way, you know how to contact everyone, and your key contacts will have a readily available sheet of paper with all of the contacts they might need on it.
Argentines are a lively bunch too. It appears, from my limited experience, that civil liberties include the right to riot in the streets whenever and wherever they feel like it. Indeed, I got a taste of it a few years ago, when I was in Buenos Aires just as George Bush came to town.
So, I read with interest that Buenos Aires commuters set fire to a passenger train, stoned station buildings and tried to overturn a ticket machine in protest against yet another delay to their regular journey. Whilst the Government alleged that activists from the Workers Party were behind the mayhem, the response of a representative of the railway company seems to be more in tune with the approach of the locals;
My attention was drawn to the talk of Rachida Dati, described by the Times as, “42, the unmarried Justice Minister and glamourpuss of President Sarkozy’s cabinet”. Glamourpuss? Pardon? Ms Dati is pregnant, and not in a public relationship. This is, apparently, the cause of a media frenzy, with pundits trying to work out who the father is.
I too have some questions. Does her pregnancy impact on her ability to do her job? Does the identity of the father do so? If not, why the fuss?
There is a tradition in French politics, as stated by ‘Le Canard Enchainé’, a weekly journal which specialises in political scandal, that news ends at the bedroom door. The right to a private life is cherished in France, and privacy laws are, accordingly, strict.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no law preventing journalists from patronising half of their readers, or in this instance, more than half of them…
My answer is a simple one, because being the Secretary is where the power is. Your average Local Party Chair is worrying about all the things that need to be done, fighting the temptation to do it themselves (I know, I was that Local Party Chair), and attempting to hold the ring with competing factions (council group, MP and target seat PPC). Your Treasurer will be worrying about PPERA obligations, trying to work out where the money is coming from to pay the printing bills, and wondering whether he/she knows about all of the bank accounts.
Secretaries, on the other hand, control information. Information is power. If you have sufficient influence over the Treasurer, you have total control, and nothing much in the way of responsibility. After all, it was Machiavelli who wrote of the importance of having a good Secretary, and I like to think that he knew a bit about power and how to (ab)use it.
I believe that this information should be shared, so I’ll be publishing a series of pieces on good Secretarial practice over the coming days. Most of it will be common sense, especially to a hardened bureaucrat, but I hope that it will make life a bit easier for anyone taking on the role at their AGM in the coming months.
I hereby declare the new and improved 'Liberal Bureaucracy' open. May God bless all those who sail in her!
However, I've spent an hour or so adding Google Analytics to my armoury of 'stuff', and reintroduced myself to Google Adsense, and shuffled the contents of the right-hand bar a bit. I probably need to improve in terms of pictures and links, but that is more an issue of time than anything else, as well as the fact that I often blog using my BlackBerry, which tends to make 'art' somewhat more difficult.
So, I'll have a better idea as to my readership, and I might earn a little money whilst I'm at it... what harm can it do?
Thursday, September 04, 2008
To be sung to the tune of 'Wild Rover'... "I've been a Returning Officer for many a year, and I've spent all my money on ballots and stamps."
Indeed, I've been a Returning Officer for many years now, and genuinely felt that we ask an awful lot in the pursuit of candidates for mostly hopeless causes. I wrote an article for Liberator nearly two years ago in which I outlined the timetable for a normal candidate selection which ran to 82 days from the placing of the advert to the hustings meeting. I didn't even start on the time it takes to get to the point where the advert can be sent...
In any event, I ended my piece by asking people to make suggestions. For the most part, what responses there were related to the campaigning element, which in itself has little or no impact on the resource wastage that now applies.
Alright then, what do I think then, if I'm so clever? How about this. Abolish selection committees.
Invite the Local Party Executive to draw up a constituency profile, place a standard advert, issue a standard form and request a political CV of no more than two sides of A4 in a font of no less than 10-point, and put all of the applicants before the members.
They've all been through an approval process so presumably meet minimum standards, and removing the usually self-appointed selection committee prevents such a group from imposing any biases they might hold, subconsciously or otherwise, on both applicant and membership alike.
If there are a lot of applicants, have a all member run-off to establish a final shortlist of five. It would certainly test the skill and enthusiasm of the applicants, would engage members and, even better, be fun. Combine that with campaigning rules that positively encourage the use of new media (so much cheaper than paper and postage), and we might even learn a thing or two!
There is even a bonus in terms of diversity, in that women and ethnic minority applicants would have less barriers to overcome. Better still, the need to provide selection committee training would disappear, one of the major bottlenecks in the current system.
As a returning officer, I'd have less paperwork to worry about, as all I'd have to do is deal with protests and ensure that the paperwork was issued on time before attending the hustings and counting the ballots. I could handle more selections, removing another oft-reported bottleneck.
Is that radical enough?
I could, on one hand, give up and dedicate myself to the dark arts of party bureaucracy - I have a purple belt in assertive minuting and am a black belt in standing order usage - or sit at home stroking Cincinnati and plotting my revenge on everyone who voted in a 'slasher movie' orgy of blood and body parts.
Alternatively, I could accept that blog rankings are, below the top levels, a happy combination of good fortune, timing and happenstance. In my case, a series of (un)happy coincidences worked to my advantage. And indeed, this theory is partly true.
However, there is an alternative, to try and write more interesting, more relevant blog entries, and to sharpen up the design a bit. I do kind of like the design, so it'll have to be the writing then...
So, day 4 of the campaign proper, and three events already under the belt. The launch day was fun, and although my back was creaking pretty badly - war wound from earlier campaign activity - I was able to do some delivery for Ed Davey whilst others, including Ros, canvassed houses on the A3. We then adjourned to a very pleasant, and packed out, Indian restaurant in Surbiton for a hearty meal and speeches from Ros and Ed.
Tuesday was Bexley, as Ros and Duncan have already indicated. I must note that the 'Happy China' restaurant did us proud.
Last night saw us making our way across North London to Haringey for one of their regular 'Pizza and Politics' nights. Monica Whyte, a former colleague on the Regional Executive, and a candidate for the London Assembly in Enfield & Haringey and on the list, was our host and the conversation flowed as freely as the wine. A quite candid debate ensued, as you might expect with Lynne Featherstone and Jonathan Fryer (or possibly one of the many Jonathan clones that attend every Party event inside the M25) in the room, and it was fascinating to be able to contrast the differing 'lifestyles' of parliamentarians at opposite ends of the Palace of Westminster.
I also found time to catch up with one of our newest approved parliamentary candidates, Helen Duffett, and we talked about strategies for getting selected. I think that Helen has real prospects, and hope that she continues to feel encouraged.
Finally, I should note how pleased I was to see Julia Glenn. Julia has, imperceptably, become an old friend, and I really appreciate her good sense and better advice.
So, for your delectation and delight, here's Adam Long of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, providing a potted history of the Liberal Party...
Monday, September 01, 2008
Whilst it does seem like extraordinarily unpromising territory for the racist scum, it makes Julian Harris's exhortation to us all to lend a hand all the more salient. I'll be turning up to deliver a leaflet or two (hundred) at the weekend, time permitting. Besides, our candidate is a fellow member of the London Region Executive, the quite wonderful Linda Chung.
See you there?
The launch is underway, and all is going smoothly, except that the 17:16 to Tolworth is running a couple of minutes late. My thanks go to South West Trains for their general incompetence...
It's a great website, so take a look, sign up if you're interested and, if you're a Federal Conference delegate and want to sign Ros's nomination form, get in touch and I'll send you a copy to complete and return.
At the end of the day, it's all about credibility. Ros has lots - you know what to do...
The campaign website goes officially live at 17:16 this afternoon. Until then, all that can be seen is a countdown and, for those so inclined, a really quite good video...
Why 17:16? Ros will be catching the 17:16 train to Chessington South from Waterloo, and will disembark at Tolworth to meet activists for a mass canvass in Ed Davey's constituency of Kingston & Surbiton, before adjourning for a 'poppadoms and politics' evening event.
This isn't a campaign about being something, it's about doing something, and so the campaign will start as Ros means to go on if elected.
I'm proud to be associated with this campaign, and even prouder to be married to such a great candidate.
Curiously, I have never been asked to report back, nor has there been any sense that I am expected to. On the other hand, I deeply suspect that my postings on this blog relating to candidate approval and selection have contributed to my being re-elected in recent years. So, what am I up to at the moment?
My key activity is as a member of the new Selection Rules Review Group. As those of you who read my manifesto will remember, I promised to work towards the development of simpler, more proportionate processes for selection of our parliamentary candidates. My main thrust has been to raise the possibility of a two-tier selection system, leaving the mechanics of the current process in place for selections in held and target seats, but moving to a skeleton system for the remainder. I'll expand upon that in a separate posting.
I've also continued to push for a more open and transparent way of doing business. Where possible, I have encouraged wider consultation, including the holding of sessions at Regional conferences - coming to you this autumn.
Finally, I've tried to encourage debate via this blog and via the medium of Liberal Democrat Voice. I've attempted to give honest and complete answers where I feel that facts are missing, introduced some ideas of potential value and generally tried to draw back the curtains on what our committee does.
I will be up for re-election this year, and a manifesto will be issued to members of English Council in October but, until then, any questions you might have will receive as good an answer as I can give.