Friday, November 18, 2022

Liberal Democrat internal elections: winning (and losing) here…

So, I fought two elections and emerged with a 50% success rate. Given that I don’t generally benefit from group endorsements, and am not wildly keen on “slates”, I rely more than some on the friends I’ve made over the years and the strength of my manifesto. Luckily, longevity and a willingness to do those jobs that people need doing but would rather not do themselves, means that I know a lot of people (or, rather more importantly, they know me).

A study of the endless count sheets for Federal Council will show that there was one candidate who was neither elected or eliminated. That would be me. I hovered between 20th and 23rd throughout the count but, in the end, fell just short. In the event of a vacancy through resignation or death, I’m in with a shot of promotion, although there are no guarantees in a recount - it depends on who goes and where their votes are redistributed.

Coming, effectively, 22nd out of 59 is pretty good, if not good enough, so I can’t be truly unhappy with the outcome. And I’m always pleasantly surprised by the level of support that I get, given that I’m not at the core of anything much these days, so I must thank all of you who did vote for me, wherever that might have been in your preference order.

The contest itself was not for the faint-hearted, and I have a sense that Federal Council may be a bit of a bearpit - it’s not entirely clear to me that some successful candidates are particularly bothered about more than a very narrow agenda. That, however, is not something that I can do much about, so I won’t lose sleep about it.


Having lost that, my expectations in the contest for a place on the ALDE delegation were lowered somewhat. Whilst there were ten vacancies, three were effectively gone already as I’m not Scottish, Welsh or young. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when word came that I’d actually won. Admittedly, I have no idea how, as the actual count information hasn’t been published, but I probably came in the top seven in a tough field, so I’m really pleased. It was, it seems, a complex count, needing five recounts, so I’ll be intrigued to see how it all unfolded.

I’ve really enjoyed my time attending ALDE Party Council meetings - they suit my skill set as a bureaucrat, reader of constitutions and keen process geek. I actually think that I add value, confirmed by one of the responses to my reaction on Twitter.

I’ve built a strong relationship with the ALDE Party’s secretariat, partly because I think that it’s important to work effectively with the professional team but also because, in my experience, politicians can be weak on process and sometimes lacking in respect for those who have to deliver their decisions - you can take the boy out of the Civil Service, but you can’t take the Civil Service out of the boy. In return, they’ve been supportive when I’ve wanted to change things, tolerant of my occasional flights of fancy and kind on occasions when it has mattered.

All in all, I have much to be grateful for, and another three years in which to represent my Party and, hopefully, do good. And, as I promised, you’ll hear about it here… and here…

Monday, November 14, 2022

Everybody has an agenda, it seems, and I’m no different…

Whilst the Liberal Democrat internal elections draw to a close - you’ve got a couple of days left to vote, by the way - the campaign isn’t cooling much. Suggestions by one candidate that they have contacted the police in relation to comments against  them on social media don’t give comfort that the declaration of a result will end the unpleasantness that has ensued.

But there is no doubt that the campaign has certainly exposed two camps, each of whose positions are seemingly unacceptable to the other. And, because the nature of the divide, those less able to restrain themselves on social media become the justification for their opponents to ratchet up the unpleasantness themselves.

Now you might think that this is me gently leading up to a plea for tolerance and mutual understanding and, under normal circumstances, you’d probably be right. The catch is that I’m not entirely convinced that the chasm between the two sides can easily be bridged.

You see, one side appear to want to punish an entire group of people for the theoretical behaviour of a few individuals who may, or may not, actually be members of that group. The other side feel that offering people freedom to live their lives as they wish, punishing those who transgress as and when they do so, is the way to go. I’m instinctively with the latter group, whilst understanding that fear is a very hard motivator to overcome.

I could be being unfair, and I’m happy to consider an argument to the contrary, but my working hypothesis for liberalism is always about freedom and the balancing of freedoms between groups - does the freedom given to one group impinge on the freedoms of another, how do you mitigate this if it does, or do you simply have to accept that life is imperfect and you can only do your best?

Some talk about power, a concept which, whilst I recognise its importance, makes me vaguely uncomfortable. I firmly believe that power is, like freedom, something to be shared, and, as a bureaucrat, my job is to provide the information sufficient to allow people to make good decisions. Not necessarily ones that I agree with, but decisions that work for them. And that’s as true for the organisations I work with as it is for those I care for.

I chose to run for Federal Council this year because I think that we should try to make it work in a manner which helps the Party to grow and thrive. I don’t have “answers”, partly because we don’t yet have any questions, but partly because politics moves quickly, and the issues that might be critical today may be irrelevant tomorrow. But good governance doesn’t change, and it acts as a platform for good decision making.

My manifesto does give the impression that I might like to chair it if elected, and I would be dishonest if the idea hadn’t crossed my mind. I am, apparently, quite a good chair - at least, people are very kind - partly because I’m not keen on the sound of my own voice, like to reach consensus and have developed an ability to peer benignly over my spectacles at people. I’ve also benefited from watching a lot of people chair committees, some good, some bad, some indifferent. But there are a few minor hurdles to clear before we get to that stage… especially given the possibility that I might not get elected in the first place.

There is also the decidedly high possibility that the contest that has emerged during the campaign will be carried into the new Federal Council, where those whose manifesto focussed on policy issues are likely to be confronted with the uncomfortable truth that policy is highly unlikely to be at the core of its work - it is meant to be a scrutiny committee. Defining the role of Federal Council, putting meat on the bones of the constitutional skeleton of the committee, will be essential to prevent it from becoming the talking shop that some believed it was always intended to be.

So, regardless of whether or not I get elected or, if I do win a place, Federal Council should be interesting to say the least. Ah well, not long to wait now…

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

The Boundary Commission for England reports... can I see three constituencies from my house?

I currently live in Bury St Edmunds constituency, Conservative majority 24,988. The Liberal Democrats didn't contest it in 2019 - it was one of the seats ceded to the Greens for little effect (they came third with 15.7% of the vote). And the new proposals move Creeting St Peter into the revised Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency in the centre of the map, I've marked us with a green dot.

This represents a return to where we were prior to the last boundary changes but what is interesting is the significant redrafting from the previous proposals. Suffolk still moves from seven to seven and a half constituencies, the difference now is that, instead of sharing a constituency with Essex (Haverhill and Halstead), the cross-border constituency is with Norfolk.

Originally, a chunk of West Suffolk was to be parcelled off to the proposed Haverhill and Halstead seat, with Bury St Edmunds constituency shuffled westwards. The gap would be filled by splitting Central Suffolk and North Ipswich in two, north-south and expanding westwards, forming a North Suffolk seat and an Ipswich North and Stowmarket seat, whilst Waveney shrank to Lowestoft, and Ipswich, South Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal remained relatively unchanged. Creeting St Peter was going to be in the Ipswich North and Stowmarket seat.

The new proposals retain West Suffolk - possibly good news for Matt Hancock if his future plans include being an MP - and instead create a new Waveney Valley seat from parts of Bury St Edmunds, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Waveney and South Norfolk. It’s a pretty huge seat, stretching from Stowupland in the south-west to the western edge of Beccles to the east and as far north as the Tivetshalls in Norfolk. Bungay and Diss are probably the largest centres of population, but it’s going to be a pretty challenging task for anyone trying to take the seat from the Conservatives given the difficulty in forming a campaign team that can effectively reach the dozens of small parishes strewn across the area.

Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk are both squeezed further westwards, whilst Lowestoft remains as originally proposed, losing Bungay and the Elmhams to Waveney Valley. Again, South Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal remain basically untouched, whilst Ipswich sees no changes.

Luckily, this requires very little disruption for Liberal Democrats in Suffolk, as we’re organised on local government boundaries. However, in Norfolk, they’re organised on constituency boundaries, which is going to make for some interesting discussions over Waveney Valley between Mid Suffolk (split between three constituencies, East Suffolk (likewise) and South Norfolk (now torn asunder).

But perhaps we ought to get the district elections out of the way before we worry about that…

Monday, November 07, 2022

Leader and President - perhaps the boundaries aren't so clear cut?

It's odd really, but I'd never given a lot of thought to the role of the Leader. After all, they're the Leader, right?

One of the candidates for Party President is emphasising the words at the beginning of Article 20 of the Federal Constitution:

The President shall be the principal public representative of the Party...

and, of course, Liz Webster is absolutely right to point that out. But what, exactly, being the principal public representative of the Party means in reality is rather less clearcut.

I thought, therefore, that I ought to see what it says about the role of the Leader. And that was something of a revelation. Article 18, which refers to the Leader, tells you how one is elected but doesn't actually tell you what the Leader does.

Now I hear you exclaim, "but it's obvious, the Leader leads, right?". Well, yes, but what does that mean, especially if you have a President who wants to be front and centre, as Liz does.

So, if Liz is going to take up a campaigning role, what happens if the Leader sees it differently? What if internal polling shows that her stance isn't as popular as she thinks it is, or the Leader wants to soft pedal that. Is Liz going to insist that her mandate gives her the authority to override him? Now, I don't know the answer to that question, but I do suspect that, if the relationship between the Leader and the President is poor, then the President is likely to come off worst. No Leader is going to want to be seen as not in control of their own Party.

In truth, I've always seen the President as being the principal public representative of the voluntary Party. The idea being that the President is the bridge between the members and the Leader and Parliamentary Parties, conveying hard messages in private and being supportive in public. By chairing the Federal Board, the President manages the voluntary Party and guides the professional team.

At the moment, I don't entirely get the impression that Liz entirely agrees with me and, of course, voters may agree with her. But, at the moment, there are a lot of assertions and little in the way of actual proposals for action. And, as I noted on Saturday, slogans may not get you very far when, in early January, you turn up for your first Board meeting...

Saturday, November 05, 2022

A Presidential contest, but not exactly a happy one…

I have noted in the past that I have an unusual perspective on the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats. When you’ve been nearer the heart of a successful campaign, and then acted as Presidential Consort for two years, your sense of what is required to win the Presidency and then do the job is perhaps a little more acute than most.

So, in deciding how I was going to vote, I had quite a lot to reflect upon.

But here are some thoughts, both on what I think of the three candidates and on the campaign so far.

Starting with the incumbent, Mark Pack… I had reservations about his candidacy last time - can a non-Parliamentarian really hold their own amongst the big beasts of the Party, will they be taken seriously by the Leader and the Chief Executive, can they motivate and manage the Party’s internal leadership?

In truth, I don’t really know if he has achieved that - I’m somewhat remote from events in HQ these days, and the pandemic hasn’t helped in that sense. But there’s no sense that the Party is struggling organisationally, nor that Mark has failed. He’s managed to make some constitutional and structural changes that I might not have expected to succeed, there’s a sense that the Party has the capacity to improve its position, and I’m not hearing any suggestions that he has done much wrong.

I rate Lucy Nethsingha very highly. A very capable Regional Chair, a successful campaigner and leader, and a former MEP, she should be a thoroughly credible candidate for the Presidency. The fact that she’s from the neighbouring county helps.

I know rather less about Liz Webster - she’s passionately opposed to Brexit, comes from a farming background but other than that, she hasn’t really come onto my radar. I presume that, like a lot of our membership, she’s joined since 2015, but that in itself means little.

So, it would be fair to say that, in theory, I could have voted for any of the candidates.

It is very hard to just rock up and run for the Presidency, even in the age of social media, unless you have a very high profile already. Paddy could very easily have done so, had he ever fancied the job, Shirley likewise. The fact that their first names remain easily recognisable says much. And the Presidency is not an easy gig, you really need to have given some thought to why you want the job and nothing says you haven’t necessarily thought it through like turning up at virtually the last moment and announcing your candidacy. For example, Ros campaigned for more than two years before her decisive victory in 2008. When the formal stage of the campaign was reached, she had a clear vision which she could articulate, a killer campaign team, supporters and influencers across the Party at every level, and an understanding of how the Party functioned (or didn’t).

That was one of the things that puzzled me when Lucy announced that she was running - I would have expected some sense of a campaign building, especially when you’re attempting to “take down” an incumbent. And, in truth, I still don’t have a sense as to why she’s running. Her campaign material is very policy heavy - what her intentions are for leading Federal Board, for example, are something of a mystery. There’s little or no social media, and no sign of anyone reaching out to contact voters. Lucy has my e-mail address, and if there was a campaign team, I’d expect to be contacted seeking my vote.

But if Lucy was late into the fray, Liz was last minute to the point that there was a question as to whether or not she would get the required nominations. Ironically, the innovation of online nominations almost certainly made her campaign possible. However, given the impression that she was only running because Jo Hayes couldn’t, I sense that she’s decided to run first and then come up with a strategy second. And her campaign has shown that - it’s policy heavy and signals a potential clash with the Leader and the Parliamentary Parties.

I am deeply uncomfortable about her pledges to support various groups, pledges that she has very little likelihood of being able to deliver upon as Party President - it’s not a policy role as such. If she does take views that undermine the Parliamentary strategy, especially that of the Leader, what happens if those are exposed during a General Election campaign?

I also have to say that I don’t take kindly to the tone of her campaign and especially that of some of her supporters. Smearing your opponents is bad enough in retail politics, but doing so in an internal contest is not the sort of behaviour that makes friends and influences people and, if your goal is to lead the voluntary side of the Party, making enemies amongst the Committee stalwarts is probably not going to make it easy.

And whilst I note what she says about the membership figures, pinning the decline on the Party President displays a very shaky grasp of how the Party works, especially when she doesn’t appear to offer any answers in terms of how the situation might be improved.

Mark’s campaign doesn’t inspire. But, as the incumbent, he doesn’t have to, having the advantage of a track record to run on. He’s got the serious endorsements, from people who evidently think that his leadership has helped them to succeed. He also has the advantage that he is fully prepared for a campaign, having spent a long time (and I mean years) preparing first to get elected and then to gain re-election. You might fairly say that he’s run a classic Liberal Democrat campaign over a long period, just as the experts tell you that you should.

So, who have I voted for? The lack of enthusiasm might point towards an abstention but then, I’ve been around a long time and don’t have a personal investment in this contest like the one I was involved in during 2008. After all, I did marry the candidate during the campaign…

The answer is… Mark. He is the only candidate who, in my eyes, understands the job, and given that a lot of people whose views I respect, and have been in the room for the key meetings, say that he is worthy of re-election, there is a perfectly respectable argument for voting for him. Lucy doesn’t give me a sense that she really wants the job or have a vision for what she would do if she won, and I am suspicious of Liz’s motives for running and whether or not she would be a team player.

Mark sees his priority as getting the Party machinery “match fit” for a General Election, where the funds needed to fight a credible campaign, employ the best staff and present our argument are available, that we are able to take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way. And I respect that - it worked in 2009 and 2010.

But, for me, the clincher is that Mark appears to understand that the Presidency is about soft power, not about command and control. And, if you know the Party well, you know that in an organisation where power is more diffused than many appreciate, the ability to identify who can make something happen is critical.

So, those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. We’ll see what happens soon enough but, regardless of who wins, I wish them good luck. The Presidency is a huge challenge for whoever holds it, and there’s no shortage of work that needs to be done, but the country needs a strong liberal voice, now more than ever.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Creeting St Peter - a small but surprisingly bright light to relieve the darkness

Out here in the countryside, the provision of some of the things that others take for granted isn't always obvious, as I discovered when I first became a Parish Councillor. Who knew that a Parish Council might be responsible for its own street lights? And why, given the costs of installation, maintenance and power? After all, I pay my council tax to Suffolk County Council to light other people's streets, why don't they light mine?

It is, apparently, a historic thing, and there are plenty of villages like ours who decided to take the matter into their own hands in the past.

Ours had presented a challenge for a long time. Ageing, inefficient, hard to maintain, I had begun to wonder how we might replace them or, indeed, if we could even afford to. The Council had not made provision to do so, with no capital policy in place to, over a period of time, raise the necessary funds. In my capacity as portfolio holder for Finance (and it's not a title I sought, rather one I was presented with), I did at least make provision for an annual provision to fund the cost of replacement over twenty-five years. But, with an annual precept of £5,200, and plenty of ongoing costs, raising sufficient to cover the cost of replacement wasn't going to be quick or easy.

Ironically, the resignation of our Clerk last November offered a chink of light, and when, earlier this year, the County Council announced that, not only were they going to replace all of their street lights with new LED versions, but they would allow Parish Councils to hitch onto the contract, I leapt at the opportunity.

As a result, Creeting St Peter has nine new streetlights, which appeared one day without notice. When I saw them, my first thought was "they're a bit small, aren't they?" and they are, I admit pretty small. And, when they first sparked into light, as dusk fell, they didn't seem very impressive.

But wait a while, and the benefits of the new technology reveal themselves. The light they cast is strong, but very focussed on what lies beneath them, reducing light pollution and revealing a rather clearer night sky. Add to that the lower energy and maintenance costs, and I think that they'll pay their way over their lifetime - about twenty-five years. Which gives me time to raise the funds for their replacement...

When I moved a motion declaring our acknowledgment of the climate emergency, it would have been easy to see it as a meaningless gesture. What impact could a micro-parish like mine have? But every contribution helps, no matter how small, and my community of 275 or so has made a step towards reducing its impact upon the planet. That can only be a good thing.

I wonder if we can do something about the heating in the Church Room next?...

Thursday, October 27, 2022

NALC Annual General Meeting 2022 - keeping the flame of ultra-local government burning...

It has, somewhat astonishingly, been two years since I became Suffolk's representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) under somewhat unusual, albeit worryingly typical for me, circumstancesAnd, as nobody seems to mind that I continue, I'm still in post. 

In that capacity, I attended NALC's Annual General Meeting on Tuesday, expecting a not terribly exciting meeting but keen to do my bit for the organisation. I say "not terribly exciting" as it's an off year for elections to the Executive Board and the various committees, and the only items likely to be debated were a motion from our Northamptonshire colleagues on Clerks and some constitutional amendments.

The Northamptonshire motion, one which had the support of the Suffolk delegation, noted issues in terms of recruitment and retention of Clerks and called for a benchmarking exercise to establish a clearer sense of requirements.

I spoke in favour, noting the difficulties for small parishes, where the position of Parish Clerk perhaps required four hours per week, meaning that you couldn't really make a career of it, and making recruitment challenging, to say the least. Having had to act as Clerk for nine months myself, I noted my rather greater appreciation of the knowledge and skills required.

There was some opposition, from those who didn't see how a benchmarking exercise would work, or were opposed to the engagement of a consultant, but the motion was eventually passed.

Most of the constitutional amendments were lost, as the proper notice hadn't been given, which was slightly awkward, but as none of them were felt to be urgent, it probably didn't matter much, even if the Task and Finish group who had been given responsibility for producing them might have wondered why they were encouraged to get the job done in the first place.

That left a proposal to change the way NALC runs its elections, introducing the Alternative Vote system for single vacancy contests and the Single Transferable Vote system for multiple vacancy contests. It was unfortunate that the mover of the motion was semi-inaudible for reasons that never entirely became clear and that the seconder found it impossible not to over-complicate matters, thus stirring up confusion and thus opposition.

I did try to offer a very brief explanation of the benefits, rather than explaining the mechanics, but it was clear that the mood of the meeting wasn't favourable enough and, whilst each of the elements of the proposal won a majority, it wasn't enough to reach the two-thirds majority required. That probably means that we won't be revisiting it for a while, which is a pity.

A meeting that was gently steered, rather than strictly managed, by our Chair, Keith Stevens, ran pretty much to schedule and I do see improvements in the way that NALC is run along the lines of better reporting and transparency, but we still have a bit of a problem with wider engagement across the sector. That's partly the nature of the beast, I think - after all, how many Parish councillors have much interest in events beyond their borders?

But I am enjoying the role and, if my colleagues in Suffolk are minded to let me continue, I'd be happy to carry on. We'll find out the answer to that question next month...