Monday, April 12, 2021

County Council elections - what's happening in Mid Suffolk? (part 2)

Yesterday, I looked at Bosmere, Gipping Valley, Hartismere, Hoxne and Eye and Stowmarket North and Stowupland. Today, it's time to look at the rest of Mid Suffolk's ten County divisions...

Stowmarket South... where to begin? Once Liberal Democrat (1993-2001), lost to Labour in 2001, it became a Conservative/Labour marginal in 2005 when a new Liberal Democrat candidate, Keith Scarff, came third with a respectable 22.4% of the vote. It's probably the most consistently hard fought of all the Mid Suffolk divisions - in 2005, the Conservative candidate won by 130 votes or 2.8%.

Keith was back in 2009, losing to Conservative Ann Whybrow by just 73 votes. In 2013, we got within forty votes of winning, and came third, with the UKIP candidate, Stephen Searle beating Ann Whybrow by just one vote. 2017 saw the Conservatives win the seat back through Nick Gowrley, with Keith in second place again, this time 132 votes adrift as the UKIP vote unravelled.

Since then, Nick Gowrley, who was the Conservative Leader on Mid Suffolk, lost his seat in 2019 to... Keith Scarff, and they face off again this time. We can probably discount the Labour candidate, but the wildcard is the Independent candidate, David Card. David was the Conservative District Councillor in Barking and Somersham for a year or so, resigning within a year to cause a by-election which was lost to the Greens by two votes - I was the slightly unexpected Liberal Democrat candidate who lost by 58 votes (was it really that close?), and resigned over the Conservatives decision to borrow £100 million to dabble in commercial property.

I'd expect David to base his campaign on attacking Nick Gowrley, which might on the face of it benefit the man who's been working the Division for sixteen years. And Keith's a lovely guy, so I'd love to see him win.

One of the weird things about Suffolk, if you're an outsider, is the names of some of the County divisions. Where, for example, is Hartismere, or Thingoe? The answer is Saxon Hundreds, which were the administrative divisions of Suffolk from Saxon times up until the end of the nineteenth century. And, because we're not used to getting rid of anything useful, some of the names have carried on, which brings me to Thedwastre North and Thedwastre South...

I'm hoping that Thedwastre North will be the more interesting one, with another former blue on blue contest. Jane Storey was a bit of a highflier in local Conservative circles but, in 2019, lost her District Council seat on revised boundaries to the Greens. Last year, she was de-selected as the County candidate, appealed and lost. And so, she's fighting the seat against her successor, Harry Richardson, who is the District Councillor in Thurston, the other main settlement in the Division. The Green candidate, Andy Mellen, won a District Council seat in Bacton, having painted his sheep with "Vote Andy", and is the potential interloper in this contest. There's also a Labour candidate, Ursula Ajimal.

Thedwastre South has been Liberal Democrat held since the 2007 by-election, and has been closely fought ever since - Penny Otton won the by-election by 94 votes, and hasn't bettered that in three attempts since (33 votes in 2009, 38 in 2013 and 83 in 2017). The Conservatives have picked someone from Bury St Edmunds, as opposed to a local resident, although that doesn't necessarily signify much. Penny will be fighting just as hard as ever though, which gives her every chance of retaining the seat.

Thredling is the seat of Matthew Hicks, the Conservative leader of Suffolk. He'll cruise home, I suspect, despite opposition from the Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

And finally, Andrew Stringer won Upper Gipping in 2009 for the Greens from a stopgap Conservative candidate (our former District councillor here in Creeting St Peter) and, amongst others, me. He won by 500 last time, and the Greens have only strengthened their position across the Division since. The Conservatives are running a candidate, as are Labour, but I suspect that Andrew will be the only one actually campaigning.

So, that's how Mid Suffolk looks from the perspective of an interested observer. There could be a number of upsets across the District, which currently looks like this; Conservatives 7, Liberal Democrats 2, Greens 1. I wouldn't be surprised to see it end rather differently when the votes are counted on 7 May...

Sunday, April 11, 2021

County Council elections - what's happening in Mid Suffolk? (part 1)

I am, I admit, a bit remote from local politics in Suffolk for a slew of reasons too tedious to mention here. However, that does offer me some time to look at the contests with the slightly jaundiced eye of an outside observer. So, what's happening?

We'll start with Bosmere, Ros's old division, which was lost to the Conservatives in 2017, and again in the 2018 by-election which followed the death of Ann Whybrow. And this time sees a repeat of the by-election contest, which Kay Oakes won by just twenty-one votes over Steve Phillips. It would be fair to say that Suzanne Britton, the Labour candidate, is expected to be a distant third, given that their vote has consistently declined over twenty years to around the 10% mark.

It'll be a seat that the Liberal Democrats will be anxious to win back, and given the issues that recently overtook Kay Oakes, you'd have to think that Steve, who is currently the Mayor of Needham Market and one of its District Councillors, would have every chance. But the ward is made up of a fairly even split between the town of Needham market and a collection of outlying villages to the west and south-west, and how the votes split in the hinterland may well prove to be vital.

Gipping Valley is a Liberal Democrat defence, although John Field is standing down after twenty years, which offers something of a challenge with a new candidate, Adrienne Marriott. It may be to her advantage that the Conservative lives in Ipswich and that Labour probably won't fight this one too hard - this is another ward where their vote has steadily declined over two decades.

Jessica Fleming not only writes murder mysteries in Cabot Cove but, in her spare time, is the Conservative councillor for Hartismere, which runs along the Norfolk border to the west of Eye. Admittedly, she doesn't live there, or even in a neighbouring division, but apparently in our neighbouring parish of Creeting St Mary. That probably won't stop her describing herself as the "local" candidate, and she'll probably win against Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green opposition.

Two years ago, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Eye lost by forty-nine votes, after a bundle check shifted fifty votes from his pile to the Conservative candidate. Tim Glenton is back this time, contesting the once Liberal Democrat-held division of Hoxne and Eye. Veteran Conservative councillor, Guy McGregor, having been deselected somewhat acrimoniously, is fighting the seat as an independent, hoping to displace the official Conservative candidate, Peter Gould, who was the winner in the District Council elections in 2019. Is this a chance for a now battle-tested Liberal Democrat candidate to benefit from some blue on blue action? Once again, we can probably discount the Labour challenge, given that the candidate lives in Ipswich.

And, finally for this part, Stowmarket North and Stowupland, the division which covers my own beloved Creeting St Peter. Last time, Conservative incumbent Gary Green comfortably beat the Greens Keith Welham into second place by about twenty percentage points. The absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate this time - I wasn't asked and I wouldn't have run had I been - may favour Keith, who is now a highly regarded District councillor for Haughley and Stowupland. He was certainly popular in Creeting St Peter, and I'd expect him to do well in the non-Stowmarket elements of the Division.

Turnout is traditionally fairly low, under 27% in both 2013 and 2017, and probably favours the more established communities of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter. It'll be an uphill struggle for Keith, but I think that he has a decent shot at this one.

Tomorrow, I'll turn my attention to Stowmarket South, a seat with a lively recent history, the Thedwastres (North and South), Thredling and Upper Gipping...

Saturday, April 10, 2021

I've got two votes on 6 May. Only one of them will be for a Liberal Democrat...

So, the candidates for the County Council and Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 6 May are known. And here in Creeting St Peter, which falls within the Stowmarket North and Stowupland division, it looks like we've got an interesting contest. I'll come back to that in a moment though.

The Police and Crime Commissioner contest sees four candidates enter the fray;

  • Elizabeth Hughes (Labour)
  • Tim Passmore (Conservative)
  • Andy Patmore (Green)
  • James Sandbach (Liberal Democrat)
As it's an AV election, my first preference is an easy one - I'll be voting for James, obviously. As for my second preference, it will be a question of Green or Labour, if I choose to cast it.

Frankly, I'm sure that Tim Passmore is a decent enough person, but his record as Police and Crime Commissioner is mediocre at best, and I suspect that he only got the nomination as a consolation prize for not getting the candidacy in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich. He's certainly not as bad as some other Conservatives holding similar positions elsewhere, but can we do better? Of course we can.

However, if James doesn't win, are either of the other candidates good enough to be worth entrusting the county's constabulary to? To be honest, I don't know yet, having heard nothing from them, so we'll see.

The County Council election is a different kettle of fish though. The incumbent Conservative councillor, Gary Green, has been our representative since 2008, when he squeezed home by 53 votes against a strong Liberal Democrat challenger. Since then, he's been elected pretty comfortably, albeit on relatively low turnouts - 25% in 2013, 26.5% in 2017.

His primary opponent, again, is Keith Welham, one of the Green District Councillors for Haughley and Stowupland. Highly respected in Creeting St Peter during his four years as our District councillor before boundary changes separated us from Stowupland, he'll hope to do better this time than he did in 2017.

The third candidate is Will Howman, a Labour Town councillor in Stowmarket, although I suspect that he's there to make up the numbers - Labour have been little more than background noise in Mid Suffolk for some time now, with no presence on either the District or the Mid Suffolk delegation to the County Council.

There isn't a fourth candidate, which means that, in this instance, I can't vote Liberal Democrat... again. In the 2019 General Election, the Liberal Democrat candidate was stood down as part of the national deal with the Greens. This time, I don’t know why we aren’t running a candidate. 

On the plus side, this does mean that I can organise an online hustings for the village with a clear conscience, as I don't have a dog in this particular fight, and I've already invited all of the candidates to join me on 21 April for a night with Creeting St Peter. Hopefully, they'll come.

So, who wants my vote?

Friday, April 09, 2021

Do Liberal Democrats appreciate bureaucrats?

Thirty-five or more years as a bureaucrat, both professionally and on a volunteer basis within the Liberal Democrats has, to be honest, taught me that the answer is no, not really.

Given that, in my experience from five Local Parties, two Regional Parties, my State Party and a Federal Committee, most key administrative tasks are performed by busy people who, on the whole, would rather be doing something else, that leads me to wonder how vulnerable political parties are to organisational failure.

Most people join political parties because they either want to be something or change something. If you're lucky, they want both, because that means that you can fill the roles that need filling. That's primarily seen as being either a candidate or a campaigner, because what is a political party if it doesn't run candidates for public office? But, behind them are a small corps of people who enable, for want of a better word. They're the ones that ensure that your group is compliant with the law, like Treasurers, or the Constitution, like Secretaries.

And, unlike your candidate, who at least theoretically has a chance of getting elected and holding power, your Treasurer and Secretary are probably doing it because "someone needs to" and they're the ones too slow, or too nice, to escape. There is no glory, little gratitude, and a swathe of hassle from those who would rather criticise you for doing what they perceive to be a bad job than offer to do it themselves. You probably don't need to travel much though, so that's a good thing at least.

Then there are the organisational roles which are required by the Party's rules, with good reason. Neutral returning officers, members of disciplinary and appeals panels, for example. If you thought that there was little glory or gratitude to be had from holding local office, trust me when I say that there's even less in holding one of these positions. They can take days and weeks out of your life and, whilst occasionally, someone says thank you, it is perhaps a mark of how often that happens that I am pleasantly surprised when someone does. This year's Young Liberals fall into that category, for example. And, in normal times, you are expected to travel, though please keep the costs down.

To give you an idea, I was once barked at by a European Parliamentary candidate for not approving their manifesto (we used to do that once) within five hours. And they were right, in that I hadn't. The fact that I was on holiday in Argentina, and it had been sent at 3 a.m. my time was an irrelevancy - it was assumed that their urgency trumped respect for a volunteer.

My sense is that Liberal Democrats don't really approve of bureaucrats. They are, at best, an obligatory element of running a political party, but that lack of approval runs further than that, in that I've often found myself bridling slightly when Liberal Democrat politicians talk about the Civil Service. Admittedly, that doesn't happen perhaps as much as it should - when was the last time you heard a Liberal Democrat talk about Civil Service recruitment and retention, or pay and conditions, or how Government Departments might be better managed and led?

Perhaps a look a the 2019 manifesto might enlighten? Actually, no it won't... The 2014 Policy paper "Protecting Public Services and Making Them Work For You"? I'm afraid not.

Now, before the cavilling starts - "we're really grateful", "thank you for everything you do" - and for those of you who do, and have, thanked your friendly neighbourhood bureaucrat over the years, please don't feel the need to do so now, I wouldn't suggest that the problem is unique to Liberal Democrats, far from it. However, Labour and the Conservatives have the advantage of a pool of paid professionals who can handle much of the arduous bureaucracy.

And, when push comes to shove, the unglamorous, arduous bits of politics are just as unvalued across the political spectrum, which is why most politicians discussing bureaucracy are generally critical rather than constructive.

I am, perhaps, more resilient than most. In my professional life, I seldom expect to be thanked, or even liked - that would be a bit weird, if I'm honest. But, as a volunteer, doing a job that very few people want to do, you do need to receive a little respect and gratitude, commensurate with the effort outlaid if you're doing a decent job.

So, when your next AGM comes round, and your Secretary, who has been hinting that they'd really like to be relieved, is being urged to do "just one more year", perhaps it might be a good idea to do some succession planning in advance? At the very least, thank them for their service, lest they decide that a midweek evening is more pleasurably spent in front of a television scheme or with loved ones.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Cincinnati dreaming on such a winter's day...

I am, for reasons historic, a fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Since 1990, when my attention was first drawn to them, their successes have been few and far between. In that sense, they're like most of the teams I follow, broadly unsuccessful but enthusiastic.

I've even managed to watch them play a few times, notably the afternoon in Denver when they beat the Colorado Rockies 24-12 (the most runs they've scored in a game since 1911), but never at their new(ish) ballpark, Great American Ball Park. I had intended to do that last year but... pandemic...

Their Group Operations Manager very kindly refunded the cost of my tickets and gave me a credit on my account so that I could order new tickets at some point in the future. Hopefully, that will happen in August (yes, I know, I'm being a bit optimistic here).

And, as encouragement, the Reds have started the season rather well. Despite a slightly disappointing Opening Day loss to the St Louis Cardinals, five straight wins have followed and, joy of joys, they're scoring for fun. Twenty-seven runs in three games against the Cardinals, thirty more in three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and we're top of the division. Only 156 more games to go...

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The Appeals Panel for England - no, but yes, but no...

It's been slightly complicated, but my future as a member of the Appeals Panel for England suddenly doesn't exist.

As I noted a few days ago, the appointment is a matter for the Executive Committee of my Regional Party and, it seems, there was an apparent unwillingness in some quarters to simply reappoint the incumbent. I am, in fairness, pretty relaxed about such a principle - the appointment is in the gift of the Regional Party, represented by its Executive Committee.

However, there didn't appear to be a settled view as to how to proceed and, rather than see the argument over the basic principles of democracy and transparency (both of which I'm rather fond of) drag out when the focus should be on getting as many Liberal Democrats elected as possible, I've decided to withdraw from consideration.

Once the Executive Committee have decided on how to choose their next nominee, preferably after 6 May, they can then take whatever action is required. But, if you're curious as to what the role entails and how it is appointed, here's what the English Party Constitution says...

9.1 There shall be an Appeals Panel for England, which shall consist of:

(a) the current members of the Federal Appeals Panel elected by the English Council under Article 22.1 of the Federal Constitution, one of whom shall be designated as the Chair of the Appeals Panel for England by the English Council; and
(b) one person appointed by each Regional Party according to its internal procedures. 

9.2 Each member of the Panel shall hold office for five years, and shall be eligible for re-appointment: provided that no person shall be entitled to hold office for more than ten years in aggregate. No person shall be eligible for appointment if (and any member shall forthwith vacate office upon becoming) an MP, MEP or prospective parliamentary candidate or a member of the English Council Executive or the English Candidates Committee or an employee of the Party. The body making the original appointment may terminate the appointment because the appointee is no longer able to carry out his or her duties as a member of the Panel on account of ill health or for other good cause. Any casual vacancy on the Panel may be filled by the body making the original appointment for the residue of the term of that appointment.

9.3 The Appeals Panel for England shall adjudicate on:

(a) any dispute over the interpretation of these Articles;
(b) any claim that the rights under these Articles of a member or of a Party body have been infringed, provided that no appeal may be brought under this paragraph where there is another appropriate appeal procedure;
(c) any dispute between the Liberal Democrats in England and a Regional or Local Party, or between Regional Parties or between Local Parties in different Regions; and
(d) any matter expressly so provided by these Articles or by rules made hereunder.

Subsequent to the adoption of Article 22 of the Federal Constitution appeals relating to disciplinary matters shall not fall within the remit of the English Appeals Panel and shall be dealt with according to Articles 3 and 22 of the Federal Constitution.

If that doesn't rule you out, and you survive the additional restrictions set by the East of England Regional Constitution;

4.15 The Regional Executive shall appoint a member of the Regional Party who is eligible to be a member of the Federal Appeals Panel and is not and has not within the preceding year been a member of the Regional Executive or of the Regional Candidates Committee to be a member of the Appeals Panel for England. This appointment shall be subject to the ratification of the next Regional Conference. 

then look out for an announcement from the East of England Liberal Democrats in due course.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Religion and political parties - not entirely a comfortable fit...

It would be fair to describe me as a not particularly devout Catholic. I don't attend Mass, I don't support my local Catholic church. I feel vaguely guilty about that, but see guilt as being part of the basic underpinning of Catholicism and so don't feel so bad about it. And, in truth, I have problems with a faith that discriminates against a majority of its own membership, let alone the rest of the population.

It would also be fair to say that, as a political activist, wishing people a happy (insert religious festival as appropriate) makes me slightly uncomfortable. In the multicultural society we live in, the sheer range of religious festivals to be marked means, that if you want to be seen as properly inclusive, you risk issuing so many messages that they become a bit of a cliché. Are you marking a particular festival because you care, or because you simply feel that you ought to?

Now I do accept that religious observance is still important in our society, albeit less so than once it was. In my own community, the Anglican Church plays a central part in community cohesion that it didn't obviously do in the London suburbs - or perhaps I wasn't looking for it. But I tend to the view that how you live your life and, as importantly, how you are perceived to do so, is more important than overt displays of religious tolerance and inclusion.

I sense, without much of a theological education to rely upon, that most religions have, at their core, similar philosophical positions - that you should help those in need, that you should respect the world around you and the people in it and that you should attempt to uphold what are generally accepted virtues. Do those things, and most people will see that you are at least trying.

But politicians want to be liked which, in a profession which centres on the ability to win organised popularity contests, perhaps shouldn't come as a terrible surprise. That does engender some degree of suspicion as to motive given how little trust is placed in them and so I find myself wondering how much value there is for a non-religious politician to mark religious festivals. Those who practice the particular religion might think it good to be included, whilst others will question the sincerity of the author.

For those who are publicly devout in their faith, I see rather less of a problem. And yes, as Tim Farron has discovered, being devout can bring with it a whole different set of problems, but that goes with the territory of having opinions - you have to be able, and willing, to justify them if challenged. But referring to religion when you are an active adherent feels a bit more justified to me.

Ultimately, it is for individual politicians to judge whether or not to mark religious festivals within their communities and to deal with the consequences of the stance they take. And, as long as political parties don't use it as an opportunity to attack each other, it probably does little harm overall. But, from a personal perspective, I will keep my religious beliefs a predominantly personal matter and respect the rights of others to practice their faith as they see fit...