Saturday, December 30, 2006

Health and safety - an Indian alternative

I was brought up to believe that you should bear the consequences of your own actions, and so have generally been less than friendly to some of the more surreal examples of health and safety policy. Admittedly, we haven't gone quite as mad as Americans have, but as we tend to follow the American trend (law suits, fast food, obesity and mindless reality television being just four which the British aim to do just as well as our transatlantic cousins), I usually expect the worst.

Mumbai, on the other hand, would if the average health and safety inspector waking nightmares. Here, we're quite find of buses with open platforms. We're not so convinced that buses actually need to stop to let people get on or off, and it seems perfectly sensible to ensure on-time running by setting off with a dozen people hanging on to the bus without actually being in it. As for limitations on the number of people standing... yes, I know that the sign says 20 standees only but 67 is fairly close, isn't it, and you get a much better view if you're standing upstairs, don't you? And if you can't get on the bus, you can just stand in front of it, or chase it down the street and throw yourself at the entrance as it comes past.

And as for the trains, well, having doors that close is very nice, but it's warm and dry (most of the year), you lose time opening and closing the doors, and why wouldn't you want to hang out of a moving train anyway? So the doors are jammed open, and four or five people are hanging out of the door, maintaining a tight grip on the bar that runs down the middle of the opening, or the rim where the doors would be if they were shut, or whatever they can find to hold onto.

I think that it's wonderful, and all this excitement comes at the very reasonable price of Rs.8 for a 14-mile train ride all the way from Andheri to Victoria Terminus, or Rs.9 for the hour-long bus ride to Mahim (yes, buses are more expensive than trains, go figure...). And me, I can lean out of train doors with the best of them, hang on to buses like grim death, and generally confuse the locals, who can't quite get a grasp on the fact that I actually enjoy this. At Rs.87 to the pound, I can even do it all day if I choose.

My father lectures me about pickpockets (me, the only Valladares to have visited Bogota and Buenos Aires and escaped both completely unscathed), and I think he occasionally forgets how much travelling I have done in less than classically mainstream tourism destinations.

Ah well, time to get some sleep, I think. I've got choir practice in the morning, and I really need to leave here at about 8.45 to make sure that I get there on time. Don't worry, I'm not singing, I've just got a sense of humour, that's all...

Opposition to the hanging of Saddam Hussein - liberalism or paternalism in action?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I'm on the hanging and flogging wing of the Party, although I do have some good friends who might well enjoy that sort of thing. It's just that I wonder what right we have to fuss about the decisions made by a sovereign nation in pursuit of justice and/or retribution.

I have become increasingly bored over the years by listening to politicians telling me that such and such a country is corrupt or undemocratic or simply backward because it fails to adhere to our ever-so-perfect template for a modern society. We talk about encouraging condom use in the developing world, or about democratic shortfalls, or about the failure to provide education, or healthcare, or 101 other things that we western Europeans take for granted, and never ask the obvious question, which is, "What can we do to help these nations to help themselves?"

Hanging is a particularly cruel way to judicially murder an individual, and judicial murder is exactly what it is. At the same time, there are a variety of ways of doing the job, most of which are unpleasant or brutal. However, it comes down to selecting a method which is the least unhumane and consistent with the cultural values of the state. There are also the questions related to deterrence, although in our 'modern' society, I am increasingly convinced that it has very little.

Saddam Hussein had to die, lest he act as a focal point for further insurgency. Whilst I personally believe that the sorts of people leading the insurgency actually care little for him, he acts as an excuse. Indeed, although displaying photographs of Saddam pre- and post-execution is fairly ghastly, there should be little doubt that he is dead, conspiracy theorists not withstanding. Those who mourn his passing are no friends of a peaceful civil society in any event, and I have little or no sympathy for their fate.

When a corrupt, vicious regime falls, the most successful transitions are those where an internal solution is found, from South Africa at one end, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acted to lance the boil of those crimes committed under apartheid, through Chile's move to provide a degree of protection to the junta in return for a commitment to respect democracy, to the more drastic acts in Romania. These were solutions which took into accounts the needs of the reborn nations, and they worked. Did we approve? Not always.

We need to be more willing to support nations in designing their solutions, provide them with the means to build the civic structures that will sustain a better, more open, freer society, and if Tony Blair fancies having a real legacy, he might want to think about how we could fulfil that role more effectively...

Friday, December 29, 2006

A change of pace: ox carts and elephants

One of the advantages of being the eldest of a family generation scattered to the four corners of the Earth is that there are lots of weddings to attend, and children to look at and say "Isn't he/she/it adorable? Looks the spitting image of (insert name of relative)..."

And so you might guess that I'm doing that at the moment and I welcome you to Mumbai accordingly. My cousin Clyne is getting married next week to the mysterious Nisha - only mysterious because Clyne isn't terribly communicative, I admit - and I'm in town easing back into the routine of commuting around Mumbai, spending time sitting in the front room in Mahim chatting with relatives, passing friends of the family and, in fact, anyone who just fancies dropping in.

The other advantage is that the temperature is in the low nineties here, the beer is cold and my aging bones are beginning to respond to the low-stress environment. I've worked out how to get around from my hotel near the airport, and despite the occasional need to shoehorn myself into a space smaller than I would necessarily choose simply to get onto a bus (standing room for 21? Try 210...), all is well.

I'll be reporting from the wedding next week, and keeping an eye on events here in the big city, so watch this space...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

2006: a year in review (part 3) - if I see another lawyer again, I'll scream

As you might guess from the title, the last third of 2006 was full of rules, lawyers and constitutions.

In my private life, the death throes of my divorce were scheduled for October, but I was back into Party mode in a bad way. The whole question of diversity and ethnicity came to a head and, whilst I frankly wasn't convinced at the time, and I'm still uneasy about the methodology, I cannot deny that the leadership are trying to do something. Now all we have to do is teach them to understand how things are done and why. The Liberator collective have already mentioned the meeting between Dawn Davidson and the Leader's office (Liberator 315), so I tell no tales when I note how incredibly unimpressed I was to hear of it. Look guys, which part of the phrase 'liberal principles' don't you get?

I also committed myself to trying to open up the way the party is run. I got involved in a debate about local party boundaries in Bromley but the big issue was our candidate selection process...

Appointments as Returning Officer streamed in, first Wokingham, then Wantage, then Maidstone and The Weald, South East England (European), Wycombe and finally London South West (London Assembly). In the background, although not for long, there was an increasing clamour about our Selection Rules. In Birmingham, the debate became public. Ironically, there was simultaneously a move on the part of the English Candidates Committee to be more responsive, and I was permitted to launch something of a counter-attack, first on this blog, then via Liberal Democrat Voice and finally, this very week, in Liberator (I've been published - I'm so proud...). It now looks like there will be an ongoing debate, and I'm keen to play a part in that.

Finally, I seemed to spend a lot of time acting on behalf of St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. I tried to broker a peace deal between the Darbyshires and, it seemed, the majority of the Lib Dem blogosphere, and, whilst it wasn't without its difficult moments, peace seems to have broken out.

My harder problem though was the campaign to 'save' Susanne Lamido for the nation, sorry, Party. It would be fair to say that Susanne has made herself a fair number of enemies, and things culminated in an attempt to revoke her membership, a fact which seemed to be of remarkable interest beyond the Party. Having originally volunteered to be her supporter on the basis that everyone deserves a fair trial, I found myself in the role of chief defence attorney, something I had not expected. In the end, it came down to an interpretation of the agreed facts, when Susanne's absence probably told against her.

The year ended in scandal, with Labour's increasing problems with integrity and, more entertainingly, if somewhat less than ideal, Lembit Opik's problems with his relationships.

And on that note, may I wish you all a very Cheeky Christmas, and a happy New Year... I'll probably post again before 2007 comes in, but I'll be occupied elsewhere, so don't wait up...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

2006: a year in review (part 2)

If the first part of the year was dedicated almost entirely to the Party, the mid-section of dedicated to me. It was time to travel at last, and boy, did I travel.

I set off around the world, visiting the Valladares manse (see picture, surprisingly people free - it's never like this normally), meeting the communists, making new friends, trying a new career or experiencing a sense of angst. The trip ended in Washington DC, where I was reintroduced to the world of American liberalism. There was an unexpected surprise subsequently, when I was invited to co-chair the Foreign and Military Policy Commission of Americans for Democratic Action. Next year sees the sixtieth Annual Convention of this august organisation, and I am hugely honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve.

I have to admit that the normal, fun-loving bureaucrat was missing in action for some of the summer. I began to show some rather unbureaucratic tendancies and began to show signs that I didn't really want to do politics quite as badly as before. Indeed, I eventually did give up being Local Party Chair and made the very wise decision to focus on the things that I'm a) fairly good at, and b) enjoy. So, 2007 will see more candidate related activity and bureaucracy, and less overt leadership...

To get over my ennui, I was dragged off to Mauritius (most unwillingly, let me assure you...), and things gradually got better. Lengthy exposure to my family, whose interest in politics is limited almost entirely to what I get up to, allowed me to put things into better perspective. So, I'd like to hand the award for family of the year to my very own family.

I would also like to make an award for the best David Cameron act-alike to the orangutan I met in Seoul. Of course, you do see the similarity, looks harmless, and perhaps vaguely attractive to those of a kindly, trusting disposition, says nothing offensive (nothing much at all, if truth be told).

And that's it for the summer. Tomorrow, I'll wrap up to 2006 with a journey from Brighton to Dallas via Putney...

Friday, December 22, 2006

2006: a year in review (part 1) and perhaps the odd award...

I cannot deny that 2006 has been pretty eventful, so much so that any review will need to be done in parts. So let's start at the beginning...

As January came in, I was probably nursing a hangover. I had tendered an astonishingly heroic (i.e. phenomenally impractical) resignation as Regional Secretary, an election campaign was beginning to come to the boil, a good deed was coming to fruition, and there were rumours that our leader was in trouble. Of course, I didn't believe a word of it...

And as if by magic, Charles Kennedy was gone. I spent most of my time complaining about being ignored before I finally endorsed Chris Huhne. It didn't help, as he went down to fairly glorious defeat, making the third candidate to have had my support and go on to fail (Alan Beith and David Rendel, before you ask...).

From a personal perspective, the campaign was enlivened by the astonishing coinicidence that was my response to the doomed attempt by our Party President to do something about diversity amongst our elected representatives. The fact that it became linked to the Reflecting Britain campaign forced all three leadership candidates to sign up. Whilst the motion didn't pass unamended, thanks to a spectacularly late intervention by Chris Rennard and Simon Hughes, and some astonishing naivety on my part (alright, James Graham warned me at the time and subsequently), the groundwork was laid for the new diversity fund designed to support ethnic minority and women candidates in winnable seats. I've got my doubts, but...

I also returned for another stint as Regional Secretary. I couldn't stay away, and it seemed that nobody wanted me to do so anyway. They're all mad, of course...

Closer to home, the election campaign which had started optimisitically was becoming almost obsessive. The campaign team had me delivering leaflets and even canvassing, although I managed to find time to upset one of my Conservative opponents. History records that we overturned a 500+ Labour majority, turning it into a 650 vote majority for our gallant crew. Unfortunately, having upset most of my local Tories, we ended up forming a coalition with them...

Time for my first award, that of most delicate political opponent, which goes to Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton. Alright, I did crack a series of frog jokes, but did offer a sincere apology. Robin didn't accept the apology, or the gift, and I trust that Andy Mayer, and his partner, Helen, enjoyed the bottle of late harvest Riesling that Robin turned down. By the way, if Robin is reading this, I replaced that bottle in June...

Otherwise, I was beginning to drown in a sea of paper, although it wasn't causing me anywhwere near as much trouble as Tessa Jowell was having with hers. And so it seems obvious that the award for worst financial advice of the year should go to David Mills.

With that though, I think that I'll bring this piece to a close. More tomorrow...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Is the public sector necessarily inefficient?

Today saw the publication of the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Annual Report, a document which, for obvious reasons, is of some interest to me.

I work in Corporation Tax, and I was quite surprised to discover the cost of bringing in each £1 of revenue from Corporation Tax was, in 2005/06, just 0.71p, compared to 1.24p in 2003/04, an apparent improvement of nearly 43% and the sort of improved efficiency that would earn the directors of a private sector company millions of share options and bonuses. What do we get? A warm glow...

In fact, overall, for every £1 raised by HMRC, the department spends 1.11p (we raised £405 billion last year). MBEs all round, Gordon?

When will this government stop missing the point?

I understand from the Guardian that John Reid is planning to introduce mandatory fingerprinting and photographing of resident foreigners. Now, whilst I will get a certain degree of ironic pleasure from knowing that my American ex-wife and Labour Party member will probably be made to join the 700,000 likely to be called up to sign away their civil liberties, there is, as always, a more important point.

This will doubtlessly be trumpeted as a means to address the issue of illegal migration, part of this government's shameful record of pandering to the Daily Mail. It will give every impression of being designed to address genuine, if somewhat flawed, concerns, without actually addressing the real problem. Because, let's face it, the 700,000 forced to play this game will be the very ones who are here legally and visibly, paying taxes, contributing to the economy, whereas the ones supposedly being dealt with are the ones that this Government can't find, and who therefore won't be receiving their freshly minted ID cards.

Best of all, because foreigners will need to provide their fingerprints and photographs before they come to this nation, they'll need to visit a British embassy or consulate in their own country, which means applying in person. There will be 150 screening centres to cover the 169 countries affected. How much do you want to bet that that number will be disproportionately weighted towards the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? How many do you think will be placed in India, or anywhere poor and/or economically insignificant? And, of course, there is no guarantee that even if you travel internationally to somewhere where you can undergo screening, your application to travel to the United Kingdom will be approved.

Even the Americans allow you to come to their country before they photograph and fingerprint you, and I can just imagine the uproar if, say, the Americans were to introduce a system similar to the one proposed, with Glaswegians having to come to London for processing so that they can go to Disney World on holiday.

This will doubtless damage our nation, impacting on academic exchanges, providing evidence if evidence were needed that our immigration policy is institutionally racist (making it harder for people from the developing world to come is institutional racism - the criteria for admittance should be the same regardless of where you're coming from, and you shouldn't make it easier for some than for others), and harming our reputation in the world.

But that would involve a measured consideration of the consequences of this policy, and I fear that this government continues to shoot first and ask questions later.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I am my father's son after all

My father is an successful entrepreneur, running the advertising agency that he has been a central part of for some years. And clearly, his expertise and success in the industry has been something of an inspiration (although I would never admit that to his face - we're not that sort of family), although I didn't follow in his political footsteps.

So I'm trying something new on my blog, i.e. advertising. I'm not sure how well it will work, as this blog doesn't attract a huge readership yet, although from what I understand, if I were at the level of, say Iain Dale, or Guido Fawkes, it would be feasible to make some sort of living from it. I'm not, so I almost certainly won't...

I may occasionally experiment by moving the adverts around and, Dad, if you're reading this, your comments would be greatly appreciated...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

SHOCK NEWS: single male forms relationship with single female

Reports of Lembit's newfound relationship with one of the Cheeky Girls come as light entertainment on a grey Sunday afternoon.

Having read Sian Lloyd's account of the death of their relationship, whilst I feel sorry for her (you'll never know just how sorry, Sian...), it does seem that the engagement was heading full steam ahead for the rocks. I've always been of the view that there is only room for one 'star' in a relationship, and that the 'supporting cast' needs to possess a range of skills plus, most importantly, a lack of ego.

In part, I put the end of my marriage down, in part, to an unwillingness to be the 'supporting cast' without any recognition on the part of the 'star'. It can be damaging to self-esteem, and you become increasingly embittered. At that point, there are only two real options, separation or meaningful reconciliation. Strangely though, it's usually the star that pulls the trigger... funny, that.

I do think, however, that Sian comes off looking slightly tarnished by the whole affair. I'm not aware that Lembit has changed that much in twenty years. He is still mildly eccentric, full of energy and one of the more social of our MPs. If Sian thought that she could change him, she was probably making a big mistake. Going to the Mail on Sunday to weep tears for the benefit of its readers (and I'm assuming that a fee has changed hands, regardless of its final destination) isn't likely to encourage anyone else to offer to replace him in her affections.

Indeed, Gabriela Irimia seems to confirm that the affair was only consummated after the engagement was broken off. And so, if that is true, and even Sian isn't suggesting that it isn't, whilst Lembit has behaved rather discourteously, he hasn't actually done anything particularly wrong.

And, if we now have Gabriela and her sister on our side, I can't wait for the next Party Political Broadcast with Ming and the Cheeky Girls talking about Europe...

I am a cheeky girl, you are a cheeky boy...

And so dear Lembit has decided that his weathergirl is to be replaced by a Balkan chanteuse... and such clever lyrics too!

It must be said that young Mr Opik does have a consistent record of harmless eccentricity, going back to his days at university. I recall a winter meeting of the National Union of Students in Blackpool (clearly a government strategy to reduce the number of students by inducing frostbite and/or pneumonia) where he came on to the platform wearing a white lab coat and carrying a guitar.

His speech was unmemorable but his successful attempt to persuade all present to make sheep noises led me to suspect that he would go far. However, my prescience was not such that I imagined Montgomery to be the destination...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

As a liberal, with power comes responsibility

Whilst I am in a vaguely philosophical mood, I might as well add to my comments of yesterday.

Many of you will have realised that my blog contains quite a lot of detail on the day to day workings of a political party, yet there is very little 'insider gossip', and this has been a deliberate act on my part. As Regional Secretary, a surprising amount of information passes before me, some of it quite sensitive, much of it useful, occasionally controversial. It would be quite easy, but wrong, for me to monopolise that information, use my blog as a means to cement myself in power or to advance my supposed prospects within the Liberal Democrats by manipulating that knowledge.

However, I've always been of the view that power is to be shared, not hoarded, and so I've tried to find ways of sharing information that doesn't damage individuals, creates opportunity and helps others to make good decisions (note that I don't say 'right decisions'). I've worked to publicise the timetable for the forthcoming European selections and with apparent success, as a member previously unknown to me, from a part of the country I barely know, rang me at work to ask a question about process. He might not have known how to take part had it not been for our efforts to inform and include, and I feel good about that.

Also, there has been a raised level of interest in seeking approval for European candidacy, which will hopefully allow us to approve people earlier, and have a more diverse field of potential candidates. This in turn makes life easier for Regional Candidates Chairs, candidate assessors and Returning Officers, as they have more time to organise things.

I'm keen to build up our communication networks because information is power, especially when used transparently. So, particularly if you're in London, watch this space. You might be hearing a lot more in the weeks and months to come...

Blogging - when a good idea turns sour

I have had a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the risks and rewards of blogging in the past week, having attended the meeting where the revocation of an individual's membership of the Liberal Democrats was decided upon, in part due to her blog, and watched the travails of Bob Piper, the Sandwell Labour councillor, whose decision to include a somewhat unfortunate image of David Cameron as a blacked-up minstrel on his website caused a blogosphere storm.

For those of us who started to blog as a means to achieve a defined end, in my case to provide my family with a means to find out what I was up to, and moved towards something with a wider potential audience, there is always the danger that you forget who your audience is, as opposed to what you would like it to be. And, as you reach a certain level of fame (or in some cases, notoriety), the scope for disaster grows.

If you are an individual without formal office, then the chances that you will get into trouble are slim. Frankly, if you say something outrageous, most people will perhaps comment that you're a bit of an idiot, but that will be it. On the other hand, if you are a councillor, or an Officer of the Party, you risk being judged against the yardstick of 'official spokesperson', not always a comfortable place to be. With credibility comes responsibility, and in Bob's case, he has been beaten with the stick of hypocrisy when he thought he was merely displaying a sense of humour.

It is incredibly easy to post something that, in the cold light of day, is very foolish indeed, and I tend to think that there are some within the blogosphere who would benefit from the old dictum, "write in anger, sleep on it, and then publish it in the morning if you still feel that way". Luckily, as a civil servant, I have to spend a lot of my time restraining myself from writing things that would get me into serious trouble if I actually put them on paper, so I have an in-built emotional firewall in place when I blog. Besides, if blogs were set to music, mine would be a Chopin mazurka (what would yours be?)...

And yet, the wonderful thing about blogs is that they tend to display the passion and charisma that we all claim to want to see in politics, yet would be worried about if we saw it displayed by 'our' candidate. Humour, satire, frivolity, all of these go towards providing the entertainment value that I for one need at the end of a hard day of bureaucracy.

I suspect that Bob Piper won't be the last prominent political blogger to screw up, especially when using humour, one of the more difficult things to pitch correctly. As for me, I propose to avoid embarrassment by remaining comparatively anonymous, as a good faceless bureaucrat should be...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Can't Labour stick to sex, drugs and rock n'roll like the rest of us?

It has come to a pretty pass when one yearns for signs that those who govern us can relate in any way to the people they claim to serve.

I've always been fairly sympathetic of politicians who fall foul of sex, drugs or alcohol. After all, politicians are supposed to be like the rest of us, fallible. And now our glorious leaders have, in one day, demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that not only have they forgotten who they serve, or why, but indicated that they have lost touch with any sense of morality or honour.

Exhibit number 1, the decision by the Serious Fraud Office to bring their enquiries into alleged bribery by BAe of various Saudi nationals to an end. Bribery is a crime in this country, and we have always been proud of our national reputation for financial integrity. Our civil service is famously free of the levels of corruption apparently to be found elsewhere, our banking and legal systems considered to be of international repute. And now the Attorney General, acting with the authority of the Prime Minister, calls off a legitimate investigation because 'the Saudi government don't like it'.

I may be being terribly naive, but what else might the Saudis not like? Does this mean that our principles are something to be jettisoned as soon as they become expensive? Have we taken the stance that our willingness to sell our national virtue is not at question, merely the cost?

Exhibit number two, the candid admission by Mr Blair's spokesman:

"The prime minister explained why he nominated each of the individuals and he did so as party leader in respect of the peerages reserved for party supporters as other party leaders do. The honours were not, therefore, for public service but expressly party peerages given for party service. In these circumstances that fact that they had supported the party financially could not conceivably be a barrier to their nomination"

is even more worrying. What service did these people given to the Party? Write policy, represent a constituency honourably, run campaigns or contribute to the running of the Party in some tangible way? If writing a big cheque is seen as party service, then those who are so cynical about our political system will be quite justified in saying, "I told you so". Perhaps those who genuinely believe in the idea of public service have got it wrong, we should make a lot of money instead, and buy ourselves the right to pass legislation on behalf of the rest of us. We would be respected far more by our erstwhile socialist friends, and we wouldn't have to deal with common people.

I feel sorry for my Labour friends (and I do have some). They work hard, campaign for things that they believe in, and then watch as their leadership demonstrate their utter contempt for anything that represents a sense of public conscience. Hey guys, can anybody spell 'hypocrisy'? Better still, can anybody in Whitehall define the word?

Out with the old, in with the new...

The last meeting of the Regional Executive for 2006 took place on Tuesday evening, generating so much to do. Typing up the minutes and distributing them to the Executive is only the beginning...

As Secretary, I maintain our e-group (another of those simple but invaluable technological advances that makes my life so much easier). With the year over, I needed to remove the outgoing Executive members before starting the process of organising nominations for next year's Officers (not already elected by the Regional Conference) and Standing Committee members.

Quirkily, that includes me and, due to the stipulations of the Regional Constitution, my term of office comes to an end on 31 December, whilst my successor cannot assume responsibility until a meeting is held to elect him/her/it. So I have to set everything up before year end and, for a rare change, I actually had a few hours spare to do it all this evening. This was useful, on the basis that I intend to do nothing from 1 January until the next meeting (admittedly, I'll be in India anyway, but that's a different story).

So, I'm set to go, so to speak. One more task out of the way, a little less to worry about. Isn't bureaucracy fun?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pinochet - an appreciation (sort of)

My second cousin Jaime has noted the death of a former fellow alumni, one Augusto Pinochet. And, given that Mark has given me free rein to comment via this wonderful medium, I thought that I would let Jaime add some thoughts of his own...

Ah yes, Augusto... I remember him well from my days at military college, where he taught geopolitics rather badly. I did learn some valuable lessons (don't allow your children to be taught by Marists being one of the key ones) but I think that the most curious thing was his lack of pride in denying what he did.

It is all very well being a brutal dictator, although not to my personal taste, and my fellow junta members and I would never have done such things in our beloved (censored by the office of the Attorney General of Amaranth) but if you are going to do it, especially under a series of supportive American administrations, it is considered proper etiquette to ensure that everyone knows that you are. Otherwise, what is the point?

On the other hand, he really should be given credit for his creation of a meaningful personality cult. Any dictator with aspirations to grandeur should accept titles used by the leaders of our independence battles, claim the special protection of the Virgin Mary and join White's. So often, Latin American dictators have fallen short in this area. Who remembers Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, or any number of Bolivians (although you would have to have a pretty good memory to keep up in that country - I understand that they've introduced a queuing system whereby you get invited to the Presidential Palace when your number comes up)?

Naturally, a key part of maintaining power is to build strong relationships with key political allies. Fellow dictators will take care of assassinating exiles who pose a medium or long term threat and, outside your regional sphere, other hard men (Margaret Thatcher, for example) will laud you to the skies if you buy their country's torture equipment.

But his biggest mistake? Holding a plebiscite to ratify another ten years in power. Real dictators don't do that, at least not without making sure of the result first. Give old Alfredo credit, he did get that right.

I also understand that he took credit for saving the economy. Odd really, because any dictator knows that the only point in having a functioning economy is to raise sufficient funds to purchase the arms and equipment required to keep the population from rebelling (successfully, anyway, a romantic but doomed rebellion allows you to legitimately kill and torture political rivals).

And whilst I have wistful memories for the good old days, society has moved on and, to be honest, the uniforms looked silly anyway...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why all the fuss about popularity?

I continue my exploration of this Liberal Democrat concept, and become more perplexed by the minute.

Mark tells me that he is involved in some sort of debate about selection of candidates for your rather quaint Parliament. Admittedly, you do get one thing right, in that it must be opened by the Monarch, although whoever writes her speeches really needs to get out and about a bit more.

What I don't understand is the rules he mutters about rather darkly. Obviously, whoever writes Lizzie's speeches wrote these rules, because they could evidently be a lot shorter if you had a system like ours here in Amaranth. Of course, having a constitution which allows the monarchs (that's us) to write the rules for electing Parliamentarians is an advantage, in that we don't have a particular interest in the result! We simply consult the head of our Imperial Electoral Commission, Uncle Otto, whose team of fearfully clever young men called the 'Sputnik Project' (or something like that) explain the latest trends in selection technology until we fall asleep.

As I recall, the last suggestion was that we move to something called a 'Finnish open list selection'. All very nice, Uncle Otto opined, but in a forty-eight seat Parliament where the Authentic Radical Liberal Party of Amaranth gained 99.1% of the vote last time, it all becomes a bit irrelevant. Perhaps you could use it to elect your Members of Parliament?

It seems clear to me that all you need is a military coup led by a group of genuine monarchists, the imposition of a liberal monarch (I quite like the sound of young Jo Swinson, she looks to have the ability to wear ermine well) and an imposed electoral system that favours a liberal society and the internal selection problem goes away. Surely there aren't six hundred of you who want to spend your time sitting in a dusty room debating Labour proposals to ban people from crossing the street without a licence, are there?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Family, aren't they complicated sometimes?

I see that Jessica has put in an appearance (as promised/threatened)... don't ask me to explain... please?

The family were, once upon a time, incredibly helpful in dealing with a series of difficult situations I got myself into, and out of, some years back, and are a great source of comfort when I become a mite intense. Don't mind Jessica though, she does mean well...

I've spent today trying to get myself back into some sort of order, reading e-mail, answering some of it, and catching up on what is happening in the outside world. And yet again, I see that our Labour friends are recycling that old melody 'name and shame'. This time, the Child Support Agency is proposing to name and shame parents who fail to make their child support payments.

In the past, I might not have been so concerned about this. Latterly though, having gone through a divorce, I've discovered the hard way that facts and justice do not necessarily go hand in hand, and that a good story can go a long way to negating evidence and integrity. Judges make mistakes, and so does the Child Support Agency, thousands and thousands of them.

Given the CSA's reputation for error, what odds would you give on them publishing the names of genuine evaders, rather than those objecting through the proper channels against their assessments, or who have paid, or who actually can't afford to pay the amounts assessed for genuine personal reasons? Besides, where is this information going to be published? On the web, naturally. Will it be updated regularly, or will those who have resolved the problem continue to be humiliated?

Frankly, it will solely act as a tool for the Press to dig up dirt on people, as the average person won't be aware that someone is making child support payments and, even if they are, will consider it to be none of their business.

I assume that those behind this latest reincarnation of the stocks in the village square will be happy to demonstrate that they are without sin, because if they aren't, I would happily see open season being declared on them by the Daily Mail. And that's an invitation, Paul Dacre, with my blessings...

Tell me if I'm missing something obvious, won't you?

I'm told that research is very important when taking on a new project, and normally I would have someone do that for me (the advantages of monarchy, I've always thought) but, on this occasion, I've paid a visit to Mark's garret in the north-east tower of the castle to see what he actually does.

It gives me no great pleasure to admit that I am none the wiser after two hours of observation and questioning. There appears to be paper involved, and he assures me that there are people out there who respond to his various missives, but I am puzzled as to why he does it. It seems so desperately boring, if worthy. And yet there seem to be people out there, living wildly exciting lives, like that charming young man Stephen Tall, from Oxford (I remember my study abroad year at Magdalen College, such gaiety...), and the philosophy klatsch that is Liberal Review (so many ideas, I wonder if they'll ever get to use any of them?).

By comparison, Mark comes across as rather grey, and he is capable of so much more than that, if he ever puts his mind to it. Clearly, Ludwig and I are going to have to take him in hand and shake up his routine a little bit. If you have any suggestions, do let me know, won't you?

Welcome to Amaranth!

I love Mark dearly, but he can be awfully hard work sometimes...

Perhaps I should introduce myself first though. My name is Jessica, and I'm a friend of Mark's from the old country. I live here, with my husband, Emperor Ludwig XIV, and I occasionally reappear in Mark's life when he shows signs of needing my help. Mark has asked me to add some glamour to his blog which, I'm told, tends towards the bureaucratic which, for a politician, is somewhat odd. It shouldn't come as a tremendous surprise though, because whilst bureaucracy is terribly worthy and really quite valuable, it tends to lack sparkle.

I have the good fortune to have a life filled with excitement, mingling with the international political elite, whitewater rafting at World Championship level, madrigal singing and various good works. My family are a curious collection of former South American junta members, vicious sociopaths and eccentric philosophers but all of us care quite deeply for Mark. And so I will be contributing to 'Liberal Bureaucracy' from time to time, sometimes to explain (and Mark does require quite a lot of explaining), sometimes to comment on world affairs, and sometimes simply to entertain. I'll also introduce you to the rest of the family here in Amaranth as time permits...

Time for that evening glass of rakia I had promised myself before the Bruckner concert...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The problem with freedom of the press is just that

I've been following an argument in Liberal Democrat Voice with some interest, related to the appropriateness of a particular posting. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the actual posting itself, as it isn't especially relevant for the purposes of what follows.

As a blogger myself, and a bureaucrat too, I am well aware of the power of information. Used in the right (wrong) way, it can be a most destructive weapon, particularly when used against individuals. It can also be a means of promoting participation and inclusivity, of encouraging valuable debate and generating ideas, all of which we would, I think, applaud.

As a Officer of my Regional Executive, I am given important information which might be potentially damaging if it were to go any further. Would I be right to disseminate that information, regardless of its impact on individuals, or should I withhold it for the perceived 'good of the Party'? As an individual, albeit one who is part of a wider team, the decision is comparatively simple and will be founded on my personal priniciples and preferences.

As a newspaper editor, the dilemma is somewhat different. Publish and be damned, or don't publish, and be ignored? In the case of Liberal Democrat Voice, a medium in the throes of establishing a wider credibility, the problem is thrown into even starker contrast. To be a success, it does need to establish a reputation as a 'medium of record' whilst maintaining a degree of independence from the Party centrally.

Mistakes will undoubtedly be made, and these are part of the process of 'growing up'. On the other hand, without pushing the envelope from time to time, we will end up with something that our gallant control freak friends in the Labour Party would approve of, something akin to our very own Pravda (a.k.a. Liberal Democrat News), a vehicle for political propaganda and no more (I'm not being hard on Deirdre and her team by the way, they do what is asked of them, no more, no less).

Freedom of the press does include the freedom to get it wrong occasionally, and critics should bear that in mind before wading in indiscriminately. I've always tended to correspond with people whose views have disconcerted me where possible, because written missives do not always come across in the manner intended. Asking the question, "is my perception of this comment what was intended by the author?", tends to be a good first thought. I only wish that I asked it more often myself...

Safe from the guards of intellect and reason?

This is the longest period without an entry since I started this humble blog some fourteen months ago. Don't think that I haven't thought about posting something but, if truth be told, I've felt rather uninspired. I've also been very busy, which given the prolific nature of some of my fellow Lib Dem bloggers, makes me feel vaguely guilty. But enough of that, what have I been up to?

Mostly paperwork, if truth be told. Having attended all of these meetings in recent weeks, there are reports to write, people to contact and all of the normal stuff of political bureaucracy. Some of it is astonishingly dull and, if your mind is prone to wandering like mine is, it is far too easy to drift off towards something more interesting.

I've also continued my occasional efforts on behalf of St Jude, as I attended a disciplinary meeting on behalf of a colleague. Having spent as much time as I have this year dealing with my lawyers (frightfully nice people) and my ex-wife's lawyers (probably Daily Mail readers), I suppose that the cut and thrust of cross-examination comes rather easier. The witnesses were, I am sure, quite sincere in their views, and the panel were courteous and incisive, and whilst the result might not have been perfect, I at least felt that a proper hearing of the case was achieved.

The problem with principles is that they tend to get in the way of good politics. This particular instance will probably have caused some friction in my relationships with political colleagues, some of whom I hold the utmost respect for, and it would almost certainly have been easier to quietly step back from the fray. Unfortunately, I insist on behaving like a gentleman and honouring my commitments. I'm clearly never going to get very far in politics with an attitude like that but, fortunately, there isn't much further that I could get anyway, given the other self-imposed limitations.

I've also been working on the European selections. In response to some of the criticisms of the English Candidates Committee, I've been working with its Chair, Dawn Davidson, who is a joy to work with, to improve our communication with stakeholders. We have a responsibility to three elements, candidates, members and the wider Party, and it is often too easy to focus on what must be done and forget that we have a responsibility towards openness and transparency. Given the incredible volume of work done by Regional Candidates Officers and Dawn herself, it is entirely understandable though, and I hope that, with my efforts, I can contribute in some small way in the coming year.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

And as I face the final curtain...

And so, as promised, my tenure as Chair of Dulwich & West Norwood Liberal Democrats will come to an end on 31 December, following an entertaining Annual General Meeting this evening.

You never really know what will happen, especially in a Local Party where sending in nominations for office is considered to be rather daring, and the apparent absence of candidates for Chair, Treasurer and Membership Secretary was nagging away at the back of my mind. Fortunately, I wasn't the only one thinking about it and it became quickly apparent that my Vice Chair, Jeremy Baker, was amenable to the idea of taking Dulwich & West Norwood Liberal Democrats into a new era. We even found a Treasurer, and I must thank Jonathan Price for stepping forward. With Janet Coy-Taras, our long time Membership Secretary moving on to be Vice Chair, and Theresa Connolly continuing as Secretary, that only left one post to fill.

My invitation to the gathered throng going unanswered, I very foolishly indicated that, if all else failed, I would take the job on myself. Big mistake, in that I was proposed, seconded and adopted by acclaim before sanity could kick in. So my life in South London politics continues although I at least escape three committees that I now don't have to attend (Jeremy gets the privilege from 1 January!).

Our guest speaker was Geoff Pope, one of the Liberal Democrat members of the London Assembly. I must freely admit that I didn't know how well he would come across but he gave an entertaining presentation of London-wide issues before fielding a stream of questions for about forty minutes. I must say that we don't really use our London Assembly members very well as a Party, and if tonight was anything to go by, many Local Parties would do well to invite one of the Assembly Members to a future meeting.

So, one last duty as Local Party Chair, and that is to issue a December Newsletter before passing the baton of leadership on. The past two years have been a lot of fun, and hard work too, but I've learnt a huge amount in that time, and will hopefully be able to use the skills learnt in some future role, wherever that might be...

Monday, November 27, 2006

So, what to do in 2007?

You might argue that I'm being a mite premature here, and you might even be right. However, having now been re-elected to all the things at a level beyond that of my Local Party, I can now think strategically. But first, a reminder of what I'm now on...
  • Joint States Membership Committee
  • English Candidates Committee
  • English Council
  • London Regional Executive
  • London Regional Candidates Committee

Next year, I'm going to attempt to land a few blows on behalf of openness, transparency and inclusiveness. I'm going to follow up my proposals on internal communications at Regional level, attempt to improve the way that candidates issues are relayed, and keep Local Parties better informed of both as best I can.

I'm also going to try to do less better, say no when it makes sense and delegate more effectively. I'm also going to be a warmer, friendlier soul. In short, I am going to be sensational. Beware world, I'm coming to get you... but I think a glass of vintage port is my next priority...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Success is an illusion, English Council doubly so

And to complete my perfect set so far this Autumn, I was comfortably re-elected to my place on English Council thanks to those remarkably generous people who are willing to suspend logic to vote for me.

Thank you to all of them, and I hope that it will prove to have been worth the investment...

Candidates, candidates, candidates...

I've been rather busy worrying about candidates lately. How to get them, what to do with them once you've found them and stopping them from doing something that would be bad for internal party democracy, all this and more has crossed my metaphorical desk in recent days. And of course, I've been one myself from time to time recently. My personal record this autumn? Elections contested five, elections won five. I'm not smug, no, not at all...

Yesterday saw me at a meeting of our Regional Candidates Committee, nailing down the final details of our GLA selection rules and introducing a proposal for debate. I'll save you the details on that, although the matter will now go before the Regional Executive for further discussion and, hopefully, adoption. We're making progress in terms of selections for parliamentary candidates in London, having had to wait until the boundary changes were concluded and the May elections put to bed. A number of interesting seats are now well on the way to selecting candidates, and I suspect that we'll be in pretty good shape by the Spring.

Today was English Council and the big debate was over the timetable for selecting our European Parliamentary candidates. Traditionally, we have selected all of the English candidates at once, which makes for a heavy workload but prevents the Party from becoming trapped in an endless cycle of internal campaigning. There were apparently some qualms about the lack of consultation, but I'm puzzled as to what the impact of that consultation would have been.

In 1998, the selection process ran across the Local Elections that year, and there were some who felt that having something like 100 key camapigners running around whole European Regions trying to attract personal support at the height of local campaigns was probably a bad idea. In 2002, we started rather later in the year, and Christmas rather got in the way (I ended up having to approve the manifestos from a hotel room in Buenos Aires - should I be that surprised that my marriage failed within twelve months?). Best of all, candidates got to campaign when nights were at their shortest and the weather at its worst, hardly conducive to meeting members on their doorsteps.

This time, we have attempted to avoid both of these pitfalls, and came up with a timetable which achieved all of that, met the apparent needs of the Campaigns Department, and could be delivered by Membership Services. You can't please everybody though, and some people do feel that they should be consulted, no matter how relevant they might be to the process, or whether or not by doing so, others might feel that they've been put at a disadvantage.

I am minded to propose that we actually start making proposals for selection timetables further in advance. Withthe exception of Westminster elections, all other major elections are on fixed-term cycles, and we could make provisional plans which might allow people to plan better. If a General Election were to be called, those plans can be flexible enough to be altered at short notice, and most people would understand if we did that, as long as we were willing to explain ourselves at the time of doing so. We also need to be better at communicating with stakeholders, something that my fellow members of English Candidates Committee seem enthusiastic about. Something for 2007 perhaps...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ten things that I would never do...

I've been tagged... but not electronically, I'm glad to say. So, in response to Duncan, who links back to Iain Dale, who started this... I would never (in no particular order)...

10. Run to be a member of the United Kingdom Parliament (Europe, on the other hand...).
9. Support the death penalty.
8. Hunt, except to eat.
7. Bear firearms, except in the defence of my country.
6. Buy a dog (my five cats couldn't bear it).
5. Have children, I love them but couldn't eat a whole one...
4. Encourage the suppression of criticism - even the East Germans were notionally against that!
3. Withhold information that someone really needs.
2. Vote for, or join, a political party that wasn't liberal in its outlook.
1. Deny my ethnicity - Anglo-Indian, catholic and proud of it!

So, who should I tag next? Well, let's try my cousin Kim, Andy Mayer, my North Southwark colleague, and Susanne Lamido. Over to you, ladies and gentleman!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I don't want to be adored for what I merely represent to you

And so the results, or most of them at least, are in, and I've been 'gloriously' re-elected, both to the Regional Executive and to the Regional Candidates Committee. Many thanks to those of you who so kindly demonstrated your faith in me and I hope that I won't disappoint you in 2007.

I'm vaguely torn as to the role I expect to play next year. There are lots of things that I could do, personally and politically, and a temptation to do whatever makes me happy. So I'm going to play it by ear for the time being, take some time out to think and to dream, and come back with some sort of gameplan, because the pursuit of happiness should always feature somewhere on our horizons...

Spamalot: go, laugh, laugh again, repeat until ribs hurt...

As a belated forty-second birthday treat, my cousin Kim took my kid brother and I for a night out of outrageous entertainment last night. I admit, frequently, to being something of a fan of Monty Python, and had been quite keen (alright, very, very enthusiastic) to see Spamalot at the Palace Theatre.

The plot will come as no surprise to fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the classic sketches (the Black Knight, Swamp Castle, Brave Sir Robin and, of course, the French) and all the other good bits. They even got the rabbit just about right, and that was always going to be difficult. However, there are some extra twists thrown in, and a much bigger role for Guinevere (beautiful plumage...) and Kim, who has never seen the movie, laughed herself almost insensible, so it must be funny.

And of course, it's all so maddeningly catchy that you'll end up humming the tunes absent-mindedly for weeks afterwards. The show is described as lovingly ripped off from the original movie, and I reckon that they've got it just about right...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

And how could I forget...

I really should introduce today's guest editor, my cat Franklin, who is literally peering over my shoulder.

Franklin is the oldest of my five cats, and is fifteen years old. Recently, he has developed the curious habit of waiting until I fire up my computer and get myself comfortable, before sitting in front of me to get my attention, and climbing up my right shoulder before settling across the back of my neck. On the positive side, it keeps my neck warm, often a good thing as I have a tendancy to sustain trapped nerves there. On the negative side, he's a mite heavy.

Cats are curious creatures, but I suppose that I'm fortunate that they allow me to share the house with them. And for those of you out there who are cat owners, you'll understand excatly where I'm coming from...

A member of the English Candidates Committee responds to criticism...

Liberator 314 included a piece critical of English Candidates Committee and of the selection process generally. Sadly, but inevitably, the Collective are not alone in their criticism so, perhaps, we need to have an open debate on our processes, what they seek to achieve, how they work and what key failings need to be addressed in order to move things forward.

I’ve been involved in the selection processes of the party as a Returning Officer since 1989 and as a candidate assessor since 1995. In that time I’ve seen huge changes in the Selection Rules and the candidate approval processes, very few of which have simplified the processes to be followed. With that complexity comes frustration, and not just for those wanting to be candidates or wishing to adopt one.

Unexpectedly perhaps, I share some of those frustrations, as the system by which we select PPCs places a heavy burden on our Local Parties, especially the smaller, weaker ones. Our selection rules impose costs, both financial and human, and where the number of likely applicants is small, that cost is a disproportionate one. So how did we get into this mess?

Principles can be an expensive luxury sometimes. As part of the merger agreement in 1988, it was accepted that we would steer a compromise course between all member postal ballots (the old SDP way of choosing parliamentary candidates) and hustings-only participation (the traditional Liberal approach). Accordingly and, I believe, sensibly, we chose to allow members to apply for postal ballots if they are unable to attend the hustings and we therefore need to allow sufficient time to notify members of the hustings meeting, and to allow for request, issue and return of postal ballots to those requiring them. We also ought to allow candidates time to canvass for support. The selection rules allow a minimum of twenty-two days from the issue of the calling notice to the date of the first hustings meeting. In addition, the mailing has to be printed and enveloped, usually by the volunteer selection committee, and the calling notice and manifestos must be approved by the Returning Officer, another volunteer. Add five days for that, making twenty-seven so far.

Ah yes, manifestos. We encourage candidates to produce them, and they’ve become increasingly professional over the years. Candidates need to be advised that they have been shortlisted and that a manifesto is sought. Allowing for time to write and post the invitation and a week to produce and submit the document for approval. Nine days seems reasonable, making thirty-six in total.

The selection committee have the right to interview all long-listed candidates as part of the short-listing process, and most members would reasonably expect their chosen representatives to do so. We need to invite the candidates, and a week’s notice seems to be eminently fair. After all, we need to give non-local candidates time to prepare, don’t we? The clock now stands at forty-three days…

For a potentially winnable seat, we may have meaningful competition for the selection. Therefore, we need to allow for a longlisting phase and now we’re talking about adding serious time to our schedule. The rules allow for a seven-day appeal phase for those candidates excluded at this point. Add two days for delivery of the letter advising applicants of the outcome, and you add nine days. You also need time to get application forms to the selection committee in advance of the longlisting meeting. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that the meeting takes place within forty-eight hours of close of applications. We’re now at fifty-four days…

Applications need to be advertised for, and we insist that Liberal Democrat News is the default medium to be used, at a minimum cost of £58.75 for a single constituency. We need to give potential applicants reasonable time to respond, be sent an application pack, complete their application form and submit it. Three weeks seems fair, and you need to give Liberal Democrat News at least a week’s notice for publication. Eighty-two days and counting…

To get this far, you need to find and appoint a Returning Officer, produce the application form, constituency profile (essential for anyone outside the constituency, and useful for some from within it), draw up selection criteria and agree the content of the advert, all of this assuming that selection committee members have been trained. This won’t happen overnight, as all of the key players are, and I don’t apologise for banging on about this, volunteers, most of whom have other roles within the Party and their local communities.

So we’ve established a timeline. What are the other factors that stand between East Bloggshire Liberal Democrats and their successful selection of their PPC? First, gender balance. There is no doubt that we have, in the past, failed dismally in selecting, and more importantly, electing, good women candidates. Despite efforts in institute quotas, a strategy that still has its adherents amongst the Parliamentary Candidates Association, we have so far opted for support, training and encouragement, an approach which, I believe, is respectful for our liberal principles although not the quick, philosophically bankrupt, fix that some senior members of the Party would like to see. That said, we do insist that selection committees make reasonable attempts to attract women applicants, particularly in potentially winnable seats. I support that, as it isn’t inconsistent with a merit-based selection system.

The second barrier is choice, something that our members seem to want, and certainly deserve. Is it healthy to allow members a choice between candidate X and reopen nominations? Does that encourage the candidate to work his/her patch in the (potentially) three-year lead-in to a General Election campaign? Is this the best possible field available to members, or will delay allow for a wider, more acceptable range of options? Yes, we have to balance these considerations against those of good campaigning practice, but is having any candidate at all the best outcome for an ambitious Local Party?

Which brings me to the third barrier, that of candidate enthusiasm. A mixture of anecdotal evidence from my fellow Returning Officers and my recent personal experience indicates a lack of willingness on the part of potential candidates to commit themselves to a potential three years of hard work, particularly in those seats where Conservatives are our primary opposition. In fairness, in those seats where we are challenging Labour, competition is much fiercer, and that seems logical, given the change in opinion polls over the past two years, and particularly since David Cameron became Conservative leader.

Finally, it is self-evident that selections are far more meaningful than they were. Twenty years ago, most selections gave the victor an opportunity to come a gallant third or, if you were very lucky, second. With greater credibility comes ambition and, if an applicant doesn’t like a decision by the selection committee or the Returning Officer, an increased likelihood of appeals. The damage done by appeals, and the delays caused, only serve to discredit our process, yet we cannot be so arrogant as to assume that selection committees and Returning Officers get it right every time, nor that candidates are entirely honourable and decent. A contentious appeal can take months to resolve, damage political careers and jeopardise potentially successful campaigns, yet we have a responsibility to ensure that justice is done.

In summary, our selection processes are the product of our principles as a political party, and reflect a responsibility to balance the needs of members, candidates and the Party generally. We’ve complicated matters by attempting a degree of social engineering and to apply natural justice, and then complained about the result.

Depressing though it may seem, we can do better. We need to communicate better, and to enable potential MPs and MEPs to plan their political careers better (and don’t ignore the fact that it is becoming a legitimate career for ambitious Lib Dems). I’m a firm believer that we need to open up the process, inform people as to how it works and of potential timetables, and to encourage greater participation in all aspects of the selection and approval processes.
And so I offer a friendly challenge to anyone reading this article, in fact to anyone in the party. If you have an idea to improve the way we approve and/or select PPCs, why not post a comment. I promise to respond meaningfully and tell you how to get your ideas debated. Why? Because it matters that members and activists have faith in our systems and that we select the best possible candidates for public office.

The unbearable lightness of waiting in Haverstock

This time last year, I was focused on ensuring that my motion of diversity and equality passed trial by London Liberal Democrats, and thus I didn't enjoy the Regional Conference as much as perhaps I should.

A year later, I was busy trying to be helpful (presumably a good thing) and so today was rather more enjoyable. The day didn't get off to the greatest of starts. I overslept and, as a result, had to rush through my normal morning routine before dashing to Chalk Farm in Camden, in time to play the role of junior member of Regional Conference Committee, a role which, I feel, I was always destined to play.

We had a lovely opening speech from the Mayor of Camden, Jill Fraser, who talked about her role as Mayor, and about the impact she had been able to have in changing even a few lives for the better. Jill is a real community politician, known in her ward and liked by the voters. Her result in the General Election last year, where she achieved an 11% swing from Labour in Holborn & St Pancras against Frank Dobson and pushed Margot James, now a Tory A-lister, into a distant third place, was one of the more remarkable ones in London, yet she's still the genuinely nice person she was when I first met her two years ago.

There followed reports from Lynne Featherstone on behalf of our MPs, Sarah Ludford, our MEP, and Mike Tuffrey as Leader of our London Assembly Group. Lynne focused on civil liberties in her usual frank, and occasionally offbeat, manner, whilst Sarah made some very strong points about the European dimension on human rights. Mike was enthusiastic and genuinely witty about life with Ken Livingstone and talked about what our team at the London Assembly are up to.

One of the interesting features of the day was the genuine enthusiasm to debate green issues. We had a presentation from Alexis Rowell, one of the new Camden councillors, an emergency motion of green transport policy, and a speech by John Stevens on climate change. Each of those sessions could have been doubled in length without meeting the demand for interventions and questions from the floor, and we may have to seriously consider having an event apart from our normal conference schedule dedicated to environmental and related issues.

Otherwise, my favourite moment of the day was the presentation made by Simon Hughes to the Honorary President of North Southwark and Bermondsey Liberal Democrats, Stan Hardy. Stan is also our Honorary President here in Dulwich & West Norwood, where he lives, and I was delighted to see his efforts recognised. Stan and I have not always seen eye to eye (a very wise move on his part, I suspect) and usually, when he contacts me, it's to note that I might do something in particular. And he's always right... It's for that reason that I value having Stan there, doing what he wants to do (and at 86, he's thoroughly earned that right), but always acting in the best interests of the Party. His sixty years of active membership have seen many changes, triumphs and disasters, but he is still as respected as he ever was. It's fascinating to see him at Federal Conferences, surrounded by people young enough to be his grandchildren (and in some cases, great-grandchildren), and still look perfectly at home.

Of course, from a personal and entirely selfish perspective, the primary interest for me was the elections to the Executive Committee, the Regional Candidates Committee and English Council, all of which saw me defending the seats I won last year. We won't have a result for a few days yet, and I'm hopeful that I might live to fight for good administration and harmonious bureaucracy for another year. Astonishingly, people still seem reasonably happy to tolerate my eccentricities, and with any luck, enough of them will have voted for me to see me squeak in.

Check Liberal Democrat Voice for more news when the results are available...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Leadership is in the eye of the beholder

I spent this morning at the Sixth Floor Museum, the scene of one of the more infamous moments in history, the assassination of John F Kennedy who, in November 1963, was gunned down from a window of the Texas School Book Repository building.

You can look out of the windows onto the actual road where the Presidential motorcade was driving when Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot Kennedy twice, once in the neck, the second in the head. It's a pretty good museum, and you get a feel for what Kennedy meant to the nation and to the world. On the other hand, it isn't as good a museum as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where you can stand in the very motel room where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. And that is a very good museum...

Dallas has a surprisingly lively downtown heart, with the Arts District, museums, a department store, restaurants and many of the other things we Europeans come to expect. I spent the rest of my day riding the McKinney Avenue Streetcar (rediscovered after thirty years by accident), drinking coffee and shopping. The streetcar line was apparently just concreted over when it wasn't needed any more, and it was only discovered that the tracks were still there during road building thirty years later. So, after a feasibility study, they rebuilt the tracks, bought four old trams, one of which comes from Melbourne, and reintroduced a tram service. It's one of the more unexpected facets of this city, and adds to the sense that Dallas is more than the cliches of oil, stetsons and brashness.

Tomorrow, sadly, it's time to come home. I've enjoyed Texas and New Mexico, and have good cause to come back. Maybe next year?...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Waitress, get me the alligator, and make it...

... on second thoughts, I'll take it with the creole aioli.

I saw the fried alligator on the menu as an appetiser and thought, "Hmmm... an opportunity to eat something which, given half a chance, would be thinking the same thing about me.". And I have to admit that it was pretty good. A bit rubbery in texture, but very tasty.

In narrative terms, this introduction is flawed, as the chronology is shot to pieces, but who could resist opening a blog entry with such an old joke? So, let's go back to the beginning... One of the advantages of jet lag is that you find it easier to get up early, at least in this direction. Thus enabled, I was out of my quite lovely hotel in good time to catch an early morning train to Fort Worth, with the zoo in mind. Despite a long-running bus strike, normal services have been resumed and, in a gesture to maintain customer loyalty, fares have been withdrawn temporarily, making the Fort Worth transportation system a real bargain.

The zoo is a pretty good one, with an excellent collection of elephants, a meerkat mound, some very contented looking rhinos and two very active hippos. The sun shone, as it has done throughout this trip thus far, and it was nice to be wandering around.

The afternoon was spent wandering around downtown Fort Worth, stopping for some excellent beer and finally retiring to a restaurant called Reata for dinner, which is where we came in. The alligator was followed by a really good steak, encrusted with peppercorns and served with a port reduction. I've had some pretty good steaks, particularly in Buenos Aires, but this was the equal of any.

Alas, all good things come to an end, and I was obliged to head back to Dallas on a late evening train, allowing me to write this blog entry before retiring to bed for the night...