Sunday, February 26, 2006

The minister, her husband and some loose change

It just gets better and better here in South London... although (I forget), she does live in North London, doesn't she...

My thanks go to the Sunday Times for the latest on the David Mills bribery investigation. You can just imagine the conversation over the breakfast table chez Jowell...

"Tessa, honey, can you pass the butter?"

"Of course, David, is there anything else I can get you?"

"Well, actually, I've got something that requires your signature here. Would you be a love and deal with it now?"

"I do have Cabinet this morning, will it take long?"

"No, just a signature should take care of it..."

Tessa walks around the table, picks up a fountain pen and starts to sign the proffered form.

"What's this for anyway?"

"I need to borrow £350,000 and I'm putting up our home as security."

"But David, what do we need that much money for?"

"Tessa, don't worry your pretty little head about it, I'll explain everything when you've got more time..."

Unlikely, isn't it? So, if Peter Mandelson has set the benchmark for dodgy mortgages, what will the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport do? Perhaps resign to spend more time with her constituents? Oh, I forget, she doesn't live anywhere near here, does she...

Friday, February 24, 2006

I get by with a little help from my Friends (Meeting House)

To Euston for the biggest and best of the Liberal Democrat leadership hustings (alright, so I'm biased, we hosted it). First though, the Spring Regional Conference...

I have to admit that it was a bit low key, with the hustings hovering over it, the air thick with anticipation. Under the circumstances, all went well, with Paul Burstow kicking things off and two of our Council leaders (Sean Brennan from Sutton, and our very own Peter Truesdale from Lambeth) giving the rest of us useful hints on what to do when we get elected. I have to admit to having been a mite flustered, as I had to keep an eye on the conference, whilst keeping in touch with the preparations for the hustings in the main hall downstairs. I also got to close Conference, in the absence of our Regional Conference Chair, Alison Sanderson (giving birth just to get out of turning up on a cold February evening is a bit much - only joking, Alison!).

You'll see plenty of other comments on the actual hustings elsewhere and, as I was in and out of the hall for large parts of it, helping to deal with late arrivals and minding one of the entrances, I'll stick to some impressions.

Ming was actually pretty good. I'm still comfortable with my choice (Huhne 1, Campbell 2, Hughes 3) and reassured that if my man doesn't win, the party will still be in good hands. He seemed to display more passion and more humour with a larger audience, an interesting realisation. Chris was solid, well-informed but perhaps could have kept his answers a little shorter. He'll need to work on demonstrating his sense of humour a little, as he occasionally came across as a mite too earnest.

Simon had the misfortune to be interrupted by a group of hecklers. Those who know a little about Southwark politics will be aware of the Imperial Gardens fiasco, and the key players in that drama took the opportunity to attempt to hijack our event. Perhaps they might learn that, in Liberal Democrat circles, we tend to rally around our own, and their attack probably served to bolster Simon's support amongst those present. It may have been foolish of me to join those attempting to intervene, but it was the right thing to do and we managed to deal with the situation without things turning violent, although it did look a bit dicey for a moment or two.

It was incredible to see a hall full of people, listening to speeches and responding warmly to them. I'm led to believe that the Guardian exit poll will show that Simon 'won' but given the number of polls that have been published, and the variations in their results, I'm going to wait until the results are declared next Thursday before I get excited.

Afterwards, off to Mabels Tavern (an old haunt of mine from my days at Inland Revenue Maida Vale) for a few beers. Simon was there with some of his supporters, and I was surprised, yet again, to encounter some of the people who read this blog. I have no real idea why you read this, my friends, but I'm flattered that you think it worthwhile to do so...

Monday, February 20, 2006

The pitfalls of being a political spouse

Having had the 'pleasure' of being a political spouse in the past (my ex-wife is a former Chair of Democrats Abroad and was at one time a member of the Democratic National Committee), I am perhaps more sympathetic with the predicament that David Mills finds himself in than most others might be.

As Chair of Dulwich and West Norwood Liberal Democrats, I might be expected to draw some small amount of pleasure from the embarrassment he has brought upon his wife, Tessa Jowell MP. Yet I find myself feeling a little sorry for her, as some of the press have taken the opportunity to delve into their past (sorry, I'm not including a link to the articles...), despite its irrelevancy to the subject matter.

On the other hand, regardless of the legality of his actions, one can't help but think that his activities on behalf of Silvio Berlusconi leave him looking ethically challenged. Engineering the financial affairs of an extraordinarily rich and powerful individual to minimise his tax liabilities never looks particularly good and, particularly when said individual is head of a national government, tends to indicate a certain contempt for ordinary, tax-paying, citizens.

I'm not sure what Gordon Brown's private thoughts on the matter are, although I guess that they might be interesting but, as a 'senior Labour figure', David might be advised to keep his head down for a while...

Friday, February 17, 2006

A rummage through the memory vaults

And so to Harlesden/Neasden/Stonebridge (delete as appropriate), for the second Brent Liberal Democrats Annual Dinner. Daniel and Valerie (old friends and now Brent councillors) had invited me last week and, given my historic links to the borough - my parents still live in what is now Fryent ward and I fought Roe Green ward in 1990 - it seemed like an opportunity to meet some old friends.

Somehow, I shouldn't have been surprised to see Jonathan Fryer there. There is a theory that there is more than one Jonathan Fryer wandering around London because, to paraphrase, everyone knows someone who has met Jonathan at a Local Party event. Anyone would think that he wanted to be selected for something...

I ended up on a table with Jonathan, John Hammond and Alan Johnston (two of our original councillors from the early days in Barham), Daniel and his wife Karen, and a charming evening was had by all.

The guest speaker was Lembit Opik. Now I remember Lembit long before he was an 'out' Liberal/Liberal Democrat, having attended the Winter 1985 National Union of Students Conference in Blackpool (if you think the town is bad in September, try December...) where he ran as an independent to fill a vacancy on the National Executive (unsuccessfully, as I recall). Coming on stage wearing a white lab coat and carrying a guitar was a USP, and somehow persuading 1,500 fairly politicized students to make sheep noises was pretty impressive. Amazing how he ended up in Montgomery, when you think about it...

It is sufficient to say that he gave an excellent speech, laden with jokes and asides, demonstrating beyond any shadow of a doubt that he can work a room. Whilst this does demonstrate his entertainment value, I'm yet to be convinced that he has the gravitas to be an effective Party President.

Of course, Brent has its own MP, the increasingly prominent Sarah Teather. She rallied the troops in advance of the May elections and gave a passionate call to vote for Ming (too late, Sarah, I've already voted...). She is impressive. If she were six inches taller, she'd be quite intimidating, although I'm not sure if that's a good thing...

So, all in all, a good evening and an event I would recommend to anyone. Perhaps next year...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Another day, another hustings...

...although for me, this was my first in this special winter touring production.

And so to the National Liberal Club for the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force hustings with all three candidates in attendance before an audience of about thirty people.

Chris Huhne spoke first, covering a wide range of policy issues before addressing the topic of most interest to those present, how to make the elected face of the Party more representative. He was good, if not great, and was well enough received. Ming was next and, whilst a touch wooden, held the fort for classical liberalism well. I sense that he doesn't really enjoy small, intimate meetings, but again, it was a good performance.

Finally, Simon. Unlike the other two, he has great experience of issues of diversity from his own constituency (sorry, but I will never be convinced that Eastleigh or North East Fife have significant ethnic groupings within their borders), and quoted a series of statistics to establish this. He spoke with typical passion but, and this is the problem, I still fundamentally disagree as to the viability of his proposed solutions.

We then moved on to the question and answer section. The first question came from a Southwark councillor, calling for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) only shortlists. Now I really ought to declare an interest here. I serve on the English Candidates Committee of the Party, on the London Region Candidates Committee and have been a Returning Officer for our internal selections since 1989. I fundamentally belief that restricted shortlists are illiberal and contrary to the notion of selection on merit and nothing else. I expect Simon to be in favour of quotas - he has form after all (remember Blackpool?) - but to see Chris pander to this was very disappointing. Ming, on the other hand, took the line that persuasion and leadership would be more effective and essayed a liberal philosophy that I was impressed by.

Other than that, the questions on Britishness, detentions under the 2000 Terrorism Act and institutional racism drew the sort of gut-reaction liberal responses that you might hope for and, to be honest, expect.

So, grades for the evening? A- for Ming, B- for Chris and a C+ for Simon. And I'm supporting Chris...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I really must pay more attention... seven sevens

So oblivious to the outside world am I that I failed to notice that John Bright's Body has tagged me... but now that I have...

7 things to do before I die...

  1. visit as many countries as years I have been alive (I need country number 42 by 13 November - I'm on 40)
  2. learn to speak Latin American Spanish
  3. get elected to the House of Lords (or its replacement, preferably)
  4. feed a penguin in its natural environment
  5. watch the turtles hatch and crawl down to the sea
  6. bungy jump and appreciate the experience properly
  7. make my peace with God (I'm Catholic, and guilty...)
7 things I cannot do
  1. whistle
  2. swim
  3. maintain a diet and exercise regime
  4. keep up with my housework
  5. say no to my cats
  6. enjoy ironing
  7. run for either Parliament (Westminster or European) - can I have my human rights back?
7 things that attract me to London
  1. the presence of my family and friends
  2. the multicultural community
  3. the National Liberal Club
  4. the range of cultural opportunities available (I only wish that I had more time to enjoy them...)
  5. riding on the top deck of a bus on a sunny day (or any other day for that matter!)
  6. feeding the ducks in St James's Park
  7. the number of airports I can escape through
7 things I often say
  1. "I don't work for a living, I'm a civil servant..."
  2. "professionally, I drink blood and eat babies..."
  3. "call me old-fashioned but..."
  4. "Valladares, I'll spell that for you..."
  5. "Victoria, do you mind not standing in front of my computer screen?..."
  6. "and now for the dead boy/live goat round" - if you're in Haringey, you might get this...
  7. "Good... er... morning, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Westminster..."
7 books that I love
  1. 2004 Wisden (featuring Sussex's only County Championship victory)
  2. anything by Terry Pratchett
  3. any Lonely Planet guide
  4. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - Douglas Adams
  5. "Gulag" - Anne Applebaum
  6. "A Short History of Nearly Everything" - Bill Bryson
  7. "The Prince" - Machiavelli
7 movies I could watch over and over again
  1. "The Prisoner of Zenda"
  2. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
  3. "Field of Dreams" (alright, I admit, crying at the end of this one is a bit weird...)
  4. "The Pelican Brief" - I'm a sucker for Julia Roberts (so sue me...)
  5. "Mr Smith Goes to Washington"
  6. "Sleeper"
  7. an unknown winner of a Golden Rose at Montreux about the history of Norwegian broadcasting (I saw it once, have no idea what it was called, have never forgotten it - the funniest thing I ever saw)
7 people I want to join in too
  1. Kim Valladares- my cousin
  2. Nick Stanton - something to take his mind off running Southwark Council
  3. Brian Orrell - cyberman, Regional Candidates Chair and all-round culture vulture
  4. Simon Hughes
  5. Chris Huhne
  6. Menzies Campbell (we might learn a lot more about each of them if they took part in this...)
  7. Sandra Gidley - I think that she's funny (in a good way!)

More thoughts on the leadership contest

Now that my ballot is in - at least, I hope that it's in, I posted it first class on Thursday morning - I can perhaps reflect on the leadership race so far.

From a personal perspective, I have been disappointed. Not by the quality of the candidates, as I think that all three have had something to say and the means by which to deliver their vision, but by the actual campaigns. I expected people to contact me, by e-mail, or telephone, or even by letter (I'm quite old-fashioned like that) and that never happened. It would seem that you have to be a semi-public figure, like a PPC, or a membership secretary, to get contacted (apparently, Local Party Chairs don't fall under that heading, or Regional Officers for that matter).

I did get some e-mails from senior Party figures telling me why I should vote for X, presumably because I've been on their e-mail lists in the past (I particularly enjoyed the two I received from Sarah Ludford, telling me first to support Mark Oaten, and then later urging me to support Menzies Campbell), but as I've never been enthusiastic about supporting someone because the hierarchy tell me I should, they probably weren't very helpful. What I wanted was some content from the candidates, more about what they stood for.

Instead, we got the manifestos with our ballot and otherwise nothing unless you can attend a hustings meeting. You can follow the campaign via the media but coverage is on their terms rather than those of the candidates and can hardly be relied upon for neutrality.

I think we got the rules for leadership contests wrong. We should encourage the building of campaign teams, and more importantly, personal contact between campaign teams and the ordinary members. It is absurd that a potential candidate for the European Parliament is provided with a membership list, and leadership candidates aren't. I accept the cost arguments but perhaps the principle of a representative, informed internal democracy is overriding. After all, whoever wins this contest is going to be vaguely important in terms of the Party's future, I presume...

Another day on the doorstep

So, having survived my first day of canvassing in far too many years, and invigorated by our glorious win in Dunfermline and West Fife, I spent another session out on the stump.

I have to admit that it was more fun this time, and my canvassing technique is getting better (slowly). Get their preference and get on, don't argue, don't get into a debate. I even persuaded someone to take a poster!

So, who are the two gentlemen in the picture? On the left, Jonathan Mitchell, on the right, James Barber. Jonathan was our Parliamentary candidate last May, achieving a glorious second place with more than 24% of the vote (and I was his agent!). They are the people I canvass with, as they are two of the three members of our Focus Team. The third is Richard Thomas, strategist, Focus designer, and a sitting councillor (plus, most importantly of all, Southwark's Executive Member for the Environment).

If the efforts of Belinda, our ward organiser, myself as Local Party Chair, and the cast of characters who have delivered, canvassed and encouraged are a success, our eventual candidates will get elected and I can bask in the warm glow of voting for the first winning candidates at any level other than Regional List. And believe me, will I bask...

Friday, February 10, 2006

On hearing the result, fa la la la la...

Gosh! (we on 'Liberal Bureaucracy' still believe in old-fashioned courtesies)

I got home yesterday evening after a session of interviewing potential Haringey council candidates, eager to find out what had happened in Dunfermline and West Fife. Rumours had been floating about that a surprise was on the cards but I still have to admit to being stunned by Willie Rennie's 1,800 vote majority.

If ever an unpromising backdrop was turned into golden sunrise, this was probably it. What with the somewhat botched removal of Charles (and most of us will never know exactly who did what to whom), the Oaten fiasco (stupid, stupid, stupid...), the Hughes outing (and why was this news?), and the subsequent poll wobble, you had to fear for even the best candidate and campaign team. But with this win comes a real boost to the spirit, and I daresay that the odd council ward may fall our way through the enthusiasm that it engenders. I certainly hope that it does...

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Earth to Eastleigh, come in Eastleigh!

Our Membership Secretary here in Dulwich and West Norwood advised me a day or so ago that she had received 100 leaflets from the Campbell campaign team, with a request that we get them out to our members. Nice effort, ladies and gentlemen! If we had the funds to issue a campaign leaflet that would give one candidate an unfair advantage over the others, I'd rather spend the money on winning a council ward - and we have all-up elections here in two London boroughs where we are the minority administration (supported by the Tories in Lambeth, in Southwark not).

However, being a gentleman and a democrat (the latter being the prime reason I joined the Liberal Party all those years ago), I decided to approach the other campaigns to see if they wanted to do likewise (I ought to get a constituency newsletter out anyway...). I e-mailed the Hughes campaign and rang the Huhne campaign - I couldn't find an appropriate looking e-mail address. Silence from the Hughes campaign, two attempts to reach me from the Huhne campaign, admittedly unsuccessful so far, the second at 12.53 a.m. I get the impression that one campaign really wants to win...

In other news, the Reflecting Britain campaign is really taking off, with more signatories every day. If they were all to vote in the debate in Harrogate, I'd be confident of a victory. Having said that, on what grounds could anyone possibly oppose the concept, unless 'Freedom, Fairness, Trust' was intended to be just words. It wasn't, was it?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A day on the doorsteps

I've never particularly liked canvassing, being the sort of person who takes a similar view of politics to that on religion - it is the right of any individual to hold the view of their choice (subject to the hurt and/or offence sub-clauses, naturally) - and the idea of actually persuading people face to face makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Having said that, it is part of modern camapigning strategy and so I spent part of yesterday afternoon knocking on doors in my own corner of paradise. One of the frustrating parts of it is finding a time when people are actually in and likely to open the door. Particularly in inner South London, where there are a significant number of younger people, they're actually out enjoying themselves (or shopping - don't start me on that...). Our out leaflets look good (our Labour opponents look kind of scary, if truth be told) and our three candidates resemble real human beings, so I suspect we have a decent chance of gleaning support.

It 's also nice to be taking the fight into supposedly enemy territory (the ward in question has been Labour since time immemorial) and to be fighting a positive campaign. I've always believed that you should fight a clean contest, a concept quite obviously alien to our friends in Dulwich and West Norwood Constituency Labour Party, as evidenced by their unfamiliarity with the truth, or even the policy of their own government.

As a result, I've spent more time campaigning, delivering leaflets and canvassing in the past twelve months than I had done in the previous ten years. I still see it as a duty rather than a pleasure - I am a political administrator, after all - but at least I know that a victory would help us continue to improve Southwark, and that really means something.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

How to be a councillor...

I had a meeting at the Town Hall this evening (Group Officers meeting - I'm only a member because I'm a Local Party Chair) and, having had a pleasant chat afterwards, decided to attend the meeting for new council candidates, taking place downstairs.

The intention was to have an introduction on the role and responsibilities of councillors, followed by a short briefing on the borough and a Q and A session with the three group leaders. Sadly, the civics lesson was a bit dull (if we want to be councillors, surely we must have some idea why we're doing it?) but the Q and A session was fascinating, watching Nick Stanton (us), Peter John (Labour) and William Rowe (Conservative) answering a series of quite tricky questions and, astonishingly, agreeing on a great deal.

Even more interesting was a quick scan of the room. The age profile was much younger than I had expected, with a majority of those present appearing to be my age or less, not necessarily what one might expect. Perhaps there is some heightened interest in politics and if so, perhaps local government may be about to change...

I also had an unexpected opportunity to talk to one of our Conservative opponents in Village ward, who is a dual national (US/UK) and, curiously, a Democrat. She seems to be remarkably human and happy to talk, something I'm guessing will be 'knocked out of her' before the campaign gets underway in earnest!