Friday, July 28, 2006

You know, we have rules for a reason!

I've noticed that it appears to be open season on the system by which the Party approves and selects Prospective Parliamentary Candidates. "Too complex, too bureaucratic, too time consuming, too expensive...", the arguments flow seamlessly. "We don't approve/select enough women/ethnic minorities/aliens," comes the cry from other quarters.

So let's remember how we got here from the 'good old days' when it was all so much simpler. Ah yes, the days of the 'interview in the pub', whereby the local 'good ol' boy' was invited to meet the local worthies over a pint or two and, as long as they didn't throw up over anyone, they were the candidate. There weren't many women, even less minorities, but it was easy, and cheap, and quick...

But we wanted better candidates, ones who could make a speech, who weren't an embarrassment on television, might actually resemble a credible government in waiting. So we needed to test them for the obvious skills, teamworking, media presence, campaigning, policy, public speaking. It was kind of like applying for a job, after all.

So we developed an assessment day to do that. A small number of experienced members were trained up to do the assessing, most of whom gave up what limited spare time wasn't already dedicated to the Party in order to do it. Gratitude? You have to be kidding, don't you? But it worked pretty well, and that was all that was important.

And with greater credibility, came greater competition for selection. You see, these people might actually get elected, and get a big salary, and power (after a fashion...). We had some pretty basic rules by which selections were run but ambition led a minority to do things that we hadn't really imagined they would try. "But we're very nice people, we wouldn't do that, would we?". You bet we would. The fat salary alone attracted some not quite so nice people, competitive types who would do whatever it took to win.

So we amended the rules. We were always one step behind because we were terribly reasonable people who thought in straight, curiously honourable, lines. We wanted everyone to have a chance, so we changed the rules a bit more. Best of all, we left the management of the process in the hands of the same sort of very busy people as the assessors were. Even better, none of them had the sort of cynicism required because, for the most part, they were doing it because they believed in the internal democracy of the party. So selfless, so naive!

The rulebook got bigger... and bigger, and more complex, as a minority of candidates grew more and more devious. We had to have an appeals procedure so that breaches could be prevented. Yet we couldn't rule out what many might have seen as frivolous appeals, because that wouldn't be very liberal, would it?

And then, the very groups who had never really liked the process, actively tried to undermine it because, after all, this democracy process is such a bore. It's such hard work so why not put the decision in the hands of a small group of local worthies? Abolish appeals and give Returning Officers dictatorial powers, that's the job. Quick, efficient and cheap. Liberal principles? You can check them at the door on your way out...

Frankly, when we strangle the last Federal Executive apparatchik with the small intestine of the last member of the Parliamentary Candidates Association, I for one will open a bottle of champagne and drink a toast to a healthier democracy...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How to guarantee you'll upset someone

As a member of the Regional Candidates Committee, I have a front row seat in the process of deciding how our candidates for the London Assembly will be chosen. Yes, I understand that there will be an election but, let's face it, the various political parties will effectively decide who sits in the Assembly as they choose the candidates, including the list ones, whose names never really reach the public consciousness, and the order in which they are placed.

As an aside, I'm a supporter of a list-based system whereby voters pick a party preference AND number the candidates on that list in order of preference, thus putting power back into the hands of voters and taking it away from parties. It would also give candidates further down the list greater motivation to campaign vigorously.

Back to the plot though... so I found myself in a rather warm Cowley Street with my fellow committee members, discussing various briefing papers from particular interest groups, plus a really good document from one of my fellow returning officers, Andy Harding, outlining the various possibilities and their pros and cons. Very astutely, he didn't actually come down in favour of a particular outcome...

For what it's worth, I tend towards a selection process which encourages the broadest spread of campaigning effort and might help to build up some of our weaker Local Parties. In 2000, Susan Kramer fought a Mayoral campaign which reached every high street in the city - literally - and was generally thought to have had a positive effect on the linked Assembly campaign. It also encouraged some of our weaker groups to believe that someone higher up the party 'food chain' actually cared about them and their patch.

At the end of a fascinating evening, we reached a broad consensus which will be passed on for consultation and further discussion before we submit a recommendation to the Regional Executive in mid-September. However, in the spirit of meaningful debate, I'll keep my lips sealed on our thoughts thus far, as any public comment might imply that it is a done deal and it is still far from that. Needless to say, given the various preferences espoused from different quarters, someone isn't going to like the outcome. But then, that's what a democracy is all about, isn't it?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The bride looked lovely, whilst the band played on...

To Westminster for the evening reception of Caroline and Paul following their afternoon wedding. As usual, I ran late, on an evening not really designed for dressing up - hot, humid but at least sunny.

The room was filled with the elite of Southwark Liberal Democrat circles which, given Caroline's position as Executive Member for Education, should have come as no surprise. I had never really realised just how many twenty and thirtysomethings there are amongst our ranks, whilst those who don't fall into that category seem determined to carry on as though they are anyway...

Caroline looked lovely in a sleeveless dress in a colour I would describe as midway between lavender and purple (alright, I'm not great at colours, I'm a bureaucrat not a fashion designer) and I couldn't help but smile to see her so 'unbuttoned'. The band were really very good indeed and, if you happen to need a band for an event, I'm sure that Caroline and Paul will be happy to pass on contact details, although you might want to wait until they get back from their honeymoon!

It is said that most political negotiations take place at official weddings and funerals and I know understand why. After all, at official negotiations, everybody knows why you're there and operates accordingly. At weddings and funerals, the focus is on the betrothed (I like that word, it's comfortingly old-fashioned) or the deceased, so you can have a quiet chat with someone without drawing too much attention. And yes, I did take the opportunity to have a quiet chat with a few people on subjects of mutual interest...

Afterwards, back to the Marriott at County Hall for drinks, before I decided to escort a young lady home, as any gentleman should. Tea and an entertaining conversation followed (I like to see passion in my politicians) before I headed home for bed at 5 a.m.

All in all, a very pleasant evening indeed!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An opportunity to say thank you

In my experience, politicians aren't always very skilled at thanking others. It's a skill that is still greatly valued, and perhaps even more so given the rise of the professional political classes who tend to rise through political parties and into government without trace or interaction with the outside world these days.

As a faceless bureaucrat, I don't expect a great deal of gratitude, especially working for HM Revenue and Customs as I do by day, and as a political administrator by night. That should never become an excuse for becoming thoughtless or callous though.

So I thought I should take this opportunity to pay tribute to Sally Burnell, the Political Assistant to the Liberal Democrat group on Southwark Council, who announced her departure last week to go and work with a worthy and socially valued charity.

As a rookie member of the Council Group (Local Party Chairs are awarded that status in Southwark), and as someone who had never paid much attention to the inner workings of Southwark Council until that point, Sally was a welcome support, and made me feel that I wasn't entirely out of place. Her briefing documents have enabled me to contribute to debates in a meaningful and informed way, to the extent where the Group leadership occasionally seek my views on matters where I might have useful input (not what I would have predicted eighteen months ago).

There have been some less than enjoyable moments for her, the vitriolic and wildly inaccurate attacks from the Darbyshires, for example, and we aren't the easiest bunch of people to work with. But she has maintained a cheery visage throughout, and her talents will be missed. On the other hand, she'll still be about the place and I'm sure that her knowledge and expertise will be called upon from time to time.

So, thank you Sally, it's been a blast...

Monday, July 17, 2006

News just in: Conservatives admit mistake!

I am astonished by reports that the Conservatives have admitted that they made a bit of a cock-up of rail privatisation. They now realise that they should have gone for vertical integration of trains, track and other infrastructure, rather than breaking the system up into small pieces and making the legal profession even wealthier at my expense.

Is this the new Conservative strategy, intended to build upon the foundations of, "we're nice people, really we are, and when we've got some policies, we'll let you know."? If it is, here are some suggestions for the next phase...

  1. "We're really sorry about creating such high levels of unemployment in the 1980's. We still believe that it was the right thing to do in terms of building a stronger economy, but we really didn't care about the individual lives that we destroyed. We're really sorry about that..."
  2. "We're really sorry that we gave the Argentinians the impression that we didn't care about the Falklands. If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have had to send other people's children to fight and die at Goose Green and elsewhere. Please accept our apologies...".
  3. "We're sorry that we spent more than two decades undermining local government and local democracy. We only did it because we didn't want Labour councils to get in the way. But now that we run those councils and not the government, we realise the error of our ways. Please give us another chance..."
  4. "We're really sorry that we spent so much time attempting to destroy both the morale and the capacity of the Civil Service. Admittedly, most of them didn't vote for us anyway, so we didn't see what we had to lose by upsetting them. Perhaps some of them might vote for us now..."
But turning back to the railways, who do I approach for a refund? The idiocy of rail privatisation (and remember, you were warned by virtually every expert in the field at the time) cost the British public an absolute fortune - just look, for example, at the profits made by the three companies who comprise the rolling stock leasing market. So, until Chris Grayling and his ever so caring sidekicks come up with a meaningful apology, they can rot in a siding for all I care (although they'll probably have to pay line rental charges on that siding so get your cheque book out, gentlemen!)...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reflections on an outrage...

Mahim Junction is the nearest station to the Valladares manse in Mumbai, and I took this picture in early January when I was in town for a family wedding. It isn't the world's most evocative railway station, although it is an important one (you could call it Mumbai's equivalent to Clapham Junction - lots of people pass through it but most don't stop for long).

Last week, it was a scene of the latest horrific, large scale act of terrorism, as were the stations on either side at Bandra and Matunga Road, amongst others.

Ironically, Mahim itself is one of those multi-cultural parts of the city with a sizeable Catholic population (my grandmother is buried behind St Michael's Church there), plus a visible Muslim community. There has been tension in the past, especially when the city government was run by Shiv Sena, a rather ghastly Hindu nationalist, pro-Marathi party, whose greatest wish would be to make the city 'safe for Marathis'. Every incidence of terrorism, regardless of where it was, or who was to blame, was an excuse to ratchet up inter-communal tensions.

I fear that this outrage will lead to more incidents of violence, which is exactly what the terrorists on one side, and the extremists on the other, want. And, caught in the middle, will be the Catholic community.

The Western Railway is a part of my Mumbai, and I use it whenever I'm in the city, travelling to visit my family, or to go shopping in the Fort area. In fact, my Uncle Ritchie and Aunt Vanessa live in an apartment which overlooks the railway tracks. As a child, I used to look out of the window and watch the trains go past. So it's particularly horrible to think of the carnage that would have been caused on trains packed like sardines next to crowded platforms full of women, children and all of the other innocents who were simply trying to get home on a midweek evening.

There continue to be concerns about the response time of the emergency services here in London after last year's attacks. We have all of the modern equipment, trauma support, a free health care system and the means to get people to a place of safety quickly. Healthcare is less easily accessible in Mumbai, the roads are congested, support services limited. And yet Mumbaikars will somehow pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and carry on. Perhaps we should remember that the next time we complain about the supposed insufficiencies of our emergency services, and realise how lucky we are to have them at all...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Paper, paper everywhere and not a drop to drink...

It has been a week of meetings, meetings and more meetings. And with that comes paper, reports, accounts, briefing notes, minutes, all of which really ought to be read, digested and responded to. There are never enough minutes in the day to do so and you end up skimming through them in the naive hope that you've gleaned enough detail to be able to comment intelligently if called upon to do so.

And yet, this is better than the alternative, turning up at a meeting where you are inundated with verbal reports which, for the most part, tend towards a rambling discourse on whatever is on the mind of the speaker at the time, and not necessarily the things you need, or want, to hear about.

So I was quite pleased that, for the first time since I became Regional Secretary eighteen months ago, every Officer actually wrote, and circulated, a written report for the Executive to consider. It wasn't the easiest of meetings, as a number of fairly controversial issues had arisen, but I did feel that we were able to have a meaningful debate of the aspects of the problems and, compared to some of our past meetings, which have run much longer to far less effect, it was quite enjoyable.

So, I now have minutes to write, plus action points and a diary to update. Just another weekend in the life of a bureaucrat...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The dark romanticism of bureaucracy

It was always my ambition in life to be the dark, brooding romantic type and, although it often surprises people, I achieved it in a way that I might never have expected.

Romanticism and bureaucracy are not words that are immediately associated by many and yet, I have become a slightly unstable combination of the two. Tonight, I am crouched in front of the keyboard in a room lit only by the flickering light of a candle, catching up on my Regional paperwork to the strains of Johann Sebastian Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (BWV542 for the Bach scholars amongst you).

Bureaucracy has become my passion, and occasionally an all-encompassing one, which coupled with an old-fashioned sense of honour and a broad streak of Catholic guilt, occasionally leads me to do things that I might regret (last year's resignation drama was one of them...).

On the other hand, being a bureaucrat in politics give you a leeway that few others get. There is little competition for such roles and, as long as things get done, even the most eccentric are left alone to get on with things (heaven forbid that a campaigner should get involved with administrative stuff - doesn't win any votes, does it?).

So perhaps it is time to let loose the latin in me (where did you think the name came from?) and fight beneath the blood-soaked banners of good administration, old-fashioned courtesies and free trade liberalism. I always fancied the uniform of an early nineteenth-century Austrian cavalry officer (although the balls, music and diplomatic intrigue would probably have been even more fun) and, even if I can't have one, it might be fun to behave as though I was wearing one.

To sleep, perchance to dream, and tomorrow, let there be passion!

A night out in Crystal Palace

To Bromley Highlands, aka Crystal Palace, for a night celebrating the birthday of a friend.

Jo Christie-Smith is a comparatively new addition to my circle of friends, and I met her through politics (how else?) in my role as Returning Officer to Lewisham West Liberal Democrats. My first task was to tell her that she was ineligible to stand as she remained unapproved to take part at the close of nominations, not, perhaps, the best way to start a relationship.

I pointed her in the direction of my own seat of Dulwich and West Norwood and, whilst she was unsuccessful there, she was later selected to fight Mitcham and Morden, the less salubrious half of Merton, where she fought a spirited, if terminally under-resourced, campaign. I appeared on her horizon once again as the stand-in Returning Officer, and we've stayed in touch ever since.

Barbecues are often a gamble at this time of year but this one went off smoothly enough and the conversation flowed as freely as the alcohol, helped by a remarkably catholic range of guests. I was able to relax and gently lower myself into the current and had a really good time, debating a range of adult topics, i.e. mostly not politics (life is too short!).

So, many thanks to Jo, and I trust that you will get some pleasure out of my gift, perfect for those chilly evenings in front of a roaring fire...

Running around with a pair of scissors in my hand

One of the results of the work of the Boundary Commissioners is that the boundaries of the various Local Parties change. Normally, this isn't a particularly difficult task but I've been drawn into the debate on one of London's trickier changes, the creation of the new constituency of Lewisham West and Penge, a cross-borough seat straddling the boroughs of Bromley and Lewisham, and a potentially winnable one at that.

At the moment, we have a Lewisham Borough Party, and separate Local Parties for the three current Bromley seats (Beckenham, Bromley and Chislehurst and Orpington). Lewisham members want to remain a borough-wide group and as for Bromley, much discussion is taking place as to the best future configuration. It's quite a technical debate, but it has ramifications for the different tiers of campaigning (borough, GLA and Westminster) and, if the wrong result emerges, it will be a potential setback for our campaigns over the next five years.

I seem to be have been drawn into the discussion as a potential 'honest broker', a position which, whilst I think I can deliver it, is not the role I would obviously select for myself. At least I know most of the key players and that they're all pretty sensible people. I'm bound to upset someone though...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Deep in the heart of England

A day out of the big city for English Council in England's second city, Birmingham. Typically, Virgin had chosen the weekend for major track repair so, given the similarity in journey times from Euston and Marylebone, I picked the more scenic (and slightly cheaper) route via High Wycombe and Banbury. And with the pleasant company of our Regional Policy Chair, Havard Hughes, the journey sped by, even if the train itself didn't.

A brisk but quite impressive stroll through the shopping area brought us to Victoria Square, dominated as it is by the rather grand Civic Buildings, our venue for the day. In the sunshine and with the fountain with what my friend, Grant, described as the floozie in the jacuzzi outside (there's another one of those in Dublin, but that's another story), it was a lovely day to be in the fresh air. Unfortunately, English Council was inside...

Not the most thrilling English Council ever but then, it isn't really intended to be. What it does do is give you prior warning of things that are expected to happen and will impact on you, as a Regional Officer, or Local Party Chair, or whatever. It also gives you an opportunity to challenge the hierarchy, or perhaps influence them to head in a direction that you favour.

I had arranged to meet up with an old friend from my Young Liberal days afterwards, Grant Williams, from Walsall. Grant is currently studying for his LLB (law degree) and is very likely to get it with an impressive pass. Picking me up from the meeting, we walked back through the city centre before heading to Lichfield for a leisurely afternoon of alcohol, food and conversation in the scenic surrounds for a pub just outside the city (it isn't a town, it's got a cathedral...).

Then, back to Moor Street for a late train to Marylebone and on to bed... a good day out, all in all.