Friday, October 27, 2006

An anniversary that shouldn't go unnoticed...

I am reminded that today is the thirty-ninth anniversary of the passing of the landmark 1967 Abortion Act, one of those pieces of legislation that changed the lives of so many and yet remains a subject of so much controversy.

As a Catholic myself (observed more in the breach than in reality), I have always had mixed feelings about abortion. I fret about the impact on the unborn child, and on the woman having to make a sometimes difficult decision. As a liberal, I firmly adhere to the view that a woman can only be truly free if she has control over her own body. Thus, being a liberal Catholic comes with its own inherent contradictions, and any stance ultimately taken with a side order of guilt.

I don't have children, never really wanted them, and, at nearly forty-two years of age, am unlikely ever to produce any. Yet I have huge respect for anyone who wants to raise them, and even more for those who have to make difficult decisions about whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy.

And so I have, over the years, come down in favour of the woman's right to choose. I accept that there are those whose sympathies lie with the unborn child, but I feel that, in doing so, they fail to understand the impact on someone who is already capable of independent life, who is being asked to give up their freedom for the principles of others and who has almost certainly not reached their decision without a little soul-searching along the way.

Bringing an unwanted child into the world is, to my way of thinking, far more of a sin than abortion is. On the other hand, I agree that we should be trying to reduce the number of abortions that are carried out in this country. What does this mean? It means meaningful sex education, it means easy access to effective contraception for everyone and it means proper debate on the pressures that cause young people to engage in risky sex before they are capable of appreciating the emotional aspects of loving, respectful relationships.

And for those out there campaigning to defend a woman's right to choose? Good luck and God bless to you all...

Oh my God, I'm surrounded by countryside!

The whirlwind tour of places in need of a Returning Officer continued last night as this usually mild-mannered city dweller found himself in deepest Oxfordshire, Didcot to be precise, meeting the Selection Committee for Wantage Liberal Democrats.

I used the outward train journey to mark application forms for Parliamentary Candidate approval so the time was at least spent profitably, although I would have preferred to gaze out of the window.

Having been picked up at the station by Local Party Chair, Peter Kent, and his wife Jean, I was whisked to the home of Wantage's Membership Secretary, Jen Parry, to meet the rest of the team. Clearly, a great deal of thought has gone into the process from their end, as the paperwork was virtually in finished form, and it wasn't long before documents, timetable and process were agreed.

Back to London on the train and, after the hassles of getting home from Maidstone last week, I was pleasantly surprised to get home in just two hours, door to door. It just goes to show that you can provide a train service that helps rather than frustrates - South Eastern Trains, please note...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Labour MP declares class war on the unemployed

When I first spotted this article in the Guardian online, I was convinced that it had come from some mad person. Then I read the article and discovered that John Denham really believes in differential sentencing on the basis of employment.

The idea of sentencing is to punish, and I'm perfectly content with the idea that the guilty should be punished in a manner appropriate to the level and severity of the crime. If that means prison, so be it. However, if you are going to punish the unemployed because they 'have time on their hands', what else might you do?

The converse argument, that those in employment or with carer responsibilities should be treated more leniently, is equally nonsensical. They're guilty! What was the old saying, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime? It is increasingly typical of this appallingly authoritarian administration that the concept of accepting the consequences of your own actions is seen to leave too much to chance in an atmosphere of heightened control freakery.

It is acknowledged that poverty and deprivation impact on levels of criminality, although it doesn't excuse it. When Tony Blair sought the trust of the British people, he talked about being tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. It would seem that, after nine years, that has been refined to "draconian on what the Daily Mail doesn't like, disinterested in the causes of what the Daily Mail doesn't like".

I expect instant condemnation from any right-minded Labour MP. But then, I also expect to be disappointed...

Monday, October 23, 2006

But what do the Democrats actually stand for?

There is a general air of optimism amongst progressives in the United States, with the Republicans seemingly headed towards a good kicking in the mid-term elections next week. As a liberal, you might expect me to be quite enthusiastic about the prospect and, to some extent, I am.

But politics should be more about just winning, it should be about what you do once victory is achieved. And that's where my enthusiasm runs into the sands of "so now what?". Once upon a time, I had the privilege of mingling at the highest levels of the Democratic Party (Rachelle, my ex, was a State Party Chair, and I tagged along...), and the one question I never asked was, if you win, what then? Policy was never a serious concern, despite the huge number of thinktanks, pressure groups, lobbyists and other activists that surrounded political action in the US. It just seemed to be enough to be "against them".

I will confess that there was a slightly smug feeling to be able to read my Party's political philosophy off of my membership card, knowing that if you asked five senior Democrats to come up with their take on their Party's philosophical stance in three sentences, you'd probably get six different answers.

We know what Democrats are against, Iraq, George Bush and... errrh... and we know that they're in favour of the poor (do you know of a political party that is actually against them?). And that's what worries me... the sense that Democrats are fighting a battle to preserve the gains of the sixties, civil rights, gay rights, abortion, social security. It's a rather lonely battle, as Joni Mitchell put it, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone".

A classical liberal agenda would include devolution of power (but that's what States are for), an internationalist stance (but George is internationalist, in his rather 'assertive' manner) and enhanced freedoms (and that means for everyone, not just those of whom we approve. It isn't what the Democratic Party is about though. There is a sense that Government knows best, that free trade can only be bad for American workers.

So let's not get too excited about a change of control in Congress or the Senate. Until there is a clear indication that things will be different, get used to a sense of frustration with the American political system, you know that it makes sense...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The BBC can inspire sometimes

I was idling my way through the morning, nothing particularly on my mind, when my attention was attracted by a woman on BBC2, deep in the heart of Burgundy, cooking and drinking good wine. It all looked terribly appealing to this particular bureaucrat.

One of the disadvantages of spending my entire life either working or doing politics is that when I finally drag my weary bones home at the end of another long day, the last things that I feel like doing is cooking something even remotely creative. If it's quick, reasonably tasty and doesn't require too much washing up, I'm satisfied...

So, I already had some chicken breasts defrosting (I have a freezer cabinet full of stuff that needs eating) and some sort of casserole sounded inviting. The refridgerator wasn't exactly groaning with fresh vegetables, so I'd have to remedy that. Sunday shopping hours are a blessing, and my local branch of Sainsbury's is pretty well stocked with fresh vegetables. Drag it all home, chop up the chicken into decent sized chunks, brown gently, chop up some small onions, mushrooms, carrots, leeks and layer them all in a casserole dish, add a pint of chicken stock, some herbs, cracked black pepper and a touch of salt, place in an oven at Gas Mark 5 for about an hour, and hey presto, something edible, tasty and wholesome, especially served with mashed potato.

Now I'm not the biggest fan of the BBC, and I'm a firm believer in opening up the airwaves to anyone who can produce and/or broadcast, but the BBC does do some things well. I may have been the only person watching who was inspired to have a go at cooking something that involved more than reheating a processed meal, but I felt pretty good for it, and that can't be a bad thing.

I might even roast a parsnip tomorrow!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Normal bureaucratic service is resumed

After a bit of a low day yesterday, normal service appears to be resumed. I've spent the day being annoyed by my computer, which seems to want to block my AOL connection, and delivering our latest leaflet in East Dulwich.

One of the big issues in the area is the ongoing saga of the new federated academy school, whose boys section (the existing school is for girls only) was originally intended to open next Autumn in temporary premises pending the construction of new buildings to be opened in Autumn 2009.

Whilst the academy structure is less than ideal, the pragmatic stance is to focus on what is best for the children and parents of this part of Southwark, and so our gallant Council Group have pushed hard to get a new secondary school for the East Dulwich and Peckham Rye area.

But recently, it seemed that barriers were being placed in the way of the project. The temporary site decided upon was apparently less than ideal, although it was never quite clear who thought so. The local police deny objecting on security grounds, the Department of Education and Skills deny that finance is an issue, and our non-resident MP indicates from her Kentish Town (that's north of the river, in Camden) home that she is keen for the project to progress.

So, the administration looked for other venues, met with the minister, Lord Adonis, to attempt to break the logjam and generally encouraged progress. There is no doubt that a new school is needed, and the sooner the better.

Alas, politics reared its ugly head. The Labour Party's desperate attempts to discredit local Liberal Democrats has led them to pull the plug on the project, and attempt to blame us for its failure. This is despite the planned temporary site being approved by the Academy Project Board and the Government, despite provision of a dedicated planning consultant. Claims that a risk assessment showed the site to be unsafe ran counter to the Borough Commander's advice that no such assessment had been made or cleared by the police chain of command.

Best of all, they claim that the decision was taken by the Project Board. Curiously, whilst that meeting was taking place, the Minister called our Group Leader to tell him that the decision to pull the plug had been taken. Anyone would think that voting in Liberal Democrat councillors was an excuse for Labour ministers to shaft the 'offending' residents... but politics is about making lives better, not hanging on to power for the sake of it, isn't it?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Eats, Shoots and Leaves - a new experience for this Returning Officer

Last night, to Maidstone for a meeting with the Selection Committee tasked with finding an opponent for Ann Widdecombe (or her replacement, if rumours are to be believed). When someone allocated train services to the area, they clearly assumed that the locals were all attached by umbilical cords to their cars, so I wisely left plenty of time to get down there. I needed it too...

The meeting itself was a fascinating experience, with as much attention given to tense, sentence construction and punctuation as to the actual content of the documents under discussion. Fortunately, I'm sympathetic towards good grammar, so I joined in with enthusiasm. We now have all of the necessary paperwork, a schedule and an agreed division of labour. The only potential catch is that I'm now committed to handling two hustings meetings in a day, one in mid-Kent, the other in deepest Berkshire... and I don't drive... ah well, it'll be all right on the night...

Getting home was far less enjoyable. Simplicity itself, I thought, catch the train from Maidstone West to Strood, connect to the London Bridge service and then onto the last train to East Dulwich. In principle, it should have worked. In reality, the train from Strood ran twenty-five minutes late, leading to a three hour crawl from door to door and an arrival home at 12.40 a.m. The cats were not pleased...

What sort of town is it when there is only one direct train service into London after 9.30 p.m.? I'm not impressed...

On the other hand though, some good news...

Meanwhile, candidate Valladares strikes again...

I go to all the trouble of producing a manifesto with a picture of me in it, only to get elected to the Party's English Candidates Committee unopposed! I'm also now one of the two English representatives on the Joint States Membership Committee, which is responsible for promoting membership throughout the United Kingdom. I'm intrigued enough to wonder how we are intended to do that...

A period of preoccupied silence (for a change)

Gentle reader, do not be concerned at the silence from this particular corner of paradise. In truth, I've been a bit busy with affairs of the heart, or at least, the fallout when they go sour.

Those of you who know me well, will be aware that I've been in mid-divorce for about three years now. The decree absolute came through two days before the General Election, which would have been immaculate timing on the part of my ex, had it not been for that fact that I didn't find out for six weeks...

And so the financial wrangling began, leading to a hearing just five weeks before the local elections this year (are you detecting a pattern here?). Even then, I thought that things could be wrapped up and I could carry on with my life. Sadly, I was wrong... and the whole charade carried on for another seven months... until this week, which saw the final court hearing. Or not, as the case might be. We'll probably know next week what the judge has decided, I'm told.

So I've been a bit occupied, all in all, with lawyers, estate agents, pension advisors and the entire legion of people who you might want to have a beer with occasionally but not necessarily want to deal with professionally. It could all be rather depressing if you let it.

Curiously, though, I'm not depressed, although I am a little saddened. I am a hopeless romantic, albeit not the most expressive of that ilk, and I had rather hoped to mate for life, optimistic though that might sound.

The curious thing though, is that the chorus to 'Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear' kept echoing through my head afterwards. "Oh who will think a boy and bear could be well accepted everywhere? It's just amazing how fair people can be..."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Three cheers for the bureaucracy?

I suppose that I'm just putting off the evil moment, but I'm in the midst of marking some candidate application forms for a Candidate Development Day tomorrow, and I need a break.

It is therefore mere coincidence that I take this opportunity to talk about tax. When I started working for the Inland Revenue, nearly twenty years ago, late in the second Thatcher government, the memory of 98% tax rates for individuals was still raw in people's memories and there was a feeling that rates were too high and that government didn't provide value for money. And, from a liberal perspective, it was true. I suspect that very few people believed that their taxes were used effectively and there was a genuine feeling that smaller government was not only necessary but imperative.

Over the years, Her Majesty's Inland Revenue changed radically, with work transferred out of London in the late eighties (exit PAYE), delayering (the stripping out of mostly superfluous management layers), more work transferred out of London (self-employed taxpayers) in the late nineties and then amalgamation of offices in the early part of this decade. There were less of us, but with new technology and better systems, we coped. A much simplified personal tax system also helped, with the abolition of the 50%, 60% and 83% rates, as well as the investment income surcharge.

Alright, the introduction of reliefs designed to encourage investment and savings were a minor irritation, but the mass of tax legislation didn't seem to increase that much, and one could keep up with things.

Enter a Labour government in 1997. I freely admit that talk of an ethical foreign policy, enhanced constitutional rights and greater devolution of powers was very seductive (not enough for me to actually vote for them, heaven forbid...) but they were an attractive enough alternative to a rather tired Conservative Party (the cones hotline, anyone?). Little did I realise what was to come though...

As Chris Huhne pointed out recently, the weight of Butterworth's, the leading tax reference tome, has increased by 50% in just nine years. Whilst Gordon Brown might mean well in terms of reducing poverty, and I genuinely think that he does, in terms of creating a system that the average company director or self-employed professional can understand is concerned, he has been a complete failure.

Now if you intend to increase tax revenues, you are likely to be unpopular, and I do blame the Conservative Party of the eighties for their successful campaign to convince the public that tax was bad and public servants were generally feckless and ineffective for that. So Gordon has had to be rather sly about how he has done it. For example, the introduction of quarterly instalment payments for corporation tax by large companies improved the government's cashflow, but passed pretty much unnoticed (and why should large companies pay their tax bill on an estimated basis as much as fifteen months before their smaller competitors anyway?).

The problem with such 'backdoor' tax measures is that they have to be drawn up in a comparatively complex form to escape attention (financial journalists are fairly lazy in my opinion) and thus create voluminous text.

But what bothers me most is the apparent failure to understand the implications of their actions. When the 0% rate band for corporation tax was introduced, my colleagues and I predicted a huge surge in the number of limited companies set up, as the tax advantages were so obvious (yes, we're civil servants, we have no comprehension of the profit motive, right?...). Combine that with the dividend rate for individuals (tax is credited at 10%, but if you're a basic rate taxpayer, we don't charge you on the difference between 10% and the basic rate - another Labour introduction, in Gordon's first budget), and the attraction of going 'limited' is clear.

The resultant loss of tax revenue was also obvious, at least to anyone who actually gave the question a moment's thought. So, what did our perspicatious government do? Of course, introduce a special tax rate for non-corporate distributions (dividends paid to individual participants) to block that. Did they advertise this innovation to small businesses? Like hell they did... Did it cause chaos because nobody really understood it and there was no way to really police it? It surely did. An answer was clearly needed and it quickly came. Abolish the 0% rate band and return the position to exactly what it was before the rate band was introduced...

So who might have profited from this? Ah yes, our gallant friends in the accountancy profession. Is it my imagination, but as our numbers have dropped, haven't the numbers of accountants increased? And does that enable HM Revenue & Customs to fight tax evasion on equal terms? No, I don't think so...

I firmly believe in the concept of a tax system that is simple, enables the taxpayer to have a pretty good idea of why they owe what they do, and encourages enterprise (or, at the very least, stays as out of the way as possible). Tax is said to be the price we pay for a civilsed society, and I generally support that notion, but it also needs to be seen as a price worth paying.

In Brighton, the Liberal Democrats talked seriously about tax for the first time in recent memory, talking about taxing pollution rather than work, lifting the poorest out of the tax system altogether and avoiding punitive tax rates. I know that Labour haven't got the gumption to have such a debate (people might not agree, although the leadership will ignore them anyway) but I rather hope that if the Conservatives are serious about being a party of government, they'll join the debate about how the taxation system should be used in a modern society. It involves taking some tough decisions about the role of government, and David Cameron and his friends don't appear keen yet, but the longer it takes to engage, the longer it will take to change the way government works. And change is badly needed...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Isn't it always the way...

... that when you decide that you're not enjoying something and will give it up, you start to enjoy it?

And that, my friends, was brought home at this evening's meeting of the Dulwich & West Norwood Executive Committee. Having said that I was going to stand down as Chair, I found myself actually enjoying myself. By the way, I know that someone was reading that blog entry, as my ex-wife's solicitors have quoted from it in one of their recent missives (do try and read the rest of it, won't you?).

The irony is all the greater as not only was the meeting fun, but we were done in less than ninety minutes and everyone had plenty of opportunities to comment. We actually made some significant progress too, possibly related to the fact that none of our councillors were available to take part (I'm only joking, guys, I love you too...).

So perhaps there is a lesson here, in that if you deal with meetings as though they may be your last, there's a lot less pressure and you can enjoy them more. It probably isn't a practical lesson for the average bureaucrat (there must be a plan, there simply must be...), but then I'm not the average bureaucrat - how many have received a letter at work thanking them for the Quebecois joke?

Have ballot box, will travel (part 2)...

Add Maidstone and the Weald to that list, as of yesterday... oh yes, and I may yet be invited to do a reprise of South East Region for the European Parliament selection. That, at least, is on the horizon at the moment... although the horizon seems to be approaching fast...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Have ballot box, will travel...

I've been a Returning Officer for the Party's internal selections since 1989, and in carrying out my duties, I've covered a surprising amount of territory from Mole Valley to Stevenage, Harrow West to Faversham and Kent Mid, and including much of London. Apparently, I'm pretty good at it, good enough to have been appointed to act as Returning Officer for the last two European list selections for South East England.

I'm not needed in London at the moment, as our Regional Candidates Chair has worked very hard to create a bank of Returning Officers, so I have accepted an invitation from South Central Region to cover a couple of 'gigs' for them and, as a result, I found myself sitting around a table this evening with the Selection Committee for Wokingham Liberal Democrats, agreeing the documentation for their selection process. They're a nice committee, and well organised with it.

I'm confident that all will run smoothly, although one should never prejudge these things. I'll report more on the progress of this as we go along, in the absence of an equivalent of ConservativeHome (they publish a surprising amount about their selections, I have to admit...).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Cheap day return, boundary Zone 3 to Emerson Park, with a gold card, please...

And with that, my adventure started... and the response, "Where is Emerson Park?", which was not entirely unreasonable considering where I was standing, i.e. at the ticket office at Peckham Rye station.

So, having explained that it was between Romford and Upminster (although that wasn't a huge amount of help either, it must be said), we agreed a fare (£2.50) and I set off on my journey via changes at London Bridge, Stratford and Romford, in order to attend a Quiz Night, organised by Havering Liberal Democrats, in the company of my old friend, Peter Davies (direct mail expert to the stars or, at least, Campaigns Department).

Emerson Park, or at least the area between the station and the venue, came as a bit of a surprise, especially the size and scale of the homes. Now, living near to Dulwich Village as I do, I'm not unused to large houses, but most of these were fairly new looking and reeked of new money. Clearly, the suburbs around Romford are not entirely as grim as they are portrayed in the media... although the young women in rather impractical short skirts were still present (I may be getting old, but don't they feel the chill at this time of year?).

The event itself was quite fun, and I even won a raffle prize (an incredibly rare event), although our table came a respectable third in the quiz itself, and the food, whilst simple, was very good, especially accompanied as it was by a brace of bottles of Greene King's Abbot Ale (thanks, Peter, I hope that you enjoy the wine I swapped it for!). With the occasional bit of heckling of the quizmaster (former councillor and Parliamentary candidate, Nigel Meyer), everyone seemed to be having a good time.

And then homeward, stopping only to note the vast numbers of young people queuing to enter various nightclubs, bars or fast food outlets at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in central Romford. It was then that I remembered, the short skirts and unfeasibly summery outfits are for clubbing (I'm told that nightclubs get incredibly hot)... how could I forget?...

Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw and the veil

The emerging controversy over comments by the leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, indicating his discomfort interacting with veiled women is, to say the least, unfortunate. As has become sadly too frequent in recent times, candour on the part of a prominent individual has been used to whip up the underlying tensions that exist in a key minority community.

For my part, I have to admit to seeing his point. I was brought up to believe that, when you are talking to someone, eye contact is a matter of courtesy, indicating that you are actually listening to them. If the person you are talking to is veiled, establishing that link is difficult (if it is any consolation, I have the same issue with mirrored sunglasses...).

The most important point though is the lack of compulsion implied by Jack Straw. He would prefer it if Muslim women didn't wear full veils, but he isn't saying that he won't see them or work for them if they prefer to be fully veiled, and I see no problem with him holding that view.

In a society where freedom of speech and opinion is highly valued, mutual respect is a basic requirement. Jack Straw has had the decency to express himself in an honest and quite liberal manner. Now, perhaps, is a good time for those misrepresenting his views to think again...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Real democracy is about information and participation

I've been Regional Secretary for nearly two years now and it has been, to some extent, a little frustrating. I've enjoyed the role, especially the people I've met across London. I even flatter myself that, in some small way, I've helped some people to achieve their goals, be they political or organisational.

But if there has been a weakness, it has been in my responsibility for communication with other parts of the Party. In a troubling way, I wonder why I haven't come under pressure to do better. At least, I hadn't until now, but that's a story for another time.

The relationship between the Regional Party and its constituent Local Parties is a bit like that between the Executive Committee of a Local Party and the 'ordinary' members. And yet the sense of that has perhaps been lost. As Regional Secretary, I am responsible to members across the city and, whilst most armchair members wouldn't know, or frankly care, what I do in that capacity, if we were communicating properly, the local leadership would know if I wasn't doing it well.

And so I intend to put myself in a slightly precarious position. I will spend the next three months trying to create a means of proper communication with Local Party Officers, to encourage them to communicate with the Regional Executive, and to provide them with information that will enable them to hold us to account properly.

This might not prove to be that popular with all of my colleagues, although I hope to be proved wrong in that respect, but it seems like the right thing to do to me...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Cybermen scary? But they drink beer...

With all of the excitement over Dr Who, I note the adverts for a helmet that makes your voice sound like a cyberman.

Now I have a great deal of respect for Brian Orrell (pictured, right), but I'm not sure that we all want to sound like him*, do we?

* Brian played a Cyber Lieutenant in one series of Dr Who, and a Cyberman in another...