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...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Into the great wide open, under the skies so blue...

Flying internally in the United States is rather like catching a bus at home, it seems so ordinary. Today's journey saw me fly from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas via Denver, Colorado. And whilst the upgrade to first class gave me a rather more comfortable seat, the only notable feature was the view out of the window.

Despite the fact that it was in the mid-sixties in Albuquerque, the mountains between there and Denver already have a coating of snow. Even the mountains that overlook the former peak above 10,000 feet, and I still struggle to conceptualise mountains that high, despite previous trips to South America, where I've stood at rather higher altitudes.

Dallas itself seems to be a lot more obviously promising than Albuquerque, nice though it was, and I've already had a bit of an explore. My hotel is very pleasant, very European in style, and they have very kindly upgraded me to a suite, full of comfy chairs, and cosy touches.

But now, it's time for some relaxation, as I've got an early start tomorrow, en route to Fort Worth to visit their apparently excellent zoo...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Still counting in the Land of Enchantment

Astonishingly, counting continues here in the 1st Congressional District of New Mexico, although the incumbent Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson has claimed victory, leading by 1607 votes at the latest count. There are still 4000 provisional and 'in lieu of' ballots to count, and Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid has refused to concede defeat.

This could run and run...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Luggage is here, the weather remains fine...

Some good news on the luggage front, in that it has turned up. The 'bad' news is that I felt obliged to go shopping. It's Veterans Day weekend and the sales are intense. The luggage will be a lot fuller on the way to Dallas, but my upgrades for the two legs Albuquerque - Denver, and Denver - Dallas have come through, so I'll be comfortable anyway!

Meanwhile, on the East Coast...

It would appear that Virginia state law obliges the State to hold a recount if the leading candidates are within 0.5% of each other, and have to pay for it. If the margin is greater than that but less than 1%, the second-placed candidate may call for one but, unless the result is overturned, they have to pay for it. A big decision for George Allen...

Best of all, a recount cannot commence until the votes have been certified, and that isn't scheduled until 26 November! So, with the state now flooded with lawyers, it will be just like 2000...

The Democrats have already announced an ambitious programme for their first 100 hours, including an increase in the minimum wage, so perhaps there is hope after all. And with Rumsfeld gone, perhaps we can look forward to a more thoughtful policy in Iraq.

Travel, and how not to make it more relaxing...

Alright, so I fled the country... again.

I needed a break from the day to day stresses of my life, so I headed to the airport yesterday, to catch a noon flight to Washington. Despite my usual inability to be organised in good time, I caught my flight, and settled in for the usual seven hour drag. We got to DC on time, and I made my way to Immigration to have my smile photographed and fingerprints of my index fingers taken, only to be encountered with a vast sea of humanity, all of whom were awaiting the same warm and friendly welcome that we've become so used to.

Oh dear, I thought (please note that this quote has been censored for my family readership), I may miss my connecting flight, and it's the only one. Worst of all, I had an upgrade to first class, and I really didn't want to miss that. Usually, however, United Airlines have people in the queue, plucking out those with extra tight connects. Not today... I made it through and still had a chance, I thought, only to encounter a melee at baggage reclaim. Surviving that, a long queue for Customs clearance and then baggage recheck (yes, American bureaucracy makes you reclaim your bags so that you can recheck them, stupid, or what?), I dashed across the terminal, made the flight to Albuquerque - only just - and asked if my luggage would make it. "Don't worry sir, your luggage will have travelled faster than you did.".

So, where is my luggage? Denver, that's where. On the plus side, I was given an overnight bag by United, which has some quite nice stuff in it, and I persuaded them to give me a $150 dollar certificate for future travel, so it's not a complete loss. Also, I made it to the hotel, to find that I'd been ungraded to a suite. And the internet service is free!

This is Mark Valladares, reporting live for Liberal Bureaucracy from Albuquerque, NM...

It's been a pretty good night for anyone hoping for a change in American foreign policy. As I write (it's 7 a.m. here in Albuquerque, New Mexico), the Democrats have gained twenty-six seats in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate, leaving them two short of control there. Having said that, the two remaining states to declare, Montana and Virginia, show the Democratic candidates to be leading by thin, but not wafer thin, margins, and I'm expecting the fifty-first member of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate to be of critical importance.

The question is, which fifty-first? Joe Lieberman we know about, having won his race as an independent by ten percentage points. I'm more interested in the new junior Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders. An avowed socialist, he was the former Mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city - although that isn't saying much - who went on to be the state's sole member of the House of Representatives. He beat his Republican opponent (the Democrats didn't run against him) by nearly 2:1.

Here in New Mexico, the key race was in the 1st Congressional District, where the Democratic State Attorney General appears to have gone down narrowly to her Republican opponent. Pity, really, as she looked to be both competent and effective, and on a night which is undoubtedly the best the Democrats have had since the early nineties, she may not get a better chance for a while.

One thing that has been fun has been watching the results come in live on the Fox News Channel. Talk about schadenfreude... but I'll report further soon. This is your reporter in Albuquerque, NM, handing back to the studio!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

English Candidates Committee, live from the Birmingham Hippodrome!

Today saw this bureaucrat head to Birmingham for English Candidates Committee, a group which does seem to be somewhat controversial at the moment.

Accusations that we're being less than pro-active in moving selections forward, that we are defending an inefficient, time consuming system that discriminates against women and ethnic minorities, that we're not willing to discuss the issue openly, seem to be tossed about quite freely and yet, when we initiate contact in an attempt to inform and debate, the silence is deafening.

This is my first year as a member of this august body, and I've been impressed by the desire of my colleagues to hone the process, address issues of diversity and defend the interests of the Party, candidates and members alike. Today we managed to agree the European Parliamentary Selection Rules in remarkably short order and spent the afternoon discussing a series of amendments to the Selection Rules, drafted by a group of members of the Parliamentary Candidates Association, an organisation which has been the target of my criticism in the past.

I won't go into details about their proposals, except to note that they were in parts contradictory, authoritarian, centralist and naive. You almost sensed that the authors hadn't actually read the Selection Rules properly prior to drafting their proposals and, worse still, not understood how the Party functions. I freely admit that, whilst not actually shooting the messenger, I did administer the metaphorical and philosophical equivalent of a punishment beating. It was perhaps bad enough that I referred back two of their proposals (one for being inappropriate to the Committee, the other for failing to include required enabling proposals), but I then deconstructed each motion, highlighting its practical and philosophical failings. I was far from alone though, and the various motions crashed and burned to clear defeat.

There is a lesson to be learned from this. English Candidates Committee is not the sole font of wisdom in terms of candidate approval and selection. However, we have a perspective born from a lack of personal self-interest. Candidates have an aim at the end of it, to get elected. People like me do this because we care. We give up our weekends and our evenings, not because we hope to get elected, but because we firmly believe that someone needs to enable candidates, Local Parties and ordinary members to play the fullest part in the process. There is a need to balance those elements, to take into account the needs of the wider Party. So, if you don't like what we're doing, talk to us about it. And some people do...

On a personal note, I was confirmed in my role as Returning Officer for South East England Liberal Democrats, an region which covers the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and West Sussex. This will be my third performance in the role, one that I have greatly enjoyed previously. Having been appointed very early in the process this time (I'm the only one appointed so far), I aim to get some things set up before the formal process starts...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A night at the theatre

Living in London brings with it the opportunity to take in the vast amounts of cultural activity that permeate the city, unless of course, like me, you're too busy and too disorganised to take advantage. Fortunately, some of my friends are much better at this, and Peter Ladanyi, an old friend from my youth politics days, was thoughtful enough to suggest that I join him and other friends for a night at the Olivier Theatre on the South Bank this evening for a performance of "The Alchemist" by Ben Jonson. With most tickets at just £10, and Simon Russell Beale and Ian Richardson, amongst others, in the cast, it was bound to be good.

And indeed it was. It took a little while to get up to speed with the language (the play was first performed in 1610, after all) and you did have to pay attention, but it was worth the effort. Alex Jennings was superb in his leading role and all in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable night out.

The Olivier is a wonderful theatre, with great sight lines everywhere and no seat is that far from the action. So if you do get a chance to take in the play, I guarantee that you'll be wholly entertained. I'm almost inspired to book some concert tickets next. But that will have to wait for a little while yet...