Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas, as scored for two guitars and an accordion

Welcome to the hamlet that is Creeting St Peter, where my new family (that's additional, not replacement) are celebrating Christmas in, I am told, traditional style, with music and song. Liam and Jamie, Ros's youngest, are playing guitar, and Maggie, a friend of Ros's sister Ann, is playing her accordion.

Christmas dinner has been prepared, and roast goose, Suffolk ham, stuffing and all the trimmings have been eaten, washed down with beer, wine and the occasional 'something stronger'.

There are times in the big city when so many of us, so far from home and family, miss out on the spirit of Christmas. For the rest of us, Christmas provides an opportunity to reflect upon our blessings, and in my case, there have been so many this year.

So, a very Merry Christmas to you all, with the wish that you get all that you deserve. Salut!

Monday, December 24, 2007

2007: the year in review (part 2) - from predictable disaster to unbounded joy

May saw me en route to the most dangerous post office in the world, on the perhaps obvious grounds that it almost certainly needed saving (I exist, therefore I save post offices - Jean-Paul Rennard). Frankly, if Vanuatu Post think that such an enterprise is worth having, it shouldn't be beyond the wit of this Government to find a way to support the post office network in Britain...

But change was looming, and I had to return to London to begin the search for a new home. Technology was catching up with me, just in time for the impending disaster that was the GLA selection. I was beginning to display some rather un-bureaucratish emotion, as I wondered aloud about where I fitted in, and opened up about who I am and how I felt (although there was much more of that to come...), just in time for the start of the European selection process. At the time, I was fairly optimistic about it...

Escaping only to make my small contribution to American politics, I returned to the serious business of interviewing applicants, as Returning Officer for the South East Region, and as a member of the London selection committee. Moving house was merely the sort of usual complication that I throw into the mix to raise the challenge a bit. Falling in love hadn't been part of the plan.

I'd left a few clues for those whose mind is more attuned to romance. Pieces such as "Truth, beauty, passion and diversity" were a prelude before an attempt at bearing my soul in response to Conservative proposals on the family. And all the while, my opponent from the winter was up to something... although it was becoming less important exactly what, because I was conclusively in love...

Friday, December 21, 2007

2007: the year in review (part 1) - from sea to shining sea

Last year, I tried out the idea of reviewing my year in three parts, a concept which, if I say so myself, was quite a lot of fun. So, as the year draws to a close, it is perhaps time to start this year's review...

The beginning of the year found me in India, celebrating yet another wedding (my cousin Clyne and the lovely Nisha this time), and telling all and sundry that, unless my beloved cousin Kim was going to surprise us all, it was likely to be a very long time until the family would have a wedding to gather for. I was preparing for another uninterrupted year as London's regional bureaucrat, with no sign of a challenge on the horizon (prescience, a wonderful thing...), with the only clouds (albeit rather ominous, dark and storm-filled ones) in view centred on the impending conclusion of the financial aspects of my divorce.

The first surprise was the well-planned but incredibly poorly executed ambush at the first Regional Executive. To be opposed was unexpected enough, but to discover that I'd managed to upset quite as many people as the subsequent election demonstrated was somewhat hurtful. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end as far as the old bureaucrat was concerned, and the decline became more obvious as time progressed. As for my opponent, whatever happened to him?

Inevitably, I became rather more introspective, and wrote the first of my confessional pieces, a departure from my normal style which rather set the tone for the months to come. Jessica was enjoying herself though, even though she was a source of some confusion herself later on... I responded with a rather ambitious attack on my Regional and State Chairs, only one of whom actually acknowledged that I had done so. At least I know that I exit unbeaten...

I had promised myself that I would live life in colour, and a gesture towards that came at Spring Conference where I surprised many people by rearranging the deckchairs on my own personal Titanic and having my face quite radically redesigned. I was told that I looked somewhat younger, and turned at least one head, as it turned out.

One thing I did predict though, was that the European Selection campaign would become a tale of those who had prepared, and those that hadn't. I did warn you, honestly I did. Now will you listen? Complaints about our internal selection systems were to become a feature of the months ahead, and it was already clear that the GLA list selection was going to be difficult. It was out of control by then, and boy, did it go wrong...

But change was fast overtaking me. The house in East Dulwich went onto the market following the carnage that was my divorce settlement, so I responded in time-honoured faceless bureaucrat fashion - I bought a laptop and fled to the South Pacific, via San Francisco. I needed baseball, ice cream, and adventure, in that order. Onwards to Melbourne, where I drank beer in the company of someone called Ros (now where have I heard that name before?), rode steam trains and generally avoided the rest of my increasingly chaotic life, before heading to Auckland. The adventure, however, was about to begin...

The death of prostitution?

I see that Harriet Harman has called for a ban on the selling of sex. Now, whilst I've never paid for sex myself, and am troubled by the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, I find it somehow difficult to believe that making prostitution illegal will actually help matters in any way, shape or form.

Prostitution is supposedly the oldest profession and, whilst there are those who want sex and can't get it through consensual, mutually desired, means, or who want something that their regular partner is unwilling to consent to, or participate in, there will always be a niche for those willing to meet that need. In any other sector of life's rich tapestry, this would involve a free(ish) market. However, sex is so interlinked with morality that governments, and in particular politicians, feel a need to get involved (ironic, isn't it, that a significant number have been caught using them...).

Harriet makes the entirely valid points that people trafficking, predominantly of young women, is linked to prostitution in this country and others, and that prostitutes tend to be the victims of rape and physical violence, whilst levels of drugtaking amongst prostitutes, the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the other rather grim aspects of the sex industry are, or at least should be, of concern to us all. It cannot be a positive thing that some people are so desperate, and so ill-equipped to exist within mainstream society that they must sell their bodies to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, her conclusion is the wrong one. The legal system, especially following this Government's attempts to legislate for everything, already has the means to address the unpleasant aspects of the sex industry. There is legislation that covers violence, rape and people trafficking, there are programmes which address concerns about the spread of STDs. What we are need are the resources to tackle these issues, and to separate them from the actual skin trade. It is far more effective to attack the traffickers than to police a ban on prostitution, an industry designed to operate in a covert manner (I'm yet to meet the man - or woman - who openly talks about their use of prostitutes, although it is statistically likely that I know at least one person who does).

Don't get me wrong, I am not one of those people who believe that prostitution is glamorous, or that the 'Pretty Woman' story is anything other than a cute movie plot. As a very young man, I was taken to witness for myself the sheer horror of prostitution in Mumbai, an experience which will haunt me to my dying day. However, there are those who make a deliberate choice to enter into the industry, who arrange their affairs in such a way to minimise the risk to their personal safety and/or who, whisper it quietly, actually enjoy sex. To prevent them from doing so in exchange for remuneration does noone any favours, and is likely to drive them underground, heightening the risks and creating even greater misery than currently exists. If people think that the gangs who buy and sell young men and women are out of control now, they won't have seen anything yet.

You're the Government, Harriet. You have police, border security, courts and a supportive population, to whom violence and people trafficking are abhorrent. Use the tools that you have, catch, and punish, the guilty, and you'll have our support.

As for prostitution, put it on a legal footing, as it is in New Zealand. Legislate in such a way as to allow sex workers to make themselves safe, provide support networks so that those who want to leave the industry can do so, programmes that wean those who are drug-dependent away from their addiction and in return, ensure that they pay their taxes like anyone else.

Sadly, I don't expect that my voice will be heard on this one. As a society, we aren't terribly good at issues of sexuality. The notion that people should be left to exercise their sexual preferences in a consensual manner without let or hindrance in the privacy of their own property has been respected only as far as it meets with the approval of the likes of the Daily Mail, as the tragedy of the 'Operation Spanner' victims demonstrated only too clearly.

As liberals, we should be fighting for the freedom of individuals to pursue love, life and happiness, with the only restrictions being those protecting the counterbalancing rights and freedoms of others. I'm not suggesting that this would be a popular place to start such a battle, but our response as a Party will speak volumes about whether or not we are serious about our liberalism, or just mealy-mouthed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Visas for non-EU visitors - another reason to be proud to be British?

One thing that annoys me more and more about this government is its seemingly never-ending ability to make laws that are designed to fix the failings in earlier legislation yet merely achieve new areas of doubt and uncertainty whilst demonstrating their underlying authoritarianism.

The new proposals for visas are designed to prevent non-EU visitors from overstaying, an entirely laudable idea, but are only really necessary because of the crisis in the Home Office. The decision to abolish passport checks for those leaving the country means that we have no effective way of knowing whether or not people have overstayed, leading to banner headlines claiming whatever scary number of illegal immigrants suits the newspaper concerned. I particularly enjoy questions from Conservative spokespersons demanding to know how many overstayers there are - is it only obvious to me that if we knew how many there were, we'd probably know who they were and could more easily deal with them?

But enough of that, the solution is to place more restrictions on those coming to this country to visit families, enjoy our beautiful scenery, study in our educational institutions or whatever. And here I declare a personal interest. My family is scattered across the globe, in the United States, Canada, Dubai, India and New Zealand. I've enjoyed visiting them over the past four years, but would quite like to have the opportunity to see them here. If these proposals go ahead, I may well be called upon to lodge a bond which can be withheld if they overstay. If I can't lodge that bond, they probably won't be allowed to come. The fact that my family all have lives, and pretty good ones at that where they are now, appears to be irrelevant. And thus, in such ways, are the innocent punished for the sins of the few, and for the general incompetence of government.

I potentially suffer from the loss of opportunity to see my family. The tourism industry suffer from the loss of revenue that might otherwise have been gained. In turn, India will probably retaliate, shortening the length of any visa I might be able to obtain, and the fallout will impact on our relationship with those developing nations likely to prove influential in the future.

Naturally, visitors from white, developed countries will find it easier to obtain visas, a sign perhaps that such people are more welcome than those from poor, less-developed countries. And naturally, when they come here, the latter can expect more attention from immigration officials and law enforcement agencies, as will ethnic minorities in the indigenous population, as they will 'look foreign'.

For heavens sake, Gordon, when are you going to learn that, whilst doing something properly takes longer and is less likely to garner friendly headlines in the Daily Mail, it will at least prevent you from being lambasted every time an overstretched civil servant screws up?

Meanwhile, in a small town not so far away from our dear London…

…the talk is of nothing else but that dashing young Mr Clegg, who has triumphed over the rather gruff Mr Huhne in the contest for the leadership of our local debating society. In truth, the town has not been so abuzz with rumour and counter-rumour since the arrival of the railway, not five years past.

I quite confess that the ballot has been a topic of much consideration between Lady Rosalind and myself, from deciding to whom our favour should be granted, from attending gatherings in Newbury (which, whilst not entirely without its charms, lacks the gentility of our rather more established metropolis) and Leeds (with its brutal industrial landscape, where children might still be found engaged in quite unsuitable activities), to the drama of completing our ballots and prevailing upon the Royal Mail to convey them by express mail coach to a discreet establishment in London where such matters are resolved by frightfully clever gentlemen equipped with the very latest counting machines.

It will indeed be good for the town to see our debating society revitalised, as it provides an outlet for the men of the town to distract themselves from talk of trade and industry, whatever the latter might mean, and even more so from the temptations of hard liquor and whatever else passes for discourse in the inns and taverns. In fact, as a means of improving the manners of some of the rougher elements, whose leafleting goes on unchecked, and whose presence outside of polling stations brings so much distress to those of a more sensitive, liberal persuasion, the example that might potentially be set by Mr Clegg may well prove to be of great value.

His talk of a more radical leadership is, I admit, of concern to the members of our literary salon, but I am sure that a more self-confident, more energetic approach is just what is needed to invigorate the town. I am sure that the electors of our proud metropolis will give him all of the support he needs in the coming years, accordingly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Conservatives, housing and the free market – a cynical way to win support

“With 1.4 million homeowners facing higher mortgage bills next year, David Cameron has called on Britain's banks to "step up to the plate and help ease the burden."

He wants to see the banking industry reduce the risk of financial distress by giving advice to mortgage-holders and increasing repayments gradually rather than imposing a sudden hike.

David said,

"This is what I mean by social responsibility: companies operating in an enlightened way that is good for them, and good for society as a whole."

Research suggests that the 1.4 million borrowers coming to the end of their fixed rate period in 2008 will face an average monthly increase of £200 each.

David called on mortgage lenders to do "everything they can" to help hard-pressed homeowners.”

I don’t have a mortgage, although I’ve had one in the past. I do, on the other hand, have some savings. I aspire to have more. And you know something, I really object to this kind of mealy-mouthed opportunism from the Conservatives.

People take out fixed-rate mortgage deals in order to buy themselves some stability and, generally, for personal advantage. They understand exactly what the implications are, or if they don’t, they frankly should. If the various financial institutions do as Dave asks, they will obviously reduce their profits unless they improve margins elsewhere, either by increasing bank charges, trimming rates of return for savers, or maintaining higher interest rates for other mortgage holders. The chances of them taking the hit are, to be pragmatic, remote.

It appears that this is all about a cynical attempt to transfer the onus to act onto banks and building societies, virtually all of whom are privately owned, and thus only accountable to their shareholders – not an unreasonable concept. At the same time, it allows the Conservatives to look as though they care, whilst absolving them of any responsibility – “we did ask, but we can’t make them”. Yet it was Conservative policy to encourage everyone to own their own home, Conservative policy to restrict local authorities from building new social housing or even retain that which they had previously held, and generally Conservative policy at county and district council levels to restrict the building of more affordable housing.

When I took out my first mortgage in 1991, the interest rate was something like 13%, and lending ratios were no more than three times declared earnings. I managed, and I made sure that I didn’t overextend. Whilst I accept that housing costs have risen far more than inflation over the intervening sixteen years, governments have done nothing to intervene apart from tinkering at the fringes, and certainly failed to address the core issues of supply and demand.

If such a call from Dave is the best that the Conservatives have to offer on housing, a return to the failed consensus politics of the sixties and seventies or, worse yet, an admission that the state has no influence other than to shrug its shoulders and bemoan how unfair the free market is, then it is high time that they gave up the pretence that they are credible claimants to form a government.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A golden era of bureaucracy comes to an end

Tonight saw the end of what had originally been intended to be the bureaucratic equivalent of the 'thousand year Reich', as I attended my last meeting as Regional Secretary.

The problem became that I stopped enjoying it. Regional Executives became places where initiatives went to die and, whilst I fully understand that I can't always get what I want, the regularity with which good ideas ran into the sands finally got to me. It is therefore time for someone else to take over, assuming of course that they really want the job and are not doing it merely because it needs to be done.

Me, I'm off to be Regional Conference Chair. I have an agenda, I have some ideas to try, and I have a participation concept to pursue. Whatever happens, it has to be better than the past year as Secretary...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Unitary, my dear Blears, unitary...

Now, whilst I admit that local government reorganisation is far from the forefront of the minds of most people, it does have a surprisingly broad impact on people's lives. Economies of scale vie for attention against concerns of localism.

The new Chipmunk for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, has just rejected the proposed Unitary Authority for Ipswich, noting that she is opposed to 'hybrid counties', a view that she is perfectly entitled to. It is, however, a bit of a disappointment to Ipswich Borough Council, whose bid for unitary status had been effectively encouraged by her predecessor, Ruth 'Opus Daydream' Kelly.

It is yet another indication that this government increasingly operates on the basis of personal whim, rather than on any coherent strategy or set of principles. Ipswich had spent taxpayer money on preparations, including advertising for new staff based on expectations of having to prepare for the new responsibilities that unitary status would bring. Who now covers these costs? What can be done to deal with the short-term instability that this will cause?

Oh, but it gets better. Hazel the Gopher has instructed the Boundary Commission to "go away and rethink the whole structure of local government in Suffolk". Democratic accountability, anyone? Yet again, Labour talk a good game on localism but demonstrate a complete incomprehension of the concept when it comes to action.

There were clues for those who knew what to look for. Ros noted in a debate on the recent Local Government Bill that it made possible the creation of cross-county unitary authorities, although it was stated that there was no current intention to propose any. The good burghers of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft may well be intrigued at the possibility that they are proposed as potential guinea pigs in a new combined Yarmouth/Waveney unitary. New Labour, new subterfuge.

Sadly, it isn't just Ipswich. Bedford has been accepted despite the total absence of a notion as to what to do with the rest of the county, and Exeter's bid has been rejected (despite the fact that Devon is already a melange of unitaries and non-unitaries.

Besides, if unitaries are such a good thing, why is the Government creating opportunities to form new parish councils. Left hand, meet right hand. You don't know what he's doing, but don't let it worry you...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

European Selections: a little consolation is to be had

Readers may recall that it was my intention to submit an amendment to the European Selection Rules addressing the problems caused by the 'no endorsement' rule. And indeed, I did just that and, on Saturday, my chance came, or so I thought.

I had been led to believe in a conversation prior to our meeting that a full review of the European Selection Rules would be proposed and lo, this came to pass, approved unanimously by those present. Accordingly, a group of five have been tasked with the job of carrying out a review, and I have the pleasure of being one of them.

The review will commence in the New Year, and I hope to have news on the format in due course...

Facebook - just another reason why the Internet sucks sometimes...

I just thought that you ought to know that I think that...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

There is hope for a Liberal Democrat future...

It has to be said that the notion of this bureaucrat at an ALDC 'Kickstart' event is almost as unlikely as a fun English Council meeting, but that's where you would have found me yesterday evening, accompanying Ros, who was the guest speaker at their dinner session, in a Holiday Inn just north of Birmingham, on the road to Walsall.

What impressed me was the number of younger members present, from all around the country, from Ceredigion and Manchester, from Portsmouth and Derby. It is remarkable that there are so many young Liberal Democrats wanting to serve their local communities, especially given the average age of our membership and the general absence of the under-40's at our metings.

In fact, I was so impressed that I asked Tim Pickstone if we could bid to host next year's event, probably in partnership with one of our neighbouring Regions. I make no promises, but the idea of giving some of our developing local groups a flying start for 2010 is an attractive one...

English Council: the German sublime meets the English ridiculous

Despite a real desire not to get up the next morning, I had no choice, I had to go to English Council. Worse still, I had to get up early, as we were scheduled to meet in Birmingham.

I caught my train, intending to arrive fifteen minutes in advance of the start time, but, due to signal failures, didn't arrive at the venue until comfortably after the 11.00 start time. Fortunately, I was never going to miss the reports from the Treasurer, from the G8 committee or the Federal Policy Committee representative, as I could see them at the other end of the carriage!

Having finally reached Birmingham, I was somewhat surprised to see our venue hidden from view behind an ersatz German Christmas Market, all the way from Frankfurt, but recovered in time to enter what was shaping up to be an astonishingly dull English Council.

And so it turned out, the only excitement in the morning being a debate on the 2008 budget, which sought to reduce the rebate of membership income paid to both Regional and Local Parties. I spoke against but was one of a sadly small group of rebels. Whilst a large proportion of the money will be returned to Regions via the G8 grant round, London will be hurt by the loss of revenue, without the compensation of grants - GLA elections don't qualify for subventions currently.

Eventually, it was time for lunch. Nagging away at the back of my mind was a sense that I was missing something obvious. So I went outside and discovered that I could get real German beer in proper half-litre steins and, even better, decent wurst in bread rolls with great mustard. My purchases complete, I returned to the afternoon session with beer and wurst, much to the surprise of my colleagues, and in Falstaffian style spoke of the joy of wurst. It made the afternoon so much more bearable...

It didn't change my mind about English Council though...

Not everything to do with trains requires the wearing of an anorak...

Friday saw Ros and I attend a ball. Now, whilst I'm not a dancer, I do enjoy a good party, and the Railway Ball, live from the Grosvenor Hotel on Park Lane, was a chance to let my hair down and do good at the same time.

The ball is a gathering of the elite of the railway industry, raising funds for a charity called 'Railway Children', which supports street children, predominantly in India. The event, in its eighth year, is a proper black tie event, with various companies buying tables and entertaining those with an interest in, or influence on, the work of the railways in this country and elsewhere.

Our host for the evening was Richard Bowker, former head of the Strategic Rail Authority and now CEO of National Express, who has worked with Ros in the past at a time when she was on the board of the Commission for Integrated Transport. Unsurprisingly, Ros wasn't the only Parliamentarian on our table, as we were subsequently joined by Chris Grayling, until recently the Conservative spokesman on Transport, now handling the Work and Pensions brief in the Commons.

Curiously, and it almost (but not quite) pains me to admit it, but he came across as fairly reasonable in his views. Admittedly, I'm not convinced that I would appreciate his solutions anywhere near as much, but it was interesting to see him operating up close and personal(ish). He does need help with his bow-tie though...

It was a fascinating evening, with a Bollywood theme, compered by a fairly funny ventriloquist, and a great deal of money was raised for the charity. And not an anorak, or a thermos flask of hot tea to be seen anywhere...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Steve Guy, a voice for Wycombe!

In June, I started the process of selecting a PPC for Wycombe, in leafy, and true blue, Buckinghamshire. Tonight saw the culmination of that process, so I was back in High Wycombe for the hustings.

First, the AGM was held, and Wendy Guy, the Chair, breezed through the agenda in double quick time, before reviewing the year. I was touched when she took the time to express her gratitude, and that of the Local Party, for stepping into the breach when their original Returning Officer was unable to progress matters. Given how pleasant an experience it has been, her kind words were quite unnecessary but very welcome nonetheless.

The hustings itself was quite a tough one, with a series of challenging questions to be answered. However, at the end of it all, Steve Guy came through with flying colours, and will have the challenge of leading the Liberal Democrat team in Wycombe in the run-up to the next General Election.

Wycombe is a seat where we are in third place, and is not an obviously attractive seat to fight from our perspective. It reminds me that, for every good seat, where we get a number of interested applicants, there are candidates fighting seats where there is little central support, little in the way of funding or activists, but an abiding sense that we owe it to the voters to give them a genuine choice. From such unpromising beginnings are winnable seats crafted, and we need to be more aware as a Party that our candidates in such seats need to be nurtured a bit more than they currently are.

I know that Steve will work hard in Wycombe, and for Wycombe, and I wish him, and Wycombe Liberal Democrats, all the best in the months ahead.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

As the lights go out all over HM Revenue & Customs…

There is, this evening, a decided sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ following the resignation of Paul Gray, HMRC’s Chairman.

Like many of my colleagues, I’m pretty horrified by the security breach which was announced by Alastair Darling earlier this afternoon, and the notion that someone should simply download that amount of sensitive information and just stick it in the post is almost too bizarre to comprehend. However, it has been done, and the Government appears to have dealt with it reasonably well, taking measured steps to protect the public and to prevent panic.

There will be calls for the Chancellor and his junior ministers to resign, no less, and whilst their positions are already vulnerable following the Northern Rock fiasco, this should not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, if only because the camel’s spine failed at the point where it became apparent that taxpayer monies were far from secure, as we had been promised. A breach of security protocol by a junior officer such as this, in clear contravention not only of established guidance but of sheer common sense, should not be pinned upon Ministers, but should be dealt with through our internal disciplinary procedures.

No, my sympathies are with Paul Gray. I don’t know him at all well, having only read various statements from him in recent years, but he has a reputation for being the person sent in to fire-fight when something has gone badly wrong. He was the senior officer sent to turn around the Tax Credit Office and, whilst it might not be perfect now, it is far better than it was when he took over.

His resignation was, in my view, extraordinarily honourable. Yet, by doing the decent thing, he may yet have created a rather different problem for this Government. If it is appropriate for the head of a Government Department to accept responsibility for the actions of those answerable to him, what obligation does that place on the Minister? Those who have commented thus far on the BBC News website seem mostly to acknowledge that Gray has acted with honour, and there are many who will contrast that with the approach of the Chancellor, finding the latter wanting.

As an individual with ‘form’ in this area of civic morality and ethics, you might expect me to call for consistency, yet I am hesitant. At least we have been given an example that might inform politicians in the future, be they from Labour, the Conservatives or any other political grouping responsible for representing and serving the public. The public should at least be grateful for that...

A fond farewell to Dulwich and West Norwood, God speed…

Last night took me to a crypt in West Dulwich for my swansong appearance in a Dulwich and West Norwood shirt, in my multiple roles as outgoing Membership Secretary, external Returning Officer and locum Secretary (and yes, if you have clearance from the Regional Secretary, this is technically possible… oh yes, I am the Regional Secretary, aren’t I…).

Jeremy Baker, my successor as Chair, had arranged for us to meet in All Saints Church on Rosendale Road, and I accompanied our guest speaker, Ros, to the venue without getting too wet. The church was rebuilt recently after fire destroyed the fabric of the building, and a very impressive facility it is too. In fact, it looks like a potential Regional Conference venue… but I digress.

Jeremy doesn’t mess about, and we raced briskly through the business at hand, with short verbal reports before we reached elections. We don’t generally have competition in our leafy corner of South London, and in fact the last contest we had had was when I fought my quixotic campaign to be Chair in late 2004 (quixotic only because I expected to lose, and didn’t). With a touch of arm-twisting, and a lot of encouragement, we managed to fill every vacancy, unlike the Regional Party (well, I think it’s ironic).

Ros then spoke on life in the House of Lords, and we had a small tribute to Stan Hardy, our evergreen Honorary President before adjourning the meeting in time for a dash to the station to catch our train home.

I’ll miss Dulwich and West Norwood. They’re a lovely bunch of people who deserve better, and I hope that they’ll receive their just rewards in the election campaigns to come. On the other hand, I’ll not be a stranger…

New leadership for London Liberal Democrats

I mentioned that we had a contested election for the position of Chair of the Regional Party, yet didn’t indicate what had actually happened. Most remiss of me, really…

There were two candidates, Denys Robinson from Greenwich, the current Chair of the Policy Committee, and Sandra Lawman from Lambeth, currently heading our fundraising efforts for the next two Regional election campaigns. Both of them are experienced campaigners, both have a lot to offer, but I had opted for Denys.

Chairing a large, and somewhat unwieldy committee requires a degree of steel, a sense of humour and endless patience, and for those reasons, Denys appeared to me to be the candidate I would most prefer to act as Regional Secretary to, and although I won’t be fulfilling that role next year, the criteria are fairly adjacent. So it was with a degree of pleasure that, following the ministrations of our Returning Officer, Dave Hodgson, it was announced that Denys had indeed been elected and will take up office on 1 January.

Given the rather quirky rules that dictate how the Regional Executive is formed, he will start his term without a Vice Chair, Treasurer, Secretary or Chairs for the Campaigns, Local Parties and Policy Committees. He will have a Regional Candidates Chair – Margaret Joachim – and a Regional Conference Chair – me – and ten Executive Members as follows;

Jeremy Ambache, Linda Chung, Pete Dollimore, Jill Fraser, Sandra Lawman, Dominic Mathon, Eliane Patton, Caroline Pidgeon, Balan Sisupalan and Brian Stone

What this means is that we are, for all intents and purposes, gender balanced, if you add in the new Regional President, Baroness Sally Hamwee. Life should be very interesting, especially if some of the female members are willing to fill the various Officer vacancies...

London Region: ‘twas a cold, dark, and above all, wet afternoon…

Sunday saw the London Region Conference and AGM come to South London, or to be more precise, Streatham. Sundays are never good days to hold conferences, and with a venue that seemed to become more difficult to get to by the day (the local station was closed for engineering works, and the nearest tube station was closed for similar reasons), turnout was down on what we might normally expect.

This was something of a pity really, as the agenda was quite a good one, with speeches from our new Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, our acting Leader, Vince Cable, and our Spokesperson on Communities and Local Government in the Lords, Baroness Ros Scott, plus a contested election for Chair. We’d arranged some excellent training opportunities and, all in all, a good time could have been had by all.

The weather didn’t help, with the rain lashing down as the afternoon progressed, and the hall never really warmed up, which at least enabled the host Local Party to make some money through sales of tea and coffee. On the other hand, the sight of our die-hard smokers huddling outside for warmth might have improved the Government’s chances of reducing smoking in the general population.

For the most part, things went fairly smoothly, although Alison Sanderson, our outgoing Regional Conference Chair, wore her usual worried look as the prospect of emerging chaos was glimpsed from time to time before being fended off. I increasingly suspect that the only thing keeping her going was the prospect of passing her poisoned chalice to your correspondent as of 31 December…

The one hitch was the late arrival of Vince Cable, who had bravely opted to drive himself across South London, and had got lost doing so. However, he more than made up for it with a speech addressing the issues surrounding Northern Rock and the general vulnerability of the British economy, leavened with a surprising element of humour. He really seems to be enjoying his stint as acting Leader, and I’ve been impressed with the vigour with which he has attacked the Government (Nick and Chris, I trust that you’re taking notes…). He got a warm reception from a suddenly bolstered audience, before handing over to Brian Paddick, who gave a polished performance.

I had my doubts about him as a potential Mayoral candidate, as I generally distrust the cult of celebrity, but he does appear to be not only a Liberal Democrat, but has some edge too. There is a risk that in a contest between Mayor Ken and Bonker Boris, issues will become very much sublimated to the questions of style and celebrity. If Brian is going to make a series of hard-hitting interventions on crime and policing, and can demonstrate a grasp of the other core issues, he may well make an impression on the contest far greater than that predicted when his name first emerged as a potential candidate.

And so, in the safe hands of our new President, Baroness Sally Hamwee, Conference came to an end and we all went home. Colder, and probably wetter than we might have wished, but with a sense of a Party moving forward. And you probably can’t ask for much more than that…

Leadership election: You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative…

It has been a bit of a mess over the past few days. Sadly, the chickens have come home to roost for Chris Huhne, but he can’t say that he wasn’t warned. More than two weeks ago, I noted my concern about hints of negative campaigning, and I know that similar concerns were relayed to the Huhne camp by acquaintances of mine.

This means one of two things, either the decision to go negative came from the top, or the considered view within the campaign team as a whole was that such a strategy was acceptable, allowing individuals to act accordingly. Neither prospect really offers much in the way of positives, although the existence of a more deep-rooted attack culture is probably the more troubling, as an individual who doesn’t play by the rules, written or unwritten, can be dealt with in isolation.

Now, as I’ve already said, nothing that has happened so far is fundamentally against the rules, and I still defend the right of Team Huhne to apply whatever strategy they believe appropriate to gain victory for their man. However, I do expect both sides to give rather more thought to the impact of their behaviour as far as the outside world is concerned.

Team Clegg seems to be focussed on whinging that it really isn’t fair. The complaint to the Returning Officer belittles the candidate, and begs the question, “What do you expect the outcome of your complaint to be?”. To be blunt, whatever Chris and his campaign team do will be a picnic compared to the massed ranks of Labour and Conservative MPs when our new Leader makes his debut in the House of Commons. My personal advice would be to work on some cutting put-downs – Vince Cable seems to be pretty good at them, and his sense of humour is not exactly legendary.

Team Huhne need to think more about the aftermath than the campaign. If Chris wins, is the campaign strategy likely to generate loyalty amongst the Parliamentary Party? Ian Duncan-Smith won the Conservative leadership having previously been rather less than loyal to his predecessors. Such a stance hardly encouraged Conservative MPs to be devoted to him, and his position was thereafter unstable accordingly. Indeed, if he doesn’t win, have his attempts to undermine Nick damages the latter to the extent that he struggles for credibility, thus undermining the Party itself. With a majority as small as Chris’s, that might yet return to haunt him.

I also wonder what it does for our already tattered reputation as the ‘nicest’ of the three main political parties. I freely admit that when I hear tales of dirty politics from other Liberal Democrats around the country, I wince inside. I’ve always attempted, in those campaigns where my opinion has carried weight, to ‘keep it clean’ because I believe that gutter politics puts off voters and discourages participation. My mother has said in the past that you attract more with honey than with vinegar, and whilst she isn’t political, I often think that our elected representatives could learn from her common sense.

This campaign started as a battle of style and ideas, and has descended into something akin to mud-wrestling. Leave it to the pigs, gentlemen, they’re better at it…

Monday, November 19, 2007

European Selection: time to start changing the Rules

It became abundantly clear during the campaign phase that the endorsement rules have become a nonsense for selections for Regional lists, and they were a cause of frustration to candidates and Returning Officers alike. So here’s the Rule that was the cause of such grief.

4.2 e) No material issued by candidates shall include any endorsements of the candidate, by word or implied by photograph. Photographs must not include Party members who are people of note in the Euro Region or well known in the Party. Members of the candidate’s family or ordinary Party members, such as helpers at a by-election, can be shown, but all such photographs must be cleared by the Returning Officer.

From the perspective of a Returning Officer, this meant wasted time scanning photographs for ‘prominent figures’ (define prominent, anyone?) yet there were no credible means of dealing with the scenario whereby a member could write a long blog entry stating what a thoroughly good person X was and why they should be elected to the European Parliament, unless you could prove that they had been put up to doing it by the candidate or a member of his/her campaign team (yeah, right!).

Subsequently, having digested the results, it dawns on me that an inability to seek endorsements means that non-incumbents are prevented from using their network of supporters to build credibility, the very thing that we allow our leadership candidates to do. In a short campaign, that helps to protect a weak incumbent, who may be poorly regarded by council group leaders, MPs and key activists, yet that crucial information is effectively withheld from members. I’m not suggesting that negative campaigning should be encouraged, or even allowed. However, an absence of endorsements does undermine candidates in the eyes of ordinary members, and leads to the kind of ‘beauty contest’ that so obviously favours incumbents.

So, if I don’t like the Rule as it currently reads, what do I think should replace it? Well, here is the proposal that I wish to put before the members of the English Candidates Committee at their meeting on 1 December in Birmingham;

4.2 e) delete all and insert

Material issued by candidates may include endorsements of candidates, either by word or implied by photograph. The presence of individuals in photograph shall be deemed to imply endorsement unless clearly stated otherwise in the salient material. If asked to do so, a candidate must provide evidence to support the legitimacy of the endorsement, actual or implied.

I believe that this simplifies the job of the Returning Officer, frees up candidates to use a wider range of campaigning techniques (and endorsement is a campaigning technique, to my mind at least), and continues the trend towards self-regulation. It removes the grey areas caused by the use of words such as ‘prominent’, and makes endorsement a black and white issue. In turn, bloggers are free to comment as they wish, as anything they write can be assumed to be allowable (they’ve written/published it themselves of their own volition).

I’ll let you know how I get on next weekend…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

All dressed up with somewhere to go

I've been out of town for a few days with Ros, who was acting as guest speaker for the North West Parliamentary Dining Circle in a hotel near Kirkby Lonsdale, where the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire touch.

As Ros was in Manchester on business anyway, we decided to make a mini-weekend of it, hire a rental car, and drive up via Todmorden and Pendle (Kirkby Lonsdale is pretty remote by public transport), do the event on the Friday evening, and pop over to the Lake District to marvel at the scenery the next morning.

And, to our shared delight, that's how it worked out. Todmorden is a lovely little town, with one of those wonderful town halls that the North does so well, a market, and an amazing railway viaduct that soars over the town. We stopped for tea and a general potter around (you young people, you don't know you're alive!), before getting back into the car and heading for Nelson.

Curiously, on arrival we found no signs leading to the shrine of the sainted Greaves, nor any of his followers, dressed in their traditional robes of day-glo orange. However, it was a nice enough town and I'm sure that they were all out delivering leaflets in Colne, anyway.

Next, over the moors to Clapham, an achingly pretty little village just off the A65. As we pulled into its centre, we were met by a flock of sheep being herded past us by a sheepdog and his master, the latter riding one of those four-wheel off-road buggies. I deeply suspect that they're in the pay of the tourism authorities ("Seth, a strange car's turned off of the A65. They must be tourists so get those sheep moving, lad!").

We got to our hotel in good time, and had the opportunity to get some rest before the evening’s gathering before changing into out outfits for the evening. The dress code had been advised as ‘relaxed black tie’, so I’d brought one of my more flamboyant waistcoats out of retirement for the occasion and, if I say so myself, I didn’t look bad.

The evening’s host was Paul Rowen, the Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, who graciously welcomed Ros before we started the meal. I had already eaten far too much earlier in the day, but the game terrine and roast lamb were too much to resist before Ros spoke on her work in the Lords, and the likely impact of the recent Local Government Act on the work of councils and councillors. The audience seemed to receive it well, and a lively question and answer session followed. A very enjoyable evening all round, I thought.

The next morning, we got a leisurely start, had a decent breakfast and set off via Kendal to Coniston. I’ve never been to the Lake District, and was impressed to find that it was every bit as lovely as Ros had promised. We did a bit more pottering about but, sadly, had to curtail our revelry to head back to Manchester.

On the off chance, we took a short detour to find lunch, ending up in the charmingly genteel resort of Grange over Sands. It isn’t big, the sea is an awfully long way away (there were sheep grazing between the promenade and the water), but it was rather cosy, despite the cold and the rain. The subsequent drive back to Manchester went easily enough, and provided a fairly pain-free end to a really lovely weekend.

I sometimes think that we don’t really appreciate the countryside that we have within easy reach in this country. As a pretty hardened traveller in exotic parts, I’ve never really found the time to explore the English countryside, although not having a car has made it so much more complex to do so. Yet in the short period of time that I’ve been with Ros, I’ve seen a little of the villages of Suffolk, the Shropshire hills, and some of the best bits of the North and North West. And my carbon footprint is reduced somewhat, making me feel a little better, at least in moral terms.

Perhaps more of us should think about taking short breaks in the United Kingdom, rather than jetting off to the continent at the slightest provocation. I know that I will from now on…

Friday, November 16, 2007

English Candidates Committee - faceless bureaucrat in re-election upset!

In the midst of the various selections that have been concluded recently, an election for five places on English Candidates Committee (ECC) has been taking place. A stellar list of candidates has, with various degrees of nervousness, been awaiting the outcome since polls closed on 2 November, and I have to admit, I really wasn't expecting to survive.

So you can imagine my surprise when the following result reached me in a pub somwhere in deepest Lancashire;

Dawn Davidson - 21 votes
Geoff Payne - 11 votes
Mark Valladares - 10 votes
Neil Halsall - 6 votes
Brian Orrell - 5 votes
Jenny Shorten - 3 votes
Jonathan Davies - 1 vote
Mike Simpson - 1 vote

The top three were elected on first preferences, with Neil and Brian reaching the quota on transfers.

I am grateful for those who supported me, and look forward to working with the new committee in 2008. In the meantime, the ECC meets on 1 December in Birmingham, where I hope to propose a review of the endorsement rules for European selections. I'll report more on that soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Technology reconnect

You will recall that I've been having serious problems with AOL, attenpting to get broadband in my new home. Last month, I finally persuaded AOL and BT that I deserved the broadband connection that I had been paying for, only to discover that the telephone cabling in the house refused to cope with this new 'treat'. Hmmm, what to do?

Whilst visiting Nottingham a few weeks ago, Liam, Ros's nephew, raised the notion of wireless access via a router. Intrigued, I attempted to find out how this worked and concluded that it might be the solution I've been looking for. Despite getting little sense out of AOL, I finally went to Carphone Warehouse on Sunday, purchased a Netgear router and stood back whilst Jamie (Ros's son) and Liam tried to install it.

They gallantly struggled with the unhelpful nature of the AOL software and, eventually, got the network up and running. However, we had real problems getting the computers to then connect up to the network and reach the internet. Telephone calls to friends in Gibraltar and elsewhere got us closer, but eventually, a brief call to AOL allowed us to make the breakthrough, and I am delighted to note that I now have internet access throughout the house and can finally function like a normal bureaucrat (albeit for a given value of normal appropriate to a bureaucrat).

With that, my new office is complete, and I'll post a picture of it soon...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monkeys clearly can't do accents...

I was slightly puzzled by the speed of the response to my last blog entry about 'Cranford', and Ros wondered whether or not someone at the BBC had been using Google to see what the response was. I was even more puzzled to find this on the 'Monkey' blog in the Guardian's online offering...


Incredibly plummy? I'm frightfully sorry, but those of us from North London comprehensive schools don't do 'plummy'. We do, however, have the courtesy to explain to those at the desk that we are the guest of an invitee and therefore not on the guest list in our own right.

On the other hand, it is nice to know that at least my voice fits in high society...

There’s something about a frock coat

It must be admitted that my social calendar has taken an upward turn of late. Opportunities to mix with non-Liberal Democrats were few and far between before Ros entered my life, part of the problem of dedicating yourself to the dark side (that’s bureaucracy, by the way, not liberal democracy…).

Last night, we had the great pleasure of attending a screening of the first episode of the new BBC costume drama, ‘Cranford’, based on the works of Mrs Gaskell, and filmed with an all-star cast, including Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha and a galaxy of familiar faces. I’ve never had much time for such things, and don’t watch a great deal of television these days (something which may now change), and might not have picked up on it had the screening not come along.

I was, I must admit, quite impressed. The production values are reflective of the very best of public service television, and one must presume that the co-production with an American television station will assure ‘Cranford’ of a wide audience. The cast gel together well, forming, as the Controller of BBC1 put it, the world’s best repertory company, and the sets look fairly convincing (although I’m certain that someone will pick holes in it if they look hard enough).

The first episode sets the scene and introduces the main characters, and you are sucked into the life of a small country town, its character, mores and idiosyncrasies. I understand that other characters will be developed as the story unfolds, leading me to the view that it will be an hour well-spent on Sunday evenings, especially as winter draws in.

The screening concluded, to warm applause, we all adjourned to Dartmouth House for the associated party. For critics of the BBC, the generous provision of food and drink will, I’m sure, be another reason to attack waste and inefficiency. However, it is not unreasonable for the BBC to show off its achievements, especially given pressures on budgets from politicians, some of whom should really know better. Ros and I got to talk to some of the performers, and mingle with the other guests, many of whom were parliamentarians interested in media and the arts.

It is interesting to see supposedly sworn enemies chatting amicably over a canapĂ© or a glass of wine or, more commonly, both. Whilst in the Lords, that sort of thing is rather discouraged; the rather rowdier Commons does tend to encourage a presumption that opposition members avoid each other away from Westminster. This is clearly not so…

All in all, a really pleasant way to spend the evening on a birthday, and I look forward to broadening my cultural outlook in the years to come…

Monday, November 12, 2007

European Selection: a massacre of the innocents

It is all over, and now it is time to confess what some of my colleagues, Duncan Borrowman amongst them, have been saying all along. The system that we use favours incumbents. I’ve always known it, but it is not the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to encourage competition, and present yourself as a neutral arbiter of the process.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd sure enough, the incumbents got in with, for the most part, huge majorities over their opponents, to the extent that they generally scored more than 60% of the all the first preferences cast, regardless of the level of competition (Sharon Bowles scoring 61% in a fifteen-way contest with the likelihood of the runner-up also getting elected in 2009 was particularly crushing).

However, I disagree with Duncan, in that I am yet to see even a glimmer of a system which would change this. Duncan (and others) would have you believe that some of our MEPs are less than stellar in terms of their performance, profile and contribution to the campaigning efforts of the wider Party and that may, or may not be true (I’m a bureaucrat, not a campaigner, regardless of what the Daily Telegraph says…). On the other hand, if they did all of the things that they are being urged to do, they would get even bigger majorities, as they would be high-profile and effective to boot. And then, of course, why would you want to get rid of them?

Regional fixed lists do have this effect, I fear, and until we move to an open list system, where voters can pick a Party list, and then number them in whatever order they like, then the electorate are going to be limited to a choice of how many of each Party they want, rather than whether they’d like a woman, an ethnic minority, or even a pro-European conservative. It does remove the element of personality and character from the business of representation, instead empowering a perhaps unrepresentative Party membership to, if you like, impose, their choice on the population at large.

To win, or at least succeed, in a Regional list selection, you need to start raising your profile early, very early. In fact, try very, very early indeed. Catherine Bearder, for example, has been working South East Region since 1998, Jonathan Fryer in London for even longer. Their results, Jonathan’s in particular, reflect the effort they have expended in visiting Local Parties, holding Regional office, organising campaigning, working in by-elections and the like. In Catherine’s case, that has entailed driving for hours in an area that stretches from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight, and from Newbury to Dover. Simon, her husband, has loyally supported her in that process, with a cost in time spent with family, in financial terms and in sheer wear and tear. Hopefully, she will be rewarded in 2009.

It is incredibly difficult, and very few people, seeing how difficult it is to dislodge an incumbent, will be willing to put the effort in unless there is some clear sign of a potential payback somewhere along the line. On the other hand, some, mainly younger applicants, will use it to raise their profiles, and the likes of Antony Hook, Rebecca Taylor and Ed Maxfield will now have a broader range of options and the chance to take another step up the ladder towards success, should they want it.

There are some elements that can and should be addressed. I would say that we should standardise the time at which MEP annual reports go out, i.e. with the summer draw mailing, not long after the anniversary of their election. The cynicism that was engendered by Sarah Ludford’s wilful use of her annual report in 2003, and echoed in 2007 (and not just by her, I must note), was entirely legitimate to my mind, albeit that she was adhering to the letter of the Selection Rules. Frankly, it cost her my vote, and didn’t make friends amongst the sort of people whose support might one day be appreciated.

We also need to rethink hustings. In Regions such as London and South East, the hustings are arduous and uninformative, with the ability of most members to absorb and properly compare fifteen speeches and fifteen sets of answers severely limited. Instead, we need to arrange more local, informal meetings, so that ordinary members might be able to turn up. Indeed, we could start them a bit earlier, even before nominations have closed, so that candidates could network and build up campaign teams much earlier in the piece. The ability to talk to candidates as individuals in a natural environment (I remain to be convinced that a formal hustings is in any way natural) is so much more informative. Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to look a candidate in the eye, shake his or her hand, and listen to them properly.

Finally, for now at least, I repeat my view that the endorsement rules are nonsensical. Third party endorsements are unpoliceable, and we should withdraw to a position whereby if you include someone on a leaflet, they are endorsing you. If you are challenged on that, and you can provide evidence that the endorsement is a genuine one, then no problem. If you can’t, then the punishment is a draconian one.

On the positive side, the timetable worked well, even if it was a little tight at times. This fact may seem to be a little unlikely, but it survived a general election that never was, a leadership contest which sucked most of the oxygen out of everything else, and a Royal Mail strike. Turnout was much as it had been the time before, so we must assume that ballot papers got to everyone (for the most part, nobody is infallible).

But turning back to the problem of incumbency, I have a rather different concern. If I was thinking about becoming an elected politician, I would be less likely to run for Europe now than ever before. I'm 43 (or at least, I will be tomorrow), and I'm not as fleet of foot as I used to be. My next opportunity to run will be in 2012 for the 2014 election, by which time I will be pushing 48. I'll need to spend the next five years building my profile and that will involve a lot of travelling, a lot of late nights, and a budget. I'm getting married next year, and feel that this should be my priority (unlike Ros, I can't multi-task). Even if I do this, if the incumbent runs again, I'm going to be hard-pressed to beat her, and there are still Jonathan and Dinti Batstone in my way (and she's younger than I am). Meanwhile, a horde of bright young things are emerging. Too much of a gamble, for too little potential reward, methinks. And I fear that a lot of other people are going to be putting together fairly similar arguments in the next few years...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I, Mark Valladares, being the Returning Officer for the European Regional Constituency of South East England, do hereby declare...

It is now all over, and a result is available as follows;

1. Sharon Bowles
2. Catherine Bearder
3. Ben Abbotts
4. Jim Barnard
5. Antony Hook
6. Murari Kaushik
7. Simon Green
8. Zoe Vincent
9. Gary Lawson
10. David Grace

It is expected that the full data will be available on the internet very soon.

I will review the results further later, probably tomorrow...

Friday, November 09, 2007

European Selection - Thank God, it's nearly over

And so another European selection reaches its 'climax' tomorrow. Whilst Antony Hook has enjoyed it, his Returning Officer hasn't.

Up to the point that my Selection Committee and I concluded the interview phase and drew up a shortlist for the membership, it was fine and I was enjoying myself. Since then though, it has been pretty much downhill all the way.

I'm a fairly relaxed Returning Officer, minded to the avoidance of draconian rulings unless they are truly necessary, and willing to take a benign stance of minor, usually accidental, infringements. I like the face to face element of hustings and result announcements, the delivering of a candidate to an expectant Local Party. With a European selection, you lose much of that. Rulings are made from the centre, the count is computerised (and you don't even get to read out the printout!).

Worst of all, I have been put in the insidious position of having to implement rulings from a Senior Returning Officer whose view of the world is so removed from mine as to be positively interplanetary. He is entitled to his view, to be sure, but when I'm the one obliged to enforce it, I do wonder why my view is unworthy of consideration, yet my support for the outcome is so necessary.

Meanwhile, members take delight in sending me messages, excoriating me for the timetable, the membership rules, the fact that the Royal Mail went on strike. Candidates seem to delight in calling me at work and taking up time that could be better spent (luckily, I've found things to do whilst they talk). Most of these people assume that I'm a full-time Party officer (they clearly don't read this blog!) and treat me with almost total disregard.

Tomorrow afternoon, I am required to attend a briefing session prior to the count. A large part of me is inclined to stay well away, and spend the afternoon with Ros and my family. After all, what can they do to me? But no, I'll turn up and do my party piece, and swear never to do it again...

English Council – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing?

In those moments when I’ve run out of important things to do, such as playing Brick Breaker on my BlackBerry™, or dreaming of cheese (and I really like cheese), my mind turns to the Liberal Democrat equivalent of herding cats, i.e. whipping London’s English Council delegation. Now I freely admit that the notion of whipping is a bit of an alien concept but, for the purposes of the exercise, bear in mind that this simply means ensuring that the delegation turn up, as well as arranging substitutes for those unable to do so.

And I do occasionally find myself wondering why I bother. English Council is, effectively, a figleaf, maintaining the concept of a truly federal Party without providing a meaningful platform for English policy making in a post-devolution environment. Meetings, and there are only two of them each year, consist predominantly of a series of reports from the great and the good, with the occasional opportunity to argue about changes to candidate selection rules, most of which are of no interest, and even less comprehension, to many present. There are no policy discussions, many key decisions require ratification by the Federal Conference, and the whole affair is symbolised by the almost total lack of interest in its discussions from the Parliamentary Party. The one thing going for it is, for those who know little about the Party beyond the borders of their own patch, it is quite enlightening for a meeting or two. Beyond that though, interest tends to wither.

Membership of English Council is gained through Regional elections for delegates, each Region getting one delegate for each 500 members or part thereof, plus the Regional Chair. My experience in London, and I gather that this is shared elsewhere, is that interest is generally low (London and South Central both have vacancies, if you’re interested/desperate), and a number of those who do run, do so for the sole purpose of getting elected to something else. For example, English Council elects a representative to the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Conference Committee. Also, only members of English Council can run for the six places on English Candidates Committee set aside for non-Regional Candidates Chairs. Three members of the committee that decides G8 grants also come from the ranks of English Council.

One of my problems with the way the party operates is the overriding urge to pander to sectional interests, which leads to a stack of committees who are populated by people determined to defend the people who put them there, regardless of the greater Party good. Worst of all, most of them have little opportunity to properly consult with those they supposedly represent, and even less in the way of means, thus leaving the decision-making in the hands of an increasingly remote group of semi-professional Party apparatchiks. In such ways are decisions made that cause no end of irritation to campaigners, Parliamentarians and anyone with much in the way of common sense.

Perhaps it is therefore time to abolish English Council and reinstitute the English Conference. And, while we’re at it, streamline many of the Party’s committees. Some work quite well, like English Candidates Committee, made up for the most part of Regional Candidates Chairs, who are elected by their Regional Conferences, are directly accountable to their members, and who have day to day involvement in the processes of both approval and selection. The Regional Treasurers meet twice a year, at Federal Conference, to discuss key issues, and are serviced by the English Party Administrator, Paul Rustad (a thoroughly decent guy, by the way) and David Allworthy who, despite his occasional flare-up, really knows his stuff, and is always happy to help when he can (I know, I’ve needed his support on more than one occasion). Others, well, perhaps I’m not so convinced…

We also need far better communication, and that is something that could be addressed by having the Chair of the English Party report to Regional and Local Parties on a monthly or quarterly basis (I would prefer monthly, if truth be told), providing diary dates, information about what the English Party has done, is doing, and proposes to do and consulting on issues ahead of us. Such a report could be issued, by e-mail for the most part, to the Secretary of each Regional and Local Party (that’s what we’re there for, according to the various constitutions).

Do these things, and I could return to stroking my cats, rather than maintain a futile effort to persuade people to attend a meeting that has precious little to commend it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Leadership Election: Would now be a good time to ask what happened to peace, love and understanding?

I’ve noticed that the temperature of the contest has been raised somewhat in recent days. If that had been because the two candidates were going at it hammer and tongs to demonstrate their suitability for office (and who’s to say that they aren’t), I would be delighted. Unfortunately, the heat that I’m referring to is within the blogging fraternity, where tempers appear to be fraying just a little.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI’m going to claim to be the first person to publicly muse over the Huhne campaign’s apparent move towards negative campaigning, so perhaps I am guilty, to some extent, of hypocrisy (in fairness though, when I wrote my comments, I was still to make up my mind). However, it is perfectly legitimate, within the rules, for this to take place, and I am of the view that the sudden, perhaps co-ordinated, burst of outrage from declared Clegg supporters is ill-advised. Politics is a rough game, especially at the level where Chris and Nick play, and they, and their campaign teams, must remain true to their convictions, fighting the campaign that they believe will bring success to their man. It is then for the members to decide whether those attributes highlighted by the campaigns are the ones that they feel are most suited to leading the Liberal Democrats.

In all hard fought contests, particularly where the stakes are as high as they are here, the campaign will develop edge. Frankly, whilst that makes me personally uncomfortable (and you'll note that I'm not running for leader...), it is exactly what this party needs if we are going to successfully assault the dual forces of conservatism currently masquerading as the Government and the (overly) loyal official Opposition. The ability to get tough with illiberalism will certainly help to get our message across.

Negative campaigning will put some people off if they become aware of it. Some people will be attracted by a candidate who demonstrates what Lynne Featherstone so bluntly described as ‘cojones’. You pays your money, you takes your choice

Monday, November 05, 2007

A faceless bureaucrat endorses with mixed emotions

It has not been an easy decision this time. I like, and respect, both candidates, and have had the pleasure of spending quality time with them in the past. They are both highly intelligent, genuinely liberal and equally capable of taking it to a Labour government which confuses pandering to the Daily Mail with genuine leadership.

I proudly supported Chris last time, as the one candidate who, I believed, could take the Party forward with vigour, passion, intelligence and a sense of liberalism which would appeal to mainstream British opinion without selling out on our core principles. I thought that I was right to do so then, and nothing that has happened since has changed my view that my stance was the right one.

I have had dealings with Nick in the past, firstly as his Returning Officer in 1998, then in the occasional social gathering earlier this year as he raised his profile at various Local Party events. He always provided good entertainment, as well as intellectual food for thought, and I admit to having been impressed by the enthusiasm and good sense he brought to the debate. He also has the ability to convey quite complex messages in seemingly easy to comprehend ways, something that is essential in reaching out to the wider electorate.

In terms of their performance as front bench spokespersons, they have both been adroit in getting media coverage, and have led on campaigns that look fresh and distinctive in areas that are central in the public consciousness, so little to choose there. They are also both genuinely nice people to deal with. I do not hold a key position in the party machine, yet both of them have treated me with respect and courtesy on those occasions where our paths have crossed.

However, you have to make a decision eventually, and so I’ve decided to plump for Nick over Chris. My view is that we do have to reach beyond our current base of support, and Nick seems better equipped to do so. Chris comes over as somewhat ‘fact-heavy’ from time to time, a style which will win votes at Federal Conference but not necessarily on GMTV, and I am concerned that his apparent move towards negative campaigning tarnishes him and those advising him. We need to put forward an honest, yet positive, message in an era of cynicism and Nick can, I believe, do that.

That said, whatever the outcome, the Party cannot afford to waste the undoubted talent that Chris has. His undoubted mastery of economics, and the impact that markets have on the lives of individuals, makes him essential to the continued development of our policy and credibility in the areas of tax and the wider economy. He would make an exceptional Shadow Chancellor, although it must be said that we have an abundance of talent in that area already – Cable, Huhne and Laws against Darling and Osborne makes me salivate just thinking of the carnage they could wreak.

If Chris does want to take any consolation from my decision though, he might like to know that my choices in the past three leadership contests were Alan Beith, David Rendel and Chris. Perhaps that’s why I’m a bureaucrat and not a campaigner…

Leadership: “Do we find the cost of freedom buried in the ground?...”

…asked Crosby, Stills and Nash in their song ‘Daylight again’, released on the album of the same name in 1982. It is indeed a good question, and one that is particularly relevant in the light of the first two weeks of this leadership election.

In 2006, I had no feel that we were debating ideas in the Campbell/Huhne/Hughes contest, merely the rather nebulous concept of leadership, and perhaps that’s why the whole affair seemed to be so uninspired. I found myself with only one real option in Chris Huhne, for reasons I expanded upon at the time.

This time, it is radically different, and I use the word ‘radically’ advisedly. One thing that I’ve noticed this time is that there is a real passion out there for us to escape the tendency to ‘do something, anything’ and start thinking about what we need to do, why we need to do it, and how it should be done. There is also a desire to take it to our opponents in a way that is beyond narrow oppositionalism. It is, I confess, infectious, and even this increasingly non-faceless bureaucrat is sensing the symptoms of genuine enthusiasm.

Whilst supporters of both candidates appear keen to emphasise the differences between them, and I sometimes sense that those differences are being hyped up to be something rather more dramatic than they are, both of them seem perfectly comfortable with the notion that it is time for some rather more muscular liberalism, and that’s just fine by me.

I am bored with having to defend the liberal concept as defined by our opponents, centralist, control-freak Labour, or paternalist, and occasionally quite nasty, Conservatives. So it’s high time we talked about liberalism as a thoroughly good thing, where freedom to walk the streets is not something for an approved group (approved, might I add, by a bunch of people who define such a group as ‘people whose manner they approve of’), where everyone has access to the levers of power, where liberty doesn’t mean the freedom to be poor, oppressed or otherwise disadvantaged. It means a society where individuals have the tools required to play a full part in society, where the nebulous concept of fairness is replaced by justice, where rights come with responsibilities.

This will be unwelcome to some in our Party, I fear. There is a tendency in some areas of our policy making to say, “Something must be done, here is something, let’s do it.”, when a better solution might be to say, are we using the tools already at our disposal or even, is this a problem that actually requires action? I won’t name names, but some of you probably can. Our first question when considering an idea should be, how does this further freedom of the individual, and how might it restrict the freedom of others? On balance, is the equation weighted in favour of giving people control over their own lives and, if not, can we do something that enables them to do so in a real way? And before anyone gets too excited, I’m not wild about the concept of ‘laissez-faire’ either, as it tends to reward those with power at the expense of those without it.

This doesn’t mean that markets are perfect, far from it, and we can all list failures of the market without working too hard. On the other hand, governments are generally bad at running businesses or lives, so why not have government as enabler, a setter of minimum standards and a benefactor to those who are in genuine need?

And you know something, I suspect that voters would like that, the idea of government doing less, doing it better, a government of the people, for the people, by the people. We keep talking about the silent liberal majority in this country. Why not give them something to talk about? Messrs Clegg and Huhne, it’s over to you…

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Leadership election: on reflection, a home win for Clegg

So, another hustings is over, and I'd have to award the win to young Mr Clegg over experienced Mr Huhne. Is Nick the better candidate? Possibly. Will he win? I don't know. Will I back him? Hmmm... I think that I'll ponder that one a bit longer.

Live from the Yorkshire and the Humber leadership hustings

Think of this as the blogging equivalent of a 'Hi honey, I'm on the train!' entry. So here I am, listening to the two contenders joust for the delectation and delight of members from the Yorkshire and the Humber Region and beyond.

With the formidable Baroness Angie Harris in the chair, Chris spoke first, demonstrating his ability to adapt as the campaign proceeds. His speech included more personal touches, and rather more passion than previously demonstrated in Newbury two weeks ago.

On the other hand, I wasn't as convinced by Nick this time. He remains fresher, and is clearly thinking beyond the narrow confines of the selectorate. However, the speech was comfortable and went down well with the audience, so who am I to criticize?

One thing that does trouble me though, and it is merely a point of concern which the Huhne campaign might wish to note for future reference, is that there appears to be a negative tone to both Chris's stump speech and some of his answers to questions. Indeed, his answer to one question, calling on Nick to denounce vouchers, having allegedly endorsed them in two interviews, would probably have been halted had this been a PPC selection on the grounds that it represented negative campaigning. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, and is a black mark from the perspective of a grizzled old Returning Officer like myself.

Otherwise, the contrast between the rather academic tone that Chris adopts, with talk of Danish models and the like (about healthcare, not Helene Christiansen, as I understand it), and Nick's finely pitched sense of outrage at the injustice caused by big corporation and government-inspired stupidity. It makes for entertaining hustings, but not for easy decision-making. Nick gets more laughs though, and comes across as the more relaxed speaker of the two. He certainly gets my vote in terms of 'candidate I would be more likely to open a bottle of wine with'.

I'll let you have my retrospective thoughts in about an hour...

On the road with Team Clegg

If my unexpected guest compere appearance in Newbury was a sign that I might see more of this leadership contest than I did last time (and complained endlessly about), today may well give the impression that I'm becoming something of a groupie.

This entry comes, in fact, from the 12:06 train from Derby, scene of the informal hustings at the East Midlands Regional Conference, to Leeds, the location of the formal hustings at the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Conference. Unexpectedly, I am surrounded by Team Clegg, making the same journey.

So why am I here, so far from the urban jungle of north London? Ironically, I'm multi-tasking. Firstly, I'm here with Ros, who is speaking at both events, before acting as keynote speaker at the Leeds Liberal Democrats Gala Dinner. Second, I'm looking at how other Regions organise their conferences (good things and bad). And why not get some more quality time with Chris and Nick whilst I'm at it...

I have to admit that I still haven't made up my mind yet, but the journey has proved to be an intriguing insight into how a leadership campaign works in reality.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Free the bureaucrat?

I’m beginning to enjoy this leadership contest in a way that I hadn’t expected, in that the normal rush to the centre ground of the Party has been replaced by an almost exhibitionist desire by both candidates towards the radical cutting edge. First, that terribly clever Mr Huhne casting doubt on the efficacy of Trident, now that terribly enthusiastic (and no less bright) Mr Clegg announcing that he won’t be carrying his ID card if they are introduced. As a bureaucrat, I find myself cheering (albeit slightly nervously) from the sidelines.

As a civil servant, I am denied certain freedoms, of association, for example. There are limits on my political activity which date back, not to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which was laid before Parliament on 23rd November 1853, but to an Order in Council dated 29 November 1884, under a Gladstone administration (astonishingly, he had been the Earl of Aberdeen’s Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Northcote-Trevelyan Report was actually published), which stated that “a civil servant standing for election in a constituency must resign his post when he announces himself as a candidate”.

I do tend to take these restrictions upon my freedom for granted and, to a greater extent, actually accept them. It is not unreasonable for an incoming administration to expect the loyalty of the Civil Service, and I feel that my duty is to carry out the bidding of the Government of the day, regardless of my personal stance, as they are representing the view of an elected majority (my emphasis).

However, as a civil servant, the Government controls my salary and working conditions, has disciplinary power over me through my management chain, and can prevent me from fulfilling a role within my political party of choice without meaningful right of appeal. Committing certain offences may result in my dismissal under circumstances that probably wouldn’t arise in the private sector. There are certain business sectors from which I am effectively barred, and the holding of a directorship is almost impossible to countenance (although, curiously, I am a company director through my involvement in a think-tank – and yes, I did obtain permission). So, whilst young Nick can talk about not carrying his ID card, that freedom to protest probably isn’t open to me.

It does raise an interesting question, all the same. In an increasingly politicised civil service, is it reasonable to insist that the various political restrictions placed upon my colleagues and I remain as they are? If I were, heaven forbid, to decide to run for election in a Westminster constituency, is it fair that I have to sacrifice my career prospects, regardless of the likelihood of my being elected?

Political parties have made very little effort to examine how the Civil Service should work, seeing it predominantly as an obstacle to reform or, if we’re lucky, a means towards social engineering. Perhaps it is time to look at what this country actually needs by way of administration, who should do the work, and what you need those people to be. Whilst they do that, it might be nice if they gave some thought to our rights and freedoms…

Delay, a bureaucrat’s best friend. Time for my twelve bore, I think.

One of the things about change is that it seems to be quite scary at first sight. Something might happen, after all, and this is the very point of a bureaucracy, i.e. to prevent scary things from happening.

Following from my comments of yesterday, there appears to be increasing support for the notion that the endorsement rules require pruning – with an axe, especially for Regional list selections (the argument for PPC selections is much less clear). I have, coincidentally, been discussing the matter with a small number of senior colleagues who will, for their own protection and through my heightened sense of discretion, remain anonymous.

My view is that we should make changes while the events of the past year are fresh in our memories. However, a contrary view has been expressed which notes that we won’t be doing this again for five years, so why rush? Why indeed? Actually, for the rather obvious reasons that;
  • Change is always more effective when you’re clear in your own mind why you’re making it – distance does not usually lend either enchantment or clarity.
  • Any candidate thinking about running for Europe in 2014 (and there will be some, won’t there – is anyone listening? Hello? Hello?), would be better organised for knowing what the Rules are well in advance.
First on my list would be to allow endorsements for Regional list elections. This means that you don’t have to worry about blogs, Facebook, podcasts and the like. The only question would be about defamation, something that is, by its very definition, subject to interpretation. If you assume that we retain the self-policing element introduced for e-mails and websites in this European selection, candidates and members will take care of this for the Returning Officer, whose role will be to make rulings.

What this means is that you can then turn the emphasis around, so that anyone is free to comment on their blog, build Facebook groups or whatever. A candidate remains responsible for the actions of his campaign team, thus allowing a Returning Officer to act where negative campaigning erupts. In turn, if a candidate claims the support of a named individual, their opponents can question it and that support can then be evidenced as required. Failure to do so indicates that the candidate is probably lying and should be disqualified anyway – if they can lie about something like that, what else are they lying about? Indeed, do we really want candidates with a deficiency in the honesty department anyway (the correct answer is no, just in case you thought that this was a trick question).

And in a single bound, the Returning Officer was free to spend more time with his fiancĂ©e, his cats and his BlackBerry…