Wednesday, February 28, 2007

All that's missing is the cigar...

It's taken me more than two years, but I finally think that I've solved the problem of potentially tough committee meetings.

Tonight saw the first meeting of the Regional Candidates Committee, with a long, technical agenda and a great deal to plan, organise and decide upon. We had been unable to hold the meeting in Cowley Street due to the unavailability of a room and, to be honest, I never enjoy meeting there anyway. It's always a struggle to get in 'after hours' as you need to persuade someone to let you in, and the hanging around waiting for someone is frustrating.

So it dawned on me, why not host the Committee in the National Liberal Club? It's quiet, discreet and comfortable (the leather armchairs are a real plus), the bar is very reasonably priced (at least for Central London) and extremely central (next to Embankment station) and where could be more appropriate?

And so, at 7.15 this evening, I arrived in Whitehall Place, signed in the committee (we are a gentleman's club, after all - and yes, we do admit women as members...) and headed for the bar. Arranging for provision of a couple of bottles of wine (a key relaxant at the end of a tough day), our new Chair, Margaret Joachim, brought us to order and pushed through the agenda very efficiently.

Naturally, I can't detail our discussions, nor the decisions taken, but I was impressed with the collegiate style of a group who give an impression of focussed competence. Me, I'll stick to gentle humour, a grasp of the possible and a network of contacts which allow me to peer slightly myopically into the future. But they seem willing to tolerate that...

After the business was complete, we stayed on to do what some might describe as bonding but I would suggest was part of the pleasure of getting to know your colleagues better whilst not actually discussing business. The committee is heavily female-accented this year - it was only our gender balance rules that prevented me from being the only male out of the seven members - and an ability to be able to relate to something other than politics is quite welcome.

I sense that I'm going to enjoy this...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A watcher lurks in Maidstone...

Awake at an unreasonably early time to get to Maidstone for the shortlisting interviews for Maidstone and The Weald. I'm not an early morning person, and that's doubly true on Sundays but, for the good of the Party...

I made it to the interview venue in good time, and over coffee the interview strategy was agreed amongst the panel. The first candidate was brought in, and introduced to the panel, and we all warmed to the task fairly quickly. And yet there was a strange presence, something on the very edge of perception, that led me to believe that we weren't alone. There wasn't anyone else in the house, Dorothy, our host, had confirmed that, and yet I felt as though I was being observed.

During a lull in the discussion, my eyes wandered and there it was. On the window sill, sheltering from the rain, was a rather large cat, mostly white in colour with the odd tabby patch, looking through the window, peering at the candidate. I have to say that, if he was impressed, he wasn't giving a lot away, although I've encountered selection committee members with worse listening skills.

I'm reminded of a hustings meeting in north London in the mid-nineties, held in the living room of one of the Local Party officers, where the family pet, Claudius, worked the room far more effectively than the candidate and, I am convinced, might have made an excellent Parliamentary candidate for the seat had it not been for the fact that he wasn't on the Approved List.

All in all, I thought that the Selection Committee performed admirably this morning. It isn't easy to sit in judgement, and even more difficult to find fault but, if you are going to honour the commitment made when you accept the responsibility, you owe it to Local Party members to thoroughly test applicants. And when there is a parade of wildlife passing by the window, it becomes that little bit more difficult...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm a bureaucrat, get me out of here!

Today I found myself wearing a badge. So far, not particularly unusual, as I go to quite a few conferences in the course of a year. However, this occasion was different in that my badge had the word 'trainer' printed on it. I like to think of myself as being quite versatile, but training is not one of my obvious talents.

So why today? English Candidates Committee launched its new training session for new policy assessors, a role which has been very much a minority pastime recently. The problem we have is that many of the people with the skills required to test others on policy knowledge, are the same people who want to be candidates themselves, thus ruling them out of consideration. Accordingly, our policy assessors tend to be more mature and have other commitments, so are not always available.

So, under the baton of our Chair, Dawn Davidson and Christian Moon, head of the Party's Policy Unit, and with the support of Rob Blackie and myself, we trained nine potential policy assessors in the art of testing individuals with varied levels of policy knowledge. It was a particularly fascinating experience for me, as I've never actually seen a policy interview carried out, nor had I seen the policy multiple choice test that forms part of the process, as I'm always occupied with other elements of a development day whilst they are run.

What surprised me, as someone who has never thought of himself as terribly hot on policy (I'm seldom in the hall for conference debates as I'm engaged in bureaucrat-type stuff), was how much I actually knew. The potential assessors were put to the test, and Dawn and I were 'encouraged' to join in. Imagine my surprise at scoring a maximum twenty out of twenty... although I did drop two out of ten marks when sitting the European test that followed.

I even think that I wouldn't disgrace myself in the more free form interview that normally follows, although I somehow doubt my viability as an actual prospective Parliamentary candidate.

The day itself was, I think, a success, and I look forward to meeting our new policy assessors at development days in the future...

Responsibility in the face of temptation

I've got something that a lot of people would quite like to see, i.e. the now fleshed out timetable for the European selections. I'd like to share it with you, gentle reader, but I can't... yet.

Hopefully, agreement to publish the information will be obtained and you'll all know. There's nothing like an informed democracy, after all...

An open letter to Cllr Kim Humphreys...

Dear Kim (and friends),

I've been asked to edit my blog to remove some quirky references to a Southwark resident (who shall remain nameless, obviously). Whilst under normal circumstances, I would almost certainly wait until you had the courtesy to approach me directly, rather than bitch to one of my colleagues in a rather lame attempt to obtain some leverage, I have decided to make a few revisions. Do check for yourselves... although by checking the postings yourselves, you are pushing them back up the 'popularity' rankings... On the other hand, you might also want to 'google' the individual in question.

I now assume that you'll give this a rest... although that would be inconsistent with your past behaviour...

Oh yes, one other thing. I've saved the original postings somewhere retrievable. Don't try my patience...

Friday, February 23, 2007

My name's Friday, I carry a badge

At home in front of my computer, following an evening at our Regional Conference, back in lovely, Liberal Democrat-led Camden.

I used to hate Conferences, Regional or otherwise, due to the basic fact that I couldn't network to save my life. And now, having been around an awfully long time (or at least it seems like it), most people know me so that I don't have to (go figure!). People come up to me to talk, exchange gossip - the lifeblood of political parties - or have an agenda to promote. I love it, as I am hooked on intrigue. I retain a heightened sense of discretion, because being Regional Secretary is somewhat akin to being a telephonist in a small English village circa 1928. It's all about putting people in touch with each other, and knowing enough to be able to make those connections work.

And, despite those inevitable moments when a surfeit of emotion, combined with a set of principles better suited to Victorian times (I would have taken duelling seriously and died of pistol-inflicted wounds in my early twenties) and a twist of Latin blood, leads me towards the big, romantically suicidal gesture, I tend to like people (although cats have certain redeeming features that many people don't).

The biggest advantage that I have is not actually wanting to be elected to anything, which makes me 'not competition' - a thoroughly good thing in the eyes of some. So, without an agenda other than that of good administration (don't all rush to hold the banner aloft), I can lend a hand where it might be helpful.

This evening was, as a result, quite a lot of fun. I even got to step out from behind the mask and chair a session or three. I wasn't bad, although I'm not expecting a call from Federal Conference Committee any time soon. It does have to be said that London runs a mean Regional Conference under the leadership of Alison Sanderson, our Regional Conference Chair, supported by our Regional Administrator, the legendary Flick Rea. Three Members of Parliament, an MEP, Lords, London Assembly Members, a veritable cast of thousands, and even Southwark's very own Caroline Pidgeon, speaking about youth issues.

And afterwards, in the pub across the street, I made my peace with our Regional Chair. I have to give Sean credit, he does know how to handle dissent... I even know what I should give him as a gift...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An evening with my homies

Ah yes, the joys of an evening with Dulwich & West Norwood Liberal Democrats...

We're not terribly ambitious, we're not the most stunningly efficient group, but we all mean well and get on together. Now that I'm not Chair, I can actually enjoy things and contribute the skills I actually have (no sniggering at the back...), rather than ones I ought to have but don't (leadership, discipline, persistence).

Tonight was our second meeting of the year as an Executive Committee, and we achieved quite a lot. A social schedule is emerging, plus some political content and even some campaigning - this is Dulwich, we don't really do that sort of thing here (the Conservatives and ourselves spent less than £10,000 between us during the last General Election, I'm told, which probably explains why our combined vote was roughly that of Tessa Jowell, our absentee MP).

We do tend to stray off-topic at the slightest provocation and tonight's byways included what to do if your yacht is boarded in the Caribbean (shoot to kill, apparently, it makes the investigation much easier), why parking is limited to twenty minutes outside a library and how we can get hold of a picture of Tessa Jowell's North London house (we really don't like her much, which says a lot coming from a group who might be vaguely regretful of a nuclear attack - we don't do raging passion either...).

And yet it works, after a fashion. I know of Local Parties who have pitched battles about ideas and/or personalities but, for good or ill, we're a bit of a throwback to a more innocent era, and I'm not convinced that this is a bad thing...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Leadership does not necessarily impart wisdom

I've been thinking about my recent, rather narrow, victory in my quest for re-election as Regional Secretary and, it would seem, my problems come down to a mistaken notion that I am unreliable in my approach to confidentiality and in the choices of people I interact with.

The post that follows might well be seen to be confirming that but, sometimes, the only way to put the record straight is to address a problem openly and directly. I will be critical of named individuals so, if you're of a nervous disposition, you might like to look away now...

It seems, from personal contacts who have, hitherto, been pretty reliable, that the Chair of the English Party, Brian Orrell, thought that my continued friendship with Susanne Lamido was a "problem" best solved by having me terminated as Regional Secretary. To achieve this goal, the support of the Regional Chair, Sean Hooker, was required and, as Sean has great respect for Brian, obtained. But who to run against a modestly competent, if eccentric incumbent? It would have to be someone likely to be sympathetic, with some credibility, who could be relied upon to be untroublesome if elected.

Havard Hughes was prevailed upon to fill the role of 'under the radar' candidate and the trap set. Nominations were opened at the Executive Committee meeting and Havard duly nominated. I freely admit to being surprised, and actually indicated that I was willing to concede there and then before being persuaded that I should stand and fight.

And so the contest followed. I wasn't actually able to campaign for myself as, due to a computer fault, I had no contact details for the Executive other than e-mail (and campaigning by e-mail will never replace personal contact to my mind). But I survived. It wasn't pretty, but it was enough.

Sean has since then gallantly confirmed his full support for me. Sorry Sean, but I don't buy it. You yourself told me, immediately after the nominations closed, that, if I lost, you wanted me to take forward our Regional diversity strategy. The more I thought about it, the easier it was to conclude that you not only knew about my challenger (you did at least admit to that) but that you were supporting him. You were willing to believe the worst of my motives without having the courtesy to raise them with me, one of your Officers, first.

In fact, Havard appears to be happy to tell all and sundry that he never actually wanted to be Regional Secretary, and that you put him up to it. Doesn't anyone understand that politicians can be incredibly indiscreet when they think that they're talking to someone apparently sympathetic to their position? So, in future, if you do want to engage in political assassination, do try and do it rather better next time. As Machiavelli said in "The Prince",

" must be noted that men must either be caressed or else destroyed, because they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for serious ones. Thus, the injury done to a man must be such that there is no need to fear his vengeance."

It is somewhat fortunate that my loyalty is to the institution rather than to the personality at its head. But a little communication is usually a good thing, and you might want to work on it during the remainder of your final term.

I am yet to understand what Brian's problem is. Alright, I have not always been wholly respectful of some of his 'quirks' but, as Regional Candidates Chair, I have admired his ability to deliver a very difficult job in trying circumstances. Everything works, although the late night telephone calls can be a bit disconcerting - just a personal preference of mine, I admit. And yet he seems determined to show disrespect at every opportunity. The attacks during the last year at Regional Executive meetings became wearing and I became more and more defensive as slight piled upon slight. I can take criticism, especially the constructive kind, but it was always sprung upon me in public forums. It impacted elsewhere too, in that I've been doing Returning Officer 'gigs' outside London for the sole reason that my own Region never asked, unlike South Central and South East, who seem to be satisfied with my work thus far. Ironically, due to the volume of work I'm doing elsewhere, I'm no longer able to do much for Brian's successor...

And as for Havard, if you didn't want the job, you shouldn't have run. It says volumes that you would do so, and then tell people that you were forced to do so. I actually think that you're a better person that that, although my impression is that your political antennae need tuning. I haven't forgotten your manifesto though...

For the record, and so that there can be no doubt, I retain contact with Susanne. I freely accept that she drives some people crazy, and admit that her behaviour is not such that I would emulate it. On the other hand, she has never personally caused me any great difficulties, although some of her descriptions of me have been a mite brusque. I tend, generally, to be more cautious in my views (I'm a bureaucrat, remember?) and I don't, as a rule, like to condemn people out of hand. Susanne believes that she should be able to 'tell it as it is', a habit which does not fit comfortably within the confines of a political party and, since the revocation of her membership, I have, from time to time, talked to her about errors of fact or judgement. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. As a private individual, she is entitled to her views, frustrating though they may be to others. The party is likewise entitled to take the view that her behaviour was likely to bring it into disrepute, and that, unfortunately, is the price you pay for wanting to belong to a membership-based organisation.

And as for questions of confidentiality, I have openly noted my preference towards openness and transparency. However, it must be openness and transparency with consent and sensitivity. If I believe that information is appropriate to a more public domain, I seek authority from the responsible Officer before release and agree the substance of that release prior to proceeding with publication. It isn't a difficult concept to grasp, yet it would seem that some of my colleagues find it easier to act as judge, jury and (failed) executioner first.

So, I will focus my energies over the remainder of the year on making my Regional Party run more effectively and then, if someone wants the position after that, I hope that they have the courtesy to tell me why, rather than make semi-libellous allegations in their manifesto.

I've got rhythm, I've got music, I'm a bureaucrat, who could ask for anything more?

Alright, it doesn't quite scan, but at 3.30 a.m. it seemed like a pretty good line...

A work colleague and friend celebrated his 60th birthday with a party for family and friends in Southall last night, and what an evening it turned out to be. Admittedly, Errol is probably one of the very few people who could persuade me to venture into darkest west London (it always worries me that if I miss my stop, I'll end up in Wales or, far worse, West Drayton!) and after an incredibly easy journey, I found myself outside the Southall Community Centre where enough food to feed an army and enough alcohol to refloat the Titanic were being set out.

I had dressed for the occasion in my best Bolivian shirt and waistcoat, and was unusually in the mood to party. As crowds go, the mixture of Errol's family, predominantly from Grenada, his network of Punjabi friends from Southall, our mutual Indian work colleagues and a scattering of Latin Americans from his salsa class (and don't start me about his teacher, although it's fair to say that I could watch her for hours... or Ramon, her teaching partner, who Errol could watch for hours...), plus the huddled group of English colleagues in a corner, made for the sort of experience that would bring a tear to the eye of those who are so passionate about a multi-cultural society. From my perspective, it just indicates that if everyone is having a good time, they're less likely to worry about things in general.

I did have one task to perform though, in that Errol had asked me to introduce him at some point in the evening. He had very kindly provided me with some biographical notes and, fortified with enough beer to negate my usual inhibitions, I was able to make a brief speech, including the odd double entendre, and indicating why Errol is uniquely special, before handing over to the man himself.

And then the dancing really began, a mixture of Caribbean tunes, salsa and some bhangra for the Punjabi crowd. With music loud enough to make the lungs vibrate, enough darkness for those with the natural rhythm of a postbox to be tempted onto the floor and the fact that it was a Saturday night so who cares about tomorrow anyway, it was an evening that I won't forget in a hurry. So what if I didn't get home until 4.30 a.m....

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Seeing it from another perspective

Curiously, although I've worked with a great many Parliamentary and European Parliamentary selection committees over the years, I've never actually sat on one, and so I found myself in central London this morning, attending a training session for prospective selection committee members.

In target seats, we insist that all members of the selection committee are trained, but relax that requirement in seats with lesser prospects. Given the importance of choosing the best possible candidate, it is important that those making key decisions on behalf of the wider membership understand what their role is, what the potential pitfalls are, and how their actions can impact on potential applicants.

I found myself sitting amongst the group from Hounslow Borough, most of whom I had met before, and it was interesting to see how they handled the various exercises, as well as the thought processes applied. Their position is an interesting one, in that they have councillors in three different wards, yet only have four councillors in total (Hounslow wards all have three councillors like many London councils do). So, obviously, their priority is to ensure that they defend those seats and gain the balance of the seats in those three wards in 2010. However, they also form part of a potentially interesting London Assembly seat, London South West, which also includes the boroughs of Richmond upon Thames and Kingston, both of which have Liberal Democrat administrations.

What they need from their prospective Parliamentary candidates (Brentford and Isleworth and Feltham and Heston) are people who will work within the framework of that agenda, so their process must necessarily be designed to obtain two such candidates, and I wish them luck in their efforts to achieve that.

Our gallant trainer, Brian Orrell, had dragged himself from his sick bed to lead the group, and did an excellent job in guiding us through the session, answering our questions and encouraging participation from all of those present.

I'll certainly make use of the ideas discussed in my future work as a Returning Officer and would recommend the training to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how our selection process works.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

You really had to be there... get the joke. But that's the funny thing about Jessica...

And so shall the enemies of Valladares perish!

In Amaranth, it is said that the weather is psychotropic, in that when vengeance is wreaked, the heavens are convulsed with violent electrical storms. And so, this week, to the accompaniment of our castle's seventeenth century organ (Johann Sebastian Bach performed here once), the air has been redolent with schadenfreude as bolts of lightning strike the outermost turrets of our castle...

Cue hysterical laughter...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Another step towards the client state that Labour have always wanted

It isn't necessarily that often that I find myself in agreement with Lord Greaves of Pendle, coming as we do from rather different strands of liberalism. However, I was moved by his letter in this morning's Guardian, attacking a recent proposal by Ruth Kelly (and I do accept that attacking anything that comes from Ruth Kelly is like shooting drugged fish in a small bucket).

Her latest idea is to suggest that local councillors be given a budget, say £10,000, to be spent in the community they serve. The headline sounds quite good but, as usual when the latest New Labour concept taxis to the end of the runway, the devil is in the detail. She seriously proposes that said local councillor can spend the money as he/she so pleases, without any evident control.

Now, given that Labour politicians are having a few problems with, if not actual corruption, than at least the perception of it, you might think that before proposing to give such chunks of money to local politicians, she might actually think through the possible drawbacks.

In most corrupt societies, one of the most obvious signs is where individual politicians can channel spending towards particular groups or places without effective audit. Such patronage encourages those electors who benefit (or perhaps more importantly, might benefit) to remain loyal to an individual whose performance as a whole might not be in the interests of the wider society. Indeed, those who don't benefit, or who see themselves as being unlikely to benefit, will perceive corruption with the cancerous effect that is thus caused to the body politic.

Worse still is the incentive is gives to less then entirely honest individuals to influence the behaviour of an individual who suddenly has largesse to distribute. Not all local councillors have the morals and ethics of a boy scout and putting temptation in the way of some of them is unlikely to be rewarded.

In Southwark, the various Community Councils have funds available to them for use in their area. Accountability is built into the process and regular meetings take place where ordinary residents can come along, put their case, and get support or not according to the merit of their argument and the available funds.

Once again, a Labour politician demonstrates that where localism emerges from the usual desire for control for a moment, it generally falters for lack of an understanding that accountability matters too. Trusting the people only when they agree with you is no way to build a freer, more democratic society...

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's not the drug-taking, it's the hypocrisy, stupid...

I have watched the reports of David Cameron's very minor drug-taking with some interest. Frankly, I really don't care whether or not he smoked cannabis at Eton or, for that matter, whether he dabbled in something stronger at university or some workplace social event.

My view on drugs has tended to be that the actual drug taking itself is a rather minor problem, it is the crimes committed by addicts that are the major social concern. Call it social liberalism if you wish, but I see it as part of the right of individuals to pursue their own interests without let or hindrance up to the point where, in doing so, the freedoms of others are compromised.

My friends in blue have been taking this opportunity to display their new found tolerance and liberalism, although what other stance they could have taken in support of their bright, shiny leader is beyond me. And yet, and yet, perhaps we should be asking ourselves just how committed they are to freedom of the individual and in their opposition to the 'nanny state' that all liberals abhor.

On homosexuality, for example, where by merely scratching the surface, you discover that tolerance is limited to 'activities which I personally approve of'. Sorry guys (and funnily enough, it's generally men who come out with the various 'family values' lines), you're going to have to accept that the right to participate in acts that might make some uncomfortable in a private and consensual manner is something that should be defended. Besides, what is depraved and debauched to some is perfectly natural and pleasurable to others.

On the family, why should the state lecture people as to the ideal of family? Indeed, why should the state offer bribes to encourage people to order their relationships in a 'preferred manner'? Whose right is it to restrict the rights of individuals to adopt, regardless of the nature of their relationship when all that is important is the happiness and well-being of the child?

I'm sure that any Conservative reading this will, with some justification, note that the activities of certain prominent Liberal Democrats have fallen short of the highest moral and ethical standards, and it would be foolish of me to deny that. However, I would counter by pointing out that very few Liberal Democrats have been caught partaking in activities that they have publicly condemned or campaigned against. And that's my point.

Conservatives have generally been quick to condemn those who fail to match up to the highest moral standards (or happen to be poor, but that's a whole different argument) and yet we only need to cast our minds back to the last Conservative administration, whose campaign for family values was somewhat undermined by the fact that a significant number of them were so keen on families that they had more than one.

Most people in this country are willing to forgive individuals for their transgressions, if the individual holds his/her hands up, admits that they were foolish, if foolish they were, and carries on with life. It's those who cover up, lie, or whose behaviour contradicts their carefully constructed public persona, who get, and to be blunt, deserve the pelting with tabloid refuse that generally follows.

I'm confident that the press will be looking for Cameron quotes that condemn drug-taking, and will probably be willing to take down any Shadow Cabinet stragglers who have a past that they now prefer to airbrush out of the records. In many ways, that would be a pity, as the one thing that Cameron has proved is that recreational drug use is not now a bar to holding high public office. Perhaps the debate over how to deal with drug abuse will move on to a more reasoned level now, but I wouldn't bet my mortgage on it...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I zorb, therefore I am...

One of my more unusual pastimes is zorbing... and no, this first picture isn't of me... more a way of giving you an idea of how it works (describing it to people is quite difficult).

I discovered zorbing nearly three years ago after Rachelle and I separated, and it was a key part in my recovery from the trauma that preceded it, an exploration of things that weren't wholly 'safe'.

The first place in the world where you could zorb was in Rotorua, New Zealand, famous for its hot springs, volcanic mud and Maori culture, although you can now take part in this sport in a number of other places, including Swanage.

Zorbing in Rotorua comes in a number of varieties, the first two being 'wet' and 'dry'. In 'dry' zorbing, you're strapped into the zorb by means of a harness, and they push you done the hill on the left. I've never done it myself, but for those who've done it, it's apparently quite interesting.

In 'wet' zorbing, you aren't harnessed in. Instead, they pump in about two buckets of water (cold in summer, warm in winter) to avoid friction burns, and then push you down the hill. Apparently, the idea is to try to run down the hill in your zorb, staying on your feet throughout. Last I heard, only nine people had managed to do so. It sounds like awfully hard work.

Instead, if you're interested in something a little more exciting, there is the slalom course, the option which I prefer. The experience is very much like being in a washing machine and it's certainly a wild ride. That's actually me in the third picture (can't you tell by the way I roll?).
I can tell that you don't believe me, so here I am in my zorb...
And now that plans are afoot for a return to the Bay of Plenty Region, I can do it all over again, and spend the afternoon relaxing in the thermal pools as part of a really good day out.
Maybe Jessica will come along for the ride...

Coalition with the Tories - unthinkable or merely unlikely?

I've spent the last twenty-four hours debating with a few Tories, following the debate within Conservative ranks about a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It is an intriguing thought, and one that few might have thought likely that long ago.

When I first got involved in politics in the mid-eighties, Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp, Labour were busily writing the longest suicide note in history, and the Alliance were beginning to show signs of stress. Opposing the Conservatives was easy really, as the romanticism of youth came into counterpoint with some of the more pointless brutalities of the second term.

Ironically, I tended to sympathise with much that the Conservatives were doing. Unions had become too powerful, the economy too flabby and overmanned, taxes too high and incentive dimmed. The problem was that they simply didn't seem to care about the casualties, and there were plenty of those. They also made some remarkable stupid decisions in search of short term gain. I've touched on the reduction of the civil service retirement age elsewhere, so I won't bang on about that one.

Having made most of the radical changes, the third term saw a loss of momentum. Kicking the trade unions lost its savour, especially as they had become vehicles of customer service, affinity deals, insurance and social awareness rather than leaders of a socialist rebellion. The country saw no threat in the Labour Party, and became wary of the notion of 'permanent revolution'. And as for family values, failing to check that your MPs are playing at home first was a red rag to media who had little else to shoot at. And at a time of ever more rapid social change, the seemingly extreme views of leading Conservatives and apparent lack of empathy for the less fortunate just turned off moderate voters.

Labour just seemed more dynamic in 1997. Independence for the Bank of England, devolution of power in Scotland and Wales, a Human Rights Act, all of these things pushed the right buttons for liberals. People remembered the 1992-1997 Government with contempt. Thatcher might not have been liked, but she was respected (or feared, which in some quarters passes for the same thing). By 1997, Conservatives weren't liked, nor were they respected and the obligatory kicking was duly administered.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Labour, once so radical, have become more and more authoritarian. Unable to win the arguments, they have resorted to ever more debased scare tactics to keep 'their' voters loyal. Increasingly, they pass legislation first and think later, only to create more problems which require even more draconian, anti-libertarian solutions. They can't even do competence these days, it seems.

As a liberal, I believe in giving people the opportunity to take control over their own lives. I don't believe that the Government, any government for that matter, should interfere with the rights of individuals, so long as the freedoms of others are not restricted. That makes me a social liberal. I also believe that government is generally pretty bad at things which require initiative - civil servants struggle with the profit motive (not unreasonably, I suppose) but often lack the independence of thought required to make meaningful change in the way that services are delivered.

Frankly, I don't really care who delivers services, as long as the people delivering them are treated properly and that there is real, meaningful democratic accountability. I also believe that people should have to deal with the consequences of their own actions and that they should be rewarded on merit, not because they fall into a certain category. That means that taxes should only be levied where they can be justified as being in the public interest - sorry, I'm yet to be convinced that individual ownership of major pieces of military hardware is in the public interest - and I guess that this makes me an economic liberal...

So, if freedom of the individual is uppermost, there is scope for linkage between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and certainly, there are more obvious points of contact between the underlying philosophies of liberalism and conservatism than there are between liberalism and socialism (not that the latter is currently on offer...).

From a personal perspective, I'm yet to be convinced either way. The lack of clear policy from the Conservatives leads one to be sceptical - we've been fooled by the reds, we're not so keen to be fooled by the blues... but where policy is being released, the parallels are intriguing. So I'll watch and wait, and see what develops. And, having already voted to go into coalition with the Conservatives in Southwark in my capacity as an Officer of the Liberal Democrat Group here, it wouldn't be as outlandish as once it might have been...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

When cats attack!

This morning was spent in health-related activity. I haven't had a proper eye test for far too long, and after a few disconcerting moments in Albuquerque and Dallas when I began to distrust my own eyes, I was moved to do something about it.

Armed with a voucher entitling me to a free eye test (and no, I don't qualify for one through my age, you cheeky monkeys!), I turned up and was shown into one of those seemingly standard rooms you encounter at opticians, with slightly shabby walls and furniture that might stand to be replaced in the near future. I was gently led through a set of tests, which exposed the fact that I have the eyesight of a hawk. Not bad for a forty-two year old!

My next errand was to take Victoria to the vet. She's been suffering from a persistent ear infection since I returned from India and I finally had the opportunity to do something about it. She's the smallest of my five cats but undoubtedly the most feisty (I can't imagine where she gets it from), so I was quite pleasantly surprised when the vet managed to give her an injection without much complaint. Unfortunately, this meant that she was alerted to what was to follow, i.e. a second injection. A blur of black and white fur later, there was rather a lot of blood around, mine as it turned out. Victoria had quite successfully bitten my hand, and I was bleeding like a stuck pig from a very neat puncture wound.

A little disinfectant and some running water and the bleeding stopped - eventually - allowing me to take her home. The good news is that not only do I still have a left hand, but Victoria appears to have forgiven me for impaling her teeth in my hand. I can't wait for the follow-up appointment next week...

When resolutions and reality collide

You may remember that one of my resolutions was that I would try to be 'generally better' in 2007, and, in fairness, I have made some small changes that will help me to achieve that. However, I have two big weaknesses that prevent me from being as effective as I could be.

I'm not very good at saying 'no' to people. In part, I suppose that this is a reaction to my divorce, in that we all want to be loved to some extent, and making others happy is more likely to achieve such an end. I'm also incredibly bad at delegating, on the grounds that I can probably do it better myself, assuming of course, that I actually get around to completing the task. I can probably get away with one of these traits, but to sustain both is not only foolish but well nigh impossible.

My narrow re-election as Regional Secretary has a sense of augury about it, and combined with an impending house move, hopefully in the late Spring, I feel obliged to withdraw from some areas of activity and scale back other projects. I'm starting with my role as Returning Officer for one of the London Assembly seats, as it hasn't really got underway yet, and there are plenty of other people who could do it as well, if not better, than I could. I look at it as being an indirect delegation of responsibility.

So, what is left to do?
  1. Deliver Prospective Parliamentary Candidates for four seats in the Home Counties (I would have dropped them as well but I owe a debt of gratitude to the Regional Candidates Chair for South Central Region and am rather fond of his opposite number in South East Region).
  2. Set up the systems required to administer membership servicing in Dulwich & West Norwood.
  3. Catch up with the backlog of Secretary tasks for the Regional Party, and review the Regional Constitution for changes (I promised Jeremy Ambache that I would do this, and a promise is a promise).
  4. Carry out the pre-preparation for the European Selection for South East England.

If there's anything else outstanding, it probably isn't that important and won't get done. Otherwise, I have every confidence in the other Regional Officers to deal with it... it is meant to be a team, after all

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Return of the bureaucrat

As you might have guessed from the sidebar, I have been re-elected as Regional Secretary - just... Given that all but three of the twenty-three potential electors cast their vote, a margin of 11 to 9 is slightly discomforting. However, the agony of waiting is over, and my work resumes apace.

The job of Regional Secretary is, if the Regional Constitution is to be believed, a very simple one.

8. The Secretary of the Regional Executive shall be responsible for arranging the meetings of the Regional Executive and keeping minutes and for the Region's communications with Local Parties and other bodies within the Party.

However, the latter part of the job description can be as much or as little as the incumbent wishes it to be, and in the past, has tended towards the minimalist end, through no fault of my predecessors, lest it be taken as criticism.

Technology allows a Regional Secretary to reach his/her 'audience' more easily, more quickly and perhaps most importantly of all, more cheaply than ever before. This should be a good thing, as it affords the Regional Party access to the ear of its constituent Local Parties, especially when something important is happening. On the other hand, it presents the problem of "How much information is enough?". Indeed, how much information is too much?

Politicians are always uncomfortable when control over information is ceded to a wider circle, and in an age when information can be used and abused more readily than ever before, and some of our opponents are less encumbered by moral scruples about doing so, any attempt to broaden the knowledge base has to be tempered with a degree of caution and, done with the support of those whose reservations are strongly, and genuinely, held.

To some of you, this may very well sound like a 'rowing back' from my previous statements and perhaps it is. However, sometimes you have to prove the validity of a case by small, successful pilot projects rather than by 'big bang' reform lest the long-term goal be derailed by opponents of progress...