Saturday, April 28, 2007

Regional Parties - a force for good or a home for superannuated wannabes?

I am currently serving my third term as an Officer of my Regional Party, and I have frequently mused on the purpose of Regional Parties generally. At times, this has been less than entirely obvious but I feel that I’ve learned enough to explain what they (should) do and why they sometimes fail.

Let me start by saying that, in my view, Regional Parties are much like Local Parties. The skills required to do the job are basically the same, although the complexity of the issues is somewhat greater, and this is where the problems often start. If Local Party Executives are a manifestation of the egos of those involved, then bear in mind that the strongest egos are generally those that rise to the top in Regional politics - read into that what you will…

So let’s look at the responsibilities of a Regional Party, in this instance London, broken down into the various standing committees:

1. Finance and Administration - responsible for financial and staffing issues, it consists of the Regional Officers plus a staff representative. Unfortunately, this often translates into general meetings of the Officers, where the reports that are scheduled to be put to the Regional Executive are considered. The committee has responsibility for hiring and firing staff, including the Campaigns Officer(s), reviewing budget progress (all spending officers are technically present) and is empowered to set up sub-committees to deal with aspects such as fundraising.

2. Campaigns - responsible for campaign overview, support and activist training. Good committees tend to keep a weather eye out for events in their Region, such as council by-elections, and offer support to Local Parties where that support might be helpful. This does not necessarily mean running a full campaign, but might focus on party building, campaign training or recruitment. A key role is to cascade best practice and roll out new ideas.

3. Candidates - the only Regional Committee whose membership is directly elected, as specified in the English Constitution. The committee supports the Regional Candidates Chair (again directly elected) to organise the appointment and training of Returning Officers, assessors, facilitators and selection committee members. The involvement of committee members can vary wildly, depending on the attitude and style of the Regional Candidates Chair, their willingness and/or ability to delegate and the desire of committee members to contribute. This committee also has responsibility for drawing up Selection Rules for Regional Assembly selections (only applicable to London thus far).

4. Conference - a fairly obvious one, I suppose. Most Regions organise two a year, one of which must be the Annual General Meeting, which must take place between 1 October and 30 November, just as it is for Local Parties.

5. Local Parties - this committee is responsible for compliance and discipline issues. If an individual, or even a Local Party, is in breach of the Regional, English or Federal Constitutions, this committee will usually hear the complaint (candidate selection issues fall under the auspices of either the Regional Candidates Committee or its English counterpart). Interestingly, they are not empowered to seek evidence themselves, or to call witnesses for the most part, but sit in judgement on any complaints that are received. Generally speaking, this committee has a membership which brings to bear tremendous experience, and a grasp of legal process can be invaluable, if not actually essential.

6. Policy - an often unsung committee, if only because there is very little evident by way of Regional policy, even in comparatively homogeneous Regions. Very few motions are ever successfully submitted to Federal Conference by the various Regional Parties, and yet I firmly believe that the Regional level is an excellent place to iron out any ‘wrinkles’ that a policy motion might have. This committee is also responsible for drawing up Regional Assembly manifestos where appropriate.

So now we have an idea of the responsibilities assigned to Regional Parties, but how should they operate? Naturally, I have a view on this subject, but I'm going to save it for another occasion and intend to ponder this on a beach far, far away...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

23 April: beer, genuinely good for you…

And so I safely reached the southern hemisphere after a remarkably uneventful journey. The plane landed at Sydney to the strains of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in rather dark skies leaden with the promise of rain. Me, I was in Sydney solely to get wet and, fortunately, the shower in the business class lounge was free so that I could freshen up before my journey onwards to Melbourne.

So, what does an Englishman do in this city? Obviously, beer should be involved, so I set off for a tour of the Abbotsford Brewery in Carlton, the headquarters of the Fosters Group. They make plenty of decent beer, and the tour is a nice way to ease gently into the city, involving as it does a tram ride to get there (yes, more trams… this trip is going wonderfully well in terms of quirky transport thus far).

I’ve got an excellent picture of myself for another manifesto - who knows what I’ll run for this time… but I include a picture of Ros, whose job it is to show tourists around the brewery and then ply them with free drink afterwards. She’ll even allow you to try pulling a beer for yourself and try not to laugh when you screw up.

And now the sun is setting on my hotel, and I can sit here typing this blog entry watching the glow on the Yarra (right below my window), and Port Philip Bay in the distance.

22 April: the day that never happened

For those of you who know me well, you may recall that 22 April was my wedding anniversary. The advantage of crossing the international date line from west to east is that you miss a day completely. Guess which date?…

Monday, April 23, 2007

21 April: when transit systems attack…

I had planned a little light tourism this morning, with the hope of taking a few pictures for the blog. After a leisurely breakfast, I returned to the room, repacked my bags and sallied forth for a few hours in the city by the bay. First, a ride on the trolley. Line F is San Francisco’s historic trolley car line, with an excellent collection of PCC’s to choose from, painted in the colours of various American cities.

PCC’s were used across the US, in Canada and even in Mexico City, and so effective were they that when attempts were made to replace them with exciting new ones manufactured by Boeing, they easily outlived their rather unreliable replacements (one should be grateful that Boeing’s aircraft are somewhat more reliable!). They’re incredibly popular with tourists but also serve the locals too.

At Fishermans Wharf, I stopped to take a few pictures of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge before heading for my favourite treat in San Francisco, a scoop of Swenson’s Ice Cream from the original parlour. Of course, part of the treat is that the best way to get there is by cable car… so in classic style, I hitched a ride on the running board and scooted up and over the top of the hill for my scoop of Black Raspberry Marble and yes, it’s every bit as good as it sounds…

And that’s where things started to go awry. On the way back to Market Street, we were held up for a few minutes, which became ten, then twenty. The cable car in front of ours had broken down, thus quite effectively closing down the service… Oh well, never mind, these things happen…

I rushed back to the hotel to clear my room before heading to Colma for one last visit with Walter, Felba and family, only to be delayed by the complete absence of a J-line trolley. Ho hum, quick reroute and a late arrival accordingly.

Next, back into town for a last dash through the shops before heading back to the hotel for my luggage and the journey to the airport. Naturally, a tourist takes this opportunity to walk in front of a bus, blocking traffic on Market Street, and delaying my last trolley - painted in Cincinnati colours (canary yellow with three green bands).

I have at least made it to the airport and, as a homage to my next destination, I’m playing the city’s greatest chanteuse on my laptop… yes, I’m listening to Kylie (who else?). The Boeing 747 is waiting, but I feel a glass of chardonnay coming on…

20 April: a family and friends day

South from the city to Colma again, for more time with Walter and family, before heading to Palo Alto for an evening with the Wilens. Rob and Stefanie are old family friends, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their three sons, Nathan, Henry and Jesse, grow up over the years.

Unexpectedly, my visit was timed to coincide with Henry’s 11th birthday party with his grandparents, in from Indianapolis. Meantime, Rob and Stefanie are in the middle of preparing for a house move. I do like their current place, and their use of colour is amazing (yes, I know that I’m not the greatest in terms of interior design, but I know what I like…), but I can see why they might want a change of ’residential pace’.

So I found myself in the middle of a ’typical Wilen family afternoon’, with chances to collect children from school, drop them at the violin classes and generally chill. Alright, I’m not a ’family person’ but I do appreciate it in others, and given the astonishingly mature attitudes displayed by both Nathan and Henry (Jesse is still a mite young for that to become truly apparent yet), they are very easy to interact with.

Dinner at a local Italian restaurant was very pleasant before retiring back to the house for coffee and birthday cake. Given the circumstances, and the fact that Rob and Stefanie are in the middle of the whirlwind, so to speak, I took a pleasant stroll back through downtown Palo Alto to the train station to catch the last train back to the city.

18 April: so far, so weary in San Francisco…

So I made my plane, I don’t think that I forgot anything (famous last words!) and the jetlag isn’t too bad… yet. The pressures of day to day life left behind, I can concentrate on having some fun for a while.

It wasn’t a bad flight, although United Airlines need to do something about the inflight entertainment on their Boeing 747’s. No seatback, rather dull movies and insufficient radio choices to keep me amused. A pity really, because Radio XFM is actually quite good. Luckily, the fact that I hadn’t slept for more than twenty-four hours meant that I kept falling asleep, despite (or for some of you, because) my purchase of the 2007 Wisden (a cricket almanac, for those of you who don’t follow this noble sport).

My hotel room is sufficient for my purposes, although this section of Market Street is notable for the rather seedy retail opportunities, and is very convenient for travelling about, with the subway station and tram stop both within 100 yards of the hotel. If I walk east of Market Street, I reach the shopping area of downtown plus one of the cable car lines.

I’ve already made it to Colma, a suburb south of the city, where my second cousin Walter lives with his wife Felba and their four children, Maria, Mary-Jepsy, Emmanuel and Petros. I hadn’t seen them since my trip to New York last year for Leon and Patti’s wedding, and as Petros wasn’t born then, it was great to have a chance to catch up.

19 April: a comedy of errors by the bay - San Francisco Giants 6, St Louis Cardinals 2

I have long been keen on baseball, and usually catch a game when I’m here in the US. Fortunately, the Giants were scheduled to be playing at AT&T Park, one of the newer ballparks in a prime location down by the bay, and at home to the 2006 World Series winners, the Cardinals, too.

So, jetlag partly recovered from, I wandered over to the Willie Mays Gate, picked up a ticket for the game, and made my way up to a prime seat behind the batter with a wonderful view down the field. Whilst Barry Bonds wasn’t playing, it had the makings of a fine game.

It didn’t quite work out that way though, and whilst the two pitchers played pretty well, the key plays all turned out to be based on errors. The Cardinals scored in the third and fourth innings to take a 2-0 lead, before an error by the great Albert Pujols at first base allowed the Giants to get back into it at 2-2. In the sixth inning, a harmless looking ground ball was picked up but the throw to first base pitched into the dirt and thudded into, and out of Pujols’ glove, allowing the Giants batter to reach first. Ryan Klesko then scored a triple with a high swirler into right field which, if the outfielder hadn’t presumed it was going over the wall, might have been caught. Finally, with a rather odd field setting, Rich Aurilia, the Giant’s star hitter this season precision placed the ball into the very spot that the left outfielder had vacated for a double. 5-2 to the Giants, and the Cardinals never recovered.

AT&T Park is a lovely stadium, although on a gray, breezy April afternoon, it’s a mite chilly to be sitting still for three hours, and given the prevailing weather here in the Bay Area, the fact that most of the seating is uncovered is quite unexpected. On the other hand, there is the Splash Zone for entertainment value (if you hit a home run over right field, the ball is likely to end up in the bay itself) and you can watch the planes taking off from Oakland Airport if the play drags. You can even drink real beer, although it doesn’t come cheap…

Ho hum, I’d better dash, I suppose, shopping doesn’t do itself…

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dazed and disorganised of South London writes

In typical Faceless Bureaucrat style, I have left far too much to the last moment. As a result, it's about 4.15 in the morning, my plane leaves in less than six hours, and I'm still putting the final touches to my packing.

I've got beach wear, weather for autumn, bright shirts, gifts, guide books and my laptop (and bits), a camera and I think everything else that I need. I've finally finished the blue envelopes that I promised to write out for Gordon (that's the one in North East Scotland) and enveloped them so that they'll make it to Inverurie, home of the Locos. All I have to do is put them in a postbox - and thank heavens the sorting office is across the street.

I'm sure that it will all end up happily ever after, but I really need to get more organised and, equally importantly, less easily distracted... oh well, back to the escape tunnel...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Another day, another glorious victory...

To Sydenham for an evening with Lewisham and Beckenham North Liberal Democrats for their quiz night. Once again, I found myself in a team with Grace Goodlad, Chair of Orpington, this time with her lovely husband Duncan, his daughter Jessica, and David McBride, leader of our group on Bromley Council.

With Philip Peake as quiz master, I should have guessed that the questions would be harder than on the usual Lib Dem quiz night, and the carnage was truly horrifying. You really shouldn't be able to win rounds with scores of four out of ten, but that was fairly standard. My favourite round was the music one, with ten fifteen second clips, all played backwards. It is a sign of the raw genius of our team that we managed to score 7½ out of 10, and ended up winning by 5½ points overall. The winning score? 43½ out of 100...

So, another successful raid across the border, following the triumph in Bexley two weeks ago. Anyone would think that I only turn up when I have a chance of winning... But seriously, it was a great night out, and I even managed to find time for some plotting and scheming...

Friday, April 13, 2007

21st century bureaucracy

Having been persuaded to purchase a laptop by my mother (who hasn't personally progressed much beyond the answer to the question, "How do you turn it on?"), I used this evening to experiment with real time minuting. My typing speed is not impressive, I admit, operating as I do with two fingers, but it seems to be sufficient to minute a meeting effectively.

Tonight's guinea pigs were Brent Liberal Democrats, who now have a new Secretary, i.e. yours truly. Yes, I know that I don't live in the borough, and that I'm not a member of the Local Party, but all of this will be remedied in due course. So, temporarily, I'm an Officer of two Local Parties, both of which are blessed by having a council group who lead the administration.

And best of all, I don't have a set of minutes to type up, because they're already done! Efficiency, you can't beat it...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Alright, so I have no design sense...

Susanne Lamido has noted a certain difficulty in reading my blog since the last set of colour changes, and in her honour, I've changed to something rather more easy on the eye...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

How the Party works (1) - Local Parties

As promised, here is the first of a series of pieces which examine how the Party should work (I'm not saying that it does, mind you) and, inspired by Aaron Trevena, I thought that I should start with the basic building block, Local Parties.

Local Parties actually have remarkable autonomy for the most part, with the right to select their Parliamentary candidate(s), delegates to their Regional Conference and the Federal Conference. However, like every other part of the Party, their freedom to manoeuvre is restricted by the requirement to have a constitution and, more worryingly, by a lack of information about best practice.

As I've said before, constitutions are fascinating things for those of an inquisitive mind. Otherwise, they are as dull as ditchwater but vital to the smooth running of any organisation as they define the framework within which it must operate. Sadly, they aren't often read, and that's where the trouble starts...

The roles of Local Party Officers are pretty obvious;

  • Chair - leads the organisation, chairs meetings, has joint responsibility for filing reports required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referenda Act 2000 (PPERA)
  • Treasurer - monitors finances, has joint responsibility for filing reports required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referenda Act 2000 (PPERA)
  • Secretary - organises and records meetings of the Executive Committee, acts as contact point for other Party bodies
  • Membership Secretary - processes new applications for membership, encourages renewals and switches to direct debit

yet there is much more to it. An Officer can do the bare minimum and comply with the requirements but there is so much more that can be done.

I have always believed that active Executive Committees are a good thing, as they can act to inspire a Local Party's membership to participate. So what do I think are the key things that an Executive Committee should do?

  1. Inform - a regular Members' Newsletter is core to membership service. Ideally, it gets issued monthly and includes a report back from the Council Group(s), the Chair and your Conference Representatives. This has a cost, I accept, but if you issue it to your members by e-mail where possible (about half of our members have e-mail), your costs are reduced. Regular contact keeps people interested.
  2. Entertain - sticking leaflets through doors is what we do, but not all of the time. It must also be accepted that some of our members join as part of their social life and aren't necessarily that political. However, if they are doing something socially, you might encourage them to get involved in the political side of our activity. Alternatively, they might be keen on ideas - and what else is a political party if it isn't about ideas?
  3. Include - not everyone can drop everything at short notice, but may be able to join in if they are given the opportunity to slot it in amongst family and work commitments. Are your events accessible to everyone, or are there cultural barriers that might act to exclude?
  4. Plan - where do you want to be in three months, a year, five years time? What do you need to get there? Most importantly, who is going to do it and how?
  5. Network - there is a world beyond East Bloggshire Liberal Democrats, where policy is written, campaigns are run and things are done differently. Give your members an opportunity to explore that world and you might uncover your Prospective Parliamentary Candidate/Councillor of the future.

You'll notice that I haven't touched upon campaigning, something which is rather important... I fully accept that some of my colleagues may not agree with me here, but I take the view that a well run, participatory Local Party can run better campaigns with more success than a weakly run one. In fact, a well run Local Party has less 'bureaucrats' because they're more efficient.

Part of the challenge is to find people who want to take charge of these tasks and do them well. Unfortunately, many Local Party Officers come from that sub-group defined as ‘people willing to do it if you really insist’. They often have other interests and responsibilities, and end up performing their duties if they have time to do so, not exactly an optimal situation.

The other problem is that, until recently, there has been very little support for new Local Party Officers, so you end up with individuals ‘reinventing the wheel’ or, worse still, doing it the way it has always been done under the influence of those who have been around for many years. I say ‘until recently’ because there is now a movement to improve training for new Officers, delivered by Regional Parties.

In my next piece, I’ll look at Regional Parties, one of the great mysteries of the Party structure, and consider how you can use them most effectively to help you achieve your goals.