Friday, June 29, 2007

It's official: US Airways suck!

I'm perhaps one of the easier air travellers for airlines to deal with. Delays don't phase me much, I'm relentlessly pleasant to airline staff, crack jokes, volunteer to be 'bumped' off flights and work on being the model passenger.

However, although I've flown on everything from Lloyd Aereo Boliviano to Air Vanuatu, from London City Airways to Air Sahara, I've finally found an airline that has reduced me to the normal exasperated state of American air travellers. Stand up and take a bow, US Airways.

My journey to the US last Wednesday was irritating in numerous small ways. The priority baggage tags that my Star Alliance Gold status entitles me to weren't added, the seats on the Airbus A330 were cramped, they charge you for headsets, but I did get to Philadelphia on time.

At Philadelphia, my golf umbrella, which they had insisted I check in the hold, was missing, and I was initially refused access to their frequent flyer lounge in New York because I wasn't flying Envoy Class. Alright, so their own guidance says that Star Alliance Gold passengers with a same day international ticket are wholly entitled to use their lounges, but this is clearly beyond their staff's comprehension.

At least they let me in eventually to kill the extra hour awarded to me by the cancellation of my flight to Washington due to operational difficulties, a fact that was only vouchsafed to me when I arrived in New York, despite the fact that I had been in their hands for the past ten hours. It is interesting to note that the subsequent flight had plenty of empty seats, leading me to presume that they really couldn't be bothered to run the earlier one. My umbrella did reach me eventually, somewhat the worse for wear, but it did reach me.

Washington to New York went without incident, although I once again didn't get priority luggage tags...

The fun really started on the journey home. I arrived at La Guardia to be told that my connecting flight from Washington to Philadelphia had been cancelled for weather related reasons, and that US Airways would find a way of getting me home. Unfortunately, they assigned this task to Abelardo, who suffers from the misfortune of having English as a second language (or maybe third, it was hard to tell). I woud ask questions or make suggestions, and in return he would either ignore them, or answer questions that I hadn't asked.

At one point, he offered to try and put me on a British Airways flight. I pointed out that I needed the qualifying miles to maintain my Gold status and he said that I would get miles on British Airways. On being advised by me that British Airways is in One World, a completely different alliance, he seemed genuinely surprised. However, it was eventually decided that I would need to stay in New York overnight, fly down to Charlotte the next afternoon, and fly home on the evening flight from there.

My only problem was a hotel room, and being aware that airlines have arrangements with local hotels for stranded passengers, I asked for information, to be given a piece of paper explaining to any hotel what they should do. I wasn't initially told which hotel(s) to call, but eventually obtained three telephone numbers of hotels that all turned out to be full.

I therefore returned to the desk, and spoke to Kyle, who was remarkably friendly and helpful. We eventually agreed that I would fly to Charlotte that evening, and find a hotel room there. Still no priority luggage tags though... I caught the flight, but then spent more than three hours sitting on the tarmac, waiting for an electrical storm to clear. I won't blame US Airways for this, tempting though it might be... and eventually arrived in Charlotte at 1.15 a.m.

The next day, I guessed that the flight would be pretty full, and sought to offer my services for voluntary disembarkation. However, the queues were enormous and slow-moving, and there was no separate desk for customer services, so I gave up and tried to ring reservations instead, having been unable to reach the US Airways website (although even when you do, it doesn't seem to work...). I held the line for fifteen minutes but eventually gave up.

Hours later, I formally checked in and sought once again to volunteer to be bumped off the flight (the reward is usually $600 in vouchers and an upgrade, so it's well worth it if you're not in a hurry), to be told that I had to go to the gate and be placed on the list (I also had a gentle moan at the check-in clerk and eventually persuaded her to give my luggage a priority tag). However, the flight was overbooked so I thought that I had a chance, and headed for the gate. Nobody there, so I went to the lounge to be told that I couldn't deal with this there, and would have to return to the gate in about thirty minutes, which I did.

Unfortunately, due to more weather problems, not everyone made their connections, and my seat wasn't required. This meant that I got to fly in another cramped aircraft, with poor service. My intended request for coffee was completely ignored by the flight attendent, and it took five attempts to use the 'call flight attendant' button to get someone's attention. Curiously, the light kept switching itself off, and I guess that they just didn't fancy coming to see what I wanted.

Breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a doughnut...

I swear now that I will never fly US Airways by choice, and retain the fond hope that the airline goes broke, the management lose their jobs and never work again, and that someone makes the ground staff learn English. In the meantime, I apologise to United Airlines because, no matter how bad occasional experiences have been, their performance has never plumbed such low levels so consistently.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

ADA Commission Reports - live from the convention floor

Welcome to the auditorium here at the Kellogg Conference Centre, Gallaudet University!

We're currently debating topical resolutions, and have already adopted updated policy on Venezuela and Darfur, and are now in the midst of a debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation which will encourage unions to sign up new members and obtain the right to collective bargaining for union members. Any union signing up 50% plus one of the workforce will be formally certified as the bargaining agent.

This seems so obviously reasonable that it is hard for an outsider to understand why it needs to be debated. Even the Conservatives, no friends of the unions they, would never have tried to attack the right to organise so blatantly. And this is one of the indicators that marks out just how different the framework for debate is here.

In healthcare, a facet that I've already touched upon, I want to talk about empowering communities to take a direct interest in how healthcare is provided, and what priorities are made. Here, the concerns are so much more basic, founded on the need for access in the wealthiest country on Earth. Most European countries would consider it to be a matter of shame if individual citizens didn't have the right to healthcare and high levels of access at that.

On trade, there are concerns about the secrecy underpinning the formation of trading agreements. I was astonished to discover that the President is seeking the right to make agreements with other nations, and place them in front of Congress with no right of amendment, for adoption.

I've spoken in support of government support for the development of nuclear energy (we lost by a margin of 5:4), as part of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Frankly, I think that to overlook the potential role of nuclear energy in managing that transition is naive, but I accept that fears over safety, particularly in the light of Seven Mile Island, tend to override the rather dry economic argument.

The difference between debates at our conferences, and those here is a vast one, although I do think that the method used here is much more participatory, and thus more fun. And fun is a thoroughly good thing.

Still slightly stunned by technology...

I've now switched to the Convention hotel, here on the campus of Gallaudet University and am somewhat astonished and incredibly pleased to find that they provide free wireless internet access, which in turn means that I am accessible 24/7.

This means that I can continue my work as Secretary, Returning Officer, and all of the other things that I do, even though I'm 3,500 miles away (oh yes, and the sun is shining, and it's 86 degrees...).

Technology, isn't it the coolest thing ever?

Friday, June 22, 2007

"My name is Dennis Kucinich, and I want to be President of the United States of America!"

Now, admittedly, this isn't actually likely to happen, but for those of you who were following the last race for the Democratic nomination in 2004, you'll recall the lingering proponent of what we in Britain might refer to as an unabashedly left-wing agenda, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, from Cleveland, Ohio.

Kucinich maintained his campaign long after it was clear that he had little mainstream support amongst Democratic primary voters, and he is back again this time, promoting the same agenda of proper healthcare, real jobs, fair trade and sustainable economic growth which tends to be lost in the rush to the centre of American politics. His policies foresee a much larger role for government than I believe voters (and I use the word voter rather than citizen) are able to stomach in such a suspicious society.

It is perhaps a sign of the chasm in the debate on either side of the Atlantic that an American political campaigner can talk of 46 million Americans without access to affordable health care, and risk defeat if he or she proposes to act to improve matters, whereas any attempt to remove access to health care free, for the most part, of charge in Europe would lead to electoral suicide.

Personally, I think that Kucinich will again fly his flag through the primary season, as a living reminder to more likely victors that there is a radical stripe in the Democratic Party, and that they need to energise it to mobilise the base supporters. He is, perhaps unexpectedly, a remarkably intellectual speaker, capable of making an argument without too many garish soundbites, and would on some issues, fall within Liberal Democrat territory. I was therefore keen to hear him speak on day 2 of the ADA Convention.

He talked of fair trade but was keen to protect American jobs, he spoke of the need for a strong military but called for greater emphasis on diplomacy in America's dealings with the rest of the world. He understands that Bush has made the world less safe, and America even less so, accepting as he does that the current policy of coercion of allies and opponents alike creates new and more numerous enemies.

I was, I admit, impressed. He may not have a shot of success, but his ability to rally progressive activists is strong, he speaks passionately about issues of concern to the socially aware, and he is able to express a philosophy in a way that few politicians can without sounding vaguely folksy. And I'm sorry, but I'm never going to be one of those 'knit your own folk guitar' kind of liberals...

Heart still beating strong: ADA's 60th Annual National Convention

And so it was, after seemingly an epic journey, that I made it to Washington, crashed into my lovely soft, fluffy, bed and slept... and slept... seemingly for the first time in weeks. I awoke with that nasty hotel feeling that someone has sucked all of the moisture from your throat but otherwise well, and prepared for an afternoon of politics, American style.

This year, for a change, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) convention banquet was moved forward to the first evening to allow a number of House and Senate members to attend, so I needed to make some effort with my wardrobe. So I picked out a purple short-sleeved shirt made from khadi silk and, armewd with my laptop, set off for the campus of Gallaudet University to meet with my fellow co-chair of ADA's Foreign and Military Policy Commission, Bill Markus.

Bill has been around for rather longer than I have, and has frequently chaired the commission in the past, and we agreed tactics before an unusually small band of delegates turned up. I say unusually small because we started rather earlier than usual this year, and a lot of delegates won't arrive until tomorrow morning. However, we quickly got into the swing of things, agreeing issue statements on Iran, Iraq, Israel and Palestine and Human Rights, before deciding upon and agreeing two topical resolutions, one on Venezuela and the other on the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

Next, we adjourned to a reception, where I got the chance to talk to Vic Fingerhut, one of the best known American pollsters, whose views on how America is perceived overseas proved to be very robust. I tend to share his view that America need not apologise for taking a lead role within the world community, even if administrations past and present have made some ghastly misjudgements in their choices of when and when not to intervene.

The evening was rounded off in fine style with a banquet to honour Peter Yarrow (Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary) and Andy Levin, son of Congressman Sander Levin and nethew of Senator Carl Levin, for his work in the field of workers' rights. Unusually for these events, the food was pretty good, and I was lucky enough to be seated at a table with the freshman Congressman from Iowa, David Loebsack, which was entertaining, to say the least.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Isn't technology amazing?

Whilst, as a bureaucrat, I am naturally more comfortable working with ink and quill pen, I am forced to accept that technology enables the average faceless bureaucrat to reach new audiences and torment more people, more effectively, than ever before.

Today, I have made an unexpected discovery in, of all places, the US Airways Club Lounge at La Guardia Airport, New York. My laptop is wi-fi enabled, but I really hadn't comprehended how it actually worked. So, given an extra hour here (my original flight was cancelled), I took the opportunity to experiment. And, much to my immense surprise, the technology works and I can blog my little heart out whilst drinking free beer and nibbling pretzels.

My e-mail is up to date, Facebook is checked and a dinner date confirmed. In fact, I am even able to function as a Returning Officer. You are warned. The world is not safe and there is no escape from liberal bureaucracy. Cue hysterical laughter and a dash for the plane...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On the bus, to the plane, to the UFO and to outer space, baby…

Yes, the bureaucrat is on the road again, this time to Washington, DC for something just a little different. As I mentioned about three months ago, I have been appointed Co-Chair of the Foreign and Military Policy Commission of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and their convention starts on Thursday.

Accordingly, I fly to the nation’s capital tomorrow, by a somewhat circuitous route (Gatwick, Philadelphia, New York (La Guardia), Washington National). Given the amount of flying that I have to do, it seems vaguely appropriate that I am on the hawkish wing of the organisation, although this is not saying a great deal, given that we are talking about an American liberal group.

The intention is that we produce three brief statements on issues of concern, and review the existing body of policy, plus any new resolutions that emerge. The debates are generally well-informed, something that might not be expected given the external view of American politics, and the participants from a variety of backgrounds, often bringing years of international experience with them. For that reason, I look forward to the debates to come, knowing that no matter how passionate they become, we’ll all acknowledge each other’s positions (eventually).

I’ll try to blog my way through the convention, depending on internet access but if you don’t hear from me for the next few days, I’ll try to catch up in New York…

Sunday, June 17, 2007

It's my Party, and I'll minute if I want to...

I'm beginning to get a suspicious feeling that I may be holding one or two too many positions...

The Officers of my Local Party met this evening, or at least most of us did, and one of the issues which arose was the unexpected, and hopefully temporary, disappearence of our Secretary. And so, yes, you guessed it, I am now acting Secretary. So, I'm now working with nine Local Parties in various capacities and three Regional Parties. I'm Secretary to three of them, Returning Officer to another five, a member of the Selection Committee of another, and Regional Contact to four more. I'm also talking to at least five other Local Parties about hustings and/or social events.

One advantage of holding all of these positions is that I end up consulting with myself in a number of different situations, which at least has the positive aspect that I get the decision that I want/need. It also means that when I get to parties, there is nearly always someone I'd like to talk to about something I'm involved in.

Such a level of involvement tends to mean that the individual wants something. I wonder what I subconsciously want?

Can the civil service be trusted by an incoming government?

Whilst writing my last entry, a thought crossed my mind. If the upper echelons of the civil service have become politicised, can an incoming government really trust it to work effectively on a new political programme?

I must admit that the secret of good administration is that it must be able to adapt to changes in the political weather, as the methodology of a Conservative administration will differ greatly from that of a Labour or, at some future point perhaps, Liberal Democrat administration. And that brings me back to my point about empathy...

However, recent years have seen the rise of the Special Adviser, or SpAd, as Guido Fawkes refers to them. He has been enthusiastic in his pursuit of instances whereby SpAd's have broken the guidance restricted their political activities and I have to accept that the frequency of such malpractice is a nightmare for supporters of a non-partisan civil service.

Their presence amongst the upper echelons of government, like targets, distorts the behaviour of those around them. And so, the question must be asked. If this Labour government falls at the next General Election, or a subsequent one, can a new incoming administration rely on the civil service to put their programme into effect, or will a 'night of the long knives' scenario come into play?

In the United States, many high-level administrative posts are filled on the basis of rewarding supporters and fundraisers, leading to a huge turnover at the head of the bureaucracy after a change of Party in the White House (and not only then, even after a President is re-elected, there is often significant personnel turnover). You then get a period whereby people are mastering their new briefs, and positive activity is almost suspended.

I hope that such a state never reaches these shores, and that the non-partisan nature of our civil service can be preserved. Sadly, Labour's control freak tendency have done more to damage this essential facet of our government system than anything else, be it low pay, loss of respect or the general tendency of political parties of all stripes to use the civil service as a convenient whipping boy. And one day, all of us will regret it...

The day that compassion dies?

I'm not often critical of the civil service, after all, it would be like eating one's own children. However, I have always believed that government is not simply a set of rules, it is an opportunity to understand why people do unpredictable things or act in a manner which appears at first sight illogical. That implies that civil servants should exercise discretion, empathy and, believe it or not, an element of compassion.

And so the seemingly endless saga of Jamil el-Banna speaks to me of a situation where all of these aspects have failed. Jamil has recently been advised that he will be released from Guantanamo Bay after more than four years of illegal detention there. He would, not unreasonably, quite like to come home to London and rejoin his family, who fled here from Jordan as Jamil was deemed to have justifiable fear of torture had he remained there.

Jamil's case was considered by the Home Office, and he was given leave to remain. And now the story takes a rather sick and twisted turn. It would appear that the Home Office are of the view that his absence for more than four years has negated his original approval, and that he may have to return to Jordan.

So the facts as we know them are quite simple:
  • Jamil is acknowledged to be at risk of being tortured if he returns to Jordan
  • he was detained by the US authorities in a manner which breached his human rights
  • they now accept that they can find nothing to charge him with
  • he has been out of the United Kingdom for more than four years through no fault of his own

And yet, it appears to be beyond the wit of my colleagues in the Home Office to reach the obvious conclusion, which would be to overlook his period of illegal detention. In the 'good old days', before politicians concluded that the best form of bureaucracy was a partisan one, a fairly junior civil servant would have made the decision, passed it to a more senior colleague for approval and then issued a sensibly-worded letter acknowledging the situation and indicating that the right to remain had been renewed.

Sadly, the effects of political interference have now gone so much further than direct meddling in administrative processes. Civil servants, especially higher up the food chain, are now so conscious that their every move is being monitored that they tend towards self-regulation so as to avoid the risk of upsetting their political masters, an invidious trend if ever I saw one.

Which begs the obvious question. Is this moral cowardice on the part of the civil service, or direct meddling by a minister whose only yardstick for making decisions is the likely response of the tabloid press?

Jamil has one thing on his side, the determination of his local MP to plead his case, and I wish her all the luck in the world in her efforts to get justice for the el-Banna family...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Finding romance: a blind date in Buckinghamshire

You know how it is when your friend arranges a blind date. That slightly nervous anticipation. Will they like me? Will I enjoy their company? Will my jokes get the right reaction? Do I have spinach in my teeth? Do we both have the same expectations from any future relationship?

And so it was that I found myself on an evening train to High Wycombe, running a little late due to a delayed inbound service. However, I made it to the meeting point on time, and was pleasantly surprised to receive a warm welcome. A cup of coffee later, and we were chatting away as though we'd known each other for years. And that's how the relationship between a Local Party Executive and its Returning Officer should be...

Most of us love our Local Parties, despite their foibles and eccentricities. We tolerate amateurism in a way that we would never do in our businesses, remembering as we do, that these people are volunteers, sometimes doing things because nobody else will. It is, in many ways, a bit like a marriage. You compromise on your ideals because the relationship means something and is worth the occasional inconvenience.

And this evening, I kind of fell in love with Wycombe Liberal Democrats. They may be small in number, and up against the vast battalions of true blue Buckinghamshire, but their sheer enthusiasm and energy is well nigh impossible to resist. It would be so easy for them to despair, but they had a good round of local elections this year, making gains in an otherwise difficult year for Liberal Democrats, and are genuinely excited at what their new councillors are achieving for their constituents.

And if I can help them find an equally enthusiastic PPC over the coming months, all the better...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ethnicity and diversity: maybe we're not alone in our predicament...

One of the advantages of a fairly 'catholic' reading list is that you often realise that you aren't alone, after all. And, whilst our internal debate over selection of black and minority ethnic candidates in winnable seats has calmed a bit, interestingly, our friends in the Labour Party appear to be doing their own navel-gazing.

I have already made my opposition to quotas abundantly clear, favouring the Campaign for Gender Balance (CGB) approach of support, mentoring and training. Meral Ece has already made the case that Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) receives no funding from the party centrally and so I find myself wondering, "Is there a role for my Regional Party here?". Clearly, given the proportion of the London population that defines itself as non-white (28.8%), we would be failing if we didn't take a lead on this issue. We have a training budget, and we could work with EMLD to organise training that might be useful.

I would say this though, working simply with EMLD is not enough, we should be working with CGB and, a point often overlooked, anyone else who might benefit. Women-only training opportunities have been crucial in both encouraging women to come forward and supporting them once they have done so. On the other hand, there has been some ill-feeling that such opportunities haven't been made available to anyone else.

In part, this is due to the fact that there isn't any other organisation which is similarly effective. My views on the Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) vary between mockery and contempt, depending on how good a mood I'm in and, as already stated, EMLD has little funding. So perhaps we could run the same training session three times, once with CGB, once with EMLD, and once for anyone in the Regional Party?

I'm keen that rather than just talk, we act. There will be a review of our processes and outcomes, it is true, but the sooner we start to make a real difference, the sooner we can put the events of the past month behind us.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

BAe scandal: stupidity, cupidity or just the sign of a government in moral decline?

Last year, I, like many fellow bloggers, noted with a mixture of despair and anger the desperate attempts of an increasingly wretched government to draw a veil over the BAe affair.

It doesn't get any better, but all that needs to be said about Al Yamamah is here...

European Selection: actually, don't bother, I've made my mind up

Unusually for a Returning Officer, I see the role as an opportunity for mild entertainment, not something that candidates entirely appreciate, I admit, but fun nonetheless.

In 1998, I missed all the hustings for South East's European selection due to a pre-existing commitment (alright, I was on holiday) and rather cunningly organised two hustings for the same evening. It seemed logical to have the candidates to Windsor and Newbury on the same evening, especially with a motorway to connect the two. I don't drive, which may explain why I overlooked the fact that picking the Friday of a bank holiday weekend would leave the M4 looking more like a car park than an express route. I am led to believe that some of the candidates made it... eventually...

Despite this, they very kindly requested a reprise in 2002/03. This time, the manifesto approval phase was scheduled for the period around the New Year. For some reason, I thought that being in Chile and Argentina would make the process more relaxed. On the other hand, the hotel delivered one faxed manifesto with a bottle of champagne, which did make me rather more kind-hearted towards the candidate than I might otherwise have been. Admittedly, he didn't know about it, and we'd paid for it, so no harm done. I did admire the gall of one applicant who complained that I had taken eight hours to respond to her manifesto. Given that she'd sent it at 5 a.m. Buenos Aires time, I was less than entirely courteous in my response...

This time, I'm planning very little travelling, and intend to be at the hustings. Instead, I'm putting an effort into the papers, with pen pictures of the members of the Selection Committee. And that's where the problems start. You see, I'm rapidly drawing the conclusion that the members of the committee are more interesting than the applicants. So, I hereby declare that the South East Regional shortlist is:
  1. the incumbent
  2. Prue Bray
  3. Jamie Sharpley
  4. Mike Wheatley
  5. Margaret Ticehurst
  6. Season Prater
  7. Ken Cosslett
  8. Vera Head
  9. Chris Jennings
  10. Mark Valladares

May I thank the applicants for their interest, and the Selection Committee will be taking a well-deserved long summer break before the campaign starts in earnest...

Friday, June 08, 2007

European Selection: the starting pistol is fired!

And so we go from one selection, straight into another. I was still finalising the South East's Regional Profile at 1.30 this morning, and the cover letter and Selection Committee membership list aren't quite perfect yet (they will be, eventually).

Fortunately, the hordes of potential applicants have obviously decided to wait until the weekend to deluge me with requests for the application pack, so I may actually get a chance to get everything done before my life ceases to be my own once again.

Now, of course, my Selection Committee are in possession of the only slot being vacated by its current occupant (don't worry, it isn't a secret, Liberal Democrat News says so!), and so, assuming our performance doesn't drop significantly in 2009, a new MEP will emerge, blinking in the light. I wonder who it will be?

One of my pet projects this year is to create a decent list of events across the Region so that candidates can mingle with members. So, if you have connections with a Local Party in either South Central or South East Regions, get in touch, we can talk about a potential social event between 28 August and 6 November. Try and avoid Saturdays and the period between 15 and 20 September (we'll all be going on a late summer holiday in Brighton), but other than that, my diary is wide open...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mixed race in the Liberal Democrats – an oppressed minority?

As I occasionally note, I fall into the approximately 1.2% of the population who define themselves as ‘mixed race’, and therefore supposedly part of the BME community.

I say ‘supposedly’ because, in the past week, it has become abundantly clear that those in the Party who speak so boldly on behalf of ethnic minorities care very little for me, my needs or my interests. The ongoing debate following the GLA selection has been entirely couched in terms of ‘visible’ ethnic minorities, and the assumption is that your status as a minority is therefore entirely defined by skin colour. If only it were that simple…

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy mother was born in Keith, a small town about midway between Aberdeen and Inverness, and brought up in East Sussex. She has pale, occasionally almost translucent, skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. My father was born and raised in Mumbai, came to this country in the early sixties. They met, presumably fell in love, and have now been married for over forty years. He is brown-skinned, with brown eyes and, once upon a time, black hair. He is also from the generally overlooked minority Catholic faith.

Me, I’m brown-eyed, with dark brown hair (tending to grey these days, I’m afraid) with the skin tone of someone who has been out in the sun for just the right amount of time. When I look at myself in a mirror, I increasingly see my father, and there are much worse things to recognise, I can tell you.

I have always felt closer to my Indian family than to my English one, perhaps for no better reasons than that we think alike and that I am comfortable in their presence in a way that I never quite have been with my mother’s relatives.

Accordingly, I have always identified myself as half-Indian and proud of it. Occasionally, when my English friends are getting a little carried away with the sheer wonderfulness of being English, I like to remind them that my ancestors were building great civilisations at a time when painting yourself blue was considered the height of fashion here.

So you might therefore understand why the viewpoint of senior figures within both the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force troubles me. Their suggestion appears to be that only certain BME groups, as defined by them, are worthy of their attention and concern. The rest of us, who don’t quite fit with their view of the world, are somehow disposable and our views either an attempt to patronise or, worse still, to block meaningful change.

I’ve spent most of my political life below the surface of the Party’s processes, attempting in my own small way to create opportunity for all. The fact that I have no personal electoral ambitions appears to make some more cynical souls convinced that I have some other agenda. Clearly, if I had been more nakedly ambitious, my motives would have been more acceptable.

And so my public attempt to persuade the wider Party to make real efforts to create that mystical level playing field is at an end. Instead, I will try to find ways of using the machinery of the Party to experiment with new ideas, consulting with my friends to do so. It just isn’t worth the abuse of doing it any other way

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

GLA selection: the Pygmalion conundrum

Se peut-il que tu choisis pour me percer le Coeur!
Est-ce donc pour gémir et soupirer en vain
Que mon art a produit ton image adorable?

You might guess from the excerpt above that I'm not referring to the musical but to the 1748 Acte de Ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau. If you've got that far, you'll now be wondering whether the bureaucrat hasn't completely lost it.

There is sense behind the reference though. In Scene 1, Pygmalion, a sculptor, is bemoaning his fate. He has fallen in love with the statue that he has created, "Can it be that you are the work of my hand?", to the despair of his former love, Céphise. He has become so entranced by his creation that he cannot love anything else.

The Selection Rules are a bit like that. You take your original rules, you shape them a bit to form a rough model, and then embellish them to add personality, strength or whatever. You look at them and think that they are perfect, to the extent that anyone who doesn't appreciate their beauty and elegance is a fool or a knave. You become possessive and lose track of the purpose of the exercise which was, to make something that people wanted and appreciated.

In this instance, the sculptors are that beleaguered group known as Returning Officers. They have two goals, to design something that generates a level playing field whilst making it policeable. This tends to create a very restrictive structure that discourages creativity and flair and supports incumbents, particularly in list selections.

Given the trauma of the last few days, and believe me, it has been traumatic, perhaps London has an opportunity to change the way the game is played and structured. Uniquely amongst the Regional Parties in England, London has a selection for which it is the sole arbiter of the Rules, i.e. that for the London Assembly. There are also some unique features, including the significant ethnic minority community (28.8% according to the 2001 Census), and a comparatively small, easily assessable geographical field of campaign.

At the moment, the trend has been to bring London's Selection Rules into line with those for Westminster and Europe. Perhaps we should actually look at using the London Rules as a laboratory for new ideas, freeing candidates to campaign in new and creative ways, attempting to create genuine equality of opportunity (sorry, I still don't support the notion of mandatory equality of outcome, I believe in genuine merit in selecting candidates). We've talked about a bonfire of regulations in government, perhaps it is time for a bonfire of restrictive Selection Rules.

I would set just one ground rule. In any discussion of any part of the Rules, existing or otherwise, the mandatory question should be, "How will this create opportunity?", instead of, "How do we police this?".

In 'Pygmalion', the statue came to life, fell in love with him and they all lived happily ever after (except Céphise, of course, somebody has to suffer in opera...). Perhaps we too can achieve a happy ending?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

European Selection: meanwhile, in another part of town...

Putting aside the GLA selection for the day, I spent a sizeable chunk of time at English Candidates Committee, preparing for the European selection that goes live on Friday, in my triple role as a member of the committee, Returning Officer for South East England and member of London's Selection Committee.

Part of the meeting was spent considering protocols addressing particular circumstances that have arisen, and information on this will be made available to relevant parties in due course. However, we also looked at the Rules pertaining to the campaign phase of the European selection, particularly salient in the light of the GLA selection. Some eminently sensible changes have been agreed, and I hope that they will go some way towards addressing concerns raised elsewhere. Once the amendments have been incorporated into the Selection Rules, these too will be made public, certainly no later than Friday.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that the meeting overran somewhat, I had to leave before it concluded in order to convene the first meeting of the South East England selection committee, where we had to address issues relating to the selection criteria, regional profile and scheduling. It was an immense relief to see the committee work quickly, efficiently and effectively, and I now expect us to be ready to go live on Friday.

Friday, June 01, 2007

GLA selection: will the agony never end?

As an Officer of the Regional Executive and a member of the Regional Candidates Committee, I find myself near the centre of a firestorm of angst and despair that has broken out over our selection of the London-wide list.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe rows that took place over the Rules, the campaign phase and the actions of the Returning Officer were bad enough, but the list that emerged at the end of the process is now under widespread assault for the absence of black and minority ethnic candidates at the sharp end. We’ve been attacked by Operation Black Vote, the 1900 Trust, and even by the Mayor of London. I also note that a number of our leading BME activists have also gone public with their criticisms.

The Regional Constitution requires that the Candidates Committee has at least one BME member, whose role will be to address questions of diversity. And who is this year’s lucky occupant of the role? Yes, you guessed it, yours truly. I suspect that I could have a very busy summer ahead of me…

I’ve already made my views abundantly clear on Liberal Democrat Voice, posted in my own name for those anonymous critics out there. However, I really should use this platform to make some direct criticisms of the process, the participants and anything else I feel like so…

The Process

We need to learn that budding candidates look upon candidacy as a career, and allow them the opportunity to plan. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that we will be selecting candidates eventually, but given the realisation that the Regional Party needs to be far more long-sighted in its planning and organisation, it should not be beyond the wit of a Regional Executive to think beyond next week.

The scheduling of this hinged on a failure to act earlier, resulting in a very hasty decision-making process of scheduling. In fact, the schedule was drawn up one afternoon by David Allworthy and myself, and presented to the Regional Executive just two hours later. Why did this happen? If action had not been taken then, we wouldn’t have had a selection process for many months due to a clash with the already scheduled European selections. Why wasn’t action taken earlier? Don’t ask, it depresses me to even think about it.

The Selection Rules came from the Regional Candidates Committee. There was barely any consultation beyond the Regional Executive and this, in hindsight, was always bound to lead to accusations of favouritism. It wasn’t favouritism, it was incompetence. I’ve already noted that I should have paid more attention. I didn’t. Mea culpa, mea ultima culpa.

Best of all, we timetabled the campaign phase to coincide with local elections outside London. Campaigns Department weren’t happy, and rightly so. Admittedly, members of the Regional Campaigns Committee voted the timetable through so nobody emerges from this covered in glory.

The Participants

I was certainly aware that one likely candidate was organising her campaign as early as last summer. Guess what, she got a place in the top three. As for the rest of them, apart from the steady flow of e-mails from sitting London Assembly members, little sign.

The notion that you can contact 8,000 members across the city in the six weeks or so that the campaign phase lasts without an organised and enthusiastic campaign team is so ludicrous as to be laughable. Any sensible election campaign in the real world starts with the realisation that you need to start early, get an organiser and recruit people to campaign for you, in short, hit the ground running. How is an internal campaign different, especially when you have more than twenty opponents?

The incumbents aside, those candidates who did well had learnt this simple lesson and executed well. This is not to say that the method is foolproof and always successful, as we see in local and parliamentary elections, and saw in this selection too, but you improve your chances if you have done the groundwork first.

Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

I will make no friends by saying this, but EMLD has seldom lived up to its promise. I fully accept that a lack of funding has hindered its performance but the frequent impression that its aim is to promote whoever happens to be leading it at the time has done nothing but harm for its credibility.

I have tremendous respect for Meral Ece, but EMLD really needs to work out what it can do and then get on with it. The risk is that the appointment of a dedicated Diversity Officer by the Party will effectively consign EMLD to the margins unless it is seen to have a purpose and a coherent message. Indeed, the existence of a number of groups such as Chinese Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Muslim Forum can only act to blur that message.

The other question for EMLD is who it represents. Can any organisation properly represent the diversity of groups sheltering under the BME umbrella? What issues unite the entire BME community, or is there such a community to address? Unless the problems are directly racist, do Chinese activists have the same needs as Afro-Caribbean ones, or Muslim ones? Do the potential solutions reflect the philosophy that underpins the Party? If not, can/should they be imposed?

Alright, the critique is all very well, what do we do next? What should happen is multi-faceted;

We need to review the Selection Rules as soon as possible. That process needs to involve Local Parties, candidates, Returning Officers and the various groups with an interest, such as EMLD, the Campaign for Gender Balance and the Parliamentary Candidates Association, to name but three. This means more than just a questionnaire, but implies an ongoing public review. The Rules shouldn’t be a secret, and nor should the process of change.

We need to analyse the data that we have, in terms of our membership, voter participation and behaviour. It is all very well to presume a South West London bias but this doesn’t wholly explain the results. The Sutton candidates didn’t do that well, and the number of Richmond candidates selected doesn’t come close to reflecting the membership there. The incumbency factor clearly comes in to play but isn’t guaranteed to comfort.

We need to encourage candidates to start campaigning earlier, to build a profile outside their own corner of London, especially if they come from a part of London with few members. Being a known figure helps, allowing you to build a campaign team of people who want to see you get selected. Members in otherwise neglected constituencies like my own Dulwich & West Norwood remember people who they have met, albeit briefly, and are likely to vote on the basis of “I’ve met him/her, he/she took the trouble to come to see us.”.

We need to do for BME candidates what the Campaign for Gender Balance has done for women, providing opportunities to meet, network and benefit from mentoring and training. We still aren’t good at creating and nurturing opportunity and more must be done.

There are probably other aspects that I have overlooked or don’t support. However, we have no choice but to act, or risk losing what credibility we have as a force campaigning for genuine equality of opportunity for all.