Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Havard Hughes - recollections and a touch of regret

News reaches me that my recent opponent for the job of Regional Secretary, Havard Hughes, has defected to the Conservatives - which indicates that my beloved Regional Party dodged a bullet there. For those out there who voted for him, and against me, I promise not to make barbed comments about your judgement...

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceBut seriously, I do have some regrets about the loss of a pretty decent person from our ranks. Havard and I go back to the time he arrived in Brent, just prior to his becoming a councillor in Alperton ward. People spoke quite highly of him at the time, although his ability to maintain commitment levels was questionable even then.

If he has a weakness, it is an inability to pick battles that he can win. His increasingly quixotic attempts to gain election to English and Federal committees by challenging individuals widely regarded as popular and effective, rather than the weaker alternatives, became more and more puzzling. On the other hand, Havard is a pretty likeable kind of guy, polite, bright, well-spoken and always friendly. I couldn't even get particularly angry with him for trying to take over from me as Secretary - I had, after all, invited challenges via this blog. 

He's picked an interesting time to join the Conservatives, and perhaps he had been made an offer that he felt he couldn't refuse. At least he will add to the number of Conservatives who we can 'do business with', assuming that he doesn't turn on his former allies, a temptation that I hope he can resist...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Be afraid, be very afraid - happy Returning Officer on the loose

The world is a bright, shiny place when you're a happy Returning Officer. The urge to be kind to candidates is overwhelming, you are at peace with your Selection Committee, and all is perfect in a perfect world.

It's the sort of happiness that is catching, in that I've taken to being nice to accountants, I smile at people for no adequately explained reason, and the weight is falling off - nine pounds in the past three weeks. If I was working out, or paying particular attention to my diet, it might be understandable, but I'm not (really).

And whilst I have a lot to do, I have this wonderful sense that it will all get done somehow...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Change, stress and confusion

I've been a little preoccupied over the past week, as I've moved house (finally). As a new resident of Brent, and an ex-resident of Southwark, there has been so much to do, things to pack - in my case with genuine ineptitude - forms to fill in and all the other stuff that you finally realise need to get done at 3.30 in the morning.

But I'm now cleared out of East Dulwich, and slowly establishing myself in Kingsbury. There is food in the refrigerator, new sofas in the living room and a new queen-size bed in the main bedroom. I'm slowly stocking the house with toiletries and boxes are occasionally unpacked.

Meantime, life goes on. In my usual style, I've tried to slot in a house move in the middle of the interview phase for two European candidate selections, South East, where I'm the Returning Officer, and London, where I'm on the selection committee itself. As far as I'm aware, nobody has attempted such a feat before, and it looks like I will be able to attend every interview session for both Regions bar one. As an aside, the interviews seem to be going pretty well so far, but you wouldn't expect me to give you any more detail than that, would you?

There has been another significant development in my life over the past three weeks, but I'll save that for another post...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Faith, love and understanding

Following yesterday's posting, I have been incredibly touched by the kindness of strangers in response. A close friend described it as like watching someone on a highwire without a safety net and I suppose that it was a bit exposed and uncomfortable.

In many ways, I've been incredibly fortunate in terms of family and friends, and I cannot stress too much how important they are in terms of regaining one's equilibrium. And I have now discovered that there are people out there who've had similar experiences and lived to tell the tale.

The comments of PragueTory are particularly touching, and provide evidence if ever it were needed that politics need not be solely tribal. I fully acknowledge that most Conservatives, like most Labour members (and indeed most Liberal Democrats), are thoroughly decent souls, who want a better society, care about people, and are responsive to their local communities. We differ in terms of method and outcome, but all care deeply for the societies around us.

So for all of you who have been hurt in the name of love, and for those of you who have been fortunate not to have been, might I wish you the best of luck in your relationships, and that you find (and keep) what you're looking for. Finding love is about taking risks, and having the courage to do so, and I am grateful that I've regained sufficient optimism to want to try again.

Once again, thank you to those who chose to comment, and who did so with such warmth...

Monday, July 16, 2007

A message to the Conservative Party - loss, desolation and redemption: how divorce impacts on lives

Further to my comments last week on Conservative proposals to repair the ‘broken society’, I am moved to take an opportunity to seek catharsis with regard to my own past. Those of you of a nervous disposition might wish to look away now…

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI’m a bit of a poster child for how not to get divorced, and in the week when the last remnants of the breakdown of my relationship with Rachelle are finally swept away, I thought that it might be a good time to reflect on the events of the past fifteen or so years, in the hope that my words might save others from the fate that befell us.

In fairness, I don’t intend to allocate blame, one of the key messages I hope to convey. In hindsight, gloriously 20:20 in this instance, the writing had been on the wall for some time, and I was simply too blind, and in too much self-denial, to read it.

I fell in love with Rachelle gradually over a period of about a year, although with astonishing naivety, I didn’t actually work out what was happening for most of that period. We didn’t see an awful lot of each other, she was living in Brussels, I in London, but ran into each other at international young liberal events. Eventually, Rachelle took the initiative (a decision for which I was subsequently most grateful) and, after a lightning romance, we were married (I consider that four months from consummation to marriage meets the criteria for ‘lightning’).

For some time, we lived together happily enough. We had occasional differences of opinion, but no more than most couples do. Then, Rachelle’s political career took off exponentially. She became involved in the United Kingdom chapter of Democrats Abroad, the overseas ‘wing’ of the Democratic Party, and rapidly climbed through the ranks until, within six years, she became Chair of Democrats Abroad Worldwide, and with it a member of the Democratic National Committee. As Chair, she achieved more than any Democrat Abroad had ever done, attaining a status never before reached and influence far beyond that of her State Party.

I loved the fact that she had made it all happen through her own efforts, and was incredibly proud of her achievements. I followed her around the world, from Japan to Guatemala, from Australia to Canada, attending events, smiling sweetly, shaking hands and saying nothing even remotely controversial to anyone who might possibly object.

Unfortunately, the cracks had already started to appear. Rachelle was on the road for up to fifteen weeks a year, meeting local groups, attending conferences and playing with the big beasts of US Democratic Party politics. Her priority was to focus on that role, and when not doing politics, deliver upon her work contracts, all of which left little time for our relationship.

Instead of talking about it, I ducked the inevitable argument which would have followed had I done so. And that was the beginning of the end. All that I wanted was to be loved (a bit, I’m not that ‘high-maintenance’) but as time passed, I rather gave up hope that it would ever happen, and consequently began to care less than I had. The glue of mutual respect that bound us together began to lose its adhesiveness.

To cut a long story short, Rachelle eventually returned from yet another trip, and announced that she was leaving, and that we should undergo a six-month long trial separation. In my usual hapless manner, and possibly stunned by the unexpected turn of events, I agreed, and blithely let her go. And that, dear reader, was that.

I’m not generally the emotional type, and as someone not entirely confident as to where he fits in, I tend to hide my feelings behind a mask of my own creation (thus, Faceless Bureaucrat) and play a role that doesn’t encourage too much deep analysis. And so I allowed my own self-doubt to contribute to the loss of a relationship which, at the time, mattered to me deeply, all for the lack of will to really communicate. It has been an expensive lesson to learn, in every sense, the knowledge from which I intend to apply for the rest of my life.

The divorce itself was uncontested, as I had no desire to fight to save a marriage holed below the waterline, although despite this, it took a year for the decree absolute to come through, ironically two days before polling day in 2005. As agent for our Parliamentary candidate in Dulwich and West Norwood, it was perhaps a blessing that news didn’t reach me for another six weeks…

Curiously, no effort had been made to initiate moves towards a financial settlement, and I maintained a na├»ve hope that all could be dealt with amicably and quickly. Two years of increasingly vitriolic exchanges later, two firms of solicitors had made an astonishing sum of money, I had blocked Rachelle’s e-mails after a pair of wild threats of legal action to have me evicted from the family home, and I was older, wiser, poorer and considerably more cautious than ever before.

Let me assure our friends in the Conservative Party that divorce is not always done lightly. When I married Rachelle, I intended it to be forever - I remain true to my Catholic roots to that extent, at least. And, no matter how unhappy I might have felt, I would have felt obliged to stay and fight to save it, had there been even the faintest glimmer of hope that I might be successful. We were lucky in that we were childless (by choice, I hasten to add), and that nobody was seriously hurt, apart from us.

And yet there was collateral damage. Friends sometimes felt it necessary to make choices as to who they would see, family had to deal with my urge to audibly rationalise what was happening, work colleagues had to endure the occasional mood swing. A divorce, especially one where the two parties have been together for some time, and have a plethora of mutual friends, can be difficult for those around them, and I suspect that it raises the odd doubt in the mind of other married couples (“Are we like them? Are we in danger of making the same mistakes?”) – sowing the seeds of doubt in otherwise healthy relationships.

But the worst aspect of divorce is the rather desolate sense of failure that it engenders. The most important thing in your life has been lost, and you become prone to a sense of drift and a loss of self-belief which, in my case, took about two years to overcome. For that, I thank family and friends, without whose love and affection I would probably still be a subdued, introverted soul. My Party colleagues, who showed touching belief in me at a time when I didn’t have that much in myself, finished the reconstruction rather nicely, to the point where I can look into my future with hope and confidence.

Yes, divorce does come with tangible costs, and the Conservative Party, and Iain Duncan-Smith’s policy commission, are quite right to say so. But the intangible costs of keeping families together in a state of shared misery, are just as real, just as significant, and just as worthy of consideration. When you’re dealing with the emotions, you must always look beyond pounds and pence, to the psychological health and well-being of individuals, and I’m disappointed that a Party suddenly claiming to first believe in, and now care about, society cannot apparently see beyond the impact on the public purse

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kiss me, and tell me that you'll stay forever

I always knew that there was a good reason why I wasn't a Conservative, but if ever I have doubts, I'll look back over the past two days and find that reason engraved on my heart.

I've been married and, on the whole, it is an institution that I broadly favour. It is, however, just an institution when all is said and done. Yet my conservative friends want to bribe me into getting married as part of their quest to repair the 'broken society'. In many ways, it is the mistake that workaholics have made over the years to justify their absence, "if I can't be there to love you in person, I'll give you stuff in lieu...". Nothing strengthens a relationship like love, trust and good faith, and no matter how much money the Conservative Party aims to stuff into the mouths of married couples, without those things, a marriage is just a business arrangement.

I became a liberal because I appreciated the notion that people should be allowed to get on with their lives in the way that suits them, as long as, by their actions, they do not limit the rights of others to do likewise. That means forming family units in a way that suits them and that will endure, it means a role for the community in nurturing those who suffer from relationship failures. It does not mean trying to trying to handcuff two unhappy people to each other for the sake of the married couple's allowance, something that, as I recall, the Conservatives abolished.

Indeed, it really bothers me when Conservatives talk so airily about freeing the individual from the dead hand of the state, when what they really mean is freeing the individual to behave in a manner they approve of. That sort of freedom is not the concept that I recognise, am comfortable with, or am ever likely to support.

And yet I have to applaud our rivals in blue for their PR skills. Talking about repairing a 'broken society' sounds really good, the sort of thing that we would surely all applaud. However, as always in such matters, the devil is in the detail. There are hints that the handouts to married couples will need to be found somewhere, probably from cuts to single mothers and other second class citizens (from the Conservative perspective, at least), the very people who need most help and support from the state to drag themselves out of poverty.

I will never feel inadequate because my marriage failed. Yes, I have regrets, I'd be foolish to think any other way, but the notion that any future relationship I enter into will only be truly validated, and rewarded, if I exchange vows and sign a certificate in front of witnesses is an affront. Perhaps the Conservatives, instead of trying to turn the clock back to the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950's, should be trying rather harder to support families, regardless of their construction, rather than punish an undeserving minority.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Truth, beauty, passion and diversity

It is true, as Jessica has noted, that I've been a bit distracted of late.

Having said that, I've been pretty busy in the past week, what with the European selections reaching the shortlisting stage. I'm still working on the interview design, although the centrepiece of the process is in place. I've invited some, but not all candidates (I'll do so soon, if any of you are reading this). And, noting the Ealing Southall by-election, the South East Selection Committee have agreed to postpone most of the interviews until after 19 July (sadly, it wasn't possible to postpone all of them but I did try).

On Thursday, I went to Stoke Newington, to attend a Hackney Pasta and Politics evening. The topic - why was our GLA list so deficient in ethnic minority candidates? Dave Raval, whom I've had the pleasure of working with in the past, made some entertaining opening remarks before opening up debate to the room. Whilst Hackney Lib Dems are, to my mind, a touch more radical than other Local Parties I have encountered, I know that we all share the same concerns, and it was nice to hear the thoughts of those not directly affected but who genuinely want to see our Party represent and reflect the diverse communities of our city. Yes, I responded to the discussion, and yes, I didn't agree with all of the comments made, but it was proper that the Regional Party not hide behind reviews and hand-wringing. If I'm going to be, whether partly or wholly, responsible for trying to change things, I should be willing to stand behind my actions.

On Friday, I made my first appearance in Ealing Southall, having arranged to meet Ros Scott at Paddington on the way. I like Ros a lot, and she was, in the past, very kind to the old wallflower bureaucrat circa 2005. Besides, Southall is a bit off her beaten path, and I wouldn't have wanted her to get lost... We were thrown into a maelstrom of envelope stuffing, map marking and newspaper bundling, and it was nice to be useful. Afterwards, we went for dinner at a Lebanese place she knows, which given the limited time and opportunities I have to socialise, was a bit of a treat.

On Saturday, I went to Wokingham for the selection of their new PPC. The two candidates, Prue Bray and John McClintock, are very different, with their own style and emphasis, and after a really enjoyable hustings, with two really good performances, Prue was successful, qualifying her for another run against John Redwood. I hope that John gets a chance somewhere, his passion for liberal democracy really shone through as his momentum built.

On the way back to London, it dawned on me that I was passing through Southall, so I popped into the HQ for another two hour stint of envelope stuffing and addressing. There is a real buzz around the place and, whilst I'm not very good at getting a feel for by-elections - I've not been to very many - if the atmosphere is anything to go by, we'll do well enough...

I really don't understand how Liberal Democrats do by-elections...

Mark is a bit distracted at the moment, and he asked me to post something just to keep the blog active. Funnily enough, we had been talking about the Ealing Southall by-election, and he was explaining all of the aspects to how these things works. I have to admit that I'm somewhat puzzled, as it all seems so unseemly, and feel that the Liberal Democrats are going about things in entirely the wrong way.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFor example, your activists seem to be perfectly content to allow high levels of crime to take place. Littering, for example, has become a major problem, and teams of crack activists armed with electric cattle prods should be tasked to carry out sweeps on a ward by ward basis, preventing gangs of anorak wearing youth in their colours of blue and red from committing these heinous offences. I'm afraid that the only way to drive this menace off of our streets is to display zero tolerance.

I also note groups of Conservative politicians plotting attacks on innocent bystanders, armed with potential deadly images of David Cameron. Extraordinary rendition, with transfer to secure facilities, is by far the best response, and Amaranth is determined to do all that we can to provide such an option. My son, Rupert, is geared up for an influx of dangerous customers (we're very public service oriented here), and the moat for our facility has been freshly stocked with saltwater crocodiles - he is convinced that they add that finishing touch that demonstrates absolute attention to detail.

Of course, armed cavalry are good, and I understand that the broad streets of Hanwell are particularly well-suited to use of the sabre. Sadly, my friend, the Countess, tells me that the noble Lord Rennard is determined to stick to the tried and trusted techniques that have served so well in the past.

No sense of romance, you Liberal Democrats, that's your problem...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I wonder if my mother has ever felt the urge to blog...

...because she's the only one left. My younger brother, Kirk, has now taken up blogging, much to my surprise. He also contributes to a comic strip blog called Robogeek, words by his friend Assif, art courtesy of my brother.

If you have a sense of humour, take a look...

Susanne Lamido: something of an apology

Those of you who were involved in the 'Lamido affair' over the past months will occasionally have wondered why I've been defending her to some extent in that time. As previously mentioned, I tend to the view that there is a right to self-expression, as long as that right is used with a degree of integrity.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFollowing the revocation of her membership, Susanne repeatedly asked me how, and when, she could rejoin. My approach, probably a flawed one, was to suggest that if she ceased her attacks on individuals within the Party, and kept her head down, such a possibility might exist. However, she didn't take my advice, and continued with an astonishingly self-destructive policy of attacking the very people most likely to influence any discussion on her possible readmittance, under the misguided view that persistently attempting to bring the Party into disrepute was simply her right. I did explain that the desire to join any club did imply a willingness to adhere to its rules, but without effect.

Having said all that, I did assume that she was respectful of facts, even if she had a tendency to misinterpret them. Until now, that is. In her blog entry yesterday, she cast a series of aspersions on the manner in which Nigel Bakhai was chosen as the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Ealing Southall by-election. Sadly, they weren't accurate, perhaps a consequence of not actually being a member of the Party. However, in a spirit of accuracy, I posted a comment on her blog, noting that she had spelt Munira Hassam's name incorrectly, and sketching the factors influencing the selection of our by-election candidate. I know that it was received because, subsequently, Munira's name was corrected.

In the past, I have been critical of Susanne's tendency to publish anonymous, insulting and inaccurate comments about friends and colleagues, suggesting to her that, by publishing them, she is endorsing them. Her response has been to tell me that she doesn't believe in censorship. Well, now it appears that I have evidence that such a line is inaccurate, which rather saddens me. Perhaps my efforts last year on her behalf were wasted, and the damage sustained to my personal credibility in vain. Such a pity...

Monday, July 02, 2007

European Selection: 'tis the night after Christmas...

... and all across the land, Returning Officers are wondering what's in their stockings (actually, I'm not sure that I like that analogy) but I've already opened all of my presents, notified the Selection Committee and filed a list with Candidates Office to check that they're all validly approved candidates.

And now the fun really starts, with decisions to be made over longlisting, interviews to be scheduled and all of the other 'stuff' that needs to be arranged. On the positive side, the hustings meetings have been arranged, and I look forward to spending successive Saturdays in Brighton, Oxford, Woking, Eastleigh, Canterbury, Newbury and Burgess Hill in September and October, watching my beloved candidates debate, canvass and campaign themselves to near standstill.

Watch this space, as I'll be making the odd announcement via this blog. In the meantime, is your Local Party holding a social event between now and 6 November, particularly in the period from 28 August to 6 November? If so, let me know, and I'll pass word on to the applicants...

Nigel Bakhai: carrying the torch for Regional Secretaries everywhere

Being Secretary of your Regional Party is not just the province of faceless bureaucrats like myself, but can be a stepping stone to greatness. In fact, my immediate predecessor has just stepped, blinking slightly, into the spotlight as our candidate in the forthcoming Ealing Southall by-election.

I’ve got a lot of time for Nigel, and was pleased to see him survive the rigorous process by which we select by-election candidates (let’s just say that the Selection Committee is not the usual collection of local campaigners). He also beat a very good opponent at the hustings meeting, Munira Hassam, of whom I expect to hear a lot more in the future.

One of my work colleagues lives in Hanwell, and I’m pleased to note that she has received her first leaflet from our campaign team already. I’m working on persuading her to vote, and already know that she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Labour.

I’ll also be turning up to lend a bureaucratic hand later this week, amongst the three candidate selections that I’m trying to deliver. It’s a worthy cause, and I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good result if we can get the work done…

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Manning the barricades, not hiding behind them

The series of terrorist attacks across the country seems to indicate a concerted attempt to undermine a new Prime Minister at a time of transition, a sign, perhaps, of the increasing sophistication of those who would provoke us into hasty reaction rather than measured response.

It would be very easy for Gordon Brown to announce sweeping measures to 'deal with the problem' and I am reassured that, thus far, he has not risen to the bait. He has, very sensibly, talked of vigilance, and support for the police and security forces, a stance that most of us, regardless of our political affiliation, can get behind.

And it is at times like this that liberals should be making the case for taking an outward looking position on how to deal with terrorists, not by repressing minority communities, nor stirring up fear amongst the population, but by properly debating how we as a community can address the issues that impact on terrorism and provide it with oxygen.

There is nothing wrong with ruthlessly hunting down terrorists and punishing them for their crimes, whilst considering whether a change of approach in our foreign policy might make friends and influence people more effectively than our current stance. Clearly, our involvement in Iraq has made the country less safe but how do the alternatives actually make us more secure, if indeed they do? A process of independent engagement in the Israel/Palestine conflict might give us broader credibility within the Muslim community, be it within the United Kingdom or around the globe.

However we proceed, liberals need to be at the forefront of the argument, making the case for internationalism, for a genuine British voice on issues of international importance, be that within a European framework or in concert with other allies, including the United States where agreement is to be found. Most of all, we need to frame the debate in such a way that the public feel that we reflect their concerns and their hopes, especially those of our new communities, who need convincing that they are part of the political debate.

I honestly believe if we do these things, and we make a positive case for a liberal foreign and security policy, the argument can be won, and a nation unencumbered by a repressive state can find its proper place in the international community.

European Selections: a request to my fellow bloggers

Many of you will be involved in the upcoming European selections, either as candidates, selection committee members or interested bystanders. Do me and my fellow Returning Officers a favour, please be careful about promoting one or more candidates in your blogs.

It isn't that I can, or want to, stop you. It's just that the endorsement rules are an ongoing concern, and I'd rather not spend my time dealing with unhappy applicants.

This is a message from your friendly neighbourhood Returning Officer...

A Returning Officer returns

So I'm back, and already overstretched...

I was kept busy on European Selection stuff whilst I was away, with steady interest being shown by potential applicants (naturally, I can't provide you with names, numbers, or anything else), hustings to finalise, questions to answer, the usual things. I'm also in the midst of two Westminster selections, and they are ticking along nicely.

However, time and tide wait for no bureaucrat, and I got home to find piles of paper, including application forms for Sunday's candidate development day. They need to be marked (I've got three done, just one left) but today's English Council meeting had to be negotiated first. I'm in the habit of helping Paul Rustad, the English Party's Administrator, to staff registration, and quite enjoy it, as it gives me a chance to meet colleagues from other Regions, and they often find a moment or two to chat.

It wasn't the most thrilling meeting, and I confess to having taken the opportunity to mark some of the application forms during those moments of less immediate personal interest. Afterwards, I spent some quality time with Vanessa McPake, South Central Region's legendary Regional Media Co-ordinator and Regional Administrator, working out what we needed to do in the run-up to the European selection hustings in September and October. It is always nice to work with Vanessa. She gets stuff done...