Saturday, September 29, 2007

The romance of travel is still not dead…

This entry is written on, but not posted from, flight EZY5304 en route from Marrakech to Gatwick Airport. I’ve escaped with Ros for a little sunshine and relaxation after Federal Conference, in the company of her daughter Sally.

Curiously, despite my reputation for globetrotting, I’ve never actually been to mainland Africa, so it’s been just a bit of an adventure. Now I admit that, for someone who has been to Vanuatu, Ecuador and Vietnam, to name but three countries in the lifetime of this blog alone (since writing this blog, I’ve visited fifteen countries on all six continents), an Easy Jet flight to Morocco doesn’t appear, on the face of it, to be that thrilling or exotic.

And yet, there is something unique about Marrakech still, something that differentiates it from most of the places that I’ve been. The fact that English, whilst spoken, is still not the primary language of tourism (still French, I’m glad to say) helps. The comparatively slight impact of mass tourism (although, sadly, probably not for long) is another plus. However, the fact that the souks of the Medina, with their shady alleys and riads, remain virtually untouched by the modern era (externally, at least), is what makes the city so wonderful. It’s still Ramadan, and the city’s body clock is controlled by the inability to eat whilst the sun is up. And, as the skies dims, the tension rises and all ears await the call of the muezzin, announcing the sunset and unleashing a feeding frenzy across city and suburbs alike.

Tim, a friend of Ros’s, owns a riad (a bit like a tower, with a small courtyard at the bottom) near the heart of the old city, and kindly invited us to join him for a few days. His terrace looks out over the rooftops of the medina and, once the muezzin start their cries (accompanied by what appear to be air raid sirens salvaged from an earlier war), you are surrounded by a wave of sound which would have been familiar to a time traveller brought forward from the Middle Ages.

In short, Marrakech is different. Things happen broadly on time (for a given value of ’on time’), although there is always room for negotiation. There is no such thing as a fixed price (unless you actually want to be ripped off, of course), and there is always another day, God willing. It does remind me a bit of India, although not the India that tourists mostly see, in that you do have to leave behind the Western virtues of certainty and efficiency, and accept a rather slower, occasionally bewildering sense that you can’t entirely control what is happening. Just accept that, if it is fated to happen, it will, and all will be well.

Unfortunately, it’s now time to return to the reality of work, meetings and politics, and the day to day stuff that makes a romantic getaway so appealing. Ah well, there’s always a moment to plan the next getaway…

The world gets smaller every day

I have to confess to having a carbon footprint the size of Wiltshire. Indeed, Ros jokes that Liberal Democrats don’t pay a supplement on their registration to cover the environmental impact of the conference, they do it to make up for my personal carbon dioxide emissions. Naturally, in an attempt to save us all from the potential harm done by climate change, Liberal Democrats have led the way amongst the three main political parties in proposing policies that make air travel more expensive and encourage us all to use more sustainable forms of transport.

And that’s my problem. The effect of such a policy is to limit longhaul travel to the wealthy, or to restrict the amount of travelling I do, something which is more difficult when your family inhabit four continents, and you actually enjoy their company. But even more than that, at a time when jetting off to foreign parts is so easy, we British have become more open and more tolerant of foreign cultures. At home, we still stick to what is safe and familiar. Yet in Budapest, or Marrakech, or Tallinn, our compatriots are discovering the beauties of new scenery, new and unfamiliar cuisines, and attempting (often amusingly - for the locals, at least) to speak new languages. The young Britons abroad don’t, to a greater extent than ever before, crave fish and chips, warm, flat beer and an English newspaper. They drink the local brew, eat seafood, go clubbing, wear local fashions and look forward to their next weekend break in Vienna, Hamburg or Helsinki.

We need to think long and hard before we take these opportunities away from future generations, and retreat into an enforced isolationism that weakens our newly broadened cultural values. So, for example, we need to ensure that carbon offset programmes actually fulfil their promises, encourage airlines to use the most fuel-efficient aircraft, design and resource our infrastructure (airports and air traffic control) to allow efficient use of aircraft. And yes, we do need to encourage the use of rail on shorthaul routes - frankly, why would anyone fly from London to Brussels or Paris any more unless they had a connecting flight?

But let’s not get so fearful of climate change that we completely lose track of quality of life issues and our innate internationalism as liberals. It’s not just about being nice to foreigners, it’s about interacting with them too…

I'm a liberal guy, too cool for the macho ache...

I suppose that I really ought to note Iain Dale's new book, a rather dramatically expanded version of last year's guide to political blogging in the UK.

Last year, he very graciously ranked this blog 30th amongst Liberal Democrat blogs, much to my surprise at the time. This year, votes came from Liberal Democrat bloggers and I can now bask in the allegation that my ranking has climbed to 14th! Now, he has published his list of the top 500 political blogs in the country and I rank 185th.

I'm still surprised, and would like to thank those of you who so kindly voted for me. On the negative side, it's going to very hard to live up to the accolade, so I'd better just get on with it...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

European Selection: we're on the road to nowhere (with apologies to the Oxford massive)

I'm on my way to Oxford for the first of four Regional hustings, to be held in a school somewhere near Blackbirds Ley (or so I'm told). In typical Valladares style, I think that I'm late but you can never really tell until you are, I suppose. Fingers crossed, anyway...

As someone who has been more intimately involved with European selections than anyone other than applicants, I've tended to observe them with a degree of perplexed fondness, and this year is no exception. So I thought I might review the campaign thus far...

We got off to a pretty good start last year, agreeing a perfectly sound timetable, establishing the Selection Rules (I know, you don't like them but at least they were available in good time!) and, in the case of South East, appointing a Returning Officer in good time (marvellous chap, sound under fire, sense of humour, not one of those appalling pen pushers...).

From then on, in terms of process, things have gone well. The problem is that enthusiasm to run has been, to put it mildly, slight. And it leads me to a heretical thought, i.e. are we so hung up on democracy that we've sacrificed efficiency, merit and diversity to achieve a mirage of fairness?

Many activists will lament, if given any opportunity to do so, that they didn't vote for Ming, but that the armchair members opted for a safe pair of hands and gravitas. In regional list selections, they tend to support incumbents, making it difficult for fresh, new talents to break through, and discriminating against the emerging BME/young applicants.

My gut feeling is that this is linked to all member postal ballots. So, if the desire to include everybody is so strong, why don't we have them for PPC selections, where the armchair member is, ironically, far more likely to be an informed participant?

So why not have a series of local 'meet the applicants' events where ballot papers can be cast, and thus limit the franchise to those who have actually taken the trouble to inform themselves as to the merits of the candidates? You could even use Regional Conferences!

Candidates selected on merit by an informed electorate? I'm beginning to worry that I'm turning into a heretic in my old age...

Selection Rules: From triumph to disaster and back again

I've been a bit busy with another election recently, but have managed to find time to observe those elections actually underway, and they've really been quite interesting.

In the Mayoral selection for London, we've had the first hustings - in Brighton. I have to give credit to those who came up with the idea of holding it, as the coverage was far better than the 'official' one is likely to be, and the press clearly lapped it up. Perhaps it is a mite unfortunate that running alongside the European selections has meant that at least one candidate has the dubious pleasure of having to comply with two sets of Rules which clearly contradict each other...

Meanwhile, one of the European candidates has had a picture of himself and his lovely wife ruled out of order due to her status as a notable member of the Party. That'll teach him to marry a baroness... hmm, perhaps I ought to move along at this point...

This brings me to news of an interesting development. Endorsements have been something of a problem for Returning Officers over the years, and the simple to administrate notion of banning them altogether has been traditionally favoured. However, in an age of Facebook, blogs and e-forums both private and public, policing has become virtually impossible. In my conversations with some fairly senior Returning Officers, it has become clear that there is a real consensus that the 'no endorsement' restriction is dead in the water and moves will follow shortly to have it struck from the Selection Rules. This will simply the campaigning phase beyond recognition, as it will in turn allow links to other websites - yes, another regulation gone.

One advantage of having a former European candidate in close proximity is that you do tend to hear the other side of the argument more clearly, and I have increasingly become discomforted by the paradox whereby we, as a Party, talk about over-regulation and the need for a 'bonfire of directives' whilst simultaneously adding more and more clauses to our Selection Rules.

So, we have an opening gambit in the quest for simpler, more effective Selection Rules. Is there anyone else willing to storm the barricades?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Still award-free after all these years

As a senior Lib Dem blogger (that's senior in terms of age, not status or gravitas), I was particularly pleased to see a few forty-somethings and more get shortlisted in the various categories of the 2007 Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards. I was even more delighted to be nominated in the category of best posting, especially as I've never considered myself to be at the standard of some of my colleagues, in terms of content and ideas, at least.

This blog is unusual, in that it focuses on structures, processes and internal 'stuff', or at least it did until fairly recently. My subject matter is, therefore, not really targeted at an external, non-Lib Dem audience, and my nomination, for a piece where I nailed my still-beating, slightly bloodied heart to my sleeve in response to a Conservative Party policy review, came as a bit of a surprise.

Whilst I didn't win an award, I was touched by the kind words of my fellow bloggers and of readers, some of whom posted quite poignant comments of their own experiences, and as I noted at the time, if my candour has helped anyone, no matter how much or how little, it will make the time I spend on this blog worthwhile.

The blog has been helpful to me in terms of allowing me an outlet for my thoughts, a forum for floating ideas, a means for my far flung family to keep in touch and, occasionally, a way to express my view on those issues that impact on me personally. It can be a bit self-indulgent, and I freely acknowledge that, but as an insight into the bureaucracy, I hope that it has entertained, enlightened and enabled...

There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear...

Ten weeks ago, I was an inveterate townie, whose viewpoint of the countryside was that it made an excellent place to keep things that I could eat (cows, pigs, chickens and the like), the view out of the window on train journeys more interesting and generally filled the gaps between places I have to go to for meetings.

You can therefore imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting in a meeting of the delegation for the forthcoming ELDR Congress in Berlin, arguing for an amendment to a sustainable transport resolution to reflect the needs of rural communities. I admit that there were some slightly puzzled looks around the table when they realised that such comments were coming from the delegate from the achingly rural constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood (we have parks - apparently).

However, spending time with Ros, and especially our weekends in Suffolk, have brought home how dominated the political agenda is by the big urban communities, especially London. The choice agenda, for example, fails to consider the likelihood that effective choice can be offered in rural communities, when schools may be five or more miles apart, when transport links are sparse (bus services that run once a month are not uncommon in the smaller villages), and where demand is slight in numerical terms but critical to the individuals concerned.

Another aspect of my approach that has changed is that I've rediscovered a bit of passion in terms of my politics. Bureaucracy and passion, as I've remarked in the past, don't generally go hand in hand, but Ros's approach, which is very outcome driven, has caused me to re-evaluate why I do things, and how the things that I do impact on others. I am reminded that I entered politics because I wanted to make things better, not simply to run things better (although this is, in itself, not an unlaudable aim).

It is curious how being in a relationship, and being obliged to think about someone else's needs, not just your own, makes you rethink the way that you see the world.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A terribly British crisis - cynicism and queueing

I've been somewhat disappointed by the reaction of the public and politicians to the Northern Rock crisis.

Ros and I were walking towards the Conference Centre when we encountered a long queue trailing past a branch of Lloyds TSB from what turned out to be the local branch of the Northern Rock. We'd seen the pictures in the media, but not actually experienced it in the flesh. What was most surprising was the apparent calm in which those in the queue were waiting. There were few signs of hysteria or panic, and one must assume that staff were patiently dealing with those in the queue.

Given the levels of personal saving amongst the population at large, it seems unlikely that many of those in the queue were likely to lose huge sums even if the Northern Rock was to fail, given the minimum guaranteed protections given to depositors. And yet the panic is on, and nothing seems able to stem the tide.

The response of politicians has been fairly woeful, and ironically, their lack of impact has been the result of their own unthinking disrespect for the electorate. When Alastair Darling tells the public that they have nothing to fear, voters remember what has happened to their pensions and to their tax bills, and respond with unfortunately justifiable cynicism.

Politicians have a responsibility
to treat the public like adults. If they do, the public have a responsibility to behave accordingly. Sadly, this Government, and Her Majesty's Opposition, seem to be determined to spin themselves into oblivion, and take the credibility of politicians and politics itself with them...

EXCLUSIVE: There might really be a Presidential contest next year!

Now I freely accept that, for this particular correspondent, the logo has a fairly obvious rationale. However, it has just taken on a whole new significance. Yes, Ros is running for the position of Party President next year, and I am incredibly proud to endorse her candidacy, for more than just the obvious reason.

The Presidency is, for most members, a little understood role, being seen as the person who visits Local Parties, eats dinner, makes the rallying speeches, and is a public face for the Party. Indeed, all this is true, but barely scratches the surface of the job.

One key role is that of chairing the Federal Executive. This requires organisation, preparation and focus and, as I have learned from watching my own Regional Executive, it isn't easy. In particular, managing egos, personal agendas and conflicting demands requires vast reservoirs of tact, diplomacy and resolve. Ros has led a County Council under coalition circumstances, and has hard, practical experience of taking tough decisions under pressure. In the House of Lords, she has laboured tirelessly to oppose legislation that is highly technical, massively complex and, frankly, desperately poorly drafted, with limited administrative support. She leads a team with enormous individual credibility and is respected by them.

Another role, which has been little exercised in recent years, is that of representing the ordinary members and activists within the highest levels of the Party, if you like, to be a honest broker when things are difficult. During the darkest days of last winter, there was nobody who could credibly go to Charles Kennedy and say, "Nothing personal, Charles, but perhaps it's time to go, whilst you can retain your dignity?".

That brings me to another reason why Ros would make a good President. As a member of the House of Lords, she has no further political ambition, and no agenda, other than the satisfaction of doing a good job. Had she been President in late 2005 and early 2006, she could have done what Simon Hughes, for example, could never have done, without being seen to have a personal interest.

So watch out for the logo, coming to a badge near you soon!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

7.45 a.m., somewhere in Stonebridge

God, I'm lonely. I've been telling outside a polling station since 7 a.m. And the number of voters so far? Nil. Democracy at its finest...

Ah well, at least the sun is shining...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ming Campbell: does being a Liberal Democrat mean never having to accept the result?

As Conference arrives, and the background rumbling for and against Ming Campbell’s leadership continues, I am moved to think about what I want from the Party leadership and, equally important, from my fellow activists (the Daily Telegraph called me an activist, and who am I to doubt them?). Now don’t get me wrong, this won’t be an attack or defence of the reign of Ming the Merciless, or of any named individual, more a reflection on the hows, whys and wherefores of ‘power’.

I didn’t vote for Ming, opting instead to support Chris Huhne. I thought that he demonstrated a greater sense of radicalism – and don’t let those on the ‘left’ of our Party fool anyone that they have the copyright on that word – and would argue cogently for a coherent philosophy. I didn’t mind Ming particularly, felt that he would be a safe pair of hands, and accordingly gave him my second preference as an insurance policy. And so Ming won, having convinced armchair members that, after the convulsions of the Kennedy ‘assassination’, his measured approach was what the Party needed. I was disappointed, but the members had spoken, and as any good democrat should, I accepted the outcome.

Since then, the mutterings have started, less surprisingly, from some of those who voted for Chris or for Simon Hughes, and then, less edifyingly, from some who voted for Ming, and seem to be surprised that, having voted for a safe pair of hands, that is exactly what they got. However, regardless of the background for their dissatisfaction, I am puzzled by the public vitriol with which the debate has been carried out, the defensiveness with which we’ve handled external criticism, and the apparent lack of political nous from some elements of our ranks.

The Conservatives have been quite aggressive in their condemnation of Ming, and have picked on him for his age, his relative docility and approach to Prime Ministers’ Questions. It may not be rocket science but why are we surprised? They don’t like us, they never have done, and they never will. And frankly, given our glee at the increasing signs of dissent on ConservativeHome and the like, why do we think that our own displays of dissent don’t bring joy to the hearts of Conservatives?

Yes, be unhappy with Ming all you like, but try to do so within the context in which he was elected. The membership wanted an Edinburgh lawyer with a safe pair of hands, and that is what they got. To then demand that he demonstrate flair, adventure and radicalism seems grossly unfair, even if that is what you wanted in the first place. Having your own public platform, and having a blog linked to the Aggregator gives you exactly that, obliges one to demonstrate a degree of restraint. As a rule (not unfailingly adhered to, I confess), I tend to think about the impact on external, i.e. non-Liberal Democrat, readers, especially in terms of how my words might be interpreted.

And naturally, for the 99%+ of Liberal Democrats who don’t blog, or at least if they do, don’t blog for a ‘mass’ audience, the frustration when one of our number get picked up by the wider media in a negative light is huge. For example, my fellow colleagues fighting the Stonebridge by-election would be highly unimpressed if I made a public statement condemning the Council Group, and not unreasonably so. In fact, many senior Liberal Democrats think that what we do is indulgent and a use of time better spent on winning elections.

So, what do I want from a leader? Well, I want to be inspired, whether by his/her rhetoric or by their example. I want them to be able to articulate what we stand for with conviction and consistency. I don’t want them to get too involved in the machinery of the Party’s internal workings – we have a President and a Chief Executive for that – although encouragement for the bureaucracy to reflect the Party’s core philosophy would be nice. In turn, the Party has to develop and, more importantly, consistently express those themes best designed to attract voters to liberal democracy. It isn’t just about the leader, you know, it’s about what he/she is able to say.

And next time we have to elect a leader, think about what you want from him or her, decide if any of the candidates reflect sufficient of that to merit your support, and go out there and actively campaign for them. Armchair members of our Party tend towards supporting the safe pair of hands, unless someone gives them reason to think differently. That someone might be you. How about it?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

You're not in Kansas now, Dorothy...

I made a special journey up to Needham Market last night to attend the Annual Dinner of Bury St Edmunds Liberal Democrats, the first leg of my Local Party odyssey this weekend.

After a journey described by many as 'typical for One Railway', I arrived a mere one hour late (ah, now I understand the significance of the name!) but just in time to get fed and hear the guest speaker, Dorothy Thornhill, our only elected Mayor, who had graciously driven up from Watford to entertain us.

I have to admit that I was impressed, not just by her speech, which was excellent, but by her passion and enthusiasm for doing the job, and serving the people of Watford. Quite often, I wonder about the philosophical roots of some of our elected representatives (at all levels!) and her willingness to accept responsibility, engage her electorate and take hard decisions really made me feel that, if we must have elected Mayors, they ought to have her approach to the job.
The audience clearly enjoyed her talk, and a series of interesting questions followed.

Dorothy had originally planned to stay overnight at Ros's (our first house guest as a couple!) but had to drive back to Watford at the end of the dinner (something to do with a skip and a ward clean-up, I was led to understand). As a result, she missed the raffle draw. Having been introduced to all present, I was asked to draw the first winning ticket and, saying how embarassing it would be if I drew one of Ros's numbers, I promptly did just that to much amusement.

So, another lovely evening in my new Local Party. Tonight, 'Pizza and Politics' in Dulwich & West Norwood...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Look Ma, I'm on top of the world!

It will come as no surprise to many that this blog was never really intended to be a must-read news source for anyone seeking enlightenment about what Liberal Democrats are thinking and why. Originally, the intention was to allow my family to know what I was up to and where. But then, having realised that most of the things I do are related to the Party, it seemed logical, if a mite vain, to link to Lib Dem Blogs.

Still, given that my subject matter tends to either my ceaseless efforts to negate your attempts to save the planet, or the bureaucracy of the Party, I never envisaged a significant readership or any plaudits.

And so, it is with some surprise that I find that I have been nominated, and short listed, for the award for 'Best Posting on a Lib Dem Blog'. Ironically, I've written entries that have been more widely read (my recent entry on Susanne Lamido topped the 'Golden Ton' last month, and I managed two more entries in the top thirty) but have been nominated for a gallant attempt to nail my heart to my sleeve.

There is some truly great writing scattered across the Liberal Democrat blogworld, and I tend to feel rather intimidated by the quality and gravity of the ideas being debated, so I am deeply moved to be considered worthy of shortlisting. I will be at the awards ceremony, and am looking forward to congratulating the winners. Whoever they are, they'll have worked damned hard to earn it...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

More proof that Conservatives don't 'get' public services

I tend to take a keen interest in policy pronouncements related to public services, and was particularly interested to see that the Conservative review group had reported back. Sadly, disappointment reared its ugly head all too soon.

It seems that there are only three public services, health, education and social housing. I presume this is to ensure that their supporters can be protected against outbreaks of plague, that young people can be taught respect for their elders and betters, and so poor, ugly people don't litter the streets and are hidden far away from decent society, i.e. Conservative voters.

But seriously, I'm not all that bothered about their policies on these issues. What really annoys me is the inference that these three aspects are the only public services that actually matter.

In fairness though, none of the major political parties have a particularly great record on public services and the civil service. Here, in summary, are their views;

Labour - like public services, especially in poor, mainly northern and Scottish, constituencies. Don't like civil servants - apparently we scratch their backs a little too vigorously?

Conservatives - apparently like them, but seem to prefer tax cuts to actually paying for them. Choice taken to its ultimate level perhaps?

Liberal Democrats - love public services, happy to pay for them but civil servants are such a problem. Why don't they come in nice pastel shades and in smaller numbers?

Greens - don't really care as long as they're GM-free, recyclable and come from sustainable communities.

Scottish Nationalists - English? Go home, a Scottish civil service for an independent Scotland!

Plaid Cymru - must be delivered in Welsh on demand. That's lovely, isn't it?

UKIP - save the pound!

This was a public service announcement on behalf of the 'Save the Civil Servant Fund'.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Empress denies liaison with bureaucrat!

It always saddens me when the political equivalent of the tabloid press insist on creating non-stories. However, the media speculation linking me to young Mr Valladares needs to be quoshed for once and for all.

I've known Mark for quite sometime, although I really can't recall how we came to meet. I do vaguely remember a seminar in Aarhus, Denmark, at a time when I was President of the Amaranth Young Liberals, but I could be mistaken (there was an awful lot of alcohol, if my memory serves).

Needless to say, it was clear even then that his interest in ring binders could only end in tears, and Ludwig and I felt obliged to take him under our wing, so to speak.

It has been difficult at times, I confess, but his recent flowering has been of great satisfaction to all of us here in Amaranth.

His life partner is, I feel, an excellent choice, and he will thrive, given her reputation and renown. I've been meaning to talk to her on a personal matter for some time, and now I have a good excuse to do so.

And now I really must dash, whitewater rafting can't be done to Olympic standards without practice, you know...

Keeping the candidates honest?

I'm particularly proud of the innovative e-forum created for the European Parliamentary selections. As a repeat Returning Officer, I've gradually reduced the number of physical hustings from nine in 1998, to five in 2003, to four this year. To be blunt, they are incredibly ineffectual, with low turnouts for the most part, take up large amounts of Returning Officer and candidate time, cost valuable money, and are difficult to manage.

I thought that an e-hustings would give more members an opportunity to find out more about the various applicants, allow easier access at more convenient times, and give candidates an opportunity to give detailed, thoughtful answers. Admittedly, interest is fairly low at the moment, but will improve once the ballot papers goes out with the manifestos. The content is quite interesting already, with some lively debate underway in London, in particular, and I encourage you to take part and give the candidates some food for thought.

Returning to the hustings themselves however, I have always wondered when candidates would draw the conclusion that their time would be much more effectively spent on personal canvassing instead. Assuming a candidate has an average of three hours driving time to and from the venue, and spends ninety minutes there, how many people are they effectively reaching? Given that the average attendance was about sixty last time, and you could probably easily telephone that many people in that time, how does the 'cost/benefit analysis' play out? On the other hand, if attendance is better this year, the numbers may shift. Who can tell?...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

21st century bureaucrat (part 2)

As many of you will be aware, I suffer from a tendancy to avoid technology.

Obviously, I have a PC at home, all the better to carry out the evils of liberal bureaucracy, and those of you who frequent this blog on a regular basis may recall that I obtained a laptop, allowing me to take the concept as far away as Vanuatu.

And now, let fear be unconfined! This blog entry comes to you live from a bus on route PR2, courtesy of my brand new, ultra shiny BlackBerry 8300.

For someone who has barely used a mobile phone before, the existence of such things comes as a bit of a revelation, but it is the future of the Spanish Inquisition, sorry, liberal bureaucracy...

It would appear that my faceless days are numbered…

Ros and I had considered whether or not we should ‘announce’ our engagement, and had not entirely concluded as to what we should do or where (when you reach our age, you do tend to be more traditionalist…). However, someone very kindly appears to have taken the decision for us.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI received a telephone call from Ros, advising me to check out the Daily Telegraph, and through the magic of the internet, and the Telegraph’s pretty good e-version, I found the following:

I have been accused of many things in the past, but ‘wonderfully soppy’ hadn’t been one of them, at least until now

Research from the University of the Bleeding Obvious indicates…

I am now regularly woken to the dulcet tones of the Today programme on Radio 4, and a means to get the blood pumping in the morning, it’s hard to beat.

However, I can tell that it’s still summer by two pieces of research that were highlighted yesterday and today. The first was released on Monday, indicating that those born to poorer parents were more likely to live their lives in poverty. I almost fell off of the bed in sheer astonishment, let me tell you. Gosh, do you think that politicians should be told?

Today, I learned that rock stars have a higher mortality rate than you and I. Apparently, the mortality rate for performers is three times higher than the norm in the five years after they achieve chart success. Perhaps they could have read the tabloid press to discover this, and maybe that was where their research came from.

But my favourite aspect to the latter story is the hope expressed by Professor Mark Bellis, of Liverpool John Moores University, that they can tame the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle that leads to so many early deaths. Whatever happened to ‘live fast, die young’?*

*Please note that this blog does not condone the use of drugs. Sex and rock'n'roll are, however, encouraged if partaken of sensibly...

Monday, September 03, 2007

Welcome to Suffolk, Faceless Bureaucrat!

I've been juggling two Local Parties for some months now, Dulwich & West Norwood, where I lived for so many years and am Membership Secretary, and Brent Borough, where I now live and am Secretary. And now I kind of have a third, so step forward Bury St Edmunds Liberal Democrats!

Ros and I threw a small cocktail party for some of her oldest friends on Saturday evening, as much to renew old friendships as to introduce me to Suffolk Liberal Democrat society. I say 'Ros and I' although Ros did all of the hard work (supported ably by Sally and Jamie) whilst I spent a blissfully happy afternoon up to my elbows on hot, soapy water doing dishes.

I admit to being a Londoner from head to toe, and have spent my political life watching the melee that is politics there. Suffolk is, on the surface at least, rather gentler but I am entranced by the warmth and rooted nature of politics there. In fact, I might almost be tempted to run for public office there, were it not for the minor difficulty caused by my London residence.

A group of Ros's oldest and dearest political friends were able to join us, and whilst I was a mite nervous (there is always a sense, conscious or otherwise, that you are being judged), they were incredibly welcoming. I hope that I can repay their faith in the years ahead, and look forward to spending time with them, either individually or collectively, as the opportunity arises.

The evening ended with a small group of us, Jamie, his girlfriend Lisa, Ros's sister Ann, the neighbours Marcus and Nikki and the two of us singing to the accompaniment of Marcus and Jamie on guitar under a dark sky. It may be the romance talking, but evenings like this put the bureaucracy into perspective...

Bureaucrats and musicals

I like culture, and could debate policy on the issue for hours. In fact, in an earlier life, I was the European Liberal Youth representative on an ELDR Commission on the subject (after eighteen months, we had reached a broad consensus on the definition of the word 'culture', at which point it was decided to suspend the Commission...). However, I am ashamed to admit that most of the movies I see appear on 6" screens on seatbacks in aeroplanes.

So, when Ros indicated that she quite fancied going to see 'Hairspray' and that it was showing in Ipswich, I was sufficiently intrigued to take up the invitation. We could stop on the way back to London, grab dinner at a local restaurant afterwards, and still be home in Kingsbury by a reasonable time, so why not?

And a very good decision it turned out to be, too. John Travolta's performance as a woman, complete with fat suit, was quite the funniest thing I've seen for a long time, and his number with Christopher Walken, playing 'her' husband, was a blast, indeed they both looked as though they were thoroughly enjoying it. With Michelle Pfeiffer playing the evil mother role to hammed-up perfection, and a cast of enthusiastic and talented young actors, it was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

It even comes with a political message, as it is set during the early sixties, when segregation by race was still common in many American cities (the movie is set in Baltimore, Maryland). The message is conveyed with humour but an underlying sense that justice must prevail, and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

A new sense of focus. If only AOL and BT could match it...

I have already confessed to a loss of focus in recent weeks and, in truth, this had been a problem for some time, entirely unconnected to Ros. However, inspired by the need to be there for her, I've been working on getting things in order, a task which has been made unexpectedly more difficult by technology.

Since moving home, I've had broadband difficulties, in that I haven't had it. I fully accepted that, by moving house, there would be a loss of service, and took what I thought were the necessary steps with AOL to facilitate the changeover. After a few weeks, Ros made the point that I should have received an e-mail telling me that I now had my services back, so I called AOL to find out what was happening.

I was told that there was a tag on the line, and that my request for renewed broadband services had lapsed. Understandably, I was somewhat disappointed that they had not seen fit to tell me that such a problem existed, especially considering that they provide me with an e-mail address. However, being a pragmatic soul, I asked what would be required to progress matters, to be told that I needed to call BT and ask them to remove the tag, evidently put there by a former user of the line.

So, fortified by a sense of progress, albeit delayed, I rang BT, or at least tried to. A number of attempts to speak to someone (anyone?) foundered on the rocks of their apparent inability to sufficiently staff their helplines, but eventually I reached someone who, clearly irritiated by the fact that I had actually scaled each of the barriers placed before me, told me that AOL were wholly wrong, and that they (AOL) would have to ring BT Wholesale to seek the removal of the tag.

A decidedly unimpressed bureaucrat then rang AOL, who promised that they would ring BT Wholesale after the Bank Holiday weekend (by this time, it was 6 p.m. on the Friday evening, and BT Wholesale had clearly gone home to harass old ladies or whatever) but that I would have to ring them on the Tuesday morning to remind them to do so.

I'd had a lovely weekend in Shropshire with Ros, and returned to the 'real world' on the Tuesday morning, newly invigorated, so I rang AOL who, keeping me on the line, rang BT Wholesale, who in turn generously told them that they wouldn't talk to the service provider and insisted on talking to me. Another phone call to make, and a slightly less invigorated bureaucrat rang a special BT line, expecting the worst.

But lo, I found a very polite young man at the other end of the line, who explained what the issue was, and what needed to be done (it's apparently very technical and I couldn't possibly explain it to you). He couldn't do it himself, but would e-mail his technical team, indicating the urgency of the matter (by this time, I'd gone thirty-nine days without broadband).

I asked if he could copy me in on the e-mail, only to be told that he'd done that in the past, and been strongly discouraged from doing so by management, a sad indictment of modern day customer service, if ever I saw one. However, he assured me that the matter would be progressed quickly, and suggested that I call back on Thursday to check on progress. I then rang AOL, explained the position, and was told that they would put a rotating order on record, that would be reviewed every forty-eight hours and, if the line was now open, the order for services would be placed.

On Thursday, I rang BT, only to be told that the order status was inconclusive. The equally helpful young man said that he would have the matter looked into, and that I might want to call again on Monday to be reassured.

Another idyllic weekend passed in deepest Suffolk, and I returned to the fray this morning. Miracle of miracles, BT confirmed that the tag was gone, AOL advised that they have now placed the order, which now includes faster broadband (6MB, whatever that means and please don't try to explain, it makes my head hurt...), free evening and weekend telephone calls (which might yet prove very useful indeed) and a bunch of other stuff. With any luck, I should have broadband up just in time to go to Brighton where, naturally, it won't be of any use at all...

Technology, isn't it marvellous?