Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Free the bureaucrat?

I’m beginning to enjoy this leadership contest in a way that I hadn’t expected, in that the normal rush to the centre ground of the Party has been replaced by an almost exhibitionist desire by both candidates towards the radical cutting edge. First, that terribly clever Mr Huhne casting doubt on the efficacy of Trident, now that terribly enthusiastic (and no less bright) Mr Clegg announcing that he won’t be carrying his ID card if they are introduced. As a bureaucrat, I find myself cheering (albeit slightly nervously) from the sidelines.

As a civil servant, I am denied certain freedoms, of association, for example. There are limits on my political activity which date back, not to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which was laid before Parliament on 23rd November 1853, but to an Order in Council dated 29 November 1884, under a Gladstone administration (astonishingly, he had been the Earl of Aberdeen’s Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Northcote-Trevelyan Report was actually published), which stated that “a civil servant standing for election in a constituency must resign his post when he announces himself as a candidate”.

I do tend to take these restrictions upon my freedom for granted and, to a greater extent, actually accept them. It is not unreasonable for an incoming administration to expect the loyalty of the Civil Service, and I feel that my duty is to carry out the bidding of the Government of the day, regardless of my personal stance, as they are representing the view of an elected majority (my emphasis).

However, as a civil servant, the Government controls my salary and working conditions, has disciplinary power over me through my management chain, and can prevent me from fulfilling a role within my political party of choice without meaningful right of appeal. Committing certain offences may result in my dismissal under circumstances that probably wouldn’t arise in the private sector. There are certain business sectors from which I am effectively barred, and the holding of a directorship is almost impossible to countenance (although, curiously, I am a company director through my involvement in a think-tank – and yes, I did obtain permission). So, whilst young Nick can talk about not carrying his ID card, that freedom to protest probably isn’t open to me.

It does raise an interesting question, all the same. In an increasingly politicised civil service, is it reasonable to insist that the various political restrictions placed upon my colleagues and I remain as they are? If I were, heaven forbid, to decide to run for election in a Westminster constituency, is it fair that I have to sacrifice my career prospects, regardless of the likelihood of my being elected?

Political parties have made very little effort to examine how the Civil Service should work, seeing it predominantly as an obstacle to reform or, if we’re lucky, a means towards social engineering. Perhaps it is time to look at what this country actually needs by way of administration, who should do the work, and what you need those people to be. Whilst they do that, it might be nice if they gave some thought to our rights and freedoms…

Delay, a bureaucrat’s best friend. Time for my twelve bore, I think.

One of the things about change is that it seems to be quite scary at first sight. Something might happen, after all, and this is the very point of a bureaucracy, i.e. to prevent scary things from happening.

Following from my comments of yesterday, there appears to be increasing support for the notion that the endorsement rules require pruning – with an axe, especially for Regional list selections (the argument for PPC selections is much less clear). I have, coincidentally, been discussing the matter with a small number of senior colleagues who will, for their own protection and through my heightened sense of discretion, remain anonymous.

My view is that we should make changes while the events of the past year are fresh in our memories. However, a contrary view has been expressed which notes that we won’t be doing this again for five years, so why rush? Why indeed? Actually, for the rather obvious reasons that;
  • Change is always more effective when you’re clear in your own mind why you’re making it – distance does not usually lend either enchantment or clarity.
  • Any candidate thinking about running for Europe in 2014 (and there will be some, won’t there – is anyone listening? Hello? Hello?), would be better organised for knowing what the Rules are well in advance.
First on my list would be to allow endorsements for Regional list elections. This means that you don’t have to worry about blogs, Facebook, podcasts and the like. The only question would be about defamation, something that is, by its very definition, subject to interpretation. If you assume that we retain the self-policing element introduced for e-mails and websites in this European selection, candidates and members will take care of this for the Returning Officer, whose role will be to make rulings.

What this means is that you can then turn the emphasis around, so that anyone is free to comment on their blog, build Facebook groups or whatever. A candidate remains responsible for the actions of his campaign team, thus allowing a Returning Officer to act where negative campaigning erupts. In turn, if a candidate claims the support of a named individual, their opponents can question it and that support can then be evidenced as required. Failure to do so indicates that the candidate is probably lying and should be disqualified anyway – if they can lie about something like that, what else are they lying about? Indeed, do we really want candidates with a deficiency in the honesty department anyway (the correct answer is no, just in case you thought that this was a trick question).

And in a single bound, the Returning Officer was free to spend more time with his fiancée, his cats and his BlackBerry…

A new design for Liberal Bureaucracy!

I have become increasingly aware that my ‘blog-standard’ design is being left behind by the efforts of my evermore inventive younger colleagues. So I thought that I’d try something new and, although I am self-taught, I’ve come up with this.

This is a picture of me in a zorb, and whilst I freely acknowledge that it could be anyone in there, you’ll just have to take my word that it is actually me…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

European Selection - if a candidate endorses another candidate in a different selection, and nobody notices, has it really happened?

The observant amongst you will have noticed have noticed comments from Linda Jack, amongst others, noting that she cannot indicate which leadership candidate she is endorsing. As Returning Officer for the South East European Region, I am obliged to enforce this ruling. I do so with a heavy heart.

The endorsement rules have become a lead weight around the necks of candidates and Returning Officers alike, although they were created for the best of reasons. In the ‘good old days’ when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, small furry creatures called candidates scurried about the place, looking for places of safety called constituencies, where, if adopted, they would have the security of a team of supporters called activists. The risk was that the dinosaurs, known as ‘senior Party figures’, would favour a particular furry creature, and unduly influence the outcome of the selection. Given the size of the electorate, endorsement by an outgoing MP, or the MP of a nearby constituency, might well persuade armchair members to vote that way, and this worked against the desire of the heavenly host (otherwise known as the English Candidates Committee) to ensure a level playing field for the small furry creatures. So far, so ethically sound.

The problem was that this worked very well in an age of limited technology and small electorates. Regional list selections and the Internet made it seem anachronistic but, if you were going to be consistent with the principle as established, you had to address the technology with new rules, ones that could be policed. Policing the Internet – you are kidding, aren’t you?

If a member in, say, Ludlow, writes a blog entry endorsing a candidate for East of England, who is at fault? Were they prompted to write it by the candidate, knowing that it would be seen by members in Cambridge, or Lowestoft, or even Harwich? Are they an old friend merely speaking their mind? Can you prove it either way? And who do you then punish? What, indeed, should the punishment be? As for Facebook, who monitors it? Can you reasonably expect a volunteer Returning Officer to dedicate weeks on end scanning the Internet for clues? I think not.

The problem is that, in an attempt to remain true to the principle, you find yourself running around in ever-decreasing circles, leading to the recent ban on European selection candidates publicly endorsing leadership candidates. The principle of ‘reverse endorsement’ has appeared and, I fear, my faith in the logic of our systems has finally cracked.

If I were to endorse either Chris or Nick, it would indicate that I support them, obviously. They might well choose to highlight my support on their website or other literature which, in turn, might indicate that my support might be influential somewhere. However, does it imply that they endorse me, my views or a potential candidacy? I’m unconvinced, especially as there are many Returning Officers, all of whom are precious in one way or another.

I happen to be a candidate in an internal election at the moment. Does my endorsement signify that my chosen candidate is supportive of my candidacy, or are they even aware that I am running? Frankly, they may well support one, or more, of my opponents, which is their right and privilege.

This was a ruling that does nothing for the credibility of the process, is an unfair limitation on senior members of our Party, and indicates that the distance between the bureaucracy and the campaigners is as vast as ever it were. Not our most glorious moment…

But doesn’t liberalism require an English Parliament if we want one?

As Liberal Democrats, we believe that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate, most effective level. We believe that ceding certain powers to Europe is a good thing, although we’d really rather have a more democratic Europe, with open decision-making, better scrutiny and meaningful reportage.

We also believe in localism (and for our newfound allies in the Labour and Conservative Parties, this means release from the dead hand of centralised targets and regulation, and trust that other political groupings, legitimately elected, are chosen by local communities to exercise some freedom of action and should be allowed to do so), which means that levels of government closer to the communities they serve are empowered to take responsibility for service delivery.

We therefore support devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, giving them the freedom to raise standards according to local desires, good public policy or mere whim, these being some of the aspects which inform government, be it good or bad.

Labour took the view that regional assemblies were the way forward, in the face of opposition from the Conservatives (it will lead to the breakup of the Union) and ourselves (a misunderstanding of subsidiarity), and unfortunately crashed and burned in the now notorious North East referendum, a model lesson in how not to change government structures. The problem with regional assemblies is that, where the regional boundaries reflect something that people recognise as distinct from the neighbouring areas, there is support. But the South East, or the South West? I think not. And then what do you do?

So, perhaps a move to an English Parliament, with counties below it, is the way to go. However, it does require some major reorganisation in order to make it work. The Conservative proposals do not, to my mind, go far enough, as an English Grand Committee is rather a fudge. Here’s a suggestion from a bureaucrat…

  1. Create an English Parliament, elected on the same basis as the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly, i.e, with constituencies to give local linkage and accountability, and regional lists to ensure proportionality.
  2. Give Westminster a properly federal role, with responsibility for defence, taxation, foreign policy, and all of the things that need a British response.
  3. Revise the role of the House of Lords to enable it to actually review legislation, scrutinise European regulations, and do the things that we acknowledge are its strengths. You can take it for granted that it should be elected.

I presume that the Conservatives are terrified that the introduction of another tier of government would be too much for their friends in the Daily Mail. Fine, so reduce the number of Members of Parliament to suit. You could make constituencies twice their current size fairly easily.

Government structures are not sexy, but we get the government we deserve. Government costs, and good government costs a bit more, but bad government generates things like the Child Support Agency, Railtrack and British Energy. Bargains, weren’t they…

Monday, October 29, 2007

Around the world with Ros, via Nottingham

I’ve always enjoyed attending Local Party events, and like to think that I’ve visited a fair few of them across London and the surrounding counties in the past. It is always nice to see how others do things, to discuss their issues and concerns and, equally importantly, enjoy some good conversation, fun speakers and often surprisingly good food (Tunbridge Wells do a very good garden party if you’re ever in the area…).

Ros tends to draw her fair share of invitations, but on a national scale, so, on Saturday, we found ourselves bound for the East Midlands for the AGM of the City of Nottingham Liberal Democrats. From my perspective, it involved two things that I really enjoy, travelling by train, and being with Ros (sigh…), so it was natural that I should tag along for the ride.

And, bless First Capital Connect and Midland Mainline, their trains ran on time, seat reservations were as promised, and a fairly comfortable ride was had by all. We were able to obtain refreshments in a very nice bar close to the venue, the International Community Centre on the Mansfield Road near the Victoria bus station, before strolling down to the meeting itself.

Naturally, the meeting was running late (it never seems to matter how well organised things are, they always seem to), and Alex Foster, the Local Party Chair, was having trouble finding a Secretary (plus ça change, plus la meme chose…) but we got there in the end.

Ros delivered a speech which was based on her work in the Lords, how things work there, and the level of influence that the Liberal Democrat group has in terms of altering legislation, before taking questions. The speech itself was very well received, and I find myself repeatedly impressed by Ros’s ability to pitch her speeches at the level best suited to any particular audience. Naturally, it could be that I’m biased, but I’d have to kill the first person to actually suggest that I am (it never looks good to concede that I am anything but purely objective).

Party business done, we met up with Ros’s nephew Liam, who is studying at Nottingham University and is fearfully bright (an engineer, no less). He took us for a gentle stroll through the city centre (very nice it is too, you should make time if you’re passing through…) before taking us to the Pitcher & Piano for dinner.

Normally, these chain restaurant/bar places are a bit of a characterless blur, but in Nottingham, they’ve converted an old church, with large stained glass windows and most of the original features. They’ve used the space well, and it is quite a nice place to spend an evening. Whilst ordering dinner seemed to be fraught with risk, and both Ros and Liam were unsuccessful in ordering elements of their meals, the waitress was very personable (even whilst Liam and I were adamantly stating that chocolate counts towards your ‘five-a-day’) and a good time was had by all. The free cappuccino probably wasn’t the best idea in the world though, generating a definitely ‘Mr Creosote’ feeling (just a teensy, weensy, wafer thin mint…).

A further gentle stroll to the station, a leisurely journey home with changes at Leicester and Luton Airport Parkway (the temptation to hop a flight to anywhere was something of a distraction, we confess), and we were home to feed the cats by 10 p.m. All in all, a good day out…

Decisions, decisions… the three prongs of Trident…

I started life in the Young Liberals somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan in the spectrum of the organisation’s political stance. My first attempt at making policy was to propose a more effective weapons procurement policy in order to utilise the savings to… yes, you guessed it, buy more, more efficient, more effective, weapons. It seemed obvious to me at the time, and would doubtless have passed but for the fact that I wasn’t surrounded by Young Conservatives at the time (it was 1987, and the Falklands were still a key driver in terms of defence policy).

Naturally, I was a firm supporter of nuclear weapons, as they gave you significant ‘bang for your buck’ (an unfortunate phrase in so many ways as it turned out), and were the very acme of efficiency. Over the years though, I’ve begun to see the other sides of the argument. They don’t always sit together comfortably, though.

The first problem is, that in a world where danger doesn’t generally come from other countries, a nuclear weapon is a remarkably inefficient way to strike at your opponent. Admittedly, you’ll probably kill them, but the collateral damage of murdering say, the entire population of Rawalpindi, is, even for George Bush and his neo-con friends, probably too embarrassing for words (remember, boys and girls, we aren’t dealing with Mr Compassion here…). And naturally, in an era where global concern about the environment is so important, creating a glowing wasteland is soooooo not good in terms of polluting the water supply, reducing plant uptake of carbon dioxide, and generally ruining peoples’ days.

The second problem is that our enemies know that, except in almost unthinkable circumstances (the Conservatives taking a 5% lead in the opinion polls, for example), this Government would never countenance the first use of nuclear weapons. Second use, certainly (“What the hell, we’re all going to die anyway, and we can always blame Douglas Alexander, can’t we…”), but not first use. Now if they know that, and we know that they know that, and they know that we know that they know that… what’s the point of having them? You can’t display them (although they would certainly draw a crowd at the Tate Modern!), they have to be kept in rather ugly, high security facilities (and wouldn’t those submarines look so much better in a green chartreuse flock pattern?), and the chances of them gaining some positive coverage by rescuing a small child from drowning, or raising funds for cancer research are less than optimal.

Finally, they really aren’t very efficient in financial terms. I understand that we’re talking about £15 billion here, or enough money to buy Chelsea, if you’re looking for something easier to get your head around. Whilst I suspect that the nuclear weapons would bring greater pleasure to more people than Chelsea do (although their defeats do bring a smile to my face, I admit), there are clearly better uses for the money. For example, funding a rapid response force to support legitimate UN-supported missions would be good. Or investing in debt relief for the poorest countries, so that their peoples can stay at home and build a better nation for themselves and their communities, making us all safer.

Oh well, maybe I should have turned up at the Trident debate instead of sitting in an English Candidates Committee meeting… b
ut seriously, I have to admire Chris Huhne’s stance on Trident. The weapons themselves are merely a symptom of political penis envy, and what’s the point of having a penis that someone else controls?

So, one each in the contest to decide my support. Not easy, this decision-making…

Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Were you expecting some content? Witty, or even pithy, comment, perhaps?

I know, it’s been another week, and I haven’t blogged (again). You know how it is, you find something to distract your attention from the core task of feeding the Internet with ‘stuff’. But I have been busy, honest…

Monday, October 22, 2007

I am no student of ancient culture...

... before I talk, I should read a book. But there's one thing that I do know. There's a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia... oh dear... (returns to work, somewhat glumly...)

Leadership contest - ah yes, that diversity question once again…

Nearly two years ago, I attended the hustings meeting organised by Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, where the three candidates addressed the knotty question of how Liberal Democrats could better reflect the communities they serve. And so it was some interest, and the help of Sandra Gidley MP, whose question it was, that I asked both Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg about the same issue on Saturday.

Once again, Chris strayed awfully close to endorsing quotas, and once again, I wasn’t impressed. Nick, on the other hand, noted that a lot of the proposals hadn’t really been implemented and wondered aloud whether the policy was wrong, or that it simply hadn’t been resourced properly. I confess that I tend towards the latter, and believe that the work of the Campaign for Gender Balance has made a difference, albeit not as quickly as many might have wished for.

There is an assumption that there is a mini-tidal wave of qualified, talented women and ethnic minority members desperate to be Parliamentary candidates and then Members of Parliament in the Liberal Democrat interest. They might not be so keen once they realise how much work a Liberal Democrat PPC has to do, first to get selected, and then to win. I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, and I’m not aware that anyone else does either. Indeed, the answers might be very different under ‘first past the post’ and one of the variants on proportional representation.

However, there are clearly certain barriers that make it harder to compete. Carer commitments, be they children, parents or relatives, act as a hurdle. Relative poverty, or geographical isolation, restricts the ability of a potential candidate to attend events, or travel to training sessions halfway across the country. Small grants could address these problems, and there are currently no programmes in place to address them, perhaps something that Rowntree money might have more helpfully been directed towards.

Quotas, on the other hand, actively discriminate against a group or groups of individuals, and I believe them to be a thoroughly managerial, illiberal way to ‘create’ equality, more worthy of a command-based rights system than a free, just society.

So, on diversity at least, one-nil to the Cleggster. But it’s still early days, and there is much to consider…

How (not) to chair an opportunity to hear and question the declared leadership contenders (it’s not a hustings, really it isn’t!)

And so Saturday came to pass, and Ros and I drove down to Newbury, to participate in the Autumn Conference of South Central Region Liberal Democrats. The events of the previous forty-eight hours meant that we would both be working, and I debuted my new suit, in an attempt to look credible, given the likelihood that I would be in camera shot (look Mum, I’m on television!).

In my role as chair of the ‘not a hustings’, on arrival I was able to sit down with Ros to select the questions to be asked. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but with the media present, and the possibilities for controversy, the aim was to pick questions that:

1. reflected the interests of the audience

2. would provide a range of topics

3. avoided narrow areas of interest

I was slightly perplexed to note that some of the questions were of a nature likely to cause real embarrassment to both the candidates and the Party, and hope that they were written in the absence of an understanding that the media would be present. However, we ended up with five questions, which sought to elicit knowledge of their leadership style, their philosophical leanings, and their views on the environment, Europe and diversity.

2.40 p.m. came very quickly, and I was ushered into a packed hall to introduce the session and the first of the two ‘candidates’, Chris Huhne. I had planned to briefly explain the format of the session, tell a brief anecdote and move straight to a very short introduction of Chris. But where was Chris? Nowhere to be seen, so I had to fill the time with a brief Q & A about the European selections, the London leadership hustings and the Regional Executive elections, all the while wondering where Chris had got to. By the time ten minutes had passed, my repertoire of humorous one-liners was almost drained and I was relieved to see Chris striding towards the door to the hall. Anecdote and brief introduction delivered, I was able to take my seat and watch Chris perform.

And perform he did, with a speech laden with gravitas and policy direction. Now it may be that he was at a significant advantage, debuting the speech on home turf (he’d fought Reading East and Oxford West and Abingdon before winning a European Parliament seat for South East England – which includes all of South Central Region), but his reception was a genuinely warm one.

His speech done, I asked the questions in turn, giving him freedom to answer each before moving on to the next. He gave a series of solid answers, and engaged in some comfortable banter with some of the questioners, and received sustained applause from an enthusiastic audience.

Then came the handshake, a piece of media construct if ever I saw one, and the area in front of me suddenly became a blur of cameras, cameramen and journalists before Chris left, leaving the hall to Nick.

Nick’s speech wasn’t as polished, but made up for that with a sense of almost boyish enthusiasm (I can say that, he’s younger than I am) and a bit more obvious passion. He told stories from his constituency surgeries and talked of the need to talk to those beyond our core base of support, using language that they understand and empathise with.

Again, the questions drew out some good responses, although his answer to the diversity question drew an unexpected outbreak of laughter when he said that he had spoken to Jo Swinson on Thursday. It had to be explained to him that Chris had said exactly the same thing when answering the question, but he recovered his poise very quickly.

More applause, the event was over, and the hall emptied of members and the media to chew over what had happened.

So, what was the result? If I had to use a sporting metaphor, I would suggest that the plucky visitors came away from the home team’s fortress with a well-earned point from a score draw. If you’re looking for gravitas and grasp of policy, Chris probably came out on top. If you’re looking for personality and passion, Nick probably shaded it. If you’re asking me who would make the better leader of the Liberal Democrats, I’d say that I still need more information before I declare for one or the other.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Newly organised, an ex-bureaucrat reaches for the stars...

I've just returned to work after a couple of days off, spent getting my life in order. I had rather allowed things to pile up to the point that I was frozen in the headlights of an oncoming truck marked 'administrative overload', and Ros persuaded me that some time spent on my paperwork would allow me to dig my way back to the light. I wouldn't say that I'm entirely up to date, but close enough...

Tomorrow, I head for Newbury for the South Central Regional Conference, originally intending to appear in my capacity as European Returning Officer. However, things seldom work out as planned, and I was then appointed to be the Returning Officer for the Regional Executive elections. So far, so good. Now, I find myself chairing what is described as "an opportunity for members to hear and question the declared leadership candidates". This is not, I repeat not, a hustings, in that nominations haven't closed yet, and Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, or Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, depending on your perspective, will not actually be on the platform at the same time other than to shake hands.

I should warn anyone expecting a polished chairing performance that I've chaired a European hustings meeting (ironically, in Canterbury last Saturday), but am unused to the spotlight and, in particular, to the media. On the other hand, I may be the only person in the party to have been Returning Officer to both candidates simultaneously (the 1999 European selection contest for South East), so at least it's all familiar. And best of all, I haven't actually made up my mind as to who I'm supporting this time (really, I haven't!), and so I get a close-up view of each of them.

May the best candidate win!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

As one door is closed with a degree of relief, another opens…

With the setting of the sun on what I had vaguely thought might be the bureaucratic equivalent of the thousand-year Reich, I had been forced to give some thought to what I might do next. With the new responsibilities of my relationship and impending marriage to Ros, I needed something less day-to-day and more outcome focused. So what is a faceless bureaucrat to do when the secretariat loses its savour?

My solution seems to be an elegant one, in that I have put my name forward to be the Regional Conference Chair and, in an unexpected turn, been elected unopposed! And so my friends, this posting is my way of introducing you to the potential entertainment to follow and to seek your thoughts on how London’s Regional Conference could be better.

I have had some thoughts already, in terms of what we might do in terms of improving opportunities to debate policy, both with Parliamentarians and our London Assembly members, using the Regional Conference as a stepping stone to securing debates at the Federal Conference, and making the Regional Executive more accountable.

However, Conference is an opportunity for the members to attend training sessions, find out what is happening across the Region, and network with friends and colleagues across our home city. I’ve never run a conference before, so I’m starting with a clean sheet, although I’m planning to attend a few Regional Conferences elsewhere (South Central, East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber) to see if I can get any inspiration from my opposite numbers elsewhere. However, if you have any suggestions, I’ll be sure to consider them…

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Not a posting about the leadership… a bureaucrat regrets (with apologies to Sir Menzies Campbell)

(Embargoed until I feel like it)

When I was elected as Secretary of the London Liberal Democrats in November 2004 I had three objectives. First, to restore stability and purpose in the bureaucracy following my predecessor’s decision to spend more time with the people of Ealing Southall, second, to make the internal operations of the party more professional, and third, to prepare the secretariat for a general election.

With the help of others, I believe that I have fulfilled these objectives, although I am convinced that the internal structures of the party need radical revision if we are to compete effectively against our opponents. But it has become clear that following my decision to get a life, questions about bureaucracy are getting in the way of further progress by the secretariat.

Accordingly I now declare my intention not to run for re-election as Secretary with immediate effect.
I do not intend to hold a press conference or make any further comment (unless I change my mind).

Monday, October 15, 2007

No, didn't the Federal Executive learn from our last leadership contest?

Apparently, we are to have a new leader by 17 December.

After our last contest, I noted that the process was somewhat limited, and prevented a proper dialogue between the candidates and the members. Now I may be being unduly pessimistic here, but how in the name of God are candidates going to be able to organise campaign teams and really reach out to the members in a period of, effectively, six weeks at the most?

So, just in case the message didn't get home the first time, what I want to see is:
  • access to the membership lists for the campaign teams
  • something more than one side of A4 so that I can find out more about them
  • an e-hustings so that I can elicit some meaningful answers
  • access to podcasts and the like, so that I can see the whites of their eyes

That requires a little time, and the notion that declaring a winner a week before Christmas is, being generous, unlikely to draw huge attention when most people are thinking about Christmas, not politics, nor will it allow candidates to develop a 'personality' and a narrative.

Might it not be better to run the process more slowly, announce a winner in February, and let the new leader's momentum carry us into the spring local elections?

Ming: apparently, it's all over...

News has reached me, from a range of sources, that Ming will announce his resignation very shortly. Let the contest begin?

UPDATE: 18.19 - BBC have confirmed that Vince Cable and Simon Hughes will be making an announcement at 18.30...

UPDATE (2): 18.39 - BBC announce that he has resigned, with immediate effect...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

European selection: is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's Super Returning Officer!

Well, for South East European Region, the hustings are over.

In a final flourish, today I acted as Returning Officer, timekeeper, Chair and sports ticker at what can only be described as a bijou gathering in a sunny Canterbury.

Due to illness, unexpected person events and failed transport, only ten of our fifteen candidates could make it but the level of debate was as high as ever. I ran a comparatively laissez faire ship, as I've increasingly concluded that formal hustings are just about the least effective way candidates can spend their time, and went for entertainment instead.

So speeches and.questions were interspersed with tea and the football and cricket scores (good wins for England and Scotland at football, a bit of a shocker for England's batsmen against Sri Lanka), as the afternoon passed by in an atmosphere of bonhomie.

Curiously, despite my multi-tasking, I was incredibly relaxed, and I'm beginning to gain the impression that I simply enjoy chairing things. Perhaps it's just a control thing but I happen to think that I'm quite good at it. I have no great desire to hear my own voice, I'm kindly to speakers and appreciate the audience. It's also a confidence thing, I suppose, something which I suddenly seem to have a little of.

But as the sun sets over North Kent, it's time to head for Suffolk for a little sanity and good sense and some quality time with Ros.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Leadership: it isn't just the responsibility of the leader

I have to admit that I've watched the events of the past few days with increasing despair.

I'll be honest, I didn't vote for Ming as my first choice (he got my second preference). Naturally, I thought that my choice (Chris Huhne) was better, but I accepted the verdict of the membership as I had in the past (in fairness, having voted for Beith against Ashdown and Rendel against Kennedy, I had little choice!). Like many non-Parliamentarians or denizens of Cowley Street, I had no knowledge of Charles Kennedy's drinking problems, and was surprised by the rapidity with which he was removed, even if the execution was sloppy - we're nice people, or is that simply an excuse for not being very good?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd here we are again. The Press have decided that Ming is wounded, and fatally so, on the basis of a very selective sampling of individual bloggers, regardless of their relative credibility. It might not be so bad but for the comments of anonymous senior Liberal Democrat insiders, whoever they may be, whether or not they actually exist.

In an ideal world, the Chair of the Parliamentary Party in the Commons (in this instance, Paul Holmes), our Leader in the Lords (Tom McNally) and the President (as representative of the wider membership) would take soundings, form and agree a conclusion, and go to the Leader with either a declaration of loyalty or a pearl-handled revolver. Unfortunately, this can't happen as Simon Hughes has a clear conflict of interest.

So how does the membership have its say, or who can speak for it? And that is our problem. We have no effective mouthpiece for our views, either pro or anti-Ming, and into this vacuum step the not-so-massed ranks of Liberal Democrat bloggers, compounded by the general fecklessness of journalists, so many of whom seek a story, any story, as long as it causes debate, even where it doesn't exist.

Perhaps the Chairs of the English, Welsh and Scottish State Parties could step blinking into the sunlight? It is a lot to ask of Brian Orrell, Rob Humphreys and AN Other (I can't locate the Chair/Convenor of the Scottish Executive Committee, even on their website), and given that, in the case of Brian, they can't claim a broad mandate - he's elected by the members of English Council, a group notable only for its usual lack of competition for membership - it perhaps is a step too far for them to be asked to take.

I've urged for a degree of restraint, or at least, that people consider the likelihood of their comments being interpreted in a manner not wholly compatible with their actual intent, but have realised that in a Party which treasures the individual, any hope that we could coalesce around an agreed stance is pretty futile and, frankly, not entirely liberal.

So let's either do the deed, or accept what we have, a perfectly decent man who cares deeply for his nation, his Party and our cause. But dithering makes us look weak, and occupies too many of the best and brightest minds of our Party in a doomed exercise in damage limitation, both personal and corporate. If Ming has the support of the two Parliamentary Parties, they should be able to demonstrate it soon enough.

Leaving it to Ming to "do the honourable thing" is a cop-out. He wanted to be Leader, I can't imagine that he doesn't want the job now, and asking him to be altruistic asks far too much of any man. Very few people are capable of making an entirely objective evaluation of their own performance, especially when it comes to deciding upon their own 'political mortality'. Allow him his dignity, he's done plenty enough for liberal democracy to merit it.

But for the benefit of any journalists who might be reading this, you'll notice that I'm not calling for a particular decision, just that a decision be made. In a crisis, whether real or imagined, kudos goes to the person who makes a decision, justifies it and sticks with it...

Friday, October 05, 2007

A song for the Conservatives...

I'm a child of the eighties in so many ways, and always struggled with the apparent heartlessness of the Conservative Government, particularly post-1987. And so, whilst listening to my copy of the Proclaimers 1987 album "This Is The Story", I thought that I would post a reminder of why I can't quite bring myself to trust what David Cameron and his boys would like me to...

"Don’t get me wrong
Don’t mind you shouting
Just think your style excludes
The part that really matters
Just grow tired
Of empty minds mouthing English language courses
While they struggle with the a b c of heart
And I confess
That all I’ve learnt
Has been learnt a million times
By every empty heart
That ever felt a song come home
But I’d he happy
When next I ask the time
If I find I’ve wasted none of mine
Listening while you wasted all of yours."

Thanks, Craig and Charlie, for making the point so emphatically...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

SHOCK NEWS: Returning Officer makes pragmatic decision in support of the campaign!

It is with some bewilderment that I must report that I've made a decision.

Yes, I know, the concept is an unlikely one, but sometimes, outcome is better than uncertainty. So, without further ado, I would like to announce the Mark Valladares Memorial Decision...

I've cancelled Saturday's European hustings in Eastleigh.

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There, I've said it. I've made a decision. I've made all of the arrangements so there is no turning back, and fifteen European candidates can more effectively use the day getting more votes for the Liberal Democrats. May God have mercy upon my soul...

Oh, you wanted a justification. Um... oh yes, the three neighbouring constituencies are all expected to get their campaigns underway with a blitz of activity on Saturday, a General Election will almost certainly be called early next week and we still haven't issued the ballot papers and manifestos so nobody will come anyway. So why lock a bunch of people in a room to listen to fifteen candidates when all of them could be knocking on doors, putting leaflets out or getting press coverage?

Is that joined-up thinking or what?

The case for fixed-term parliaments - time to end this farce, Gordon…

The need for fixed-term parliaments has become ever more apparent as the game of feint and counterfeint has dominated political life over the past month. We all know that Gordon will go, we almost certainly know that it will be on 8 November, and yet the game goes on.

As a qualified cynic, I thoroughly understand that the governing party wants to do everything in its power to ensure victory. I suspect that if my job, my legacy and the history books were at stake, I’d want to be damned certain I would win. But there is a price to be paid for taking such a view of the public interest, and it’s a price that we’ll all be paying for years to come, regardless of Party affiliation, regardless even of membership of a political party.

Firstly, we almost certainly disenfranchise a significant chunk of the population. The students returning to college will probably not have registered. They may find time to do so in the run-up to polling day, but electoral registration officers are going to be sorely pressed to cope. To do so, they’ll probably have to draw on staff from other parts of the council in an unplanned way, causing interruption to other services. The fact that the electoral register doesn’t undergo publication between September and December will also potentially exclude those, like myself, who have moved house, or are less than entirely efficient with paperwork.

Secondly, the legislation currently passing through Parliament will either fall, or will be the victim of a rushed act of horsetrading. Some of it, quite frankly, is rubbish, or poorly drafted, or both. There will be pressure on the opposition parties to yield to the Government majority in the Commons, and legislation that needs more review and amendment will slip through without proper scrutiny. You and I will suffer from that, and the need to create more legislation to address the flaws that emerge later will snarl up both the Commons and the Lords even more than they already are (and how many people actually believe that legislation gets the scrutiny that it deserves?).

Thirdly, creating a programme for government takes time. Political parties need to develop ideas that can address the needs of the nation, and in the panic to get a manifesto ready for public scrutiny, there is a tendency to resort to the tried and tested (and, actually, normally pretty unsuccessful). The Conservatives were coming up with some interesting ideas, but are junking most of them in the absence of an opportunity to properly evaluate them for viability. Is that in our interest as a community, or merely advantageous for the Government, who are somewhat ill-equipped to fight a campaign on ideas (if they have any, presumably they’ve attempted to implement them by now). We are therefore offered a choice between two established parties with few new ideas and a record in government and a third with plenty of ideas developed over a lengthy period but no real record in national government. I’m sorry, but casting aside my Party allegiance, is this the best that is on offer?

Finally, the work of government has reached a state of paralysis. Do you take a decision now, or wait until you know who is running the country in a month’s time? How long have you waited already in anticipation of an announcement? Can you get buy-in from your Minister, or is he/she preoccupied with the impact on their campaign?

I can already hear the counter arguments, noting the likelihood of coalition governments, or the tradition of our Parliamentary system, or the need for flexibility in times of crisis, and you know something, they’re the cries of people who like the cosy consensus that exists and benefit from it. The idea of a open and just democratic process doesn’t appear to enter into it, although it’s good enough for every other tier of government.

We’ve accepted the notion that the economy needs transparency and stability in order to be a success, so why not our government? Or is it the case that politicians truly believe in Party before country? Gordon, over to you…

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

European Selection: watching... and waiting... and hoping...

For those gallant few pursuing selection for the European lists, we've entered something of a period of limbo. If a General Election is called, the process is suspended, and the work already done may or may not impact on the views of members. Worse still, it isn't exactly clear when the process would resume... So, how hard do you campaign?

Saturday sees scheduled hustings in Bethnal Green (for London) and Eastleigh (for South East). Do we cancel, do we proceed? It's all up to Gordon and his dance of the seven veils in any event. As an apparatchik, my life is simple. Carry on as normal until told otherwise, so I'm continuing to field questions, talk to candidates and plan as though nothing untoward was happening.

And yet I have this overwhelming urge to become a lumberjack, to stride from tree to tree through the forests of British Columbia, with an axe in my hand and my gal by my side. There may even be some wild flowers that need pressing. In short, I'm having existential doubts about being a bureaucrat, not a particularly helpful thing to be happening at this time of year, when nominations for Party office are due and plans for the year to come are being made.

It is healthy to consider why you do things from time to time, and we so often fail to stop and smell the metaphorical flowers. Am I attempting to do too much and, if so, what elements are easiest to drop or least entertaining? Or perhaps I need time off to renew my enthusiasm for all things Liberal Democrat?

One thing that I do know is that my connections to Dulwich & West Norwood lapse at the end of the year. My house move complete, and Federal Conference passed, I have arranged for my membership to be reallocated to Borough of Brent and this has been done (thanks to the gentlemen in Membership Services who made it happen).

So, what do I do now? Well, I'm a member of:
  • Joint States Membership Committee
  • English Council
  • English Candidates Committee
  • London Region Executive Committee (as Secretary)
  • London Region Candidates Committee
  • London Region Finance and Administration Committee (ex-officio as Regional Secretary)
  • London Region Conference Committee
  • Borough of Brent Executive Committee (as Secretary)
  • Dulwich & West Norwood Executive Committee (as Membership Secretary)
  • ADA Resolutions Committee

I also act as a parliamentary candidate assessor and Returning Officer at Westminster and European levels, regional contact to Beckenham, Bexley Borough, Bromley and Chislehurst and Orpington Local Parties.

Perhaps I am overcommitted, and perhaps a rethink is needed. Of course, I do need to get re-elected to a great many of these posts in the meantime, so I can't take anything for granted. So let's see how things go, and wait for Gordon to throw a spanner in the works...