Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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…
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.
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…
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?
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…
- 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.
- Give Westminster a properly federal role, with responsibility for defence, taxation, foreign policy, and all of the things that need a British response.
- 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
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…
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… but 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…
Monday, October 22, 2007
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!)
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
Thursday, October 18, 2007
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
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
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?
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
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
Friday, October 05, 2007
"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
It is with some bewilderment that I must report that I've made a decision.
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
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...