Sunday, November 25, 2007

There is hope for a Liberal Democrat future...

It has to be said that the notion of this bureaucrat at an ALDC 'Kickstart' event is almost as unlikely as a fun English Council meeting, but that's where you would have found me yesterday evening, accompanying Ros, who was the guest speaker at their dinner session, in a Holiday Inn just north of Birmingham, on the road to Walsall.

What impressed me was the number of younger members present, from all around the country, from Ceredigion and Manchester, from Portsmouth and Derby. It is remarkable that there are so many young Liberal Democrats wanting to serve their local communities, especially given the average age of our membership and the general absence of the under-40's at our metings.

In fact, I was so impressed that I asked Tim Pickstone if we could bid to host next year's event, probably in partnership with one of our neighbouring Regions. I make no promises, but the idea of giving some of our developing local groups a flying start for 2010 is an attractive one...

English Council: the German sublime meets the English ridiculous

Despite a real desire not to get up the next morning, I had no choice, I had to go to English Council. Worse still, I had to get up early, as we were scheduled to meet in Birmingham.

I caught my train, intending to arrive fifteen minutes in advance of the start time, but, due to signal failures, didn't arrive at the venue until comfortably after the 11.00 start time. Fortunately, I was never going to miss the reports from the Treasurer, from the G8 committee or the Federal Policy Committee representative, as I could see them at the other end of the carriage!

Having finally reached Birmingham, I was somewhat surprised to see our venue hidden from view behind an ersatz German Christmas Market, all the way from Frankfurt, but recovered in time to enter what was shaping up to be an astonishingly dull English Council.

And so it turned out, the only excitement in the morning being a debate on the 2008 budget, which sought to reduce the rebate of membership income paid to both Regional and Local Parties. I spoke against but was one of a sadly small group of rebels. Whilst a large proportion of the money will be returned to Regions via the G8 grant round, London will be hurt by the loss of revenue, without the compensation of grants - GLA elections don't qualify for subventions currently.

Eventually, it was time for lunch. Nagging away at the back of my mind was a sense that I was missing something obvious. So I went outside and discovered that I could get real German beer in proper half-litre steins and, even better, decent wurst in bread rolls with great mustard. My purchases complete, I returned to the afternoon session with beer and wurst, much to the surprise of my colleagues, and in Falstaffian style spoke of the joy of wurst. It made the afternoon so much more bearable...

It didn't change my mind about English Council though...

Not everything to do with trains requires the wearing of an anorak...

Friday saw Ros and I attend a ball. Now, whilst I'm not a dancer, I do enjoy a good party, and the Railway Ball, live from the Grosvenor Hotel on Park Lane, was a chance to let my hair down and do good at the same time.

The ball is a gathering of the elite of the railway industry, raising funds for a charity called 'Railway Children', which supports street children, predominantly in India. The event, in its eighth year, is a proper black tie event, with various companies buying tables and entertaining those with an interest in, or influence on, the work of the railways in this country and elsewhere.

Our host for the evening was Richard Bowker, former head of the Strategic Rail Authority and now CEO of National Express, who has worked with Ros in the past at a time when she was on the board of the Commission for Integrated Transport. Unsurprisingly, Ros wasn't the only Parliamentarian on our table, as we were subsequently joined by Chris Grayling, until recently the Conservative spokesman on Transport, now handling the Work and Pensions brief in the Commons.

Curiously, and it almost (but not quite) pains me to admit it, but he came across as fairly reasonable in his views. Admittedly, I'm not convinced that I would appreciate his solutions anywhere near as much, but it was interesting to see him operating up close and personal(ish). He does need help with his bow-tie though...

It was a fascinating evening, with a Bollywood theme, compered by a fairly funny ventriloquist, and a great deal of money was raised for the charity. And not an anorak, or a thermos flask of hot tea to be seen anywhere...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Steve Guy, a voice for Wycombe!

In June, I started the process of selecting a PPC for Wycombe, in leafy, and true blue, Buckinghamshire. Tonight saw the culmination of that process, so I was back in High Wycombe for the hustings.

First, the AGM was held, and Wendy Guy, the Chair, breezed through the agenda in double quick time, before reviewing the year. I was touched when she took the time to express her gratitude, and that of the Local Party, for stepping into the breach when their original Returning Officer was unable to progress matters. Given how pleasant an experience it has been, her kind words were quite unnecessary but very welcome nonetheless.

The hustings itself was quite a tough one, with a series of challenging questions to be answered. However, at the end of it all, Steve Guy came through with flying colours, and will have the challenge of leading the Liberal Democrat team in Wycombe in the run-up to the next General Election.

Wycombe is a seat where we are in third place, and is not an obviously attractive seat to fight from our perspective. It reminds me that, for every good seat, where we get a number of interested applicants, there are candidates fighting seats where there is little central support, little in the way of funding or activists, but an abiding sense that we owe it to the voters to give them a genuine choice. From such unpromising beginnings are winnable seats crafted, and we need to be more aware as a Party that our candidates in such seats need to be nurtured a bit more than they currently are.

I know that Steve will work hard in Wycombe, and for Wycombe, and I wish him, and Wycombe Liberal Democrats, all the best in the months ahead.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

As the lights go out all over HM Revenue & Customs…

There is, this evening, a decided sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ following the resignation of Paul Gray, HMRC’s Chairman.

Like many of my colleagues, I’m pretty horrified by the security breach which was announced by Alastair Darling earlier this afternoon, and the notion that someone should simply download that amount of sensitive information and just stick it in the post is almost too bizarre to comprehend. However, it has been done, and the Government appears to have dealt with it reasonably well, taking measured steps to protect the public and to prevent panic.

There will be calls for the Chancellor and his junior ministers to resign, no less, and whilst their positions are already vulnerable following the Northern Rock fiasco, this should not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, if only because the camel’s spine failed at the point where it became apparent that taxpayer monies were far from secure, as we had been promised. A breach of security protocol by a junior officer such as this, in clear contravention not only of established guidance but of sheer common sense, should not be pinned upon Ministers, but should be dealt with through our internal disciplinary procedures.

No, my sympathies are with Paul Gray. I don’t know him at all well, having only read various statements from him in recent years, but he has a reputation for being the person sent in to fire-fight when something has gone badly wrong. He was the senior officer sent to turn around the Tax Credit Office and, whilst it might not be perfect now, it is far better than it was when he took over.

His resignation was, in my view, extraordinarily honourable. Yet, by doing the decent thing, he may yet have created a rather different problem for this Government. If it is appropriate for the head of a Government Department to accept responsibility for the actions of those answerable to him, what obligation does that place on the Minister? Those who have commented thus far on the BBC News website seem mostly to acknowledge that Gray has acted with honour, and there are many who will contrast that with the approach of the Chancellor, finding the latter wanting.

As an individual with ‘form’ in this area of civic morality and ethics, you might expect me to call for consistency, yet I am hesitant. At least we have been given an example that might inform politicians in the future, be they from Labour, the Conservatives or any other political grouping responsible for representing and serving the public. The public should at least be grateful for that...

A fond farewell to Dulwich and West Norwood, God speed…

Last night took me to a crypt in West Dulwich for my swansong appearance in a Dulwich and West Norwood shirt, in my multiple roles as outgoing Membership Secretary, external Returning Officer and locum Secretary (and yes, if you have clearance from the Regional Secretary, this is technically possible… oh yes, I am the Regional Secretary, aren’t I…).

Jeremy Baker, my successor as Chair, had arranged for us to meet in All Saints Church on Rosendale Road, and I accompanied our guest speaker, Ros, to the venue without getting too wet. The church was rebuilt recently after fire destroyed the fabric of the building, and a very impressive facility it is too. In fact, it looks like a potential Regional Conference venue… but I digress.

Jeremy doesn’t mess about, and we raced briskly through the business at hand, with short verbal reports before we reached elections. We don’t generally have competition in our leafy corner of South London, and in fact the last contest we had had was when I fought my quixotic campaign to be Chair in late 2004 (quixotic only because I expected to lose, and didn’t). With a touch of arm-twisting, and a lot of encouragement, we managed to fill every vacancy, unlike the Regional Party (well, I think it’s ironic).

Ros then spoke on life in the House of Lords, and we had a small tribute to Stan Hardy, our evergreen Honorary President before adjourning the meeting in time for a dash to the station to catch our train home.

I’ll miss Dulwich and West Norwood. They’re a lovely bunch of people who deserve better, and I hope that they’ll receive their just rewards in the election campaigns to come. On the other hand, I’ll not be a stranger…

New leadership for London Liberal Democrats

I mentioned that we had a contested election for the position of Chair of the Regional Party, yet didn’t indicate what had actually happened. Most remiss of me, really…

There were two candidates, Denys Robinson from Greenwich, the current Chair of the Policy Committee, and Sandra Lawman from Lambeth, currently heading our fundraising efforts for the next two Regional election campaigns. Both of them are experienced campaigners, both have a lot to offer, but I had opted for Denys.

Chairing a large, and somewhat unwieldy committee requires a degree of steel, a sense of humour and endless patience, and for those reasons, Denys appeared to me to be the candidate I would most prefer to act as Regional Secretary to, and although I won’t be fulfilling that role next year, the criteria are fairly adjacent. So it was with a degree of pleasure that, following the ministrations of our Returning Officer, Dave Hodgson, it was announced that Denys had indeed been elected and will take up office on 1 January.

Given the rather quirky rules that dictate how the Regional Executive is formed, he will start his term without a Vice Chair, Treasurer, Secretary or Chairs for the Campaigns, Local Parties and Policy Committees. He will have a Regional Candidates Chair – Margaret Joachim – and a Regional Conference Chair – me – and ten Executive Members as follows;

Jeremy Ambache, Linda Chung, Pete Dollimore, Jill Fraser, Sandra Lawman, Dominic Mathon, Eliane Patton, Caroline Pidgeon, Balan Sisupalan and Brian Stone

What this means is that we are, for all intents and purposes, gender balanced, if you add in the new Regional President, Baroness Sally Hamwee. Life should be very interesting, especially if some of the female members are willing to fill the various Officer vacancies...

London Region: ‘twas a cold, dark, and above all, wet afternoon…

Sunday saw the London Region Conference and AGM come to South London, or to be more precise, Streatham. Sundays are never good days to hold conferences, and with a venue that seemed to become more difficult to get to by the day (the local station was closed for engineering works, and the nearest tube station was closed for similar reasons), turnout was down on what we might normally expect.

This was something of a pity really, as the agenda was quite a good one, with speeches from our new Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, our acting Leader, Vince Cable, and our Spokesperson on Communities and Local Government in the Lords, Baroness Ros Scott, plus a contested election for Chair. We’d arranged some excellent training opportunities and, all in all, a good time could have been had by all.

The weather didn’t help, with the rain lashing down as the afternoon progressed, and the hall never really warmed up, which at least enabled the host Local Party to make some money through sales of tea and coffee. On the other hand, the sight of our die-hard smokers huddling outside for warmth might have improved the Government’s chances of reducing smoking in the general population.

For the most part, things went fairly smoothly, although Alison Sanderson, our outgoing Regional Conference Chair, wore her usual worried look as the prospect of emerging chaos was glimpsed from time to time before being fended off. I increasingly suspect that the only thing keeping her going was the prospect of passing her poisoned chalice to your correspondent as of 31 December…

The one hitch was the late arrival of Vince Cable, who had bravely opted to drive himself across South London, and had got lost doing so. However, he more than made up for it with a speech addressing the issues surrounding Northern Rock and the general vulnerability of the British economy, leavened with a surprising element of humour. He really seems to be enjoying his stint as acting Leader, and I’ve been impressed with the vigour with which he has attacked the Government (Nick and Chris, I trust that you’re taking notes…). He got a warm reception from a suddenly bolstered audience, before handing over to Brian Paddick, who gave a polished performance.

I had my doubts about him as a potential Mayoral candidate, as I generally distrust the cult of celebrity, but he does appear to be not only a Liberal Democrat, but has some edge too. There is a risk that in a contest between Mayor Ken and Bonker Boris, issues will become very much sublimated to the questions of style and celebrity. If Brian is going to make a series of hard-hitting interventions on crime and policing, and can demonstrate a grasp of the other core issues, he may well make an impression on the contest far greater than that predicted when his name first emerged as a potential candidate.

And so, in the safe hands of our new President, Baroness Sally Hamwee, Conference came to an end and we all went home. Colder, and probably wetter than we might have wished, but with a sense of a Party moving forward. And you probably can’t ask for much more than that…

Leadership election: You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative…

It has been a bit of a mess over the past few days. Sadly, the chickens have come home to roost for Chris Huhne, but he can’t say that he wasn’t warned. More than two weeks ago, I noted my concern about hints of negative campaigning, and I know that similar concerns were relayed to the Huhne camp by acquaintances of mine.

This means one of two things, either the decision to go negative came from the top, or the considered view within the campaign team as a whole was that such a strategy was acceptable, allowing individuals to act accordingly. Neither prospect really offers much in the way of positives, although the existence of a more deep-rooted attack culture is probably the more troubling, as an individual who doesn’t play by the rules, written or unwritten, can be dealt with in isolation.

Now, as I’ve already said, nothing that has happened so far is fundamentally against the rules, and I still defend the right of Team Huhne to apply whatever strategy they believe appropriate to gain victory for their man. However, I do expect both sides to give rather more thought to the impact of their behaviour as far as the outside world is concerned.

Team Clegg seems to be focussed on whinging that it really isn’t fair. The complaint to the Returning Officer belittles the candidate, and begs the question, “What do you expect the outcome of your complaint to be?”. To be blunt, whatever Chris and his campaign team do will be a picnic compared to the massed ranks of Labour and Conservative MPs when our new Leader makes his debut in the House of Commons. My personal advice would be to work on some cutting put-downs – Vince Cable seems to be pretty good at them, and his sense of humour is not exactly legendary.

Team Huhne need to think more about the aftermath than the campaign. If Chris wins, is the campaign strategy likely to generate loyalty amongst the Parliamentary Party? Ian Duncan-Smith won the Conservative leadership having previously been rather less than loyal to his predecessors. Such a stance hardly encouraged Conservative MPs to be devoted to him, and his position was thereafter unstable accordingly. Indeed, if he doesn’t win, have his attempts to undermine Nick damages the latter to the extent that he struggles for credibility, thus undermining the Party itself. With a majority as small as Chris’s, that might yet return to haunt him.

I also wonder what it does for our already tattered reputation as the ‘nicest’ of the three main political parties. I freely admit that when I hear tales of dirty politics from other Liberal Democrats around the country, I wince inside. I’ve always attempted, in those campaigns where my opinion has carried weight, to ‘keep it clean’ because I believe that gutter politics puts off voters and discourages participation. My mother has said in the past that you attract more with honey than with vinegar, and whilst she isn’t political, I often think that our elected representatives could learn from her common sense.

This campaign started as a battle of style and ideas, and has descended into something akin to mud-wrestling. Leave it to the pigs, gentlemen, they’re better at it…

Monday, November 19, 2007

European Selection: time to start changing the Rules

It became abundantly clear during the campaign phase that the endorsement rules have become a nonsense for selections for Regional lists, and they were a cause of frustration to candidates and Returning Officers alike. So here’s the Rule that was the cause of such grief.

4.2 e) No material issued by candidates shall include any endorsements of the candidate, by word or implied by photograph. Photographs must not include Party members who are people of note in the Euro Region or well known in the Party. Members of the candidate’s family or ordinary Party members, such as helpers at a by-election, can be shown, but all such photographs must be cleared by the Returning Officer.

From the perspective of a Returning Officer, this meant wasted time scanning photographs for ‘prominent figures’ (define prominent, anyone?) yet there were no credible means of dealing with the scenario whereby a member could write a long blog entry stating what a thoroughly good person X was and why they should be elected to the European Parliament, unless you could prove that they had been put up to doing it by the candidate or a member of his/her campaign team (yeah, right!).

Subsequently, having digested the results, it dawns on me that an inability to seek endorsements means that non-incumbents are prevented from using their network of supporters to build credibility, the very thing that we allow our leadership candidates to do. In a short campaign, that helps to protect a weak incumbent, who may be poorly regarded by council group leaders, MPs and key activists, yet that crucial information is effectively withheld from members. I’m not suggesting that negative campaigning should be encouraged, or even allowed. However, an absence of endorsements does undermine candidates in the eyes of ordinary members, and leads to the kind of ‘beauty contest’ that so obviously favours incumbents.

So, if I don’t like the Rule as it currently reads, what do I think should replace it? Well, here is the proposal that I wish to put before the members of the English Candidates Committee at their meeting on 1 December in Birmingham;

4.2 e) delete all and insert

Material issued by candidates may include endorsements of candidates, either by word or implied by photograph. The presence of individuals in photograph shall be deemed to imply endorsement unless clearly stated otherwise in the salient material. If asked to do so, a candidate must provide evidence to support the legitimacy of the endorsement, actual or implied.

I believe that this simplifies the job of the Returning Officer, frees up candidates to use a wider range of campaigning techniques (and endorsement is a campaigning technique, to my mind at least), and continues the trend towards self-regulation. It removes the grey areas caused by the use of words such as ‘prominent’, and makes endorsement a black and white issue. In turn, bloggers are free to comment as they wish, as anything they write can be assumed to be allowable (they’ve written/published it themselves of their own volition).

I’ll let you know how I get on next weekend…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

All dressed up with somewhere to go

I've been out of town for a few days with Ros, who was acting as guest speaker for the North West Parliamentary Dining Circle in a hotel near Kirkby Lonsdale, where the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire touch.

As Ros was in Manchester on business anyway, we decided to make a mini-weekend of it, hire a rental car, and drive up via Todmorden and Pendle (Kirkby Lonsdale is pretty remote by public transport), do the event on the Friday evening, and pop over to the Lake District to marvel at the scenery the next morning.

And, to our shared delight, that's how it worked out. Todmorden is a lovely little town, with one of those wonderful town halls that the North does so well, a market, and an amazing railway viaduct that soars over the town. We stopped for tea and a general potter around (you young people, you don't know you're alive!), before getting back into the car and heading for Nelson.

Curiously, on arrival we found no signs leading to the shrine of the sainted Greaves, nor any of his followers, dressed in their traditional robes of day-glo orange. However, it was a nice enough town and I'm sure that they were all out delivering leaflets in Colne, anyway.

Next, over the moors to Clapham, an achingly pretty little village just off the A65. As we pulled into its centre, we were met by a flock of sheep being herded past us by a sheepdog and his master, the latter riding one of those four-wheel off-road buggies. I deeply suspect that they're in the pay of the tourism authorities ("Seth, a strange car's turned off of the A65. They must be tourists so get those sheep moving, lad!").

We got to our hotel in good time, and had the opportunity to get some rest before the evening’s gathering before changing into out outfits for the evening. The dress code had been advised as ‘relaxed black tie’, so I’d brought one of my more flamboyant waistcoats out of retirement for the occasion and, if I say so myself, I didn’t look bad.

The evening’s host was Paul Rowen, the Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, who graciously welcomed Ros before we started the meal. I had already eaten far too much earlier in the day, but the game terrine and roast lamb were too much to resist before Ros spoke on her work in the Lords, and the likely impact of the recent Local Government Act on the work of councils and councillors. The audience seemed to receive it well, and a lively question and answer session followed. A very enjoyable evening all round, I thought.

The next morning, we got a leisurely start, had a decent breakfast and set off via Kendal to Coniston. I’ve never been to the Lake District, and was impressed to find that it was every bit as lovely as Ros had promised. We did a bit more pottering about but, sadly, had to curtail our revelry to head back to Manchester.

On the off chance, we took a short detour to find lunch, ending up in the charmingly genteel resort of Grange over Sands. It isn’t big, the sea is an awfully long way away (there were sheep grazing between the promenade and the water), but it was rather cosy, despite the cold and the rain. The subsequent drive back to Manchester went easily enough, and provided a fairly pain-free end to a really lovely weekend.

I sometimes think that we don’t really appreciate the countryside that we have within easy reach in this country. As a pretty hardened traveller in exotic parts, I’ve never really found the time to explore the English countryside, although not having a car has made it so much more complex to do so. Yet in the short period of time that I’ve been with Ros, I’ve seen a little of the villages of Suffolk, the Shropshire hills, and some of the best bits of the North and North West. And my carbon footprint is reduced somewhat, making me feel a little better, at least in moral terms.

Perhaps more of us should think about taking short breaks in the United Kingdom, rather than jetting off to the continent at the slightest provocation. I know that I will from now on…

Friday, November 16, 2007

English Candidates Committee - faceless bureaucrat in re-election upset!

In the midst of the various selections that have been concluded recently, an election for five places on English Candidates Committee (ECC) has been taking place. A stellar list of candidates has, with various degrees of nervousness, been awaiting the outcome since polls closed on 2 November, and I have to admit, I really wasn't expecting to survive.

So you can imagine my surprise when the following result reached me in a pub somwhere in deepest Lancashire;

Dawn Davidson - 21 votes
Geoff Payne - 11 votes
Mark Valladares - 10 votes
Neil Halsall - 6 votes
Brian Orrell - 5 votes
Jenny Shorten - 3 votes
Jonathan Davies - 1 vote
Mike Simpson - 1 vote

The top three were elected on first preferences, with Neil and Brian reaching the quota on transfers.

I am grateful for those who supported me, and look forward to working with the new committee in 2008. In the meantime, the ECC meets on 1 December in Birmingham, where I hope to propose a review of the endorsement rules for European selections. I'll report more on that soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Technology reconnect

You will recall that I've been having serious problems with AOL, attenpting to get broadband in my new home. Last month, I finally persuaded AOL and BT that I deserved the broadband connection that I had been paying for, only to discover that the telephone cabling in the house refused to cope with this new 'treat'. Hmmm, what to do?

Whilst visiting Nottingham a few weeks ago, Liam, Ros's nephew, raised the notion of wireless access via a router. Intrigued, I attempted to find out how this worked and concluded that it might be the solution I've been looking for. Despite getting little sense out of AOL, I finally went to Carphone Warehouse on Sunday, purchased a Netgear router and stood back whilst Jamie (Ros's son) and Liam tried to install it.

They gallantly struggled with the unhelpful nature of the AOL software and, eventually, got the network up and running. However, we had real problems getting the computers to then connect up to the network and reach the internet. Telephone calls to friends in Gibraltar and elsewhere got us closer, but eventually, a brief call to AOL allowed us to make the breakthrough, and I am delighted to note that I now have internet access throughout the house and can finally function like a normal bureaucrat (albeit for a given value of normal appropriate to a bureaucrat).

With that, my new office is complete, and I'll post a picture of it soon...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monkeys clearly can't do accents...

I was slightly puzzled by the speed of the response to my last blog entry about 'Cranford', and Ros wondered whether or not someone at the BBC had been using Google to see what the response was. I was even more puzzled to find this on the 'Monkey' blog in the Guardian's online offering...

Incredibly plummy? I'm frightfully sorry, but those of us from North London comprehensive schools don't do 'plummy'. We do, however, have the courtesy to explain to those at the desk that we are the guest of an invitee and therefore not on the guest list in our own right.

On the other hand, it is nice to know that at least my voice fits in high society...

There’s something about a frock coat

It must be admitted that my social calendar has taken an upward turn of late. Opportunities to mix with non-Liberal Democrats were few and far between before Ros entered my life, part of the problem of dedicating yourself to the dark side (that’s bureaucracy, by the way, not liberal democracy…).

Last night, we had the great pleasure of attending a screening of the first episode of the new BBC costume drama, ‘Cranford’, based on the works of Mrs Gaskell, and filmed with an all-star cast, including Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha and a galaxy of familiar faces. I’ve never had much time for such things, and don’t watch a great deal of television these days (something which may now change), and might not have picked up on it had the screening not come along.

I was, I must admit, quite impressed. The production values are reflective of the very best of public service television, and one must presume that the co-production with an American television station will assure ‘Cranford’ of a wide audience. The cast gel together well, forming, as the Controller of BBC1 put it, the world’s best repertory company, and the sets look fairly convincing (although I’m certain that someone will pick holes in it if they look hard enough).

The first episode sets the scene and introduces the main characters, and you are sucked into the life of a small country town, its character, mores and idiosyncrasies. I understand that other characters will be developed as the story unfolds, leading me to the view that it will be an hour well-spent on Sunday evenings, especially as winter draws in.

The screening concluded, to warm applause, we all adjourned to Dartmouth House for the associated party. For critics of the BBC, the generous provision of food and drink will, I’m sure, be another reason to attack waste and inefficiency. However, it is not unreasonable for the BBC to show off its achievements, especially given pressures on budgets from politicians, some of whom should really know better. Ros and I got to talk to some of the performers, and mingle with the other guests, many of whom were parliamentarians interested in media and the arts.

It is interesting to see supposedly sworn enemies chatting amicably over a canapĂ© or a glass of wine or, more commonly, both. Whilst in the Lords, that sort of thing is rather discouraged; the rather rowdier Commons does tend to encourage a presumption that opposition members avoid each other away from Westminster. This is clearly not so…

All in all, a really pleasant way to spend the evening on a birthday, and I look forward to broadening my cultural outlook in the years to come…

Monday, November 12, 2007

European Selection: a massacre of the innocents

It is all over, and now it is time to confess what some of my colleagues, Duncan Borrowman amongst them, have been saying all along. The system that we use favours incumbents. I’ve always known it, but it is not the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to encourage competition, and present yourself as a neutral arbiter of the process.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd sure enough, the incumbents got in with, for the most part, huge majorities over their opponents, to the extent that they generally scored more than 60% of the all the first preferences cast, regardless of the level of competition (Sharon Bowles scoring 61% in a fifteen-way contest with the likelihood of the runner-up also getting elected in 2009 was particularly crushing).

However, I disagree with Duncan, in that I am yet to see even a glimmer of a system which would change this. Duncan (and others) would have you believe that some of our MEPs are less than stellar in terms of their performance, profile and contribution to the campaigning efforts of the wider Party and that may, or may not be true (I’m a bureaucrat, not a campaigner, regardless of what the Daily Telegraph says…). On the other hand, if they did all of the things that they are being urged to do, they would get even bigger majorities, as they would be high-profile and effective to boot. And then, of course, why would you want to get rid of them?

Regional fixed lists do have this effect, I fear, and until we move to an open list system, where voters can pick a Party list, and then number them in whatever order they like, then the electorate are going to be limited to a choice of how many of each Party they want, rather than whether they’d like a woman, an ethnic minority, or even a pro-European conservative. It does remove the element of personality and character from the business of representation, instead empowering a perhaps unrepresentative Party membership to, if you like, impose, their choice on the population at large.

To win, or at least succeed, in a Regional list selection, you need to start raising your profile early, very early. In fact, try very, very early indeed. Catherine Bearder, for example, has been working South East Region since 1998, Jonathan Fryer in London for even longer. Their results, Jonathan’s in particular, reflect the effort they have expended in visiting Local Parties, holding Regional office, organising campaigning, working in by-elections and the like. In Catherine’s case, that has entailed driving for hours in an area that stretches from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight, and from Newbury to Dover. Simon, her husband, has loyally supported her in that process, with a cost in time spent with family, in financial terms and in sheer wear and tear. Hopefully, she will be rewarded in 2009.

It is incredibly difficult, and very few people, seeing how difficult it is to dislodge an incumbent, will be willing to put the effort in unless there is some clear sign of a potential payback somewhere along the line. On the other hand, some, mainly younger applicants, will use it to raise their profiles, and the likes of Antony Hook, Rebecca Taylor and Ed Maxfield will now have a broader range of options and the chance to take another step up the ladder towards success, should they want it.

There are some elements that can and should be addressed. I would say that we should standardise the time at which MEP annual reports go out, i.e. with the summer draw mailing, not long after the anniversary of their election. The cynicism that was engendered by Sarah Ludford’s wilful use of her annual report in 2003, and echoed in 2007 (and not just by her, I must note), was entirely legitimate to my mind, albeit that she was adhering to the letter of the Selection Rules. Frankly, it cost her my vote, and didn’t make friends amongst the sort of people whose support might one day be appreciated.

We also need to rethink hustings. In Regions such as London and South East, the hustings are arduous and uninformative, with the ability of most members to absorb and properly compare fifteen speeches and fifteen sets of answers severely limited. Instead, we need to arrange more local, informal meetings, so that ordinary members might be able to turn up. Indeed, we could start them a bit earlier, even before nominations have closed, so that candidates could network and build up campaign teams much earlier in the piece. The ability to talk to candidates as individuals in a natural environment (I remain to be convinced that a formal hustings is in any way natural) is so much more informative. Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to look a candidate in the eye, shake his or her hand, and listen to them properly.

Finally, for now at least, I repeat my view that the endorsement rules are nonsensical. Third party endorsements are unpoliceable, and we should withdraw to a position whereby if you include someone on a leaflet, they are endorsing you. If you are challenged on that, and you can provide evidence that the endorsement is a genuine one, then no problem. If you can’t, then the punishment is a draconian one.

On the positive side, the timetable worked well, even if it was a little tight at times. This fact may seem to be a little unlikely, but it survived a general election that never was, a leadership contest which sucked most of the oxygen out of everything else, and a Royal Mail strike. Turnout was much as it had been the time before, so we must assume that ballot papers got to everyone (for the most part, nobody is infallible).

But turning back to the problem of incumbency, I have a rather different concern. If I was thinking about becoming an elected politician, I would be less likely to run for Europe now than ever before. I'm 43 (or at least, I will be tomorrow), and I'm not as fleet of foot as I used to be. My next opportunity to run will be in 2012 for the 2014 election, by which time I will be pushing 48. I'll need to spend the next five years building my profile and that will involve a lot of travelling, a lot of late nights, and a budget. I'm getting married next year, and feel that this should be my priority (unlike Ros, I can't multi-task). Even if I do this, if the incumbent runs again, I'm going to be hard-pressed to beat her, and there are still Jonathan and Dinti Batstone in my way (and she's younger than I am). Meanwhile, a horde of bright young things are emerging. Too much of a gamble, for too little potential reward, methinks. And I fear that a lot of other people are going to be putting together fairly similar arguments in the next few years...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I, Mark Valladares, being the Returning Officer for the European Regional Constituency of South East England, do hereby declare...

It is now all over, and a result is available as follows;

1. Sharon Bowles
2. Catherine Bearder
3. Ben Abbotts
4. Jim Barnard
5. Antony Hook
6. Murari Kaushik
7. Simon Green
8. Zoe Vincent
9. Gary Lawson
10. David Grace

It is expected that the full data will be available on the internet very soon.

I will review the results further later, probably tomorrow...

Friday, November 09, 2007

European Selection - Thank God, it's nearly over

And so another European selection reaches its 'climax' tomorrow. Whilst Antony Hook has enjoyed it, his Returning Officer hasn't.

Up to the point that my Selection Committee and I concluded the interview phase and drew up a shortlist for the membership, it was fine and I was enjoying myself. Since then though, it has been pretty much downhill all the way.

I'm a fairly relaxed Returning Officer, minded to the avoidance of draconian rulings unless they are truly necessary, and willing to take a benign stance of minor, usually accidental, infringements. I like the face to face element of hustings and result announcements, the delivering of a candidate to an expectant Local Party. With a European selection, you lose much of that. Rulings are made from the centre, the count is computerised (and you don't even get to read out the printout!).

Worst of all, I have been put in the insidious position of having to implement rulings from a Senior Returning Officer whose view of the world is so removed from mine as to be positively interplanetary. He is entitled to his view, to be sure, but when I'm the one obliged to enforce it, I do wonder why my view is unworthy of consideration, yet my support for the outcome is so necessary.

Meanwhile, members take delight in sending me messages, excoriating me for the timetable, the membership rules, the fact that the Royal Mail went on strike. Candidates seem to delight in calling me at work and taking up time that could be better spent (luckily, I've found things to do whilst they talk). Most of these people assume that I'm a full-time Party officer (they clearly don't read this blog!) and treat me with almost total disregard.

Tomorrow afternoon, I am required to attend a briefing session prior to the count. A large part of me is inclined to stay well away, and spend the afternoon with Ros and my family. After all, what can they do to me? But no, I'll turn up and do my party piece, and swear never to do it again...

English Council – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing?

In those moments when I’ve run out of important things to do, such as playing Brick Breaker on my BlackBerry™, or dreaming of cheese (and I really like cheese), my mind turns to the Liberal Democrat equivalent of herding cats, i.e. whipping London’s English Council delegation. Now I freely admit that the notion of whipping is a bit of an alien concept but, for the purposes of the exercise, bear in mind that this simply means ensuring that the delegation turn up, as well as arranging substitutes for those unable to do so.

And I do occasionally find myself wondering why I bother. English Council is, effectively, a figleaf, maintaining the concept of a truly federal Party without providing a meaningful platform for English policy making in a post-devolution environment. Meetings, and there are only two of them each year, consist predominantly of a series of reports from the great and the good, with the occasional opportunity to argue about changes to candidate selection rules, most of which are of no interest, and even less comprehension, to many present. There are no policy discussions, many key decisions require ratification by the Federal Conference, and the whole affair is symbolised by the almost total lack of interest in its discussions from the Parliamentary Party. The one thing going for it is, for those who know little about the Party beyond the borders of their own patch, it is quite enlightening for a meeting or two. Beyond that though, interest tends to wither.

Membership of English Council is gained through Regional elections for delegates, each Region getting one delegate for each 500 members or part thereof, plus the Regional Chair. My experience in London, and I gather that this is shared elsewhere, is that interest is generally low (London and South Central both have vacancies, if you’re interested/desperate), and a number of those who do run, do so for the sole purpose of getting elected to something else. For example, English Council elects a representative to the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Conference Committee. Also, only members of English Council can run for the six places on English Candidates Committee set aside for non-Regional Candidates Chairs. Three members of the committee that decides G8 grants also come from the ranks of English Council.

One of my problems with the way the party operates is the overriding urge to pander to sectional interests, which leads to a stack of committees who are populated by people determined to defend the people who put them there, regardless of the greater Party good. Worst of all, most of them have little opportunity to properly consult with those they supposedly represent, and even less in the way of means, thus leaving the decision-making in the hands of an increasingly remote group of semi-professional Party apparatchiks. In such ways are decisions made that cause no end of irritation to campaigners, Parliamentarians and anyone with much in the way of common sense.

Perhaps it is therefore time to abolish English Council and reinstitute the English Conference. And, while we’re at it, streamline many of the Party’s committees. Some work quite well, like English Candidates Committee, made up for the most part of Regional Candidates Chairs, who are elected by their Regional Conferences, are directly accountable to their members, and who have day to day involvement in the processes of both approval and selection. The Regional Treasurers meet twice a year, at Federal Conference, to discuss key issues, and are serviced by the English Party Administrator, Paul Rustad (a thoroughly decent guy, by the way) and David Allworthy who, despite his occasional flare-up, really knows his stuff, and is always happy to help when he can (I know, I’ve needed his support on more than one occasion). Others, well, perhaps I’m not so convinced…

We also need far better communication, and that is something that could be addressed by having the Chair of the English Party report to Regional and Local Parties on a monthly or quarterly basis (I would prefer monthly, if truth be told), providing diary dates, information about what the English Party has done, is doing, and proposes to do and consulting on issues ahead of us. Such a report could be issued, by e-mail for the most part, to the Secretary of each Regional and Local Party (that’s what we’re there for, according to the various constitutions).

Do these things, and I could return to stroking my cats, rather than maintain a futile effort to persuade people to attend a meeting that has precious little to commend it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Leadership Election: Would now be a good time to ask what happened to peace, love and understanding?

I’ve noticed that the temperature of the contest has been raised somewhat in recent days. If that had been because the two candidates were going at it hammer and tongs to demonstrate their suitability for office (and who’s to say that they aren’t), I would be delighted. Unfortunately, the heat that I’m referring to is within the blogging fraternity, where tempers appear to be fraying just a little.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI’m going to claim to be the first person to publicly muse over the Huhne campaign’s apparent move towards negative campaigning, so perhaps I am guilty, to some extent, of hypocrisy (in fairness though, when I wrote my comments, I was still to make up my mind). However, it is perfectly legitimate, within the rules, for this to take place, and I am of the view that the sudden, perhaps co-ordinated, burst of outrage from declared Clegg supporters is ill-advised. Politics is a rough game, especially at the level where Chris and Nick play, and they, and their campaign teams, must remain true to their convictions, fighting the campaign that they believe will bring success to their man. It is then for the members to decide whether those attributes highlighted by the campaigns are the ones that they feel are most suited to leading the Liberal Democrats.

In all hard fought contests, particularly where the stakes are as high as they are here, the campaign will develop edge. Frankly, whilst that makes me personally uncomfortable (and you'll note that I'm not running for leader...), it is exactly what this party needs if we are going to successfully assault the dual forces of conservatism currently masquerading as the Government and the (overly) loyal official Opposition. The ability to get tough with illiberalism will certainly help to get our message across.

Negative campaigning will put some people off if they become aware of it. Some people will be attracted by a candidate who demonstrates what Lynne Featherstone so bluntly described as ‘cojones’. You pays your money, you takes your choice

Monday, November 05, 2007

A faceless bureaucrat endorses with mixed emotions

It has not been an easy decision this time. I like, and respect, both candidates, and have had the pleasure of spending quality time with them in the past. They are both highly intelligent, genuinely liberal and equally capable of taking it to a Labour government which confuses pandering to the Daily Mail with genuine leadership.

I proudly supported Chris last time, as the one candidate who, I believed, could take the Party forward with vigour, passion, intelligence and a sense of liberalism which would appeal to mainstream British opinion without selling out on our core principles. I thought that I was right to do so then, and nothing that has happened since has changed my view that my stance was the right one.

I have had dealings with Nick in the past, firstly as his Returning Officer in 1998, then in the occasional social gathering earlier this year as he raised his profile at various Local Party events. He always provided good entertainment, as well as intellectual food for thought, and I admit to having been impressed by the enthusiasm and good sense he brought to the debate. He also has the ability to convey quite complex messages in seemingly easy to comprehend ways, something that is essential in reaching out to the wider electorate.

In terms of their performance as front bench spokespersons, they have both been adroit in getting media coverage, and have led on campaigns that look fresh and distinctive in areas that are central in the public consciousness, so little to choose there. They are also both genuinely nice people to deal with. I do not hold a key position in the party machine, yet both of them have treated me with respect and courtesy on those occasions where our paths have crossed.

However, you have to make a decision eventually, and so I’ve decided to plump for Nick over Chris. My view is that we do have to reach beyond our current base of support, and Nick seems better equipped to do so. Chris comes over as somewhat ‘fact-heavy’ from time to time, a style which will win votes at Federal Conference but not necessarily on GMTV, and I am concerned that his apparent move towards negative campaigning tarnishes him and those advising him. We need to put forward an honest, yet positive, message in an era of cynicism and Nick can, I believe, do that.

That said, whatever the outcome, the Party cannot afford to waste the undoubted talent that Chris has. His undoubted mastery of economics, and the impact that markets have on the lives of individuals, makes him essential to the continued development of our policy and credibility in the areas of tax and the wider economy. He would make an exceptional Shadow Chancellor, although it must be said that we have an abundance of talent in that area already – Cable, Huhne and Laws against Darling and Osborne makes me salivate just thinking of the carnage they could wreak.

If Chris does want to take any consolation from my decision though, he might like to know that my choices in the past three leadership contests were Alan Beith, David Rendel and Chris. Perhaps that’s why I’m a bureaucrat and not a campaigner…

Leadership: “Do we find the cost of freedom buried in the ground?...”

…asked Crosby, Stills and Nash in their song ‘Daylight again’, released on the album of the same name in 1982. It is indeed a good question, and one that is particularly relevant in the light of the first two weeks of this leadership election.

In 2006, I had no feel that we were debating ideas in the Campbell/Huhne/Hughes contest, merely the rather nebulous concept of leadership, and perhaps that’s why the whole affair seemed to be so uninspired. I found myself with only one real option in Chris Huhne, for reasons I expanded upon at the time.

This time, it is radically different, and I use the word ‘radically’ advisedly. One thing that I’ve noticed this time is that there is a real passion out there for us to escape the tendency to ‘do something, anything’ and start thinking about what we need to do, why we need to do it, and how it should be done. There is also a desire to take it to our opponents in a way that is beyond narrow oppositionalism. It is, I confess, infectious, and even this increasingly non-faceless bureaucrat is sensing the symptoms of genuine enthusiasm.

Whilst supporters of both candidates appear keen to emphasise the differences between them, and I sometimes sense that those differences are being hyped up to be something rather more dramatic than they are, both of them seem perfectly comfortable with the notion that it is time for some rather more muscular liberalism, and that’s just fine by me.

I am bored with having to defend the liberal concept as defined by our opponents, centralist, control-freak Labour, or paternalist, and occasionally quite nasty, Conservatives. So it’s high time we talked about liberalism as a thoroughly good thing, where freedom to walk the streets is not something for an approved group (approved, might I add, by a bunch of people who define such a group as ‘people whose manner they approve of’), where everyone has access to the levers of power, where liberty doesn’t mean the freedom to be poor, oppressed or otherwise disadvantaged. It means a society where individuals have the tools required to play a full part in society, where the nebulous concept of fairness is replaced by justice, where rights come with responsibilities.

This will be unwelcome to some in our Party, I fear. There is a tendency in some areas of our policy making to say, “Something must be done, here is something, let’s do it.”, when a better solution might be to say, are we using the tools already at our disposal or even, is this a problem that actually requires action? I won’t name names, but some of you probably can. Our first question when considering an idea should be, how does this further freedom of the individual, and how might it restrict the freedom of others? On balance, is the equation weighted in favour of giving people control over their own lives and, if not, can we do something that enables them to do so in a real way? And before anyone gets too excited, I’m not wild about the concept of ‘laissez-faire’ either, as it tends to reward those with power at the expense of those without it.

This doesn’t mean that markets are perfect, far from it, and we can all list failures of the market without working too hard. On the other hand, governments are generally bad at running businesses or lives, so why not have government as enabler, a setter of minimum standards and a benefactor to those who are in genuine need?

And you know something, I suspect that voters would like that, the idea of government doing less, doing it better, a government of the people, for the people, by the people. We keep talking about the silent liberal majority in this country. Why not give them something to talk about? Messrs Clegg and Huhne, it’s over to you…

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Leadership election: on reflection, a home win for Clegg

So, another hustings is over, and I'd have to award the win to young Mr Clegg over experienced Mr Huhne. Is Nick the better candidate? Possibly. Will he win? I don't know. Will I back him? Hmmm... I think that I'll ponder that one a bit longer.

Live from the Yorkshire and the Humber leadership hustings

Think of this as the blogging equivalent of a 'Hi honey, I'm on the train!' entry. So here I am, listening to the two contenders joust for the delectation and delight of members from the Yorkshire and the Humber Region and beyond.

With the formidable Baroness Angie Harris in the chair, Chris spoke first, demonstrating his ability to adapt as the campaign proceeds. His speech included more personal touches, and rather more passion than previously demonstrated in Newbury two weeks ago.

On the other hand, I wasn't as convinced by Nick this time. He remains fresher, and is clearly thinking beyond the narrow confines of the selectorate. However, the speech was comfortable and went down well with the audience, so who am I to criticize?

One thing that does trouble me though, and it is merely a point of concern which the Huhne campaign might wish to note for future reference, is that there appears to be a negative tone to both Chris's stump speech and some of his answers to questions. Indeed, his answer to one question, calling on Nick to denounce vouchers, having allegedly endorsed them in two interviews, would probably have been halted had this been a PPC selection on the grounds that it represented negative campaigning. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, and is a black mark from the perspective of a grizzled old Returning Officer like myself.

Otherwise, the contrast between the rather academic tone that Chris adopts, with talk of Danish models and the like (about healthcare, not Helene Christiansen, as I understand it), and Nick's finely pitched sense of outrage at the injustice caused by big corporation and government-inspired stupidity. It makes for entertaining hustings, but not for easy decision-making. Nick gets more laughs though, and comes across as the more relaxed speaker of the two. He certainly gets my vote in terms of 'candidate I would be more likely to open a bottle of wine with'.

I'll let you have my retrospective thoughts in about an hour...

On the road with Team Clegg

If my unexpected guest compere appearance in Newbury was a sign that I might see more of this leadership contest than I did last time (and complained endlessly about), today may well give the impression that I'm becoming something of a groupie.

This entry comes, in fact, from the 12:06 train from Derby, scene of the informal hustings at the East Midlands Regional Conference, to Leeds, the location of the formal hustings at the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Conference. Unexpectedly, I am surrounded by Team Clegg, making the same journey.

So why am I here, so far from the urban jungle of north London? Ironically, I'm multi-tasking. Firstly, I'm here with Ros, who is speaking at both events, before acting as keynote speaker at the Leeds Liberal Democrats Gala Dinner. Second, I'm looking at how other Regions organise their conferences (good things and bad). And why not get some more quality time with Chris and Nick whilst I'm at it...

I have to admit that I still haven't made up my mind yet, but the journey has proved to be an intriguing insight into how a leadership campaign works in reality.