Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas, as scored for two guitars and an accordion

Welcome to the hamlet that is Creeting St Peter, where my new family (that's additional, not replacement) are celebrating Christmas in, I am told, traditional style, with music and song. Liam and Jamie, Ros's youngest, are playing guitar, and Maggie, a friend of Ros's sister Ann, is playing her accordion.

Christmas dinner has been prepared, and roast goose, Suffolk ham, stuffing and all the trimmings have been eaten, washed down with beer, wine and the occasional 'something stronger'.

There are times in the big city when so many of us, so far from home and family, miss out on the spirit of Christmas. For the rest of us, Christmas provides an opportunity to reflect upon our blessings, and in my case, there have been so many this year.

So, a very Merry Christmas to you all, with the wish that you get all that you deserve. Salut!

Monday, December 24, 2007

2007: the year in review (part 2) - from predictable disaster to unbounded joy

May saw me en route to the most dangerous post office in the world, on the perhaps obvious grounds that it almost certainly needed saving (I exist, therefore I save post offices - Jean-Paul Rennard). Frankly, if Vanuatu Post think that such an enterprise is worth having, it shouldn't be beyond the wit of this Government to find a way to support the post office network in Britain...

But change was looming, and I had to return to London to begin the search for a new home. Technology was catching up with me, just in time for the impending disaster that was the GLA selection. I was beginning to display some rather un-bureaucratish emotion, as I wondered aloud about where I fitted in, and opened up about who I am and how I felt (although there was much more of that to come...), just in time for the start of the European selection process. At the time, I was fairly optimistic about it...

Escaping only to make my small contribution to American politics, I returned to the serious business of interviewing applicants, as Returning Officer for the South East Region, and as a member of the London selection committee. Moving house was merely the sort of usual complication that I throw into the mix to raise the challenge a bit. Falling in love hadn't been part of the plan.

I'd left a few clues for those whose mind is more attuned to romance. Pieces such as "Truth, beauty, passion and diversity" were a prelude before an attempt at bearing my soul in response to Conservative proposals on the family. And all the while, my opponent from the winter was up to something... although it was becoming less important exactly what, because I was conclusively in love...

Friday, December 21, 2007

2007: the year in review (part 1) - from sea to shining sea

Last year, I tried out the idea of reviewing my year in three parts, a concept which, if I say so myself, was quite a lot of fun. So, as the year draws to a close, it is perhaps time to start this year's review...

The beginning of the year found me in India, celebrating yet another wedding (my cousin Clyne and the lovely Nisha this time), and telling all and sundry that, unless my beloved cousin Kim was going to surprise us all, it was likely to be a very long time until the family would have a wedding to gather for. I was preparing for another uninterrupted year as London's regional bureaucrat, with no sign of a challenge on the horizon (prescience, a wonderful thing...), with the only clouds (albeit rather ominous, dark and storm-filled ones) in view centred on the impending conclusion of the financial aspects of my divorce.

The first surprise was the well-planned but incredibly poorly executed ambush at the first Regional Executive. To be opposed was unexpected enough, but to discover that I'd managed to upset quite as many people as the subsequent election demonstrated was somewhat hurtful. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end as far as the old bureaucrat was concerned, and the decline became more obvious as time progressed. As for my opponent, whatever happened to him?

Inevitably, I became rather more introspective, and wrote the first of my confessional pieces, a departure from my normal style which rather set the tone for the months to come. Jessica was enjoying herself though, even though she was a source of some confusion herself later on... I responded with a rather ambitious attack on my Regional and State Chairs, only one of whom actually acknowledged that I had done so. At least I know that I exit unbeaten...

I had promised myself that I would live life in colour, and a gesture towards that came at Spring Conference where I surprised many people by rearranging the deckchairs on my own personal Titanic and having my face quite radically redesigned. I was told that I looked somewhat younger, and turned at least one head, as it turned out.

One thing I did predict though, was that the European Selection campaign would become a tale of those who had prepared, and those that hadn't. I did warn you, honestly I did. Now will you listen? Complaints about our internal selection systems were to become a feature of the months ahead, and it was already clear that the GLA list selection was going to be difficult. It was out of control by then, and boy, did it go wrong...

But change was fast overtaking me. The house in East Dulwich went onto the market following the carnage that was my divorce settlement, so I responded in time-honoured faceless bureaucrat fashion - I bought a laptop and fled to the South Pacific, via San Francisco. I needed baseball, ice cream, and adventure, in that order. Onwards to Melbourne, where I drank beer in the company of someone called Ros (now where have I heard that name before?), rode steam trains and generally avoided the rest of my increasingly chaotic life, before heading to Auckland. The adventure, however, was about to begin...

The death of prostitution?

I see that Harriet Harman has called for a ban on the selling of sex. Now, whilst I've never paid for sex myself, and am troubled by the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, I find it somehow difficult to believe that making prostitution illegal will actually help matters in any way, shape or form.

Prostitution is supposedly the oldest profession and, whilst there are those who want sex and can't get it through consensual, mutually desired, means, or who want something that their regular partner is unwilling to consent to, or participate in, there will always be a niche for those willing to meet that need. In any other sector of life's rich tapestry, this would involve a free(ish) market. However, sex is so interlinked with morality that governments, and in particular politicians, feel a need to get involved (ironic, isn't it, that a significant number have been caught using them...).

Harriet makes the entirely valid points that people trafficking, predominantly of young women, is linked to prostitution in this country and others, and that prostitutes tend to be the victims of rape and physical violence, whilst levels of drugtaking amongst prostitutes, the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the other rather grim aspects of the sex industry are, or at least should be, of concern to us all. It cannot be a positive thing that some people are so desperate, and so ill-equipped to exist within mainstream society that they must sell their bodies to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, her conclusion is the wrong one. The legal system, especially following this Government's attempts to legislate for everything, already has the means to address the unpleasant aspects of the sex industry. There is legislation that covers violence, rape and people trafficking, there are programmes which address concerns about the spread of STDs. What we are need are the resources to tackle these issues, and to separate them from the actual skin trade. It is far more effective to attack the traffickers than to police a ban on prostitution, an industry designed to operate in a covert manner (I'm yet to meet the man - or woman - who openly talks about their use of prostitutes, although it is statistically likely that I know at least one person who does).

Don't get me wrong, I am not one of those people who believe that prostitution is glamorous, or that the 'Pretty Woman' story is anything other than a cute movie plot. As a very young man, I was taken to witness for myself the sheer horror of prostitution in Mumbai, an experience which will haunt me to my dying day. However, there are those who make a deliberate choice to enter into the industry, who arrange their affairs in such a way to minimise the risk to their personal safety and/or who, whisper it quietly, actually enjoy sex. To prevent them from doing so in exchange for remuneration does noone any favours, and is likely to drive them underground, heightening the risks and creating even greater misery than currently exists. If people think that the gangs who buy and sell young men and women are out of control now, they won't have seen anything yet.

You're the Government, Harriet. You have police, border security, courts and a supportive population, to whom violence and people trafficking are abhorrent. Use the tools that you have, catch, and punish, the guilty, and you'll have our support.

As for prostitution, put it on a legal footing, as it is in New Zealand. Legislate in such a way as to allow sex workers to make themselves safe, provide support networks so that those who want to leave the industry can do so, programmes that wean those who are drug-dependent away from their addiction and in return, ensure that they pay their taxes like anyone else.

Sadly, I don't expect that my voice will be heard on this one. As a society, we aren't terribly good at issues of sexuality. The notion that people should be left to exercise their sexual preferences in a consensual manner without let or hindrance in the privacy of their own property has been respected only as far as it meets with the approval of the likes of the Daily Mail, as the tragedy of the 'Operation Spanner' victims demonstrated only too clearly.

As liberals, we should be fighting for the freedom of individuals to pursue love, life and happiness, with the only restrictions being those protecting the counterbalancing rights and freedoms of others. I'm not suggesting that this would be a popular place to start such a battle, but our response as a Party will speak volumes about whether or not we are serious about our liberalism, or just mealy-mouthed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Visas for non-EU visitors - another reason to be proud to be British?

One thing that annoys me more and more about this government is its seemingly never-ending ability to make laws that are designed to fix the failings in earlier legislation yet merely achieve new areas of doubt and uncertainty whilst demonstrating their underlying authoritarianism.

The new proposals for visas are designed to prevent non-EU visitors from overstaying, an entirely laudable idea, but are only really necessary because of the crisis in the Home Office. The decision to abolish passport checks for those leaving the country means that we have no effective way of knowing whether or not people have overstayed, leading to banner headlines claiming whatever scary number of illegal immigrants suits the newspaper concerned. I particularly enjoy questions from Conservative spokespersons demanding to know how many overstayers there are - is it only obvious to me that if we knew how many there were, we'd probably know who they were and could more easily deal with them?

But enough of that, the solution is to place more restrictions on those coming to this country to visit families, enjoy our beautiful scenery, study in our educational institutions or whatever. And here I declare a personal interest. My family is scattered across the globe, in the United States, Canada, Dubai, India and New Zealand. I've enjoyed visiting them over the past four years, but would quite like to have the opportunity to see them here. If these proposals go ahead, I may well be called upon to lodge a bond which can be withheld if they overstay. If I can't lodge that bond, they probably won't be allowed to come. The fact that my family all have lives, and pretty good ones at that where they are now, appears to be irrelevant. And thus, in such ways, are the innocent punished for the sins of the few, and for the general incompetence of government.

I potentially suffer from the loss of opportunity to see my family. The tourism industry suffer from the loss of revenue that might otherwise have been gained. In turn, India will probably retaliate, shortening the length of any visa I might be able to obtain, and the fallout will impact on our relationship with those developing nations likely to prove influential in the future.

Naturally, visitors from white, developed countries will find it easier to obtain visas, a sign perhaps that such people are more welcome than those from poor, less-developed countries. And naturally, when they come here, the latter can expect more attention from immigration officials and law enforcement agencies, as will ethnic minorities in the indigenous population, as they will 'look foreign'.

For heavens sake, Gordon, when are you going to learn that, whilst doing something properly takes longer and is less likely to garner friendly headlines in the Daily Mail, it will at least prevent you from being lambasted every time an overstretched civil servant screws up?

Meanwhile, in a small town not so far away from our dear London…

…the talk is of nothing else but that dashing young Mr Clegg, who has triumphed over the rather gruff Mr Huhne in the contest for the leadership of our local debating society. In truth, the town has not been so abuzz with rumour and counter-rumour since the arrival of the railway, not five years past.

I quite confess that the ballot has been a topic of much consideration between Lady Rosalind and myself, from deciding to whom our favour should be granted, from attending gatherings in Newbury (which, whilst not entirely without its charms, lacks the gentility of our rather more established metropolis) and Leeds (with its brutal industrial landscape, where children might still be found engaged in quite unsuitable activities), to the drama of completing our ballots and prevailing upon the Royal Mail to convey them by express mail coach to a discreet establishment in London where such matters are resolved by frightfully clever gentlemen equipped with the very latest counting machines.

It will indeed be good for the town to see our debating society revitalised, as it provides an outlet for the men of the town to distract themselves from talk of trade and industry, whatever the latter might mean, and even more so from the temptations of hard liquor and whatever else passes for discourse in the inns and taverns. In fact, as a means of improving the manners of some of the rougher elements, whose leafleting goes on unchecked, and whose presence outside of polling stations brings so much distress to those of a more sensitive, liberal persuasion, the example that might potentially be set by Mr Clegg may well prove to be of great value.

His talk of a more radical leadership is, I admit, of concern to the members of our literary salon, but I am sure that a more self-confident, more energetic approach is just what is needed to invigorate the town. I am sure that the electors of our proud metropolis will give him all of the support he needs in the coming years, accordingly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Conservatives, housing and the free market – a cynical way to win support

“With 1.4 million homeowners facing higher mortgage bills next year, David Cameron has called on Britain's banks to "step up to the plate and help ease the burden."

He wants to see the banking industry reduce the risk of financial distress by giving advice to mortgage-holders and increasing repayments gradually rather than imposing a sudden hike.

David said,

"This is what I mean by social responsibility: companies operating in an enlightened way that is good for them, and good for society as a whole."

Research suggests that the 1.4 million borrowers coming to the end of their fixed rate period in 2008 will face an average monthly increase of £200 each.

David called on mortgage lenders to do "everything they can" to help hard-pressed homeowners.”

I don’t have a mortgage, although I’ve had one in the past. I do, on the other hand, have some savings. I aspire to have more. And you know something, I really object to this kind of mealy-mouthed opportunism from the Conservatives.

People take out fixed-rate mortgage deals in order to buy themselves some stability and, generally, for personal advantage. They understand exactly what the implications are, or if they don’t, they frankly should. If the various financial institutions do as Dave asks, they will obviously reduce their profits unless they improve margins elsewhere, either by increasing bank charges, trimming rates of return for savers, or maintaining higher interest rates for other mortgage holders. The chances of them taking the hit are, to be pragmatic, remote.

It appears that this is all about a cynical attempt to transfer the onus to act onto banks and building societies, virtually all of whom are privately owned, and thus only accountable to their shareholders – not an unreasonable concept. At the same time, it allows the Conservatives to look as though they care, whilst absolving them of any responsibility – “we did ask, but we can’t make them”. Yet it was Conservative policy to encourage everyone to own their own home, Conservative policy to restrict local authorities from building new social housing or even retain that which they had previously held, and generally Conservative policy at county and district council levels to restrict the building of more affordable housing.

When I took out my first mortgage in 1991, the interest rate was something like 13%, and lending ratios were no more than three times declared earnings. I managed, and I made sure that I didn’t overextend. Whilst I accept that housing costs have risen far more than inflation over the intervening sixteen years, governments have done nothing to intervene apart from tinkering at the fringes, and certainly failed to address the core issues of supply and demand.

If such a call from Dave is the best that the Conservatives have to offer on housing, a return to the failed consensus politics of the sixties and seventies or, worse yet, an admission that the state has no influence other than to shrug its shoulders and bemoan how unfair the free market is, then it is high time that they gave up the pretence that they are credible claimants to form a government.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A golden era of bureaucracy comes to an end

Tonight saw the end of what had originally been intended to be the bureaucratic equivalent of the 'thousand year Reich', as I attended my last meeting as Regional Secretary.

The problem became that I stopped enjoying it. Regional Executives became places where initiatives went to die and, whilst I fully understand that I can't always get what I want, the regularity with which good ideas ran into the sands finally got to me. It is therefore time for someone else to take over, assuming of course that they really want the job and are not doing it merely because it needs to be done.

Me, I'm off to be Regional Conference Chair. I have an agenda, I have some ideas to try, and I have a participation concept to pursue. Whatever happens, it has to be better than the past year as Secretary...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Unitary, my dear Blears, unitary...

Now, whilst I admit that local government reorganisation is far from the forefront of the minds of most people, it does have a surprisingly broad impact on people's lives. Economies of scale vie for attention against concerns of localism.

The new Chipmunk for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, has just rejected the proposed Unitary Authority for Ipswich, noting that she is opposed to 'hybrid counties', a view that she is perfectly entitled to. It is, however, a bit of a disappointment to Ipswich Borough Council, whose bid for unitary status had been effectively encouraged by her predecessor, Ruth 'Opus Daydream' Kelly.

It is yet another indication that this government increasingly operates on the basis of personal whim, rather than on any coherent strategy or set of principles. Ipswich had spent taxpayer money on preparations, including advertising for new staff based on expectations of having to prepare for the new responsibilities that unitary status would bring. Who now covers these costs? What can be done to deal with the short-term instability that this will cause?

Oh, but it gets better. Hazel the Gopher has instructed the Boundary Commission to "go away and rethink the whole structure of local government in Suffolk". Democratic accountability, anyone? Yet again, Labour talk a good game on localism but demonstrate a complete incomprehension of the concept when it comes to action.

There were clues for those who knew what to look for. Ros noted in a debate on the recent Local Government Bill that it made possible the creation of cross-county unitary authorities, although it was stated that there was no current intention to propose any. The good burghers of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft may well be intrigued at the possibility that they are proposed as potential guinea pigs in a new combined Yarmouth/Waveney unitary. New Labour, new subterfuge.

Sadly, it isn't just Ipswich. Bedford has been accepted despite the total absence of a notion as to what to do with the rest of the county, and Exeter's bid has been rejected (despite the fact that Devon is already a melange of unitaries and non-unitaries.

Besides, if unitaries are such a good thing, why is the Government creating opportunities to form new parish councils. Left hand, meet right hand. You don't know what he's doing, but don't let it worry you...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

European Selections: a little consolation is to be had

Readers may recall that it was my intention to submit an amendment to the European Selection Rules addressing the problems caused by the 'no endorsement' rule. And indeed, I did just that and, on Saturday, my chance came, or so I thought.

I had been led to believe in a conversation prior to our meeting that a full review of the European Selection Rules would be proposed and lo, this came to pass, approved unanimously by those present. Accordingly, a group of five have been tasked with the job of carrying out a review, and I have the pleasure of being one of them.

The review will commence in the New Year, and I hope to have news on the format in due course...

Facebook - just another reason why the Internet sucks sometimes...

I just thought that you ought to know that I think that...