Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: the year in review in three parts (3) - triumph and... actually, just triumph

Nominations for the Party Presidency opened on 1 September. We knew that Lembit would run, although his campaign was a bit of a slow-burner, as James Graham took great pleasure in pointing out. The 'I'm 4 Ros' campaign, already in high gear, launched officially with a video, a launch event, a campaigning event in Kingston and a database that was beginning to show just how valuable it would eventually prove to be.

I managed to find time to give a master class in how to be a Local Party Secretary, and if only I had the time to do all of those things, I'd probably make a really good one. What do you mean, I am one?...

At Conference, I had a minor clash with Lembit. I was only asking him the obvious questions, but others felt that there was an edge previously missing from blogger interviews. And another candidate emerged... What made Chandila Fernando's campaign so unexpected was that he had offered his services in support of Ros's campaign just a week earlier. We may never know what then caused him to seek nominations for a run himself, although I have my deep suspicions.

We were still travelling, to Bexley, to Haringey and to Western Counties. Ros's campaign team were producing leaflets, sending e-mails and making telephone calls. Lembit was doing... err... not much. Chandila was entertaining us all with a website that didn't actually do anything. Eventually, a clock appeared, counting down to an apparent launch. When the clock reached zero, nothing happened. Not so much trouble shooter as hapless amateur. Chandila, what did he stand for? "Absolutely nothing", seemed to be the answer. His photograph looked good though, as at least one Lib Dem blogger noted...

By October, we knew where we all stood. Liberal Democrat Voice released the results of its poll including all three candidates. According to its readers. Ros was going to win in a canter. None of us believed it...

Ros and I were everywhere, with hustings to attend, speeches to give, and canvassing to do. The Opik campaign finally got underway, although the Fernando campaign continued to be substance free. It certainly made his hustings speeches easier, although it was noticeable that, the longer he was given to speak, the less effective he became. Hustings were clearly a problem, despite the decision by the Returning Officer not to sanction any official ones. It showed, and I issued a guide on how to run one after a series of shambolic attempts. The PCA 'hustings' was the worst, although the inability of anyone to make a decision and stick to it, even in terms of the time given to candidates to speak demonstrated why we are so short of Returning Officers...

My cat, Cincinnati, made his political debut in my manifesto for English Candidates Committee, although his picture only appeared on ther blog in the end, as I was re-elected unopposed.

November saw the culmination of two years work on the part of Ros, as Liberal Democrat voters elected her Party President with a huge mandate. Whilst Lembit made a gracious speech in defeat, Chandila made a typically mean-spirited, churlish contribution... and then disappeared... I only hope that he has no aims in the field of diplomacy...

Meanwhile, my wish was granted, as Barack Obama became President of the United States. A great result for the rest of the world, even if his inheritance was probably the worst since Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933...

At home, the Baby P catastrophe proved once again that the combination of control freakery, Labour's infatuation with targets and a council incapable of dealing with criticism was deadly. We haven't heard the last of this by any means, although whether even the best systems and staff can completely prevent such occurences is questionable. The Conservative response was to criticise the Government whilst not actually offering an alternative themselves. Not much new there, then...

I had problems with the way we select candidates for Parliamentary by-elections, which led to a bit of a falling out with Martin Turner and the Parliamentary Candidates Association. Whilst they got a bit upset, Ros and I took our leave and went to Madeira for a week. When we returned, Martin and I exchanged a few e-mails, agreed on a means of progression and shook hands on it. Admittedly, the promised password for the PCA website never emerged, the promised copy of their e-mail to members was just that, promised, and the only comments were supportive of my view, but...

And so we reached December. I got to attend the State Opening of Parliament, and wondered whether its lack of content presaged an early general election. There was a crisis brewing though, and the third Monday saw me liveblog my breakfast to mark the end of the restaurant car service on National Express East Anglia. Or was it the end?...

I got involved in an unlikely by-election debate, and decided that it might be fun to attack the English Democrats. Indeed, it was fun, although it was interesting to see that if you actually discipline those posting comments, occasionally they respond in the right way. And for those of you who haven't gone to Bexley and live within reasonable journey time, go on, you'll be more than welcome.

And so the year comes to an end. I'm still hopelessly in love with Ros, I still have cats, albeit only two (rest in peace, Victoria, Frankln and Eleanor...) and I'm preparing for life as the Honourable Lady Mark (another inspirational line from Jennie...). 2009 may not be as dramatic, but it certainly won't be dull...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: a review of the year in three parts (2): one of our opponents is missing

We returned from India, tanned and happy, but with much to do. I had found time, even on honeymoon, to be annoyed by Bob Shaw once again. His response was to write a snarky blog entry suggesting that I was attacking him because he was being beastly to my now wife. Whilst that might have provided a justification, what he never seemed to realise was that I was attacking him because I loathed him and everything he stood for as a blogger. I called him a coward and a hypocrite, and had it not been for the fact that this is a blog where foul language is not used, I would have used a whole range of Anglo-Saxonisms in reference to him.

I wasn't happy with Labour (again), and was observing the meltdown of their support in some unexpected places. But the charge towards the nanny state continued apace, with smoking and drinking coming under the microscope. My response was to start my exploration of the wonderful world of small Suffolk breweries.

Whilst Ros was beginning to crank up her campaign with visits to the West Midlands and the South West, there was no sign of campaigning life from any opponent. We knew that Lembit was intending to get his nomination in, but we were wondering when he would start putting himself about... We never did find out who ran the YouGov poll about the Presidency though...

July saw the 'I'm 4 Ros' campaign overseas and on a pilgrimage, where I met Jennie for the first time. Detouring to pay a lightning visit to the Glasgow East by-election, I rejoined Ros for a sally across the border into Wales - oh yes, there were no 'no go' areas for the campaign...

I got tremendous entertainment out of the White Paper on House of Lords reform, and remain convinced that selecting new Peers by means of a contest whereby applicants have to compete against each other to collect water in buckets from a tap placed eight feet off of the ground whilst dressed as penguins and standing on a greased revolving platform. Wouldn't you pay good money to see that? I know I would...

In August, I discovered a new cultural form, only to discover that misogeny is everywhere. The video should have been a giveaway really but merely demonstrated what a sheltered life I've led... Labour didn't get campaign finance reform, Conservatives didn't understand why Ian Oakley's vile behaviour in Watford was a problem for us all. They didn't have any policy yet, either.

To take my mind off of it all, Ros whisked me away to Scotland, Cornwall and Wales (where I got to meet Steph, as well as someone called Kirsty Williams - whatever became of her, I wonder?), although I did find time to fall out with another member of the Taunton Deane massive...

Life was about to get really hectic...

2008: a review of the year in three parts (1) - renaissance bureaucrat in frockcoat surprise!

As usual, it’s time for me to review the year past as seen from the eyes of a party bureaucrat. Except that this year was rather less about bureaucracy and more about romance and campaigning.

As the year began, we (and there was the key first difference from 2007) were a bit busy. The house in Kingsbury was on the market for sale, we had put in an offer on a house in Needham Market, preparations were well advanced for our April wedding and a Presidential campaign was beginning to step up a gear. There were hints that the wheels were about to fall off of the economy, but the sheer horror of what was to come was still to be anything other than a twinkle in Mr Cable’s eye. There would be some implications to come, but I didn’t care - after all, I was in love…

I was on good predictive form though, calling the race for the Democratic nomination as a likely Obama win before the Iowa caucus (blog entry 8 January), and picking out some of the reasons why Hilary would lose. I was struggling with choice and free trade, but nothing new there, whilst preparing to be financially shafted by my employers (no change there either). Boy, was I right there, and we are still to reach agreement a year later. Ros started blogging, and whilst her readership figures were hardly in the Guido/Iain Dale league, ‘Because Baronesses are People too…’ would prove to be a slow-burning precursor for a Presidency to come.

In February, I launched my first attack on the Parliamentary Candidates Association for past uselessness, more in regret than anger. They had a new Chair, so that was alright, wasn’t it? Tory sleaze was back, and wasn’t that going to be a feature of the year to come. Conservatives were beginning to prepare for government. Not by creating policy, no, by demonstrating that they’re view of government was a means of making money and settling scores. Ideas were not to be encouraged. Labour were beginning to implode, the economy was weak, all that Cameron, Osborne and the rest had to do was wait. Wasn’t it?

Labour’s response? More sleaze, more stupidity. Peter Hain left office to spend more time with his home tanning machine and take lessons in basic arithmetic after failing to declare more than £100,000 of donations to his disastrously unsuccessful campaign to be Deputy Leader, whilst Caroline Flint demonstrated exactly why she shouldn’t be allowed to do anything that might require empathy or integrity.

The Bones Commission, which I had suggested to Nick Clegg in the aftermath of his election as Leader (he reads every word I write, you know) via the medium of Liberal Democrat Voice, was at work, and I wasn’t entirely happy with the suggestion that it was all the fault of a bunch of bureaucrats. I could have named names but I was still being nice to people (it wouldn’t necessarily last)

Niceness lasted into March, as I tried a reprise of my role as peacemaker, after Nich Starling and Alex Wilcock had a quite entertaining set-to. Not for the first time, Nich hit the nail on the head, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing his inner conspiracy theorist to replace intellect and diplomacy. Alex went volcanic in his typically erudite way, unleashing a flow of molten invective all over Norfolk (we were comfortable with that in mid-Suffolk). As usual, Alex saw the light. Nich demonstrated why Tories like him…

At Conference, Lembit moved a motion calling for the role of the Party President to be split into two jobs. In return, I attacked him and the Federal Executive for incompetence, defeatism and an utter incomprehension of the notion of conflict of interest. Whilst two members of the Federal Executive did have the courtesy to defend their stance (Erlend Watson and James Gurling), very few people saw the irony of a declared candidate for the Presidency claming that the job couldn’t be done… The ’I’m 4 Ros’ campaign team sat in a corner of the conference hall, and watched as the motion was passed but without the required two-thirds majority. You can guess which way I voted.

Nick Clegg talked about ‘Faceless Britain’ in his conference speech, and I did see what he was on about, but my first Regional Conference was about to take precedence. It went rather well, and I declared myself to be a fan-boy (thank you, Jennie, for this addition to my vocabulary) of Baroness Hamwee of Richmond upon Thames (is there something in the water in the Royal Borough?)

Reprieved, the ‘I’m 4 Ros’ campaign began to gather momentum, with a number of events, including an astonishingly intellectual fundraiser, starring Brian Eno. We attended the launch of ‘Liberal Youth’ and, although the significance of this was yet to become apparent, I was not to hear the last from them as the year progressed.

My patience with Bob Shaw finally ran out though. He’d been annoying me for a while, with a series of misogynist, snide attacks on Ros. That, I was willing to let go albeit grudgingly, but cowardice and hypocrisy provided too tempting a target. Ironically, it wasn't my last run-in with someone from Taunton Deane...

The big day or, at least, the first of the big days, was coming up fast, yet the Campaign for a Real President could not wait, and we went to the North East for the first big tour. And whilst the Conservatives were demonstrating exactly how not to run an internal party candidate selection. I was even quoted favourably on Conservative Home (don't worry, I'm not turning into Nich Starling...).

The only sunny day in the whole summer (alright, there may have been others but do you remember any?) was timed to coincide with the wedding of baroness and bureaucrat. Whilst the new power couple fled to India for the best part of three weeks of sun, massage and elephants, my old friend, Empress Jessica, reported on the Valladares family wedding of the year for the Amaranth edition of 'Hello' magazine.

Monday, December 29, 2008

It is cold and dark. I must really like Grace...

Welcome to platform 1 here at a pretty cold Welling Station. At least, it's apparently pretty cold, although I've worked up a sweat delivering for Grace Goodlad's campaign to be the new Liberal Democrat councillor for East Wickham. Given that I've commuted in from Suffolk this morning, put in a full day at work and then come to Bexley, my enthusiasm for getting Grace elected is undeniable.

I wasn't as organised as might be ideal, as I've done my delivery round with a laptop on my back, but despite the dark and cold, it went pretty smoothly. The part of the ward that I was in is comparatively easy to deliver, although not as easy as East Dulwich was (minute front gardens, long terraces and flat ground for the most part).

However, all this means nothing unless people come forward to do the delivering, which is what brought this North Londoner to distant South East London. Bexley is a prime example of a place where we have a potential vote far greater than that achieved in recent years. It wasn't that long ago that we had fourteen councillors and were part of the administration, yet now we have not a single councillor. And yes, going from zero to one might not mean much in the scheme of things, but it means that there is another potential block of votes that can be delivered in regional list elections which wasn't fully tapped before. How many votes were we short of a second European Parliament seat in London in 2004? How many votes short of a fourth London Assembly seat this year?

I'm a firm believer that a small investment in those areas where we are weak will pay off if it is converted into a few more members, a few more activists and an extra councillor or two. It isn't exactly a fashionable view, I know, but given that our performance in list elections is hardly stellar, what harm is there in trying something slightly different?

Ah well, at least I've done something useful this evening...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Message from the Honourable Lady Mark to an expectant nation...

Whilst the Queen is telling us all that it's our turn for an annus horribilis, I thought I might say something a little more uplifting.

For me, at least, 2008 has been a year of personal growth (in more than one way) and of increasing happiness. President-elect Ros and I got married, travelled the Liberal Democrat world, and triumphed against the apparent electoral odds. Yes, it's been a good year.

I've met some wonderful people, who have reminded me of why we do what we do for our cause, and seen some amazing places - Skara Brae, Blaenavon, the Mendips to name but three. My belief in what we seek to achieve as Liberal Democrats has been bolstered and, whilst we may disagree on the means, we do coalesce around the ends for the most part.

And so, a Merry Christmas to you all. Enjoy the festive season, take care of those whom you love, and find a little time for yourself - you're worth it. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with a turkey that won't be kept waiting...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Orpington to Kingsbury - a nocturnal bus odyssey in four parts

So, after a convivial evening in Orpington, lending a hand to the campaign to bring Grace to the people of East Wickham, I made my belated way to Orpington Station, only to miss the final train to London by seconds. What is a bureaucrat to do?

Luckily, I didn't need to get to Creeting St Peter, where Ros and the cats are sleeping soundly, because the next bus is due on 8 January. However, I was faced with a tricky journey. Improvising, I realised that I needed to get towards central London as quickly as possible, so I caught the conveniently timed number 51 bus to Woolwich which, interestingly enough, goes through East Wickham ward.

Thinking quickly, I looked up my alternatives on the Transport for London journey planner and discovered that by catching a number 53 in Woolwich, connecting with a number 148 at Elephant & Castle before switching to a number N16 at Marble Arch, I could be home in not much more than two hours.

As a Londoner, it is easy to become blase about the ease with which we can travel around at all times of day and night. Under the supreme beneficence of Comrade Ken, the number of night bus routes expanding substantially, creating a plethora of options for getting home after the last tubes and trains had run. If I was younger, I could stay out until late, carousing and clubbing, knowing that I could get home safely. Of course, not being the clubbing type, I had to stick with carousing, but I recall some fairly grim journeys waiting for buses that ran every hour.

Now I'm in Cricklewood, having made every connection comfortably, and having not had to wait more than ten minutes at any stage. It will have taken me about two and a quarter hours, but it has cost me nothing (all covered by my Oyster card), I've been safe, warm and dry, and even using trains, it would probably have taken me an hour and forty-five minutes.

All the same, I really ought not to hang around after the work is done...

Monday, December 22, 2008

The First Lady visits: dipping a toe in the water for a worthy cause

I've been invited to pay a visit to Orpington this evening, to stuff envelopes in support of Grace Goodlad's campaign for East Wickham and, as I'm in London overnight, I thought that I might drop in.

It's my first solo engagement, so wish me luck...

National Express East Anglia: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that pork...

Back to London this morning, courtesy of National Express East Anglia (NXEA), but this time on the 08:29.

It would appear that, over the Christmas period, NXEA don't run a restaurant car service anyway, so I wasn't strictly missing out on my pork-dominated treat. However, it still leaves me feeling as though a small piece of my life is just that little bit less perfect.

On the other hand, there is a suggestion that the restaurant car may survive into the New Year. The response from regular users has clearly made some impression, and whilst NXEA still insist that the restaurant car loses money, perhaps they may have realised that some of their passengers have a choice too.

All that said, my train arrived at London Liverpool Street seven minutes early, so they can do some things well...

English Democrats - since when was intimidation part of legitimate campaign strategy?

I see that my colleague, Duncan Borrowman, has been having a bit of trouble with the English Democrats. I don't intend to involve myself in that, apart from to associate myself with his response to them.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceHowever, I note that the South East Area Chairman of the English Democrats has seen fit to write to representatives of each of the 'British' (his word, not mine) political parties, complaining about the behaviour of a number of named individuals and warning that they retain the right to seek the protection of the Race Relations Act against anyone who suggests that they might be racist and/or fascist.

I haven't had any experience of the English Democrats as a campaigning force, in part because I have spent my adulthood in areas where right-wing nationalism is unlikely to make much headway. Those of my colleagues who have are yet to be convinced that they are anything other than a reactionary party of the fringe right.

However, they do have one thing in common with some of history's less palatable political forces. The Nazi Party, as it rose to power, tended to use an increasingly corrupted legal system to hamstring political opponents, and dictatorships of left and right often used the law to persecute legitimate alternative movements.

Some might describe it as 'getting your retaliation in first'. Others might describe it as a desperate attempt by a bunch of fringe fanatics to gain a modicum of attention that their normal campaigning wouldn't achieve. Me, I think of it as an attempt to suppress potentially legitimate criticism. And you know, even the constitution of the German Democratic Republic, that well known democratic utopia that failed to survive the fall of communism, was constitutionally opposed to such an approach.

The English traditionally believe in a sense of fair play, of tolerance, a degree of give and take. Are the English Democrats therefore opposed to these fine attributes? And if so, might they like to remove the word English from their name?...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pork! Cheese! But more importantly, Beer!

In view of the credit crunch, Ros and I have taken the view that it is more important then ever to support local businesses and producers. It satisfies my vague sense that I can do something to 'save the planet', encourages small companies to continue their efforts, and almost certainly improves the quality of our diet.

Alder Carr Farm was the site of the first Farmers Market in the East of England, and only the third in the country, and, it is conveniently close to the country seat. Indeed, so convenient is it that the journey is shorter than to the nearest supermarket (Tesco, outside Stowmarket). The market takes place on the third Saturday of the month, and the courtyard of the farm shop complex is filled with stalls selling fresh beef, home made chocolates, game, and locally grown vegetables.

Ros is not entirely well, having contracted the fairly miserable cold that is doing the rounds. So, in caring husband mode, I decided to feed her cold with a freshly made sausage roll - they really are awfully good, as Lord Bonkers might say. We'd bought other pork products - locally cured bacon, sausages and even award-winning black pudding from a butcher in Peasenhall - but a warm sausage roll is a thing of beauty.

Fruit and vegetables were procured, and our trolley was nearly full. However, something was missing, and I found it on one of the stalls. Rougham is a small village between Needham Market and Bury St Edmunds, famous for very little, I suspect. However, what it does have is Bartrams Brewery, a small micro brewery which produces an interesting range of beers. In line with our newly reinforced purchasing policy, I therefore purchased a mixed case of twelve bottles for consumption at the country seat.

As an oddity, one of the bottles was of 'Alder Carr Ale', commemorating the Farmers Market. At an alcohol level of 10%, this is far from a quaffing ale, more a long contemplatory sip over a solid lunch. It's very dark, and a rather acquired taste, I think. I might have to study the issue further...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Katherine and Cincinnati's big adventure

This will be my second Christmas spent predominantly in Suffolk and, given the length of the break, Ros decided that the cats should join us.

I did have my reservations. All five cats were fairly traumatised by the move from East Dulwich to Kingsbury, and I was worried that they might react badly to a two-hour trip to Creeting St Peter. Ros had already loaded up the car by the time I got home yesterday evening, and all that remained was to put the cats in their carriers and put them in the car.

The journey itself was uneventful, although Katherine whinged all the way up the A1, across the A505 and around the A14. This was as nothing compared to the yowling as she was carried across the garden to the house - anyone would have thought that she was being tortured.

However, on being released from their boxes, they've explored the house and, whilst Cincinnati is a bit sulky, Katherine has taken to the change of scenery well. Eventually, we'll let them outside. It will be interesting to see whether the pheasants mug them...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

If only setting targets made it all better...

As a civil servant, I've experienced a lot of target setting over the years. It tends to replace genuine management, as it allows senior staff to give the impression of doing something whilst not requiring them to do anything other than collect data (actually, someone else does that for them, usually the person doing the work). Think of it as getting the slaves who built the pyramids to whip themselves for slacking.

Inevitably, what happens is that staff behaviour is distorted towards delivering those areas which are targetted at the expense of everything else, regardless of the impact. If you want to emphasise the distortion, you introduce performance related pay linked to specific targets, a favourite of central government over the past twenty years.

It becomes more important to vouch those activities than to look beond the 'target horizon', until you reach a point where people stop looking altogether. And here, the Baby P scandal puts its head above the parapet. Without the benefit of a background in social work, and without the benefit of the findings of the inquiry, I can guess that everyone concerned was satisfied that they had met their targets, and sight of the actual aim of the exercise, i.e. to protect vulnerable children, was lost.

Last year, a target was announced with regard to an area of work I specialise in. It was an entirely laudable goal, and one that I supported. However, there was no means to measure whether or not it was being achieved, and no context in which performance against that target could be properly judged. On asking a senior colleague what was planned to remedy this issue, I was told that it was hoped that something might be set up. It still hasn't been, although on the basis of my personal data, I know that I have met our goal. I have assured management that we are currently on target, but they only really have my word for it.

For some time, I've been arguing that political parties, Liberal Democrats included, need to decide what government is for. Once you decide that, what you do in government stems from some sense of philosophical cohesion and consistency. In terms of what the public sector does, a slightly refined question applies - what is your function?

If target setting is a tacit acknowledgement that you can't do everything that you are required to, can you successfully reduce the number of things that you actually can do, or can you drop areas of work without causing hurt to those that you serve? Alternatively, can you obtain the resources you need to deliver the whole job?

Ironically, there is a group of people capable of making the best decisions under such circumstances. Generally abused, under-resourced and ill-equipped, those of us on the front line are forced to make decisions about resource use every day. We see the impact of those decisions on those that we serve, and we have the potential flexibility to react quickly to day to day situations. If anyone is serious about improving our public services, they'll find a way to harness that opportunity.

Perhaps if the Government set another target...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rumour has it that I don't like candidates. Rumour is an idiot...

Alright, I had a bit of a go at the Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA). I felt justified at the time, and whilst their Chair had a bit of a go back, I still need to be convinced that they're as effective as they might be.

However, word has got out that I'm 'anti-candidate', whatever that might mean. If it means that I expect an organisation that has status in the Party to demonstrate competence and obey the rules, well yes, I plead guilty as charged. Indeed, whilst Martin Turner and I exchanged a series of terse e-mails on my return from a well-deserved holiday, we had found some areas of mutual agreement (by the way, Martin, got that password for me yet?).

At the same time, word reaches me that I have caused a stir in English Candidates Committee circles. Ah yes, I had a bit of a dart at them too, didn't I? Anyone would think that I didn't care...

So let's get something straight, before the anonymous peanut gallery get it into their heads that impugning my reputation is a good idea. Candidates are a vital part of what we do. We need more potential Parliamentary candidates, from all walks of life, from all sections of our community, better trained, better resourced and better supported. I've argued for that, encouraged debate on how we might achieve it, and gone out of my way to open up our processes and engage a wider audience.

I've given up my weekends over nearly fourteen years as a candidate assessor (unpaid, and with no personal reward), and expending time, care and a large chunk of my personal finances as a Returning Officer over twenty years (I'm not very good at claiming my expenses...). At least a candidate gets to appear on a ballot paper and be the focus of a campaign.

On top of that, I've served on both the Regional and State Candidates Committees, answered questions from potential candidates, made presentations on the approval system, signed sponsorship forms for people who impress me, and encouraged others to give approval more thought. I've written and proposed motions to open up the process to underrepresented groups, and opposed discrimination wherever I've encountered it.

You know, the worst thing about politics is the behind the scenes whispering. So I have a request to those who are suggesting that I'm anti-candidate - if you've got a problem with what I've got to say, have a word with me. Make the case for an alternative view by all means, and do it publicly. The alternative is that you earn my pity, because you simply aren't worth my respect.

And if you don't understand that I'm angry because I care, because it's my gut reaction to want a system that works for everyone, that you really don't know me. And that's a crying shame...

The very model of a modern Presidential consort

It's all very well being the Honourable Lady Mark, but what is the job description? Tonight, I had the opportunity to get some advice from the only prominent Presidential consort that has registered on my radar, the extraordinarily fragrant Lady Dholakia.

Ann was an ever present presence besides Navnit during his two terms as Party President and, over dinner in an Italian restaurant between Westminster and Victoria, I took the opportunity to get a sense of how being the consort works. Admittedly, we come from rather different backgrounds in terms of our experiences within the Party, but her advice was treasured nonetheless.

As I think I've noted before, being the Presidential consort isn't necessarily a comfortable place to be. Are people being nice to you in pursuit of their agenda or just because they're nice? Indeed, can they be trusted if you say something inadvertently indiscreet? Are you being used as a means of 'getting to the President'?

Personally, I've always taken the view that people should be trusted until they prove to be unworthy of that trust, but I may need to be a little more cautious for the next two/four years (the choice is yours, ladies and gentlemen...).

However, Ann's advice was that I should continue to be myself, as people have grown used to my slightly idiosyncratic ways (my words, not hers) and that I should continue to speak out on the things that matter to me. And so I will. I might hold back from time to time, and I trust that you will understand if I do. After all, it isn't right to upset people just because I can, even if it might be fun to do so.

Meanwhile, Navnit and Ros were discussing the Presidency, and how things worked and what was learnt. Not really my territory, methinks...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stratford to London Liverpool Street: taxi for Mr Bowker!

And so, replete with porky goodness, it is time to gather my belongings before fighting my way on to the Underground for the short journey to Euston Square and my office.

I'll shortly say goodbye to the staff of the restaurant car for the last time. And, whilst Richard Bowker, the head guy at National Express, carries on running his trains and coaches, doubtless upsetting Jonathan Wallace whilst he does so, I will be mourning the passing of another piece of railway heritage. Sorry, Mr Bowker, but you're not on my Christmas card list this year...

Chelmsford to Stratford: loosening the belt a notch

A vast breakfast successfully consumed, time to lean back in my comfy first class seat - breakfast is wonderfully egalitarian and open to all, regardless of fare paid and class of ticket held - and reflect.

The loss of the restaurant car on National Express East Anglia is, in itself, not a huge thing. From a personal perspective, it will be better for both my waistline and my pocket (breakfast may be good, but it isn't cheap). On the other hand, it makes the journey more than a lengthy commute, and the easy familiarity of seeing the same faces, eating their kippers or porridge is vaguely reassuring. I also enjoy the friendly banter with the staff, which reminds me of my days at UEA in Norwich.

However, in these times of austerity, a loss-making restaurant car stands between National Express and yet greater profitability. I'm guessing that I won't see the benefits of my sacrifice though. And as for those staff whose jobs will be lost in the week before Christmas, my thoughts go out to them.

Ah well, a slice of toast with blackcurrent preserve is needed, methinks. Oh yes, and some coffee to wash it down...

Colchester to Chelmsford: a revolutionary cabal conspire over porridge and bagels

I do think that Monday mornings are made so much more bearable by a good breakfast, and one supposes that bacon, sausages, black pudding, a fried egg, fried bread, baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato and a hash brown meets the criteria. Very good it was too.

My fellow travellers are grumbling about the loss of their morning routine too, and one is moved to suggest that one of the MPs on the route should be making a fuss. They certainly don't seem to respond to a baroness - Ros wrote to them expressing her dismay and was given the 'standard brush-off letter' in reply.

Ironically, the main stations on the line serve constituencies held by all three major Parties, Norwich South and Ipswich are Labour, South Norfolk (for Diss), Bury St Edmunds (for Stowmarket) and whichever seat covers Manningtree are Conservative, and, of course, Colchester is Liberal Democrat.

Any chance that you might all rally round our restaurant car, gentlemen?

Manningtree to Colchester: a tribute to Bob Russell

I like Bob Russell. There, I've said it. Fortified by another slice of buttered toast, we plough on into Essex and on towards Bob's seat of Colchester.

There are those who would disparage Bob, but he is true to the finest traditions of the Party, and is a fine constituency MP. He reminds me of a proper full English breakfast - and guess what just turned up in front of me?

Ipswich to Manningtree: getting my Vitamin C

Ros will testify that her efforts to persuade me to get my 'five a day' have settled on a more realistic 'five a week'. However, as part of my breakfast on the move, I get a glass of orange juice and a bowl of assorted citrus fruit. Very nice, gets the digestion moving a little in anticipation of the treat to follow.

The approach to the Stour Valley is usually one of the prettier parts of the run but, in sympathy with the air of nostalgic regret and sense of impending loss, the sky is grey and damp, and the farm animals are standing around, looking forlorn.

It just won't be the same in standard class...

The end of an era: the 8.10 from Stowmarket to London Liverpool Street

Well, I've caught the train and taken a seat in the restaurant car. Today sees my last breakfast on my regular Monday morning train from the country seat, as National Express East Anglia withdraw their restaurant car service when the new timetable comes in on Saturday.

It's a sad day for those of us who have a romantic view of the railways, so I thought that I should mark the occasion. I've got a cup of coffee and a slice of buttered toast, with an assortment of citrus fruit on the way, so I'll be back after Ipswich...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shetlanders 1, HM Revenue & Customs 0

Hat-tip to Alastair Carmichael for the news that my beloved HMRC have decided not to close our office in Lerwick, the only one of our offices in Shetland, after all.

I'm guessing that they worked out that the excess fares they would have to pay to staff commuting to the next nearest office might bankrupt them...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Liberal Vision - if it wasn't nailed to its perch, it would be pushing up the daisies...

Three months ago, we all got terribly excited about 'Liberal Vision'. It was all about freedom, removing the dead hand of government from the lives of the people. Not a concept that, in itself, that I was particularly troubled by.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
On the other hand, they did feel it necessary to mark our MPs for liberalism - their 'poster boy' promptly calling for a ban on the sale of cheap alcohol by supermarkets - using a set of criteria heavily weighted towards lifestyle-related issues and thus somewhat distorted. They also suggested that most of our MPs would lose their seats unless we pledged tax cuts. As a form of attention seeking, it worked very well, even if such an open display of disloyalty made it difficult to attract public support.

However, they had made an impression, and attracted media interest. Indeed, Mark Littlewood got plenty of air time to perfect his impression of a critical friend of Liberal Democracy. Since then, nothing, nada... not so much a thinktank as an accursed castle, asleep for a hundred years.

Of course, a cynic might suggest that the launch of Liberal Vision was merely a means to gain a platform, and that two rather weak papers were sufficient to fool the mainstream media into giving a 'wannabe' a higher profile than his record merited. Indeed, we've been here before. Ben Ramm, whose almost mythical publication, 'The Liberal', gained him a notoriety arising solely from an uncanny ability to use media opportunities to denigrate the Party.

Liberal Vision's sole asset is Mark Littlewood. He has, regardless of what one might think of his politics, a proven record of attracting coverage. What else might help Liberal Vision to develop a veneer of credibility is yet to become apparent, presuming that it aspires to be anything more than a vehicle for personal vanity...

UKIP: not swivel-eyed but possibly more than a little odd...

In the course of the question and answer session that formed the latter part of the book launch, one questioner introduced himself as the Chair of the UKIP London Regional Committee, Paul Wiffen.

He suggested, apparently in all seriousness, that money was a bad thing. He noted that he was doing as much as possible without the use of money, and only had £5 on him because, "his aunt had given him the money, as she didn't want him to be vulnerable". Bless...

Life is about more than just meetings

Monday night saw my farewell performance as a member of the London Region Executive Committee. I admit that it was high time that I took a step back, as I'd lost my edge on a committee that had given the impression of a lack of respect.

Last night, I celebrated my new-found freedom by attending the launch of Stephen Haseler's new book, "Meltdown - how the Masters of the Universe destroyed the West's power and prosperity" at London Metropolitan University. Professor Haseler is a friend of Ros's, and his view is that the neo-conservative vision of low regulation, encouraged by the triumph of capitalism over communism, combined with poor political leadership is the cause of much of our current discomfort. As interesting as Stephen was, his fellow panel members, Lord Skidelsky and Larry Elliott, added further intellectual lustre to the evening.

Stephen managed to bring together a whole clutch of concepts which have nagged at me like a slightly loose tooth for some time. The notion that the societal norm of debt-averseness has been overturned, that there could not be a reversal of the previous inevitable advance of living standards and of personal wealth has seemed, to this bureaucrat at least, to be flawed in terms of ts credibility. Without Vince Cable's lonely campaigning over the years, the strategy of debt-fueled growth, promoted by the Government and basically unchallenged by the Conservatives, would have been unanimously supported.

The audience was interesting too. Given Professor Haseler's somewhat social democratic view of the world, the presence of Progressive Vision's own Svengali, Mark Littlewood, was perhaps a mite unexpected. Whilst they share a love of Championship football teams (QPR and Southampton respectively), I am unconvinced that they would see eye to eye on many aspects of the book.

So, all in all, a thought-provoking evening out...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Mood music for your Regional Executive - part 2

Yes, it's Regional Executive time once again. Today, I'm listening to the Proclaimers...

"But I'd be happy
When next I ask the time
If I find I've wasted none of mine
Listening while you wasted all of yours..."

It's looking like it'll be another grim evening...

Should seeing David Beckham in his Dolce & Gabbana scanties make me feel inadequate?

Yesterday's 'Observer' included an article that I noted with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Apparently, we men are being made to feel less than adequate by comparing ourselves with men like David Beckham and, especially for my old friend and irredeemable Gooner, Sara Bedford, Freddie Ljungberg in their expensive designer underwear. Hmmm... perhaps we might understand how some young women feel when they look at fashion magazines...

For all Gunners fans out there...
Well, no, not really. David and Freddie, to take two of the most prominent examples, are professional athletes. They are paid to spend their time training, working out etc, and they have no other professional obligation. Had I been a professional footballer, I would probably had a body like that. Instead, I have the muscular power of a bureaucrat, largely centred on my fingers and designed for pen pushing and telephone dialling. The rest of me needs work, that's true, but I prefer pork to press-ups, cheese to cross training.

So I'm one of the lucky ones. When I see a vast poster of David Beckham in his stylish but hugely expensive underwear, I think, "Heavens, he's been putting in the hours!", not, "I wish that I had a body like that.". There is something to be said for being realistic...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

List elections - will this necessarily help?

In a darkened corner of Liberal Democrat News, I note an announcement of a review of the Party's experience in PR elections across the UK.

The Federal Executive, in its wisdom, has appointed Brian Orrell and James Gurling to carry out the review. Whilst I for one might feel that individuals with a stronger campaigning record might have been more optimal, my primary question is why two members resident in inner London are appropriate, given that we fight list elections in every Region and State.

Alright, we also have Assembly elections in London, but there are Parliamentary and now local government elections in Scotland, and Assembly elections in Wales. At a time when there is an increasing sense of disconnect between the centre and the States and Regions, what message does this send out?

However, we have what we have. If you know more than the review team do, or at least, think you do, let Brian know at Brian.Orrell(at spambot) The advert says keep your comments, observations or learnings(?) as brief as possible, and make sure that you get them to him by 31 December. Stick to the date, but tell him exactly what you think. Our future prospects might depend upon it...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Death by a thousand cuts - the end of central government near you

This week, my union, the Public and Commercial Service union (PCS), issued a press release claiming that 3,500 jobs would be lost in local offices around the country. What they say is true, for a given value of true. What they have omitted to say is that these cuts are part of an already announced programme to axe 25,000 jobs, i.e. more than one in four of our staffing numbers as in 2005.

In an organisation that is seeking to achieve serious effiency gains over that period (5% each year), job losses are inevitable, and increased computerisation will allow technology to replace people in terms of data entry, filing and other humdrum, but currently essential tasks.

However, the Department are engaged in a simultaneous programme of 'estate rationalisation', i.e. closing smaller offices in favour of bringing larger concentrations of staff together in more space-effective configurations. The amount of space needed to house an individual officer has been pared back, a process known as 'restacking', allowing more staff to be housed in the same space.

This allows the release of now surplus office accommodation, thus reducing the running costs of the Department. The downside is that, in all likelihood, the HM Revenue & Customs presence near you soon won't be. For example, offices in Sudbury, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Clacton and Witham have all been designated for closure, with the work moving to Ipswich and Southend.

The process of retreat and amalgamation has been an ongoing story throughout my career. If Flanders and Swann were still alive today, instead of singing about the Beeching cuts, they would have been singing about the loss of offices such as Bryanston, Southwark and St Giles. Offices that covered geographically tiny area were prevalent just twenty years ago - the City of London had thirty-two offices dealing with its affairs, imaginatively called City I, City II, etc. However, the relationship between the offices and the individuals and companies that they dealt with was somehow more personal.

With 'progress' comes, unfortunately, the loss of that connection between government and community, and the rise of an apparently faceless bureaucracy. That appears to be the price to be paid for a leaner, meaner government. I just hope that it proves to be worth it.

Merry Christmas, Mr Scrooge

"Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the train, not a restaurant car was stirring, not even near Diss..."

I have written in the past of the joy of breakfast on the train from Stowmarket to London Liverpool Street, a joy which makes bearable having to catch a train at the uncivilised time of 8.10 in the morning to get to work, especially on a Monday. And now, just when I have settled upon a routine, National Express East Anglia have announced that their award-winning restaurant car service will be withdrawn in the week before Christmas, with the loss of more than fifty jobs.

Isn't it lovely?
I am sure that they will have some perfectly plausible reason for their decision, and for many people, there will be no noticeable change, but a little piece of the joy of rail travel will be lost, probably forever.

National Express East Anglia's breakfast service, especially their 'Great British Breakfast' is a thing of beauty. Bacon, sausages and black pudding, nearly all locally sourced, with a fried egg complete with a slice of fried bread, beans, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms plus a hash brown, plus citrus fruit, tea or coffee, and all the toast a hungry bureaucrat can eat does not come cheap, but it is one of the glories of the British railway network, and should be preserved. They even serve proper kippers, good porridge, eggs Benedict and provide a decent vegetarian alternative. All of this to be lost in just a fortnight (sigh).

Frankly, when the franchise comes up for renewal, I will happily support anyone who promises to resume a proper restaurant car service between London and Norwich. Richard Bowker, the head honcho at National Express, should hang his head in shame. For however good he might be at running a railway (and in Jonathan Wallace's eyes, he can't be trusted to run a bath), he clearly has no soul.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Christopher Galley - possibly a bit of an idiot

We await the whole story of Damien Green's adventures in information gathering and, whilst I fear that it may not be as tidy as our Conservative friends would like us to believe, my concerns at this time are with the young man really at the centre of events, Christopher Galley. If, as accused, he wilfully leaked documents with the intention of embarassing his employer and, moreover, did so to achieve political advantage for one or other of the political parties, he is entirely reprehensible.

Civil servants, in their working lives, must be relied upon to give advice in an unbiased and neutral way, both by politicians and the public that they serve. If they find themselves unable to do so, resignation is the only acceptable course of action. This is not to say that they should not have political views, nor that they should be prevented from playing a full role in the society and communities in which they operate.

What Christopher Galley has done, if guilty, is to undermine that sense of trust which engenders good governance. Politicians must be able to trust those who work to them and, in eturn, politicians must respect the independence of the Civil Service. Otherwise, politicians work in isolation from those who must carry out their orders or, perhaps worse still, surround themselves with people that they trust, leading inevitably to a further politicisation of the bureaucracy.

If he is guilty, the book must be thrown at him, both to discourage others from behaving similarly and to restore confidence in the ability of the Civil Service to serve politicians of all parties and none. There is, as Mrs Thatcher once said, no alternative...

All quiet on the Western (India) front

I was, like so many people, horrified by recent events in my second city, Mumbai. It touched me particularly, given that I have family across the city, and that I have spent many happy weeks in the city over nearly forty years. Luckily, the various members of my family have checked in, and all is well.

Victoria Terminus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
However, it was the choice of targets that was of particular poignancy. Victoria Terminus, one of the busiest railway stations in the world, is a place that I have passed through on many occasions, and somewhere I took great delight in showing to Ros when we were on our honeymoon. The swimming pool of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel was pictured in some disarray, and was the place where we spent our final afternoon in the city before flying home on that trip.

Mumbaikers are resilient souls - they've had to be over the years - and the city will recover, just as New York, London and Madrid have in recent times. Hopefully, those who hide and plan such atrocities will be found and punished for their acts, and the authorities in their countries of origin are willing to cooperate so that this might happen.

Let me make myself absolutely clear...

Before Ros and I left for Madeira, I published my thoughts on the Parliamentary Candidates Association, and what it should do. These led to a fairly robust exchange of views between myself and Martin Turner, the PCA Chair, most of which has taken place off-line. I will not bore you with the detail, suffice to say that I have offered Martin a platform to espouse the work that the organisation is undertaking.

However, there have been some knock-on effects, and I feel obliged to add a clarification regarding the status of this blog, what it represents and, whilst doing so, what my policy is with regard to comments. I am, I confess, slightly irritated that I should have to do so. However, if individuals insist on drawing the wholly unjustified conclusion that I am acting as a mouthpiece for any individual other than myself, or for any organisation, then I feel justified in denying it vigorously.

So, the text that now sits in the upper right hand side of this blog should be taken at face value. You have only yourself to blame if, by disregarding this friendly warning, you adopt an incorrect stance...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bring Your Spouse to Work Day - House of Lords style

Never let it be said that the House of Lords is not a progressive institution, as the State Opening of Parliament is one of those rare occasions when the spouses (and families) of Peers get to be part of the show.

Only those Peers who own, or have borrowed, the red robes topped with the pelt of some poor hapless creature who would much rather still be alive and attached, get to sit in the chamber, so the benches which are normally filled with Barons, Earls and the like, are filled with Ladies (the capital is intended) in their finery.

Naturally, as is so often the case, no such provision is made for male spouses, so I had no opportunity to dust off my tiara - a family heirloom, you understand - and instead put on a suit and was found a seat in the West Gallery, with some of the High Commissioners from such countries as The Gambia and New Zealand. I had been lucky enough to get a seat, as Ros had noted in her application that I was a 'rookie' spouse and that this would be my first such occasion.

The speech by Her Majesty was notable primarily for its brevity, and from my angle, I got the impression that she was turning it over to see if she had missed something. She does give 'good speech' though, and it was certainly an occasion that will live long in the memory.

I can also confirm that a potential diplomatic incident was averted, however. I wonder whose idea it was to seat the Indian and Pakistani High Commissioners next to each other?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Parliamentary Candidates Association: get better or die trying...

In October, I looked at the potential role of Regional Parties in stemming the waste of candidate talent out there. Today, it's the turn of the PCA...

I have, in the past, been quite scathing in my criticism of the PCA, and rightly so. An organisation whose past ineptitude its own Chair is able to freely admit, needs to do more, do it better and represent its members far more effectively than it has to date. The number of complaints I have received about their inability to even communicate with their own subscription-paying members is in itself a sign of an organisation that needs to justify its rank and position.

They claim to be a 'trade union for candidates'. I am a trade unionist (Public and Commercial Services, for those of you who are interested), and if my union was as useless as the PCA is, I'd be off sharpish.

In my three years on English Candidates Committee, I have seen very little sign of life. Their one attempt to propose changes to the candidate Selection Rules was marred by the seeming inability of the drafters to understand how selections work, what they aim to achieve, and how the Party works (no wonder so many of them failed 'Party Knowledge' on their development days!). The fact that, in trying to truncate the process, they proposed enough additional regulation to add three weeks to the timetable, wasn't exactly impressive. To make matters worst, after I had taken great care to shred the proposals to such an extent that they would only be viable if used as bedding for hamsters, the PCA Executive, who had sponsored the proposals, then denied any responsibility. To my mind, that was cowardice of the highest order.

So, having slated the organisation, what do I think it should do?
  1. Create a mentoring structure for PPCs. The Campaign for Gender Balance can do it - why can't you?
  2. Service your members properly - representing their views, providing advice on how to deal with difficult Local Parties, engaging in rules reviews, these are the things that I expect.
  3. Work with the Campaigns Department to draw up better guidance for candidates in winnable seats - what commitment of time is really necessary, how adjustments can be made to allow for personal circumstances.
  4. Make yourselves reflective of the sort of Parliamentary Party we all want - involve a wider range of people, find ways to encourage women and BME candidates to play a part in your activities.
  5. Create a central information resource, not necessarily 'Who's Who in the Liberal Democrats' but more 'Who Does What in the Liberal Democrats'. It would be far more useful to candidates, especially the less well-resourced ones, when they really need to know something.
And you know something, if they can't do this, then perhaps their status within the Party should be a matter for debate. Or perhaps the current PCA Executive Committee should fall on their swords and leave it to others more capable... like the new Leadership Academy?

Technology back up and running

I've been having problems with my BlackBerry of late, culminating in the loss of the downward scroll function, making the gadget pretty useless.

So, the weekend before last saw me in Ipswich, talking to an incredibly helpful young man from Carphone Warehouse who said, "Why don't you just buy yourself out of your old contract, get a new gadget, a new contract and, best of all reduce your monthly charge? Oh yes, and we'll give you £100 for trading in your old BlackBerry.". Suitably pleased, I went through the paperwork, saw that it was good, and tied up the deal.

All was good, except that I was having problems accessing Blogger. Until today, that is. I was trying to read Jennie's blog entry about her dogs and got a message telling me that the site had been rated as suitable for over eighteen year olds only (I really ought to take a closer look at your blog, Jennie, I've obviously missed something). Time to ring Orange, I think...

So, I had the child protection wall removed, and a helpful young man finally worked out that my default browser was set to Orange World. A quick change later, and all is well. Best of all, he worked out that he could cut the cost of my monthly contract by £5.

And so blogging should return to normal from here on in. Let the blogosphere rejoice?

Jessica will be pleased...

So, I tried this Gender Analyser thing, and it says that my blog is 83% likely to be written by a man. Empress Jessica writes a chunk of the blog, so I suppose that it's not far away from the truth...

By-elections: before my computer so rudely interrupted me

I have teething problems with Blogger at work. It tends to stop working part way through blog postings. Perhaps I should find better ways to spend my lunch break... Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, here's the second anonymous comment...

"There is a hidden assumption that local party members are actually local. This is not always the case. A large number of members can have their membership transferred in to local parties from others to influence selection decisions and gain control of local party executives, at the expense of locally based members. A decision at regional or federal level is preferable to this kind of thing."

When the membership rules were revisited in 2006, one of the changes was to prevent members transferring from Local Party to Local Party (except, of course, due to change of residence) by requiring signed approval by a Regional Officer. These are pretty rare, and there have to be good grounds - historical connections or employment, for example. I think that I've signed three in the past two years.

In fact, even before that change, an effective Membership Secretary, working in consort with an alert Local Party Executive Committee, could prevent such naked attempts at entryism. It would be fair to say that the only ways to circumvent that would require either gaining control of the Local Party first (and thus demonstrating that you represented the majority view already), or persuading the Executive Committee not to challenge new membership applications. In either instance, the Local Party is in trouble and could be suspended by the Regional Party.

So, the comment is a bit of a red herring, based on a situation which might have arisen two years ago, and was, in reality, seldom an issue. I increasingly feel that we have show that we trust Local Parties and if not, say why we don't. It is not viable to ask Local Parties and their members to do more and more, yet take powers away from them whilst you do so.

Monday, November 24, 2008

By-election candidate selection continued...

My blog entry late on Saturday evening has attracted some interest, and in particular, two anonymous comments. Funny, isn't it, how the anonymous commenter supports the notion that Local Parties can't be trusted... However, I will respond to their comments thus;

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
"I'd have thought there was a much better reason for not having a local party person on the panel: it's not a selection committee. Its job is to assess the ability of a candidate to cope with a by-election. Issues of local knowledge are for other parts of the process."

Actually, it is a selection committee. The By-election Panel merely carries out the shortlisting role otherwise carried out by the Selection Committee in a normal PPC selection. The process might be more intensive (although there is theoretically nothing stopping an 'ordinary' selection committee from being so rigorous), but it is fundamentally the same. And, one of the key criteria to be tested by the By-election Panel is the ability to represent the constituency in question. So, issues of local knowledge are for that part of the process.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fancy meeting you here… old meets new in Mansfield…

Ros had been invited to be the guest speaker at the first ever Annual Dinner held by Greater Ashfield & Mansfield Liberal Democrats, and I took the opportunity to attend my first event as First Lady-elect. After a pleasant enough trip up, I arrived in what felt like the Arctic tundra but turned out to be Mansfield. Gosh, it was cold….

I found my way to the restaurant, where Ros had just arrived by car, having driven up from Suffolk via Newark and we made our way into the venue to find that the Annual General Meeting was still in progress. I know the PPC, Jason Zadrozny, whom I met when he came for his assessment day a couple of years ago.

I was surprised to see another familiar face though, that of our current President, Simon Hughes, who hadn’t been expected but decided to turn up in a show of solidarity with the Local Party. He’s paid four visits to Ashfield in recent years, a demonstration of his commitment to growing new target seats. And so Ashfield got two Presidents for the price of one pretty good Cantonese buffet. Simon spoke between the starters and the main course, as he had a train to catch and gave his usual polished speech, starting with an unexpected joke (I won’t repeat it as he may wish to use it again).

Ros spoke after dinner. She started with a response to Simon’s opening gag that was a total surprise. Clearly, if she wants something to do after she ceases to be President, she has a potential future on the alternative comedy circuit, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. Many people continue to ask me whether I get bored with hearing the same speech over and over. I have to admit that I’m never certain what Ros will say next. I know most of the elements that might be used, but they come in a kaleidoscope of variations, with different degrees of emphasis depending on the audience, the sign of a good speaker, I guess.

Whilst it was cold outside, we got a warm welcome from the members and activists. I bumped into Bob Charlesworth, who was one of my fellow Returning Officers during the first European Regional List selections - he did West Midlands, I did South East. He got to be Mayor of Eastwood recently, a role he really enjoyed, and it is good to see a party stalwart like Bob get a turn in the limelight.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dynamism shown by the Local Party, who have seized the opportunity presented by Labour neglect and Conservative invisibility to make real inroads in an area traditionally dominated by the Labour Party. With luck, 2009 will see a dramatic increase in the Liberal Democrat presence on Nottinghamshire County Council, and with Jason and his team on the case, we should be modestly confident that they will do so.

We said our goodbyes and headed to Newark, where a good night’s sleep was had before we went our separate ways…

An odyssey by train - London King’s Cross to Mansfield, York to London St Pancras?

I do enjoy a good train ride. So, whilst Ros was entertaining Woking Liberal Democrats, I was on the East Midlands Trains service from York to London St Pancras. This is one of those oddities not designed to carry people from A to B but to drop them off and/or pick up at points C, D and E in between. Indeed, I may be the only person on the train who will be onboard throughout, as even the crew were changed at Chesterfield!

My train ran non-stop from York to Chesterfield, not stopping at Leeds or Wakefield Westgate, bypassing Sheffield, before calling at Derby, Long Eaton, Loughborough, Leicester, Market Harborough, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford and Luton on its way to the Palace of Wonderment that is St Pancras International. It isn’t a quick route, at 3¾ hours, it’s rather longer than the direct trains to Kings Cross, which take about 2½ hours on a Saturday evening, but it’s a novel one, and left me time to write a few blog entries for posting later.

Best of all, I got a first class seat for just £15. Yes, £15. The advantage, perhaps, of not necessarily thinking inside the box. I save the English Party some money too, probably a good thing…

On Friday, I made my way to Mansfield for the first ever Greater Ashfield Liberal Democrats Annual Dinner, held in the “Emperor“ restaurant, once the local Labour Club (at least it’s now being put to good use!). It turned out to be cheaper to get to Mansfield via Grantham and Nottingham than to go straight up the East Midlands line via Leicester. Ah, the wonders of ticketing policy in our new competitive age…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

English Candidates Committee - not sure that they trust you…

I’ve spent the day in York, and it’s been a vaguely unsatisfying experience. There were some good elements, and I’ll cover them in other postings, but here I want to talk about by-elections. There has been, over the years, a degree of unhappiness about how the Party deals with candidate selection in such instances, and it would be fair to say that we’ve made the mistake of focussing on process and not worrying overly much about the impact that the process has on the human element, i.e. applicants and Local Party members.

However, following the Leicester South by-election where, for a few painful moments, I faced the poisoned chalice of being the Returning Officer, we at least moved to address the previous failure to ensure that we made every effort to enable any candidate on the approved list to put themselves forward.

We are by no means word perfect though, and there was much controversy over the decision to pick outsiders in both Crewe and Nantwich and Henley, especially where sitting PPCs were already in place. Of course, our Federal constitution has made it clear for many years that this is the case (despite the mischief-making of the likes of Chris Paul, whose fascination with our inner workings seemingly knows no linit), and with good cause. After all, the skills required to fight a seat in a by-election are significantly different to those required for a general election, a point that most people accept.

So, we spent today looking at proposals put before us by a working group set up especially to look at the issues which arise in a by-election scenario. Under the terms of the protocol passed today, the sitting PPC will automatically go before the by-election panel, bypassing the first phase, an advance from where we were previously. So far, so good. They therefore miss the first stage, where the full list of applicants are screened by a selection committee consisting entirely of local party members, under the guidance of a senior, experienced Returning Officer. I’m still happy thus far.

The by-election panel will consist of;
  • the Chair or Vice-Chair of the ECC (or nominee)
  • an MP (preferably one who has fought a by-election or similar type of seat)
  • the RCC from the Region where the by-election is taking place (or nominee)
  • the Director of Campaigns (or nominee)
The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that there is no representative of the Local Party. Indeed, there is no guarantee that someone from the relevant Region will be present, as there is no obligation upon the RCC to nominee someone from his or her Region, as I discovered when a by-election was rumoured recently, and I was asked by the RCC to act as their nominee. The by-election wasn’t going to be in London…

Being a great believer in the sovereignty of Local Parties, I naturally took the opportunity to raise the question of Local Party representation. I was given a number of reasons why they should not be involved, including;
  • issues regarding factions within the Local Party
  • the ability of Local Party members to understand the issues involved in fighting a by-election
  • the difficulty in getting five people together at short notice
  • confidentiality - a Local Party member might go back to their colleagues and say that they didn’t agree with the outcome
It does seem to boil down to the fact that there are elements on English Candidates Committee who don’t trust Local Parties to be involved, a fact which saddens me. There have been instances where a popular , local PPC has been excluded for reasons which, from the perspective of the Local Party, look flimsy, regardless of their genuine validity. I will address the concerns though.

Most Local Parties that I have encountered encompass differences of opinion. Commonality of opinion does not figure highly in the Liberal Democrat Book of Essentials. Commonality of purpose usually does though, and that tends to be where the problems lie. The ability to accept a decision taken openly and democratically does occasionally find key activists missing however, and there are individuals who can only too readily testify to what happens when a decision taken is undermined by a small but influential group of dissenters. Sadly, whatever you do, in such circumstances you cannot stop them from becoming a problem short of radical disciplinary action, a course which can create more problems than it solves.

I am puzzled that there are those who doubt that Local Party members can grasp the issues pertaining to a by-election campaign, when the proposals already place responsibility for drawing up the shortlist to go before the By-election Panel in the hands of a selection committee made up entirely of… Local Party members. Are we not at home to Mr Irony?

We overcome the difficulties of bringing the By-election Panel together by allowing wide powers of nomination. So, why not invite the Local Party Chair or his/her nominee? Given that we will be testing potential candidates on, amongst other things, the ability to demonstrate credibility as a candidate for the constituency in question, might not a little local knowledge be helpful?

As for confidentiality, I am disappointed that a Local Party member should be thought to be less trustworthy than a senior figure in the Party. Personal experience tells me that this is not necessarily accurate and it is indeed fortunate for certain individuals that I can keep a secret.

However, the desire to retain control at the centre continues to cast its spell on some who claim to be calling for radical change, and I fear that the path towards a selection system that has genuine support and buy-in will be strewn with obstacles in the months and years to come. Luckily, I expect to outlive most of my colleagues on ECC…