Monday, April 28, 2008

Indian politics: it's all about loyalty, really

It's rather warm here in Bangalore but, just as at home in London, Karnataka is awash with election fever, with polls due to take place here on 10 May for the State Assembly.

The various political parties are vying for supremacy, as observers are of the view that the result in this southern state will influence the timing of Lok Sabha (the Indian equivalent of the Commons) elections to come. One interesting effect of this is the flurry of party switching for personal advantage. Whilst at home, political switching at local level is not unheard of, at more rarified levels it is extremely newsworthy.

Here, it appears to be part of day to day political life, and the threat of switching in order to obtain what is called a 'ticket' or candidacy is used, and not just behind closed doors either, but often through the pages of the highly influential local and regional press. Blackmail it may be, but it appears to be successful, especially as personality plays a much more significant role in getting elected than it does in British politics.

One of the side effects of such behaviour is to engender a tremendous amount of cynicism. It is assumed that politicians are corrupt, the argument being reduced to the degree to which they are. One result of this is that potential candidates are obliged to make a public declaration of their assets, the theory being, one presumes, that if a candidate is significantly enriched in the course of a term of office, this can be made known to the electorate.

Interestingly, two researchers from Harvard recently published the findings of their review of the estates of successful and unsuccessful Conservative parliamentary candidates. They discovered that those who had been successful tended to leave larger estates than those who weren't. Now I wouldn't suggest that patronage is necessarily profitable, but it does make you wonder whether all politicians go into the business for purely altruistic reasons...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hello! Amaranth Edition: the sun shone and the bride looked radiant

It was such a wonderful day in Suffolk yesterday, with bright sunshine over Otley Hall, the sound of lute music accompanied by the call of peacocks and some of Mark and Ros's dearest friends and family there to witness their marriage. Naturally, I was there to represent the family. After all, we've been watching over Mark for some time now.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMark was first to arrive in his sage green and cream striped frock coat, greeting guests, walking the grounds and keeping a stray chicken out of the Great Hall itself. By 2.50, Ros had arrived, flowers most tastefully arranged in her hair, wearing a cream brocade dress coat and carrying her bouquet in cream and white.

The Superintendent Registrar, having carried out the required checks, then presided over a moving and joyful ceremony as the happy couple exchanged vows and rings, with readings from Ros's friend, Bronagh, and Mark's father.

Champagne and canapes were taken in the lovely garden, with its H-shaped pond, moat and thoughtfully designed wilderness area, whilst the children present chased the surprisingly patient chickens and enjoyed the opportunity for play. Meanwhile, group photographs were taken, followed by some pictures of the bride and groom using the house as a backdrop.

Later, the bride, groom and their guests enjoyed a three-course meal highlighting locally-sourced pork and shellfish washed down with some excellent wines before the evening culminated in speeches by the acting-father of the bride, the groom and the best man (the groom's younger brother, Kirk), with Master of Cermonies duties performed by the dashing, and kilted, John Barrett. The cake was then cut before the bride and groom retired to the Salthouse Harbour hotel prior to their honeymoon in southern India.

It was a simply wonderful day, and the best wishes of the people of Amaranth go with them in the years to come...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And so the big day has arrived...

Welcome to the Salthouse Harbour Hotel, on the quayside in Ipswich, where a slightly nervous but pretty excited bureaucrat is preparing for a day to remember.

I've had a decent night's sleep, eaten a hearty breakfast, and successfully transferred from one hotel to the next. In about two hours, I'll be off to Otley Hall for a truly great day.

The sun is beginning to burn off the morning clouds and I have a good feeling. Wish us luck!

Monday, April 21, 2008

As Lucy might have put it, "Good grief, Gordon Brown!"

It is with increasing disbelief that I watch the neanderthal corps of Labour MP's stride into battle in defence of the poor following the abolition of the 10% rate band. Even those I considered to be of an intellectual capacity appropriate to being a competent legislator have been shown up as apparently lazy and feckless.

The cry goes up, "We didn't know what the impact of the last budget would be, it's all far too complex for our small brains to comprehend!". So, for Gordon Prentice and so many of his colleagues, let's make it simple. We told you so. We told you that, without compensating people through tax credits, those earning between approximately £5,000 and £18,000 would be worse off as a result.

What did you do? You applauded. You acclaimed Gordon Brown as a genius, so much so that you made him your leader without so much as a notional contest.

To be honest, I assumed that you didn't care about single, childless people. We aren't at the front of the queue when it comes to hardship cases - the elderly and small children make much better stories. And besides, you probably assumed that those of us who voted Labour had nowhere else to go anyway.

It would appear that I was wrong. There was no underlying principle, no strategy. You simply didn't understand what was going on, only that your job was to applaud and acclaim come what may. Astonishing!

This, apparently, is what the 'Mother of Parliaments' is reduced to. Frankly, I'm embarassed. On the other hand, I'll be looking forward to public meetings where there is an opportunity to question my local Labour MP. His defence of Labour intellectualism should be entertaining to watch...

Nervous? Me? Why should I be nervous?

A year ago, as our friend Julia points out, I fell into the category of people least likely to be married within a year. Not only was I doggedly single and quite hopelessly disorganised, but I was getting ready to move house and was somewhere between San Francisco and Melbourne, on my way to, eventually, Vanuatu. And then Ros came along...

It's been a bit of a whirlwind since then, with all of the good things that romance brings. We've gotten to know each other (not necessarily as easy or obvious as it sounds), and done a vast amount of organisation, much of it aimed towards tomorrow. Oh yes, tomorrow - the big day.

Normally, your wedding day is organised by parents, better still, her parents, who even pay for it all. On this occasion, given that we're a bit older, we've had to do all of the work ourselves and it's amazing just how much there is to think about, from caterers to florists, from wedding stationery to the Registrar. Luckily, Ros is hyper-organised (it's good that one of us is...) and everything appears to be in place for the perfect wedding.

Interestingly, my rather more laid back demeanor comes into play here. I assume that everything will be fine, on the basis that it's far too late to do anything about it. The people that we've engaged to deal with the various aspects are very nice, very patient, and give every impression of knowing exactly what they're doing. So, just as it is when I'm flying, I trust them on the basis that I couldn't do the job myself.

So I'm pretty relaxed, for now at least. I'm focussed on the end product of the day, i.e. being married to Ros and starting the rest of our lives together. And you know something, everything is going to be just fine...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why the slaughter of Labour (not so) innocents should be a warning to us all

We're on our way back from the North East, having spent the day campaigning in Durham.

As in Northumberland, the highly unpopular imposition of a unitary authority across Durham has been the cause of much infighting amongst Labour councillors, many of whom have lost their seats through the abolition of the district councils, slashing the number of available positions by as much as 60%. Undoubtedly, for some councillors, the resultant loss of income will be a cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Because this is County Durham, the Labour Party is most severely affected, although some Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly have been impacted too. I'm rather less sympathetic towards Labour councillors though, as they rammed the legislation through, against the vocal opposition of many across the county.

That said, I do have quite serious reservations in terms of the impact on local democracy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the new unitary authorities will be deliberately less open, transparent and inclusive, merely that a much smaller number of locally elected representatives will have greater responsibility and more work and, correspondingly, less time to fulfil their casework and public contact duties.

Most councillors have full-time jobs. If you ask them to attend more meetings, represent more people and cover larger areas, you can hardly expect them to manage the casework and meet the public, be it through canvassing or public meetings. The public will effectively be distanced from their representatives and lose that connection with their local authorities.

One does wonder if, indeed, this is the intention of an increasingly managerial Labour government, whose paranoia about releasing their grip on local authorities grows by the day. They have talked a decent enough game on localism whilst, at the same time, imposing unpopular unitary schemes on counties such as Cheshire, Durham and Northumberland. Their proposals for the governance of local authorities tend towards the 'one size fits all', unless of course, it is something called for by one of the loopier Labour authorities such as Stockton-on-Tees.

'Best' of all are their proposals founded on a curious belief in strong leadership, in Labour-speak, strongman leadership, where responsibility inflexibly lies with one all-powerful figure, usually supported by a small cabal, leaving the remaining majority of councillors to attempt to hold them to account. We've all seen how effective this is in London, where Ken rules supreme with the support of just nine of the twenty-five Assembly members.

And yet there appears to be no underlying priniciple other than that of virtual totalitarianism. The now Department of Communities and Local Government has had so many changes of leadership that we have a kind of bungy decision-making. A new Secretary of State arrives, makes a serious of pronouncements which contradict those made by his/her predecessor, causing councils to attempt the administrative equivalent of tapdancing on quicksand, only to be pulled out and replaced by someone new, who promptly... well, you know what I'm going to say.

Comrade Brown has, over the years, pontificated about the importance of economic stability in the construction of a sound economy. Administrative stability is important too, especially in enabling local authorities to plan the effective provision of key services. Perhaps a period of silence on the part of the current Secretary of State might be helpful?

A bureaucrat's response to artistic criticism

I really knew that I should have researched more on the haiku form before I blogged yesterday. On the other hand, canvassing in Alnwick seemed to be more immediately relevant. At least the erudite nature of my readership is apparent.

So, here is a response to the anonymous Tory leafletter in inner London...

Tory Boris fan
Get used to some frustration
Johnson is a fraud

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Inspiration strikes in Berwick - my day as haiku

I don't know much about poetry, and less about the noble Japanese concept, but here goes anyway...

A duo of baronesses
Leaflets and rain
The sting of hail
Kindly old lady and her view
Fiona and her car
More rain
Canvass cards slightly damp
Alan Beith
Sunshine on the Castle

Friday, April 11, 2008

Taking the campaign to the North East, and vice versa

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, this entry comes to you from somewhere between York and Darlington, courtesy of National Express East Coast's free wifi service. It will therefore come as no surprise when I tell you that Ros and I are on our way to the North East to campaign in Newcastle, Berwick and Durham as part of their campaign in the forthcoming local elections.

Whilst Ros has a long record of campaigning around the country, given her responsibilities as our Lords spokesperson on Communities and Local Government, my history is not so good. I've not been terribly keen on visible campaigning, partly because I find 'retail' politics stressful, but because I've generally been busy with the administrative side of things (motto - going to meetings so that you don't have to).

That said, I've been encouraged by Ros to take a more active part in the campaigning work of the Party, and it is entirely right that even bureaucrats should get out and about, meeting voters and arguing the case for liberal democracy. So, today I will be canvassing in two Newcastle wards in support of our candidates.

We're very used to seeing MP's dashing around the country during election campaigns, but members of the House of Lords are a resource that we use much less effectively than we might. Ros is by no means the only Peer on the circuit, so to speak, yet when I talk to friends around the country about getting good speakers, they tend to be fixated on our sixty-odd MP's, forgetting that our Peers often have as much, if not more, to add to campaigning and fundraising efforts. They have the same portfolios, tend to get more time to speak and have, ironically, more influence on government business than to their colleagues at the other end of the Palace of Westminster. They often have quite interesting backstories - for example, one of our noble Lords was in RAF Bomber Command during World War II.

So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise to see Ros appear at a Local Party event near you. Yes, she is running for Party President, it's true - one can hardly pretend otherwise, there's been enough overt campaigning. And yes, appearances do raise her profile. On the other hand, the opportunity to get eagerly sought media coverage is improved by the presence of a Parliamentarian, local members like to have a chance to meet them, especially in areas where we have comparatively few, and morale is raised by the realisation that someone out there actually cares enough to visit. Best of all, it's all free - we pay our own way...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Vote Match - try it, I think you'll like it

My old friend, Peter Facey, and his colleagues at Unlock Democracy have launched 'Vote Match', an opportunity for voters to measure their views against those of the declared candidates for Mayor of London. Now, whilst I admit to being a member of the Council of Unlock Democracy, having been elected last month, I thought that I really ought to try it first.

It would seem that the candidate who most reflects my views is Brian Paddick, and that I should probably vote Liberal Democrat for the Assembly. This is undoubtedly good news given that I'm the Regional Conference Chair of the London Liberal Democrats, but reassuring nonetheless.

The concept of Vote Match is one that we should all applaud, allowing ordinary voters who may not have the time to peruse the various manifestos and who do not spend their time glued to political websites, news outlets and blogs to measure their views against those of the candidates and political parties. Admittedly, this does imply that the information used to populate the program is sourced in a politically unbiased way, but knowing the range of people involved in Unlock Democracy, I have little doubt as to the effectiveness of the tool.

The idea first took off in the Netherlands, but has spread across Europe and now to the United States, where it may prove to be quite educational. So, well done to Peter and his team, and I hope that it gets the coverage that it deserves.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

European Selections: And you thought that we had problems!

I had a moment or two to spare, so I thought that I might see what our Conservative friends are up to. And fascinating it was too...

ConservativeHome is running a piece on the way Conservative Central Office has "stitched up" their selection process for the European Parliament, then withheld the results data from members. There are suggestions that ballot papers didn't go out to all members, that candidates were barred from campaigning, and that the process was rigged in favour of women.

Add to this the fact that the incumbent MEPs went through a separate process at Regional level to decide which order they would appear on the ballot paper - a process run by a regional committee without reference to the membership - and the sense of a political party that can't trust its members emerges.

I'm not actually going to take this opportunity to gloat - our own process was far from flawless - but am rather saddened that Conservative members are seemingly being denied an opportunity to involve themselves in selecting those purporting to represent them.

Political parties suffer from a declining sense of connection to the public. One of the ways they can overcome that is to rebuild their membership base, reversing decades of decline, and encouraging people to join, and even put themselves forward for public office is a core part of that. If, on the other hand, a remote clique deny ordinary members that right, they perhaps shouldn't be surprised if the politically active go elsewhere to express themselves.

I wish Tim Montgomerie and the ConservativeHome participants every good fortune in winning their battle for greater democracy within the Conservative Party. It isn't in anyone's interests to see the politics of the closed shop be successful, regardless of party...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Off the beaten path: lifting our game in East London

And so, inevitably, I'm at a dinner launching Farrukh Islam's campaign for the GLA constituency of Havering & Redbridge, here in Barkingside.

There is a theory that investment of campaigning resources in those areas of traditional weakness that exist will achieve significant returns in terms of additional votes. After all, we all adhere to a belief that, if given a genuine choice, the public will vote Liberal Democrat in droves. And in truth, East London has never been the focus of our campaign strategy. That said, we have eleven councillors in the two boroughs (ten in Redbridge, Jonathan Coles in Havering), so we clearly have a core vote where we work.

I was impressed with the energy with which Farrukh addressed the gathering, and with the number assembled. It was also good to see an excellent turnout from members of the Muslim community, a sign that, with the right candidate, we can reach out to the wider community.

Good food, good company, who could ask for more? Except, perhaps, for a fair wind for Farrukh's campaign...