Saturday, June 21, 2008

You Gov and the Party Presidency

There has been an unexpected development in the campaign for the Party Presidency in the shape of a poll seeking views on the contest and the contenders.

Curious, because nominations don't close for three months, and more so because sources close to both camps have either denied involvement (me for Ros) or indicated how unlikely it would be (a former staffer for Lembit).

Polling doesn't come cheap, although YouGov are cheaper than most, if not all, of the rivals. Oh well, I'm sure that whoever it is has their reasons...

From here to there, from there to somewhere else... life on and in the Royal Duchy

And so, Mr Valladares, what are you up to today?

Life isn't just about a campaign for the Presidency - yes, yes, Ros is running, not me - but I have my own niche within Liberal Democracy. Accordingly, we found ourselves going our separate ways today. I had a hellishly early start to catch the 08:17 train from Plymouth to Penmere (change at Truro), whilst Ros had a more leisurely morning, travelling to Tavistock for a lunchtime event with Torridge and West Devon Lib Dems. She then set off for Exmouth whilst I make the epic journey from Penmere to Exmouth (change at Truro and Exeter St Davids - journey time 4 hours and 27 minutes) to meet her. Oh yes, I'm still somewhere in Cornwall, riding on the 'Royal Duchy' and heading for the Tamar...

Tonight, we're meeting up to attend the East Devon Lib Dem boat cruise, so I am time constrained (thanks heavens the train is on time!). Ros thinks that I'm slightly crazy, travelling for six and a half hours to give a one hour presentation, but the views from the train are nice, and a promise is a promise...

A world's first in Falmouth!

Two weeks ago, English Candidates Committee formally voted to approve the new candidate approval system. We are rather proud of our new baby, and it was with some enthusiasm that I agreed to give a presentation to CONNECT, a fairly new 'ginger group' providing a stepping stone between Liberal Youth and the Liberty Network, outlining how the new process looks. Given the widely-held view that English Candidates Committee as being a secret society (I'm yet to master the special handshake and as for the right gesture with the funny little knife...), this represents a probable world first.

And so to Falmouth, and the Penmere Manor Hotel, where I walked into a session on Media, led by Tessa Munt, Lib Dem PPC for Wells. Tessa has a horde of stories and advice and, whilst we bureaucrats are not often in the media spotlight, it was interesting to hear what she had to say.

And then it was my turn. When presenting material like this, it is important not to give too much away. After all, if you are trying to assess competences, it is hardly going to help if an applicant already knows the answers. So I stuck to an outline of what the exercises are intended to do, what the possible outcomes are and what they mean, and what the competences we seek to test are.

I then invited questions on everything from approval to selection. One interesting point was that there was strong support for the current endorsement rules. Now, I've been a fairly outspoken critic of this element of our selection process, so the strength of feeling was a chance to practice the debate for the discussions ahead.

There was just enough time to have a quick chat with the event organiser, Rab Makki, before it was time to head for the station. Much kudos must go to Rab for his unstinting efforts on behalf of CONNECT, and I'm sure he's already working hard on plans for Bournemouth in September.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A lucky escape for the piscine nation, methinks

"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully." George W. Bush, Saginaw, Michigan, 29 September 2000

Farmers and animal rights welfare campaigners - who can you trust?

Today's Independent has, as its front page exclusive, a report on abuses in the British pig industry. There are some pretty gruesome pictures, taken by Animal Aid activists, which imply that senior members of the British Pig Executive (BPEX), the industry's governing body, are in breach of their animal welfare obligations.

There is always a risk, when images like these are circulated, that they are taken out of context. Are the pictures typical of day to day conditions? Are there unusual circumstances that need to be factored in? We, the readers, don't really know. So, perhaps the response of the farmers might enlighten us. A BPEX spokesman started off well, "If Animal Aid wants to send us the names and addresses of those pig farms then we would be more than happy to investigate.". If only he'd stopped there... Unfortunately, his next sentence was a doozy, "However, the most concerning factor is that this vegan campaigning company should be jeopardising the health and welfare of English pigs by breaking into private property.".

Firstly, their status as vegans is an utter red herring. Animal Aid don't appear to want to kill off the British pig industry. In a country of animal lovers, accusations of animal cruelty are always likely to be believed, especially given the urban view of the countryside. Given that the evidence suggests that farmers are mistreating their livestock, the notion that the Animal Aid campaigners were jeopardising the health and welfare of the pigs is a bit rich.

The image of farmers as stewards of a bucolic scene, animals wandering around in fields and milkmaids flirting has been replaced by a more cynical view of rapacious agri-industrialists, ploughing up hedgerows, factory farming cute animals in dark, satanic sheds. The truth lies somewhere between the two.

In truth, the problem is the fault of you and I, the consumer. We want more protein, and we want it cheap. Free range pork isn't as cheap as factory-farmed pork, supermarkets drive harder and harder bargains with farmers, and thus shortcuts are taken. We want to have our bacon and eat it too.

My newly-adopted Suffolk is a stronghold of the pig industry. A drive along the A14 will encover fields full of corrugated iron huts, each open at one end and big enough for a boar or sow and her litter. They are able to wander around the field, interact, root around in the earth, wallow a bit if they so choose. They look happy and contented, and probably are, right up until the point where they are slaughtered.

I like pork. I love bacon and ham and sausages. In Suffolk, I am able to buy these things from local farm shops where the pig is slaughtered nearby. And yes, I pay a bit more than I might do at Sainsbury or Tesco, but the taste is better and I can be fairly certain that the pig was well-treated. It is, however, something of a middle class luxury, and perhaps we need to remember that when we browbeat the farmer for merely trying to give us what we as a society demand. Cheap food has its cost, and it's the farmer and his livestock that are paying.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trapped in my ivory tower

We're having a few problems here at Euston Tower today. For those of you familiar with the London skyline, it's the old Capital Radio building on the corner of Euston Road and Hampstead Road opposite Warren Street station.

Due to a power failure, the south spur has lost electricity. We'd already lost telephones over the weekend and now, we have no lift service. At least there's a good view from my desk on the thirteenth floor!

Ros, I could be some time...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A solitary bureaucrat in a sea of councillors

I'm on my way to Gloucester, having spent this morning with Ros at the joint LGA/ALDC Local Government Conference in Birmingham.

Last night, we attended the pre-conference dinner in the extremely grand Council House, a magnificent example of Victorian municipal architecture. Richard Kemp and Paul Tilsley made brief speeches before Ros took her turn. I don't have much involvement in the preparation of Ros's speeches - not my forte, it must be said - so I have as much idea of what to expect as the rest of the audience do. I often hear a line and assume that it will lead into a story I've heard before, only to be confounded. Public speaking is an art, and I never cease to be amazed by Ros's grasp of the format.

An excellent dinner followed, and the conversation over the meal suitably entertained. When you are surrounded by a group of people who actually run, or have run, significant authorities, it pays to listen to what they have to say. After all, unlike some of our MPs (and this is no criticism of them), our Council Leaders in places like Birmingham, Cardiff and Watford have genuine power to change their towns and cities, and the lives of the people who live in them, for the better.

In fact, I've been persuaded that, whilst I might not be the most obvious council candidate ever, if my Party genuinely needed me and thought that I wouldn't let them down, I wouldn't resist like I have done in the past. Sometimes, simply believing in the concept of public service is not enough, you have to be willing to take your turn on the frontline...

Friday, June 13, 2008

How do you solve a problem like a sociopath? (with apologies to Julie Andrews fans everywhere)

I appear to have a slight problem and, in order to understand it better, have been doing some research. Do you know anyone like this? I wonder if I do...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Listen very carefully, I may need to repeat myself..."

Ros was working late at the "office" yesterday, voting on the Lisbon Treaty and, in particular, the Conservative amendment seeking a referendum (her vote can be found in Hansard for those who take an interest in such things), so I joined her for dinner.

On arrival at the House of Lords, the result of the division was expected imminently, and Ros was keen to find one of the television screens known as annuciators, which faithfully report what is being debated, who is speaking and how long they've been on. It also reports the results of divisions and the status of the House. We quickly located the one in the River Room and, to our consternation, discovered that the result was apparently 'Contents 218, Not Contents 218'. A buzz ran through the Lords until it was announced that the result was, actually, 'Contents 218, Not Contents 280', meaning that the amendment had fallen.

I suspect that the staff member responsible for the initial error might need to have his or her hearing checked before they resume duties... especially as such alarms might not be good for the health of the more elderly Peers...

On that subject, it should be noted that Lord Bruce-Lockhart spoke in last night's debate. A reading of Hansard notes the comment of the Lord President, Baroness Ashton, that he had made a particular effort to take part in, and contribute to, the debate. I understand that he is extremely unwell and it is a tribute to his fortitude and commitment that he was able, and willing, to do so.

At times like this, one realises that the House of Lords, contrary to expectations, is a remarkably compassionate institution. Regardless of the subject under debate, interventions are usually courteous and, for the most part, uninterrupted. It is apparently the convention that the more elderly, frail Peers are allowed to make their interventions without spurious points of order, as there is an understanding that they are mustering all of their strength to take part. Perhaps there is a lesson there for all of us...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Julia Goldsworthy on the pull - not a sight you see every day...

It was another of those invitations that you tend not to refuse, a charity evening for the Macmillan Cancer Care charity, held in the Abbey Gardens at Westminster. Naturally, a number of Parliamentarians were there, taking the opportunity to enjoy some fine hospitality, although it wasn't just about the wine and canapes. No, we were there for serious business.

Every year, there is a tug of war contest between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and this is where it takes place. In recent years, it has become rather one-sided, as MPs have got younger and the loss of the hereditary peers has robbed the Lords of a number of young, comparatively fit, contenders. Ros and I were clearly there to cheer on our 'boys' though, and took front row seats for the joust to come.

The sport was more than just one contest though, with teams from the event sponsors and two firms of lawyers whetting our appetites for gladiatorial action. The next contest was rather more serious, with the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service taking on the Merseyside Police. The firemen looked very big and had clearly been taking their practice very seriously - and pulled their opponents quite easily.

A pretty even contest between the Royal Engineers and the RAF followed before the penultimate all-female contest between a team from Macmillan Cancer Care and a team from the House of Commons. Admittedly, MPs were fairly sparse, so I am delighted to be able to report that Julia Goldsworthy was there to uphold Liberal Democrat honour, alongside, somewhat surprisingly, Susan Kramer. I've known Susan for some time, and never really seen her as the physical type, but one couldn't help but be impressed by the way she, and the rest of the team, eased their way to a comprehensive two pulls to nil victory.

And then the main event. No ringers here as two eight-man teams took their places under the watchful eye of officials from the British Tug of War Association, with commentary from Jeremy Vine. My heart was with the Lords, with my noble Lords Addington, Clement-Jones and Redesdale flying the golden pennant for the red benches, but my head was with the Commons (including Andrew George and Sir Robert Smith) given the evident advantages of relative youth and fitness. Sadly, my head was proven to be the better judge, as history repeated itself and the Commons team ran out fairly easy winners, two pulls to none.

Suffice to say that a lot of money was made for charity, and everyone seemed to have a good time. Not a bad evening then...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Suffolk Reviews: St Peter's Brewery Fruit Beer - Grapefruit

The advantage of having twelve bottles of beer, each of them different, is that you can 'impulse drink'. Improved weather in mid-Suffolk gave me an opportunity to try this unusual beer, unusual in that citrus fruit is something more commonly added to beer in slices and crammed into the neck of the bottle. Not this time though...

The tasting notes read:

"We use our Wheat Beer as the base for this superbly refreshing beer. The zesty/pithy grapefruit is in complete harmony with the hops and malt. Excellent as an aperitif or as a refreshing change."

I couldn't agree more. This is a beer for lazy summer afternoons when one might otherwise switch to lager, although at 4.7% ABV, it shouldn't be taken lightly. It is also very 'accessible', in that many non-beer drinkers might feel able to make an exception for this uncommon taste.

Friday, June 06, 2008

It was not my intention to become an activist but...

When our engagement was announced, the Daily Telegraph somewhat inaccurately described me as a 'Liberal Democrat activist'. Anyone who knows me would have got a laugh out of that, as I tended to describe my role as 'going to meetings so that you don't have to'.

However, whilst Ros gained a partner (and now a husband), the Party has unexpectedly gained an activist. Alright, I'm not prone to deliver leaflets most evenings - my lifestyle doesn't really permit that. On the other hand, in the course of my travelling around the country over the past nine months, I seem to have played a walk-on role in by-elections and elections across the country.

Our trip to the North East in April saw us campaign in seven wards, canvassing and delivering in Fenham ward, Newcastle, canvassing in Berwick North, Bamburgh and Lesbury wards in Northumberland, canvassing in Framwellgate Moor and delivering in Sherburn ward in County Durham. We won all but Berwick North - lost to an independent.

I've canvassed in Shepton Mallett and Great Dunmow, delivered in Forest Heath and Waltham Forest and tomorrow I'll start writing blue envelopes for a by-election somewhere in London. Ros has been even busier, a comparative blur of activity.

Strangely enough, I'm actually enjoying myself. The exercise is good for me, people are generally friendly, even if they aren't going to vote for us, and the candidates are fun to talk to, and it's nice to actually contribute to the process of gaining support for Liberal Democrats.

I suspect that I'll be quite active in the coming months, as the weather is nice, and there seems to be an unending stream of by-elections. So don't be surprised if a slightly portly bureaucrat strolls into town with a bundle of leaflets or a canvass card - although if this keeps up, the bureaucrat might be slightly less portly...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Suffolk Reviews: St Peter's Brewery Spiced Ale

Having been to Bungay, and taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase a mixed case of the products of the St Peter's Brewery, it would be remiss of me not to review their range...

The tasting notes for this unusual ale read as follows:

"A rich, dark winter beer with apple, cinnamon and nutmeg added to complement the chocolate malt. Ideal for mulling and driving out the cold on a winter's night. Some of our customers describe this as 'Christmas in a bottle'!"

Now I'm not entirely sure about that, but have to agree that this is a fine ale indeed, with plenty of flavour and not too much sweetness, always a temptation with something like this. It isn't a beer you'd drink too many of, at least not on the same evening, but I would certainly lay some down for next winter.

It is recommended that this be served at room temperature, and I suspect that it would probably go down nicely with roast goose and all the trimmings, or held back until the Queen's Speech for those who like a mid-afternoon tipple.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The criminalisation of the masses - is this what Labour mean by a more equal society?

Alright, I wasn't impressed by Labour proposals on cigarette advertising and marketing. As for the new proposals to crack down on drinking amongst under-18's, irritation turns to contempt. Don't get me wrong, I'm not wild about drunken idiots roaming our town centres late at night. It's just that, for me, their age is irrelevant, it's their behaviour that is the issue.

Government proposals to criminalise those below the age of 18 caught in repeated possession of alcohol are silly enough, but the notion that parents might also be punished with a criminal record for failure to prevent them from doing so ranks amongst the most absurd notions that this control freak administration have dreamt up yet.

It is an offence to sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 18. It is an offence for publicans to serve alcohol to anyone under the age of 18. It is an offence to supply alcohol to a minor. It is an offence to knowingly withhold evidence of a crime that has been committed. Doesn't that just about cover the bases?

The proposal is that ASBO's and behaviour contracts will be handed out. Someone has to police this - who will it be? Will there be raids on the bedrooms of fifteen-year olds to see if they are in breach of their ASBO? Will parents be obliged to carry out bag checks as their children enter or leave the premises?

And as for criminalising parents, the implications are potentially ruinous. Jack is caught three times with alcohol. His parents try to stop him but fail (they both work, Jack is sometimes unsupervised). They are prosecuted and found guilty. The husband is a social worker, the wife a nurse, so their jobs are now on the line. This helps the family how precisely? Let's not even start on the implications for single parent families...

It seems that the Liberal Democrat spokesperson is suggesting that existing laws are sufficient to deal with this issue. Well done, that person, well done! There is enough law on the statutes to deal with most things and perhaps if this Government left well alone for a while, they wouldn't screw things up as often as they are at the moment.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"I think that I shall never see, a thing as heavy as a tree"

Here in the countryside, where connection to the utilities is less straightforward, we tend to use oil-fired central heating and, if possible, wood burners. Ironically, with the increase in the price of oil, anyone prescient enough to have a wood burner installed, say three years ago, will be saving an unexpected fortune.

Having married such an oracle, today saw my first delivery of logs, and an impressive sight they were too. The only setback is that, due to the layout of buildings, the nice man who delivered them at 9 a.m. (on Sunday? Beat that for service, city dweller!) had to leave them in the drive. This in turn, means that we have to carry a truckload of logs to the shed to be stacked in the dry. I'm not as young as I used to be and the logs are awkward and irregularly shaped. However, Ros is organised and efficient, and despite the odd complaining muscle, we managed to get them safely and neatly put away.

Nothing beats a real fire, and the warm glow is made even better by the knowledge that not only are we using a renewable resource, but we are saving money too.

Suffolk Reviews: The Suffolk Show

Now I would be the first to admit that I'm not an obvious person to be seen at a County Showground but, in keeping with my newfound status as a weekend country-dweller, Ros persuaded me that I would really enjoy the Suffolk Show, a two-day extravaganza of farming equipment, livestock and various county pursuits.

And so, despite an unpromising weather forecast, we set off for Needham Market station to catch the train to Ipswich. There is, I'm pleased to say, a bus laid on to transport pedestrians to the Showgrounds in Trinity Park, and we were able to make good time before purchasing our entrance tickets.

Having got in, I was somewhat staggered by the sheer scale of the event. There are hundreds of different judging classes for rabbits, pigs, cows, sheep and all manner of farm animals, and we were soon checking out some prize sheep. Some of the breeds are much bigger than I might have expected, and quite aggressive too - hardly the passive creatures that you see on television!

There are plenty of lifestyle exhibits too, with a food and drink tent sponsored by Adnams, the Southwold brewery, some rather chi-chi furniture and enough 'clothing for country folk' to clothe most of East Anglia for the next decade. We slipped in to get a snack and sampled our way through the exhibition. It may not be good for the waistline but my stomach certainly appreciated it.

There are even competitions for blacksmiths and teams could be found shoeing horses against the clock. The horses used are big, and quite capable of giving an errant farrier a hefty and very painful kick, yet for the most part they stand patiently whilst the horseshoes are fitted. Of course, the county is famous for its Suffolk Punch, a large, attractive and tough work horse whose decline in numbers has been the driver for a campaign to save the breed.

Dotted amongst the exhibits are bars, rides for the children (and those who still like to behave that way!), trade stands, cookery demonstrations and various entertainments for young and old alike. You can even spend a restful few minutes listening to Winston the Singing Farmer (no, I'm not kidding...).

So, for those of you who have always wondered what a County Show might be like, Ipswich isn't too far away, and you could do it as a day trip. For more information, try

New Labour, new nanny state proposal

I see that the Government have launched a new consultation document on smoking. Whilst I don't use, and never have used, cancer sticks, I respect the right of others to do so, albeit not in my home and not in places where I am obliged to be.

Again, the notion that 'something must be done' rears its ugly head. I'm not convinced, for example, that banning the sale of cigarettes in pack sizes of less than twenty will make a huge difference. I'm fairly confident that the average young person, against whom these proposals are aimed, can work out that by waiting a little, they can save up for the first pack (assuming, of course, that they can't just buy a pack of twenty straight away) in the knowledge that they will not have to buy the next pack quite so soon.

As for banning 'brightly coloured packets', are we to presume that those youngsters trying cigarettes are really attracted to bright red, or blue or green and that this attraction makes them want to smoke the contents of the packet? Doesn't the stark warning on each pack make it abundantly clear?

If we really want to stamp out smoking, keep increasing the duty and price it out of the range of most people. At least that would imply a sense of honesty about the course of action being taken. Talk about how much it costs me to support smokers who die prematurelyn and balance that against the amounts of revenue brought in by taxing tobacco. Then we can make a fair choice as to what we do to our bodies...

Instead, the Government opts for criminalising those who are insufficiently aware of their agenda. Publicans and shopkeepers will have something else to watch out for, with the risk of fines and penalties for accidental non-compliance.

At the rate we're going, we'll only be able to do what the Government tells us we can, not as currently presumed, anything that isn't actively proscribed...