Friday, October 31, 2008

My name is Mark and I'm the Returning Officer for Chipping Barnet...

And so the circle turns... and it's time to cease being a slave to conformity.

I've been the Returning Officer for Chipping Barnet for nearly a year now, and we've made... absolutely no progress at all. I've been busy, although that's no excuse. Perhaps I should get on with it...

It's time to do good, as a well known witch has been known to say...

Just a reminder: make sure that you cast your ballot in the Presidential election

We're very fortunate in the Liberal Democrats. We get to vote for the people who represent us at all levels of the Party and whilst the system may not be perfect, it reflects our world view that those in authority should be democratically accountable for their actions.

And yet, we don't really use our hard won freedoms. Turnout in the last election for the Party Presidency in 2004 was just 47%. I've known PPC selections where just two members voted and again, in most cases, turnout is usually less than 50% of the membership.

So, regardless of how you're intending to vote, please make sure that you send your ballot back - the deadline is Friday, November 7th...

Goodnight, Regional Executive, and God bless...

I've served four years on the London Regional Executive, all of them as an Officer. The first two years were fun, the third not so much, and this year the least fun of all.

In many ways, I never really recovered from the sense of being undermined by the laughably incompetent attempt to remove me from office last January. It all began to seem like hard work and I began to feel increasingly unwelcome. Fortunately, Ros came along to restore me to my normal, cheery self...

In the usual way that things work on London Region (Flick talent spots and finds people that can be relied upon), I had my arm twisted to step in as our new Regional Conference Chair for 2008. I was still emerging from three years of doing things because people wanted them done, so I said yes. Not the greatest move...

And yet, if I say so myself, I produced a pretty good Spring Conference. People seemed to enjoy themselves, and with grateful thanks to Flick, Pete Dollimore and a number of others, attendance was very good.

I had a vision for the Autumn and, between campaign gigs, spoke to a number of people about ideas for sessions and fringe meetings. I had a plan. I didn't have a Conference Committee - well, I did but I don't delegate well. What I did have was a peanut gallery. There were mutterings of concern - "a few of us have been talking about Conference" - and Executive meetings where reports were given without any reference to me whatsoever - "hello, I'm in the room...".

However, I have reached the point where we have a final agenda, virtually everything is in place, and I can relax into the final preparation phase. So far, so good.

In the midst of all this though, it was time to run for re-election. I completed the nomination form, got two people to sign it, and then put it in my briefcase so that I could post it. Strange, really, because I was sitting in Cowley Street at the time and could have simply walked upstairs and put it on Flick's desk. But I didn't... and never actually got around to sending it in at all.

Strangely, I mentioned this to Sally Hamwee last week, and she suggested that there was a hint of the Freudian about it all. Smart woman, that Baroness...

And so, unless something unexpected happens, my time on the Regional Executive, and with it the Regional Candidates Committee, is at an end. Yet there is so much else to be done...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Maintaining one's dignity - life in the heart of the campaign

It's been a long campaign. A fun one, but a long one all the same. Curiously, though, we've reached a rather odd phase, in that the limitations placed on candidates really begin to kick in at this point.

The absence of membership lists means that the opportunity to drive increased voter turnout is severely reduced, whereas in the leadership election last year, access to those very lists meant that the two campaign teams could use a range of methods to cajole those still to vote into action.

Tight control over the issue of e-mails (they all go out at once at a time not necessarily of the candidate's choosing) means that the ability to use the medium for a conversation with members or with the other candidates is lost.

The absence of formal hustings has taken away that 'gladiatorial' element that adds an exclamation point to the campaign, although I've not been wildly impressed with the informal hustings that have taken place thus far (poorly organised, poorly attended, and of limited value).

And so the campaign has continued in its usual efficient manner, with everything that be usefully done being done - many thanks to those of you who have contributed their time, support and enthusiasm!

I've focused on my role of support to Ros, making sure that she rests between engagements, making sure that the travel arrangements work, that we have somewhere to stay, noting the issues that resonate with members in different locations, doing all of the things that a good candidate's aide does.

What I haven't done is used this blog to act as a cheerleader for Ros. Everyone knows where I stand and, to be honest, it would be embarrassing if 'Liberal Bureaucracy' was seen to be a completely over the top, partisan stream of 'isn't she amazing' candyfloss. Instead, I've tended to report on the things that I've learnt in the course of the vast range of local party events that I've attended. There is no doubt that, regardless of what happens when the poll closes, I will have gained insights that will make me more effective at what I do for the Party.

And for those of you who have contributed to that education, many thanks!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Is this the most cute picture ever?

Yes, it's a wheelbarrow full of orangutans.
Want one? I do.
I noticed this picture in the Times a couple of weeks ago, of a group of baby orangutans at a rehabilitation centre in Nyaru Menteng, on the island of Borneo.

The organisation that supports their work is Borneo Orangutan Survival International, a wonderful group who strive to save this most remarkable animal.

Nearly five years ago, I went to Borneo to see orangutans in their natural environment and fell even more deeply in love with these incredible animals, the nearest species on the planet to ourselves. It is a desperate pity that we have so far proved almost helpless to prevent their headlong rush towards extinction and I can only hope that pictures like this will encourage people in this country and elsewhere to step up action to protect them.

Liberal Youth: Returning Officer as performance artist

Whilst John Dixon has reported on the unexpected 'excitement' of Saturday at the Liberal Youth conference, my role at the event today was somewhat different in tone.

I was recently appointed as Returning Officer to Liberal Youth, and this was my first turn of duty. I wanted to impress, so I brought my own ballot box (yes, I know...) and, on arrival, I was presented with a package consisting of ballot papers, a numbering stamp, some blank slips and a hole punch (very professional, I must say).

I was in a good mood, so I decided to put on a show. An animated account of the vote for the new Honorary Vice-Presidents, with tales of transfers and philosophical debates that didn't matter was my contribution before lunch.

After lunch, I was called into action again to run an impromptu contest for the endorsement as Liberal Democrat candidate for the forthcoming NUS election. As a gesture towards transparency, I counted the ballot papers in front of the whole conference. Ben Mathis 'called me' on the arithmetic so we had an audience participation recount before I declared the result.

It was great fun, and I look forward to working with Liberal Youth at their Spring Conference next year...

Rupert Redesdale, our spokesperson in the Lords for the Environment and mass slaughter...

Some of you will remember red squirrels. Cute creatures, driven to the remotest corners of our land by the invading horde of bigger, meaner, disease-carrying grey squirrels. It's time for payback and the indigenous reds now have someone fighting their corner. That someone is Rupert Redesdale...

The Observer today carries an article in its magazine section about the campaign to save the red squirrel, led by an organisation called the 'Red Squirrel Protection Partnership'. As Rupert puts it, "We only call ourselves the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership because if we called it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League people might be a bit less sympathetic.".

It is one of the funniest articles I have read for a very long time, and Rupert comes across as slightly eccentric (guilty as charged, M'Lud...) but deeply convinced of the rightness of his actions. He and his team have gathered together hundreds of volunteers in their quest to rid Northumberland of grey squirrels, including some wonderfully unlikely help. The grannies, Rupert suggests, tend to be the most bloodthirsty trappers. 'It's like: "Can you beat it to death with a hammer and let me watch?" We had one old dear who went inside and came back out with a sort of elephant gun: "Do you want to shoot it with this?"'.

Best of all, Rupert displays a sense of irony that is worth preserving. For those of you with a knowledge of the history of the Mitfords, there is one line that is, to my mind, priceless. Read the article, and marvel at the work of one of our less prominent Peers.

Rupert, you are a treasure...

"They come over here, with their alien ways, winning our quizzes and taking home the prizes..."

I have, in the past, occasionally mentioned that I enjoy the odd quiz night. I've only been to one with Ros so far, in Bridgend, where my team gallantly triumphed over the locals (I'd been signed up by the visitors from Swansea).

Last night saw us in Solihull, and Ros and I formed a team with Norman Davies, our Group Leader on Solihull Council, and John Windmill, his predecessor, both of them councillors in Olton ward. It wasn't the easiest quiz I'd ever been involved in, and the competition was pretty sharp too, but by the end of the evening, the 'Old Oltonians' had swept triumphantly to victory. The two bottles of wine that we won are chilling nicely in the fridge...

It was noticeable that our Group there has three young councillors, all of whom are thought of as rising stars. Tim Hodgson is the Deputy Group Leader, having been elected to the council last year, aged 21, and this is a group of eighteen! Throw in Leela Widger and Brynn Tudor, and you can be pretty confident that Solihull and Meridien Liberal Democrats have much to look forward to. Of course, they're working flat out to make sure that Lorely Burt is returned to Westminster at the next election.

We were made to feel incredibly welcome, and Ros was very well received indeed. A perfect end to a pretty good day, I'd say...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Taking a pulse - Reading and Pershore

It's that stage of the Presidential campaign where you tend to rush around without necessarily achieving anything tangible.

Ballot papers having gone out, many of the people we've spoken to today have assured us that they've already voted. However, you don't know that for certain, and it always pays to show your face in the hope of convincing a few undecideds. Besides, given the importance of word of mouth, and of endorsements by friends, in an election where there is virtually no reliable data on voter intentions, you really can't afford to slacken the pace.

Regardless of the outcome, people have been incredibly friendly wherever we've been, and it was nice to run into so many old friends and acquaintances, beginning with registration at South Central's conference in Woodley, near Reading, where I was greeted by Penny Hopkins and Jen Parry. Penny and I first met when I was doing international youth politics and she was working for ELDR, whereas Jen (Clive's mother for those of you who know much about Lambeth politics) was on the selection committee when I was Returning Officer for Wantage.

It feels good but, as they say, the proof is in the voting, and it is virtually impossible to tell how most of the membership will respond to the one mailing they will receive. About 40% of the membership will receive up to three e-mails (they've had one already) and other than that it is down to the ability of the campaign teams to reach out further. And time is ticking away...

However, we're still enjoying ourselves, and we've got one more event this evening before bedtime. Tomorrow, Guildford, for the Liberal Youth conference and a hustings...

So that's what happened to Andy Darley...

One of my activities every day is to scout the internet for references to the Presidential campaign. After all, it's hardly as though I have a particular interest in it, do I?

Occasionally, I come across a gem, as in this instance, where Andy Darley writes about his decision as to who he should support... Alright, I admit that I wish he'd voted for Ros, but he made me laugh, and that's got to be the next best thing. And, if I have to be drawn from literature, I could do worse than being transplanted wholesale from Sir Thomas Malory, author of 'Le Morte d'Arthur'.

Good to hear from you again, Andy...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Meanwhile, in darkest Wembley...

Last night, it was time for another meeting of the Executive Committee of my beloved Local Party, and so I made my way to Wembley, where our Vice Chair lives.

On arrival, I was somewhat surprised to be told by one of our councillors that he had been calling members in his ward to encourage them to vote for Ros. Now I freely admit that I had used my Executive e-group to ask all of them to vote for her, but I hadn't expected such a response. Apparently, people have been forwarding my message on to other people they know. It's all very touching, but reflects the genuine warmth displayed by so many people in support of Ros's quest for the Presidency.

I have a huge soft spot for Brent Liberal Democrats, as I've said in the past, and they never cease to confound. They aren't prone to sentiment, as their campaigning record testifies, but there is a warmth and a collegiate nature which makes you feel good inside.

And so, if re-elected, I intend to stay on as Secretary of the Local Party. It would be rude not to...

How much monitoring is too much?

I received an internal e-mail last week, stating that not all staff had not provided the diversity data sought on our internal HR on-line system. Apparently, a new section on sexual orientation has been added.

Now I fully understand that my employers want to ensure that they don't discriminate, but whilst ethnicity and disability are obvious, and there are good grounds for having disability data so that proper adjustments can be made, I'm a mite uncomfortable about their need to know my sexual orientation. It doesn't impact on my ability to carry out my duties, there is legislation to prevent staff from discriminating but it falls into the area of my life marked 'none of your damned business'.

There is almost certainly discrimination against some non-heterosexuals within HM Revenue & Customs. I haven't personally experienced any, but the likelihood is that it exists. But isn't it easier to leave people's private lives just that?...

Jennie Rigg, James Graham, Lembit Opik and Chandila Fernando in kinky sex quadrilateral!*

Yes, you heard it here first. In a desperate search for readership, the use of ever more extreme headlines in a frantic attempt to catch the eye has led to allegations of caffeine-based beverage abuse, the use of segways and talk of rebranding.

Liberal Democrat apparatchik, Mark Valladares, aged 134, was quoted as saying, "I don't know what's chuffing going on. When I was a lad, we didn't have any of this Interweb malarky. We had to entertain ourselves by invading small countries, or sending gunboats out to enforce exclusive trade agreements."

* With apologies to all four, but if you're just going to be silly...

Still a bureaucrat after all this time - three years on and so much has changed

Three years ago, when I started 'Liberal Bureaucracy', I thought that it might be a nice opportunity for my family to keep up with my progress. I was in the midst of divorce proceedings, although not much was happening there, and was packing for another epic journey (Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador).

Much has changed since then, of course. I am married (to the lovely Ros), I've moved house, I've exchanged Quito for Kirkwall and changed office. The blog, perhaps, is one of the few constants, an ever present reminder that life goes on.

Blogging has become more erratic, in accordance with my lifestyle, although I've probably become less tolerant of failure, and more willing to express myself freely. It's been fun though, and who knows what the next year has in store?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How to organise a hustings - helpful hints from a Returning Officer

I have noticed that, beyond the Returning Officer fraternity, there seems to be little sense of how a hustings meeting should work. So here's a handy little guide which might help you...

1. Decide upon your preferred format.

2. Find a neutral chair - if you don't, you'll draw a complaint from anyone who feels that they have been unfairly treated and, guess what, it's your fault.

3. Invite the candidates, telling them what the format will be and who will be chairing. This gives the candidates an equal chance to prepare, and perform at their best, ensuring that attendees have the best information on which to make their choice.

4. Don't change the format at the last minute, especially if you have followed instruction 3.

5. Apply the same rules to all candidates, ensuring that no candidate is unduly advantaged.

Easy, really. In fact, so easy that you'd think anyone would take it as common sense...

Ballot paper inbound - chalk up one more for Ros...

Yes, mine is on its way back too. I came home, filled it in, and delivered it to the postbox by 9 p.m. Now all I've got to do is wait... and attend a whole bunch more events... but apart from that...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It was Cincinnati wot won it - a glorious triumph for a faceless bureaucrat

Two weeks ago, I published my manifesto for English Candidates Committee, complete with cute picture of my beloved cat, Cincinnati, with my personal Lib Dem ballot box.

And then I waited... and waited... and waited for a ballot paper that never came. So, being an curious sort of soul, I rang Cowley Street to see what was happening. Paul Rustad, the friendly administrator of the English Party, told me that there would be no ballot paper, as the number of candidates conveniently equals the number of vacancies, i.e. five.

So, I have been (kind of) gloriously re-elected. I'd like to thank my agent, my campaign manager, my website designer and all the other people whose work has made this possible.

For completeness, I should congratulate Ken Cosslett, the current Regional Candidates Chair for South Central and a thoroughly decent soul, Neil Halsall from Western Counties, my fellow radical, and Dawn Davidson, the former Chair of English Candidates Committee, on being elected too.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Regional Parties: your candidates need you!

I've been a member of my Regional Candidates Committee since 2005. It's been, for the most part, fairly quiet in terms of problems between candidates and Local Parties, probably by good fortune rather than by design.

In that time, my colleagues and I have reviewed the performance of candidates in the 2005 General Election, and found little in the way of problems. There were a few instances where candidates were called in for interview, but they were few and far between. Otherwise, we have mostly administered the existing system. We've done virtually no pastoral work with candidates.

Privately, however, the story is different. I have been approached by a number of candidates and ex-candidates who have been concerned about the way they have been treated, or by incidents within the Local Party. I do what I can, on one occasion plying an old friend with vast amounts of red wine to stiffen his sinews, so to speak.

I answer questions about opportunities elsewhere, I matchmake across regions, I ask people if they've thought about what they'd like to do in the Party, I talk about the assessment process and about how selections work, and much of that information is published on my blog. I even like to remind people that candidates put their egos on the line whenever they apply for a seat.

Some of this is responsive, some reactive, all of it important. However, it's all informal. You have to know me and, more importantly, approach me, because I'm easily distracted and a bit overcommitted. Persistence helps too...

However, my committee is a potential source of long term support. London's Regional Candidates Committee has a membership of seven, with a variety of skills. Most candidates won't need anything more than an occasional chat and, in the less winnable seats, won't be in post for very long. On the other hand, a few will need ongoing support, and having someone at Regional level, with access to information and contacts across the Party, who can be reached fairly easily, can only be a good thing.

So, I'm going to propose that my Regional Candidates Committee appoint two members tasked to act as a contact point for candidates. In fact, I'm going to volunteer to be one of them. Of course, I'm going to have to get re-elected back onto the committee in order to be one of them, although there is, theoretically, nothing to stop me from offering my services anyway.

What this means is that I'm going to have to give up something, something that theoretically takes up a lot of my time. We'll see what that means in due course - I'm still lost in thought about my plans for 2009 otherwise...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Candidate approval and its ironies

It is sometimes hard to believe that I've been an assessor of wannabe Parliamentary candidates for more than thirteen years. When I first got the call, I was somewhat surprised, especially as I had;
  • never been a Parliamentary candidate
  • never been an agent
  • never run seriously for public office
  • never had any personnel/HR experience

Given that I had just turned thirty, and would be likely to be assessing applicants far older, far more mature and far more experienced than I was, and had been semi-retired from frontline Party activity for three years, I could easily imagine the potential difficulties in terms of my personal credibility. Being male, this (naturally) didn't stop me from accepting the invitation...

In some ways, I regretted it from the start. An in-built lack of self-belief, combined with the semi-perpetual fear of being exposed as a rank amateur, made for some deeply discomforting experiences. On the one hand, as a young, BME assessor, I added diversity to the process. On the other, the sense that I might mistakenly damage someone's 'career' or, equally harmfully to the Party, approve someone who wasn't up to the job, tended to cause me to fret.

Many a sleepless night was spent marking application forms until, one day, I had a minor breakdown in the middle of the assessment day caused by a combination of three hours sleep in the previous forty-eight, and vast doses of coffee to overcome it. My ability to function failed me and I went into emotional overload. Fortunately for all concerned, it conveniently happened in the midst of a constituency surgery roleplay, and I was the constituent. Whilst my fellow assessor was complimenting me on my acting skills, and the 'lucky' applicant was retreating in shock to the 'holding pen', I was pulling myself together enough to carry on.

Strangely, it was a bit easier after that, and as time passed, and I found myself becoming one of the more senior assessors, it got easier still. I still agonised over some of the scoring and some of our decisions, but with age came experience.

Time passes, and the assessment process has changed to reflect the needs of the time. Now, we are moving to a new, streamlined, more relevant process. The irony is that all of the existing assessors have to undergo retraining and, to be invited to attend, we have to complete an application form. Even more ironically, the form for potential assessors is longer than that for potential candidates.

I'm having real problems filling it in. It brings back a whole set of doubts as to whether or not I have the qualities required. After all, I am still to be a Parliamentary candidate or seriously run for public office. In a Party which purports to be moving towards greater professionalism, is there a place for the well-intentioned amateur?

Making one's New Year resolutions in October

One of the aspects of being a Party apparatchik is that you have to plan your activities in advance. Nominations close in October for the most part, and you end up having to decide whether you've enjoyed a job enough to want to continue before you've done most of it - Regional Conference Chair is a good example of that dilemma.

Indeed, by the time you've discovered your fate in Federal or State level elections, it's too late to use the time given to you by defeat to contribute elsewhere. C'est la vie, I suppose. Of course, for me, that decision is complicated by Ros's campaign to be Party President. How much time I will have to serve the Party on committees will vary depending on whether or not she wins, especially as one doesn't want to be seen as failing to deliver upon commitments made in manifestos (mine, not hers).

The temptation is to take on less rather than more, and that's probably how it will end up in 2009. On the other hand, a reduction in my formal commitments will allow me opportunities to take on one-off projects, and dabble in areas that I enjoy.

Decisions, decisions...

There I was, minding my own business...

... when I heard a familiar voice (about twenty-three minutes in).

One of the advantages of being married to Ros, is that it's quite easy to see what she's up to at work. Indeed, I have a rule. If Lord Greaves has risen to speak in support of Amendment 187K, I've got enough time to get to the Lords to pick Ros up after a day's legislating.

It's a bit like 'Big Brother', although the public votes to remove contestants take place with rather less regularity. Just think of it, proceedings described by someone with a Geordie accent... "Lynne Featherstone is in the florists.", or "Jeremy Browne is buying a postal order."

Perhaps the screening rights could be used to subsidise the cost of Parliament...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Candidates who walk - continuing the debate...

Yesterday, I wrote of the problems facing our women Parliamentary candidates, and the collective failures of the parts of the Party machinery that have a stake in dealing with such issues. It seemed to strike a chord with a number of people, who felt that I had put my finger on something which should concern us all.

However, in the eyes of an old colleague and friend, I didn't go far enough. And I have a confession to make - Duncan is right to say that. However, I have a defence, albeit an imperfect one. I might actually have to get involved in that process of reconciliation that is so necessary. In my role as a member of my State and Regional Candidates Committees, if a conciliator is required, I will be needed to act as an honest broker. Thus, taking a stance that places the blame on one side or the other reduces my potential effectiveness.

I have heard some pretty ghastly stories where candidates have been consistently undermined, and encountered Local Parties whose expectations of what might reasonably be expected of a candidate run towards the delusional end of any sensible scale. In turn, I have encountered candidates who have an unrealistic expectation of what the Local Party might be able to deliver, or whose perception of the winnability of their seat is flawed. Occasionally, I have lent a helping hand, where I am able to do so.

My responsibilities start with diagnosing the problem, which I think that I have done. However, that can only be an opening gambit, and actions speak louder than words. Last night, I found myself in conversation with a member of the Leader's team, and took the opportunity to raise this issue, seeking to place the item on their agenda. I got a fairly friendly hearing, and I hope that Team Nick will at least investigate further.

Over the coming few days, I will make some suggestions of my own regarding the roles that various groups might play in improving the situation. Meanwhile, Duncan will be doing some research as indicated yesterday. It won't be immediate, but we might have some effect in the medium and long term.

In the meantime, if you know a PPC who is struggling, offer them a helping hand. Do something that might ease their burden. If necessary, find someone who can step in if needed. After all, one day you might be that PPC...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Women parliamentary candidates voting with their feet - is the Party fiddling while Rome burns?

A worrying trend in recent months is the number of good women candidates who have decided to give up the seats they fought so hard to be selected for. A variety of reasons have been given, but one of the hidden reasons is, I believe, the inability of the Party to address the problems which place pressure on candidates, regardless of gender.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceA number of Local Parties assume that, having selected their candidate, that all of the things that haven't happened up to that point, will suddenly happen. The creation of delivery networks, enhanced fundraising, vast amounts of canvassing, all of these will come if only a PPC can be found.

Meanwhile, in good seats, Campaigns Department have a game plan. If the Local Party fulfil the central plan, funds will follow, creating an obligation to deliver the declared objectives. Regardless of the resources and, indeed, willing, of the Local Party, without achievement, funds may be withdrawn in favour of a more compliant alternative target seat.

In the middle of these competing pressures is... the poor PPC. And who is there to support them?

Not the English Candidates Committee, whose role formally ends at the point where a candidate is selected and only resumes after the election, when the performance review is conducted. Not the Campaign for Gender Balance, or Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, or even the Parliamentary Candidates Association. Whilst they can provide mentoring, and very useful it is too, they have little enough funding to carry out core activities, let alone a meaningful programme of concrete support.

The Campaigns Department will support paid staff, as they have a responsibility as managers. There aren't many of them anyway, so their time is fully employed producing the ammunition for use locally. And as for the rest of the Party... we have plans for a Leadership Academy, and this will certainly help increase the skill levels of our candidates.

But who is there to stand by our candidates, to guide them when their Local Party is refusing to do the work necessary to properly support them, to provide assistance when work, family or carer responsibilities become too much to easily bear? Who is there to provide concrete support in terms of cash, support staff, telephone canvassing, a paid leaflet delivery?

Someone needs to step up and demand the resources to provide a genuine support system for our candidates, especially those in good seats. Unless we do, we risk losing a generation of excellent candidates because they burn themselves out trying to balance the conflicting demands on their time, energy and emotional fortitude. And if those losses are disproportionately women, we risk a major setback in our quest to seek a better balanced Parliamentary group.

Irfan Ahmed, bureaucrats and censorship

I seem to have set off something of a storm in the blogosphere. Curious, really, as it increasingly seems that my words are being tortured for subtext that doesn't exist.

So let's start at the beginning...

Originally, I 'called out' Irfan for possible homophobic comments. I wasn't absolutely certain, more the possessor of a sense that his language was, at best, clumsy, and, at worst, offensive. The emerging viewpoint veered between the two, so I feel utterly justified in my initial stance.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI then wondered out loud about whether the Aggregator needed a 'community policing strategy'. At no point did I call for a named individual to be banned, although, in retrospect, one can easily see how the two pieces could be conflated.

So, let's summarise. I have not called for anyone to be banned from Lib Dem Blogs. I have not called for anyone to be expelled from the Party. As witchhunts go, it lacks most of the key elements required (the witch, the firewood and the scary guy with the bulging eyes and the religious text spring to mind most immediately).

Irfan has responded initially by denying his intent to cause offence and, eventually, by apologising in the comments of the offending blog entry. I am content that he has clarified the position to my satisfaction (the rest of you must draw your own conclusion), and I will, when I get a chance to do so, reverse the mute on his blog.

From a personal perspective, were I to be in his position, I might choose to post a discrete blog entry clarifying my position, but that is a style point, not a demand.

I have, in the past, noted the caution with which one should write for a public, unfiltered audience. Irfan has provided an object lesson in the risks of the medium... And, perhaps, so have I...

A blast from the past in Barnstaple

Saturday evening found us in North Devon, where Nick Harvey had invited Ros to meet some of the members in the Liberal Club in the heart of Barnstaple.

Despite the fairly unwelcoming weather, a small but friendly group turned out to talk about the Party and what it is doing. The Club has, on display, a collection of scrapbooks containing press cuttings going back to the time of Jeremy Thorpe, and it was fascinating to follow the stories as the constituency changed hands from Liberal to Conservative and back, with Nick's narrow victory when he regained the seat.

Pictures of a somewhat younger Nick were dotted around the room, as well as posters from celebrations of years gone by. It was fascinating to see such signs of Liberal tradition, something that I seldom encounter in London.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Somebody else's Annual General Meeting - what do sheep have to do with it?

Saturday entailed a latish start, as we weren't due in the award winning Tedburn St Mary (Best Village of 2001!) until after lunch but, as we had some time to spare and a little shopping to do, we made our way to Okehampton for a gentle stroll to ease the kinks out of my back (it's a little better thank you, although I still ought to have it looked at, methinks...) and grab some coffee.

Okehampton is a pleasant little town on the northern edge of Dartmoor, and has managed to keep its main shopping in the centre, making for a bustling scene on a Saturday. However, sadly, we had to move on to make sure we arrived in good time for the Central Devon AGM, where Ros was the guest speaker.

Business was conducted fairly briskly all things considered, despite a slightly idiosyncratic performance by the Chair and Ros was on her feet somewhat earlier than I might have otherwise feared. She gave a frank and honest appraisal of Party strategy, noting that this had an impact on our targeting strategy in places like Devon, where our primary opposition is the Conservatives.

Ros complimented Sally Morgan, the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Central Devon, noting that the Party needed more like her if it was to achieve its goal of selecting and electing more women to Westminster, and I share her enthusiasm. Sally juggles her family and political responsibilities in a manner which demonstrates that she could handle the competing priorities of an MP's role quite easily.

There is an assumption in some quarters that raising a family is a barrier to being a successful candidate. It is - for anyone who is a parent. However, it should not be insuperable, and we have a duty as liberals to ensure that we provide support sufficient to enable anyone to play any role they are qualified to fulfil. It shouldn't be down to the partner, if one exists, to shoulder the burden of support, although there are many who do so uncomplainingly.

Meanwhile, outside, a field full of sheep chewed thoughtfully on the damp grass as a thin drizzle fell throughout. I find sheep intriguing. They aren't very interesting in terms of activity, but I am increasingly suspicious that they have greater understanding of what we're up to than they let on. I wonder what they make of it all?...

In the immortal words of the Pub Landlord, "Irfan Ahmed, you're barred!"

So I provoked a discussion on whether there is a place for community based discipline within the Liberal Democrat blogging community, and it turns out that you're a rather tolerant bunch (I knew that I liked you all for a reason...).

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIt is clear that there is no desire for a policy of exclusion of individual bloggers from our community at this time, for reasons wholly liberal and laissez-faire. Naturally, I respect that view and intend to take the oft recommended position that the mute facility means that I can exclude those that offend my sensitivities.

So that's my stance from here on in. I will, as a matter of courtesy, indicate if I choose to mute someone, explaining why so that the offending party can either seek to persuade me that I'm wrong, or at least be aware that someone out there disapproves.

I think that Irfan's approach to the controversy that surrounds his post is naïve and wrong. If he doesn't understand that he has caused offence, and sees no reason why propagation of some of the anonymous filth that spews from the comment pages of Guido Fawkes' blog is unacceptable, then I don't have to put up with it.

Irfan Ahmed, for the time being at least, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!

Completing the circle in Totnes

Some years ago, when the prospects of serious political success in Brent were, to be blunt, rather less than they later became, I was appointed as Returning Officer for the Parliamentary candidate selections in Brent.

At that time, there were three individual, free-standing Local Parties, none of whom had a large membership. Indeed, Brent East had just forty-seven members, and only seven of those voted in the uncontested selection.

Brent South was likewise an unopposed 'contest', and the candidate was a young man called Julian Brazil. It was his first attempt at selection, and he was duly adopted by a vote of two to nil. He was an enthusiastic candidate in a contest against Paul Boateng but duly went down to defeat in what was hardly an unexpected result. However, he performed well, and earned a positive report.

To cut a long story short, Julian is now our PPC in Totnes, a seat where we harbour hopes of success, and it was a pleasure to spend an evening with him, his new wife and three dozen or so local members and, of course, my lovely wife. We were attending a dinner at a restaurant called 'Alf Resco' and a really rather pleasant time was had by all, made even better by the fact that a goodly sum of money was made to support the campaign.

It has been one of the curious features of our travels that I keep running into people that I've worked with. I wonder what happened to the young woman who chaired Brent & Harrow Young Liberals in 1986/87?..

A high-wire act by Mr Ahmed and what it might mean for us all

Yesterday, I drew attention to a posting by one of our fellow Lib Dem bloggers, indicating my concern as to the implied homophobia of his comments about the new Labour cabinet.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceA number of you commented, indicating that I was not alone in my view. Indeed, some of you posted comments on Irfan's original posting, advising him that, at the very least, the language used was unwise. It was apparent that he had also drawn some highly inappropriate and unsavoury anonymous comments.

However, it is his view at the time of writing that he is perfectly within his rights to bring the matter to the attention of others. And, of course, he is right. On the other hand, he is providing a platform for homophobia of a sort most heinous, and worst of all, doing it under a Liberal Democrat banner. This is unacceptable and, it might be argued, behaviour likely to bring the Party into disrepute. Indeed, Julian Harris has uncovered another comment which might be deemed to be in conflict with the tenets of liberal democracy.

"What can be done?", I hear you ask. At this time, there is no mechanism to remove offensive material from the Aggregator unless an individual chooses to self-police. However, as a collective, we should have the right to exclaim, "Not in my name". Access to the aggregator generates a significant percentage of traffic to our blogs, and loss of that access will hurt, especially those of us who set some store in the level of our readership.

So here's a proposal. If someone is offensive, it should be the right of a self-defined community to punish that individual in an open and transparent manner. We should encourage rehabilitation and penance, as well as restorative justice. However, we should not allow a free-for-all, whereby the acts of an individual imperil our collective reputation.

So, my friends, I come to a question? Do we believe in obliging individuals to accept responsibility for their actions and in defending the rights of others to take offence? Or do we prefer to just disengage from a debate about proper behaviour?

Learning about recycling

I cannot deny that travelling the length and breadth of the country with Ros has been educational. I've already noted that I've learnt about the rural dimension of Party policy, about the problems caused by our internal processes and about how activists locally see the Party nationally.

However, sometimes I learn something of a non-bureaucrat nature. On Friday, Ros and I were taken to see some of the achievements of Teignbridge District Council, now Liberal Democrat led. Our guide was Leader of the Council, Cllr Alan Connett, and our first stop was the Recycling Centre.

Teignbridge residents now recycle 56% of their waste, and we got to meet some of the key staff, as well as Cllr Gordon Hook, the Executive Member who leads on recycling. I was particularly impressed by the work done in schools to encourage children to play a role in encouraging household recycling, with collection vehicles named by different schools, and pictures created by children placed on the side of them. One particularly nice touch is that there are big signs on the sides of every collection vehicle thanking residents for their achievements and telling them how well they are doing.

There is genuine enthusiasm for improving those figures, and all of this without moving towards mandatory recycling, something that has been introduced by other councils. Best of all, their efforts contribute towards reducing the costs of landfill to the residents.

There is an interesting twist though. Teignbridge is one of very few, if any, local authorities to bring their waste management back in-house. It was their view that the original contract was poorly delivered and, when the opportunity arose to retender, they discovered that they could undercut the best private sector bid by £750,000. They now have the flexibility to try new ideas without having to constantly renegotiate.

Sometimes, it isn't public or private, it's about what actually works...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Another addition to my blog roll

I sense that Jennie is lonely, so it's high time I added another name to my blog roll. Step forward Jonathan Calder, whose blog 'Liberal England' has been a source of amusement and food for thought for a long time.

Of course, Jonathan's role as secretary to Lord Bonkers (my favourite slogan, "Don't be plonkers, vote for Bonkers!" will live long in my memory) is what he is perhaps best known for amongst Liberal (Democrat) activists. However, amidst the references to the presumably now world famous 'Shropshire Star', and the pithy one-liners, there lies an astute commentator on current events. The recognition of his work by fellow bloggers, regardless of party, is a reflection of the thoughtfulness and quality of his postings, indeed of his writings generally.

For unlike most of us, Jonathan has rather greater reach, through his contributions to Liberal Democrat News and the New Statesman. He is an ambassador for Liberal Democrat blogging and worthy of our celebration.

No platform for racism, sexism or homophobia?

I am a child of the mid-sixties, studied at a pretty left-wing university in the mid-eighties and have seen a shift in British politics whereby more women and ethnic minorities play a role in the governance of this country, and whereby the sexual orientation of an individual does not define his or her place in society in the way that it once did. That is not to say that society is entirely blind to the gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation of the individuals within it, nor that those previously under-represented groups remain anything other than under-represented.

However, I was brought up aware of the idea that, whilst the concept of free speech is entirely desirable, it is not obligatory to provide a platform for racism, sexism or homophobia. Irfan Ahmed's blog entry earlier this afternoon treads perilously close to homophobia, perhaps even steps over the line. Publishing such comments on a Liberal Democrat blog aggregator risks discrediting all of us, and posting such comments under an avatar which is the Party's official logo is, in my mind, unacceptable, and I have muted his blog accordingly. If clarification is forthcoming, and is satisfactory, I reserve the right to reverse my stance.

I might have taken the step of complaining about the matter to Ryan. However, I think it unreasonable to place him in the position of having to make decisions of censorship, and therefore place my view before my fellow blogging colleagues for their consideration accordingly.

I do not believe that any blogger, regardless of his or her views, should have the ability to propagate their views curtailed. However, it is not their right to have such views further propagated by groups or individuals who do not support and, indeed, condemn them.

Friday, October 03, 2008

David Blunkett - proving that it takes an autocrat to know one

And so goodbye Sir Ian, and thanks for everything. The politicisation of the Metropolitan Police, spin, an inability to accept responsibility, yes, I will probably sleep more soundly in my bed knowing that he's gone.

It is nice to see David Blunkett's commentary though. "This is rule by autocracy and a dangerous precedent, politicising the police force in Britain." Such a pity he didn't understand that when he was Home Secretary...

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

London Region Conference: it just gets better and better

I've had some really excellent news, in that Graham Watson (the Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, ALDE) has agreed to speak at our Conference on Saturday, November 15th.

Graham will add lustre to our discussions, given his reputation as one of the European Parliament's leading figures, and I am hoping that, despite his early slot, we'll get a good crowd in for his speech. He will also be taking questions, and given the importance of performing well in next year's European elections, I'm optimisitic that he will give our activists some food for thought.

A new feature for Liberal Bureaucracy

I've noticed that a number of my fellow bloggers have blog lists, whereby you can see what some of their favourite/most interesting colleagues are saying.

Never let it be said that I am behind the times, so I am introducing my own blog list, one at a time. I'm starting today with Jennie Rigg, whose astonishingly cool blog on LiveJournal is one that I tend to keep an eye on. I voted for her in the recent Iain Dale lovefest, and my only regret is that I didn't give her a higher ranking. Consistently interesting, with a lively commentariat, this is a blogger who merit more attention in the coming year. If anyone from the Blog of the Year judging panel is watching, consider that as a nomination for 2009...

Is that nice Mr Hague about to betray his eurosceptic friends?

I was taught that, if you don't like the question that you're being asked, answering another one with sufficient conviction will do.

Whilst I'm not convinced that it is ethically sound as a theory, I listened to a fine example of the art this morning on 'Today', courtesy of Edward Stourton and William Hague. It is presumed by many that the Irish will vote again on the Lisbon Treaty and that, if they do, they will ratify it.

"So, what will the Conservatives do if this happens?", William Hague was asked. "Will you tear up the treaty? Will you put it to a referendum of the British people?", he was asked.

His response, to say what would happen if the Irish had not ratified, left the question hanging, unanswered. "So, Mr Hague, the answer is that you don't know?", was the final enquiry, at which point time ran out.

I thought that the Conservative position was for a referendum come what may. William Hague apparently disagrees. What does he really believe in, if not a referendum, or was his position just for media consumption? You really begin to wonder if the Conservatives believe in anything...

George Osborne: catchy slogans, 100% hot air

For God's sake, can't someone persuade David Cameron to ditch the intern and get someone who understands economics as his Shadow Chancellor? Fair enough, he does clearly recognise good spin when he sees it, but surely even Dave can spot the hypocrisy of his party's position on tax and spending?

A freeze on council tax? Sounds great, until you realise what is actually on offer. Councils will be allowed to increase spending by 2.5% and will have the entire increase funded by central government. Now, let's see if I've got this right. I will not pay more council tax but will pay more tax to cover the increased central government contribution. Not smoke and mirrors at all then...

Oh yes, and it's entirely inconsistent with Conservative talk of localism. No right for a local council to spend more if they need to, so clearly a means to introduce still more stringent capping. Whereas for efficient councils, it provides an incentive to spend more money, not less, as the funds are coming from central government.

It isn't a stealth tax either, is it, as it replaces a charge that I can see, receive an explanation of, and can punish the council for, with a subvention from a large faceless budget administered by civil servants who have no accountability to a formula which is even less transparent than the answer to the Schleswig-Holstein question.

Of course, there will be cuts to make up for it all, I'm sure. The emphasis on 'hard working families' makes it abundantly clear that, if you're single, or childless, or poor, there is little on offer. The poor won't benefit, as their council tax is paid for by the state. The elderly will continue to suffer from the death by a thousand cuts that is the likely fate of social care. Those amongst us who are single will lose out through the introduction of bribes to become, or stay, married.

I loathe this government, and most of its recent works. However, I don't see why I should go quietly in a transition from a bunch of big government, authoritarian control freaks to a bunch of socially reactionary, hypocritical control freaks. My only hope is that the Conservatives get exposed for what they really are...

English Candidates Committee: my manifesto for 2008

Mark Valladares – it’s about more than just ideas, it’s about making them live!

Last year, I claimed that I would be a radical voice for change on English Candidates Committee, and you gave me the chance to prove that it was more than just a slogan.

Since then, I’ve been working to put my ideas into play, not just on the committee itself, but on the newly created Selection Rules Review Group.

and my cat, Cincinnati, thinks so too…

Local Parties, especially our smaller ones, struggle with the bureaucracy of our candidate selection system. It is expensive and time consuming, so I have proposed that we abolish selection committees for non-target, non-Moving Forward seats. Less need for selection committee training, less work for returning officers, and why place more barriers in the way of applicants who are already approved?

I’ve worked hard to persuade my fellow colleagues, and sense that I’m making some headway. I’ve also supported other proposals such as revised, cheaper arrangements for advertising vacancies for PPC’s.

There is still more that I would like to do. Greater freedom of campaigning in selections is still to be won, but I truly believe that we should encourage greater creativity from our candidates. Technology may be seen as a threat by some, but it also presents opportunities for the brave.

I promise to oppose attempts to introduce positive discrimination in candidate selection. Liberals oppose such things on principle and I am no exception.

Finally, if re-elected, I will continue to propose and debate issues related to the work of the committee on my blog, as a means of reporting back on what I’m doing. I believe that it is vital that I keep you informed of my activities so that you can vote on an informed basis. It’s what democracy should be all about.