Tuesday, November 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology back up and running

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica will be pleased...

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

By-elections: before my computer so rudely interrupted me

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

By-election candidate selection continued...

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fancy meeting you here… old meets new in Mansfield…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

English Candidates Committee - not sure that they trust you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jacqui Smith and prostitution: where Old Labour prurience meets New Labour cowardice

There has been much talk about the new proposals that make paying for sex with someone who has been trafficked or are otherwise exploited. They are, without doubt, entirely laudable in terms of intent, and any reasonable person would want to see such people protected.

However, as Evan Davis put it so well on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, the new proposals put the emphasis on those using prostitutes to ascertain, beyond doubt, that their 'partner' is taking part of his/her own free will. What that might actually entail is yet to be made clear, probably because it will prove virtually impossible to define what is actually sufficient.

Labour have generally had problems in terms of dealing with human sexuality. They acknowledge that it exists but would rather not talk about it. On one hand, they talk about legislating to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against on grounds of their sexuality (a thoroughly good, liberal notion), yet tend to try to discourage the actual practice of that sexuality. And don't even start on the notion of frank and open discussion of sexuality in its many and varied forms...

Yet again, Labour have come up with a proposal notable only for its attempt to address an issue of concern without actually having the courage of their own convictions. Jacqui Smith believes that prostitution is, in itself, bad, and that most people fall into the sex industry because they are forced into it. The latter is true in many cases, and society has an obligation to help such unfortunates by providing them with the means to escape such an existence.

However, the New Labour approach appears to overlook basic human nature. Using sex workers is risky for most of those using them, and many of those who fear exposure are already likely to avoid temptation rather than takes such a chance. That leaves a hard core of, predominantly but not exclusively, men, for whom need, or the love of risk and/or adventure, makes the use of prostitutes essential in their eyes.

If prostitution is bad, Jacqui should have the courage of her convictions and ban it. On the other hand, if she wants women to be safer, she should crack down on the trafickers, the pimps and those who attack sex workers. Of course, she could always do something that might reduce the risk of driving prostitution underground, provide a safe environment for those in the industry and put things on a legal basis.

Prostitution is known as the world's oldest profession, and the chances of Labour overcoming the laws of supply and demand are remote. So, if I had to give Jacqui some advice, I'd suggest that she legalise prostitution, put it on a proper footing, tax the profits, and provide proper support for those coming into the industry so that they can make a life for themselves doing something else should they wish to.

Instead, they have chosen a piece of legislation which will criminalise people for doing something that they probably won't be aware that they're doing. Given the rate at which Labour criminalise things, the likelihood of anyone leading an entirely innocent life is now so remote that, if the laws were enforced, we'd all be behind bars.

Take that as a no then, Jacqui...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cameron and Osborne: small boys acting up...

Our Conservative friends are becoming increasingly upset with the way things are developing. Their lead in the polls is ebbing away, their Shadow Chancellor is looking increasingly vulnerable and they have little to say in terms of what to do next. Their response? Repeated claims that Gordon Brown isn't answering David Cameron's questions...

Now I would be one of the last to suggest that Gordon is inclined to provide direct answers to direct questions. However, it might help if he was asked some. David's tendancy to harp back to events past merely exposes the fact that he has nothing salient to add to the debate on our economic future. He knows that Gordon is hardly going to admit to mistakes, yet he insists on attempting to provoke one. Now one may well have legitimate doubts about the management of the British economy by Gordon, and now Alastair, but one can hardly look seriously to a political party who merely parrot what Vince Cable was saying five years ago.

So, a word to the wise for the Conservatives. Stop trying to score debating points as though you're still in the Oxford Union, ask the question, and then critique the answer outside afterwards. That way, you can ask more questions about more Labour failings. Or, if that's too much like hard work, you could leave holding them to account to the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish Nationalists, the DUP et al. Maybe, just maybe, we, the public, might learn something...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Baby P: emotion above reason - why politicians need to take a deep breath

There is no doubt that the tragic events leading up to the death of Baby P present a huge challenge to government, both local and national. However, they also present a challenge to politicians who, in their role as tribunes for the public, have multiple responsibilities. I've now watched the incident at Prime Ministers' Question Time which has caused so much controversy, and I'll return to that in a moment.

In his initial intervention, David Cameron condemned Haringey Council for having one in four social work posts left vacant. Interesting, really, given how many of his party's supporters are so critical of social workers in general, claiming that they are overpaid, irrelevant and, in general, unworthy of our support and/or sympathy. That said, he makes an excellent point. In the modern era, where local government comes under tremendous pressure to cut costs whilst meeting various obligations placed upon them by central government, leaving unfilled posts vacant helps to square the circle of falling grants and rising expectations.

That said, even if attempts are made to fill the vacancies, the general derision poured upon social workers tends to discourage applications. On one side of the debate, social workers are condemned for acting too precipitously - see John Hemming's blog for tales of inappropriate interventions, and at the other, they are condemned for failing to act quickly enough. Who would be a social worker under such circumstances? It is the sort of job where it is difficult to avoid taking your work home with you, and not one that I would fancy.

This is not to excuse any failings that the enquiry ordered into Haringey's Child Protection Services exposes, and I have little doubt that it will uncover them. However, finding errors of judgement and of process is only part of the task of fixing a department which is now perceived to be in crisis. We need to know why these mistakes were made, and whether the lack of staff led to a culture of shortcuts and superficiality, so often what happens when an organisation - public or private - is insufficiently resourced to carry out its allotted task.

Politicians have a responsibility to avoid hyperbole and nurture an environment whereby high quality, lasting solutions can be found - and implemented. And so I return to the events in the Commons...

David Cameron condemned "a social services department that gets £100 million a year and can't look after children". That was a cheap shot, unworthy of a serious politician. Is it really the case that Haringey Council is so awful, or was this a one-off case where, once things started going wrong, they kept going wrong? Does such a blanket accusation serve any purpose other than to get an easy headline?

Gordon Brown's response was ill-advised, although Conservative claims that he accused David Cameron of 'party politics' are on slightly shaky ground. He said, "I do regret making a party political issue of this issue..." - unwise, although not necessarily an accusation of the type alleged by David Cameron in his response. Equally, I thought that David Cameron's cheap comment, "I don't expect an answer, you never get one.", was wholly inappropriate given the gravity of the debate.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the debate itself, it is a sad reflection of our political culture that the issue appeared to overshadow the root problem, that of a critical failure of child protection services to do their job in a specific instance.

Frankly, I expect better. I want my politicians to engage in measured debate rather than lapsing into outrage. Unlike some commentators, I presume that David Cameron's outrage was genuine, if ill-directed, but government by outrage is government by knee jerk. It prejudices outcomes and leads to the sort of snap legislation that stores up trouble for later on.

So, ladies and gentlemen, take a deep breath, encourage the enquiry to do its job and do it well, and then come up with a measured response. If you do that, then perhaps Baby P will not have died in vain...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sage words from the liberal heart of Europe

I must admit to a sense of gratitude at Jessica's sensible advice. Whilst my particular talents are not perhaps up to her standards (competition-level whitewater rafting and award-winning madrigal singing), she makes much sense.

The important thing is to find a role, rather than being the person standing near the President, enjoyable though that is. I've already stood down from the Regional Executive, which takes up much of my spare time, and started to focus on my work on our internal democracy. That includes Liberal Youth, a throwback to my past.

I will also need to find time for the new kitten...

A piece of advice for the Presidential consort-elect

Greetings from Europe's last remaining empire!

All of us here in Amaranth were delighted to see that the Liberal Democrats have reverted to the old ways and elected a baroness to be their new President, and our heartiest congratulations go out to her on the occasion of her success. An invitation will be tendered by our Ambassador to visit us in due course.

Now that the noble Baroness Ros has swept to glorious victory, I feel that I should give some advice to young Mark in the art of being a good consort. After all he's never done this before, and given that there is no precedent in the history of the Liberal Democrats for a male Presidential spouse, perhaps the words of someone who has spent many years by her husband's side ruling a nation with a proud history might be of value.

There have always been differing stances on the role of the spouse in such circumstances. The Hillary Clinton model, where you take an active and public role in decision making, tends to be unpopular, even if you're good enough to do it. On the other hand, if you do take that route, there is always the chance that you will gain a place in the United States Senate (sorry, make that the Federal Executive).

The Laura Bush model, of doing good works and looking generally fragrant, tends to be less contraversial, although it helps if you didn't really have a profile beforehand. It does help if you have a decent sense of what is fashionable, although you really do need to showcase domestic designers if you can.

On the whole, it is probably better to err on the side of maintaining a low profile. Keep up your hobbies (in my case, madrigal singing and whitewater rafting) whilst ensuring that you're seen at all of the right events. If you do already have an interest in politics, don't stray beyond those areas where you have established a track record.

One of the side effects of being the consort is that people tend to see you as a conduit for getting a message to the supreme ruler. Don't discourage them from doing so - just don't promise them anything, you don't have the power to deliver - and make sure that you pass the information on. Oh yes, and be discreet, it doesn't pay to seen to be otherwise.

There is plenty of fun to be had though. The occasional foreign trip allows you to broaden your horizons, and there will be a slew of functions to attend, some formal, some not so formal.

In summary, my advice is to keep cool, remember who you are, and live as though there's a gentle waltz playing in the background as much as you possibly can. Achieve that consistently, and all will be as well as it can be.

Good luck, Mark and God bless...

The world is (kind of) watching

I keep an eye on the readership figures for Ros's blog from time to time, just to see what is attracting attention (and yes, I do the same for my blog), using Google Analytics.

I'd read Ros's latest blog entry, and noticed that her readership figure was up somewhat sharply, and was keen to find out what was going on. Imagine my surprise to find that there have been 540 views of her blog yesterday. Alright, Iain Dale did link to her blog, but that only accounted for about 16% of her readers. I'm somewhat surprised that he did, given his sarky comments about the election (if it's such a joke to you, why bother covering it, Iain?) but there you go.

There also appears to have been some interest in her activities as a member of the House of Lords, if Google is to be believed (oh yes, I check that too, just in case...).

I feel cheated though. It is apparent that those outside the Party who take an interest in such things were convinced that Lembit would win, and if I had played the spread betting market, I could have made enough profit for a very nice holiday for the two of us. After all, they weren't interested enough to check her out before... Someone must have made money out of the result though, because Guido Fawkes could only as grouchy as he is if he'd put money on Lembit to win. That will teach him to find a reliable source...

Anyone would think that there was a problem with freedom

I'm intrigued by all the talk from the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee of banning the sale of cheap alcohol.

Admittedly, I have come to expect such an attitude from Labour, and it is entirely consistent with their philosophy that government knows what is best for us. However, the Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves. Why?
  1. They claim to believe in the free market. So why do they think that it is right to tell retail outlets what price they should set for their product?
  2. They claim to believe in a smaller state. So why are they creating extra regulation, leading to an increase in the need for people to police it? Or are they suggesting that police and/or trading standards officers should give up other work to deal with it?
  3. They claim to believe in personal responsibility. So why don't they trust us to regulate our own behaviour - or face the consequences?
Now I don't claim that I am a libertarian, but I do think that we should punish an act that is illegal, not an act that isn't. There is no evidence to suggest that just because I have a few beers, I am likely to go out and punch someone, and I like to think that the people I choose to spend my time with are similarly unlikely to do so. However, if they do commit a crime, I expect them to be punished in a manner which satisfies our definition of justice.

On the other hand, it seems somewhat suspect to claim that you are a libertarian yet call for a ban of the sale of cheap booze by supermarkets. At least I can safely assume that Liberal Vision will be considering such stances when judging our MPs on their liberalism next time. That said, given that it's gone awfully quiet over there since Bournemouth, one wonders if there'll be a next time...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

And so the campaign is over...

Ummm... gosh... I'll admit to a degree of surprise at the result, which was way beyond my very conservative hopes.

That said, I believe that it demonstrates what can happen if you combine a genuinely credible candidate with a great campaign team, a believable manifesto and a clear long-term strategy executed precisely and consistently. It doesn't always result in victory - life isn't fair like that - but it does make it more likely.

The members have been fortunate in having three very distinctive candidates to choose from, and each has put forward their case vigorously and with passion. From a personal perspective, I have been intrigued by the campaigning strategies employed, as this is not something I've had much personal experience of, and it has been interesting to read the comments from across the blogosphere as to their effectiveness.

The perspective gained from not being the Returning Officer has been fascinating, and seeing how our processes work from the viewpoint of a candidate, an agent and a campaign team has been a revelation. I sense that we need to be, occasionally, more aware of the fact that anyone who puts their name forward to contest a high profile internal election is putting their ego up for examination.

Perhaps it isn't entirely necessary to resort to anonymous abuse (I'm uncomfortable enough about the attributed abuse but it is at least transparent), as such behaviour reflects badly upon us as Liberal Democrats and as individuals. On the other hand, robust, constructive criticism of ideas is the lifeblood of any such contest, and the fact that we have the freedom and the space (via Lib Dem Blogs and Liberal Democrat Voice) to do that has been one of the biggest pluses of the election itself.

And whilst I'll doubtless have more thoughts as the coming days unfold, perhaps it's time to try to sleep...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Obama: how sweet that sounds?

Like many others, I stayed up to watch history being made in the United States. I got involved with the Liberal Democrat Voice live blog, playing the part of statistician and watcher over the House and Senate races, and enjoyed the experience.

And so Barack Obama has won the Presidency. It's a bit of a poisoned chalice, with the economy in crisis, the likelihood of higher levels of unemployment and a greater burden on an underfunded and inadequate social welfare safety net. The United States has never been so lacking in friends, nor has it ever been perceived to be such an obstacle to world progress on issues such as the environment and peace.

There has been so much expectation and hope placed in an Obama presidency that, at least, he begins with a vast reservoir of goodwill that he can call on and he will no doubt be given some time to achieve tangible change.

It won't be easy. He doesn't have sufficient votes in the Senate to overcome a determined filibuster - although watch out for Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the two Republican senators from Maine, whose votes might be crucial - and there will be Democrats in the House urging him towards greater radicalism. There is little money for new initiatives, and an increasing feeling that America should raise its drawbridge against the world.

His first term will be predominantly about making the United States feel better about itself, and my gut feeling is that it will require a second term before we see just how radical Barack Obama actually is...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sometimes, the obvious route isn't the best one...

You might think that, after all of the travelling that we've done during the Presidential campaign, we might want to take a break from riding in trains. However, life goes on, and the wheels of Party bureaucracy turn relentlessly.

And so, my mind turns to a trip to the North on 21 November. Ros is the guest speaker at the Greater Ashfield Annual Dinner that Friday evening in Mansfield, whilst I have an English Candidates Committee meeting in York the next day. To complicate matters, Ros is speaking at Woking's dinner on the Saturday evening, so the arrangements are complex.

I'm doing it by train, and I've booked my ticket to Nottingham. I'm travelling first class - yes, I know - but it's comfortable, I got a really good fare, and they'll provide me with free refreshments and snacks. However, it's the return journey that's most interesting...

I assumed that the only sensible way would be direct from York to London King's Cross. Fast, but not terribly cheap... that is, until my eyes alighted on an astonishingly low first class fare, just £15. The journey time was longer than I'd expected because, as it turned out, the train travels from York to Chesterfield and then down the line to St Pancras.

Admittedly, as English Candidates Committee pays my expenses, I have less incentive to keep costs low, but the way I see it, money saved can be spent on something more productive than having me sit on a train, and I'm in no hurry to get home as I couldn't have got to Woking to join Ros anyway...

National Express East Anglia - not on my Christmas card list

Having made it to Sheffield, Ros and I set out for Stowmarket and our country refuge. It was never going to be an easy journey, but I really must thank National Express for making it that much more difficult...

Our first leg was to Retford and, just as we were making ourselves comfortable on the platform, a wave of people in red and white striped shirts surged into the station. Yes, the Sheffield United game had finished, and it was time to go home. We did make it onto the train, although I had to stand as far as Worksop. Our connection at Retford ran on time though, and we arrived at Peterborough with half an hour to spare for our train to Stowmarket. Except that it wasn't on the departure board...

So I asked the guy at customer services... "Yes sir, there's a bus at about 10.15 to Bury St Edmunds.". "So what happened to our train?", I asked, not wholly unreasonably, clutching the seat resrvation for the train in my hand. "Engineering works...", he replied, slightly irritated by my audacity in asking the question. Unimpressed, I went into the booking office. "I don't know why he told you that, there's the late running service to Norwich, you can connect for Stowmarket there, you should arrive at about 10.30."

Bearing in mind that it was 7.25, I was less than impressed. Why, if you're running a bus replacement, does it leave half an hour earlier than the train? How is anyone connecting to it supposed to allow for that if, when they buy their advance ticket, they are told that it is only valid on a specific service?

In the end, utterly convinced that Peterborough station is staffed by people who don't like passengers and that National Express East Anglia's management should be spit-roasted over an open flame, we gave up, booked into a hotel, and holed up for the night.

Membership: a dilemma that deserves some thought

Membership has been one of the primary battlegrounds in terms of ideas during the campaign, and it seems like a good time to add my tuppence ha'penny to the discussion. Before I continue though, I feel it necessary to emphasise that this article doesn't represent a critique of the proposals, or of those making them, more an airing of the issues that have triggered such thought.

Membership has steadily dropped, consistent with the wider withdrawal of the public from political parties. I've been Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and Membership Secretary of my Local Party and one thing that I've noticed is that successful Local Parties do one of two things. First, they win elections. It's amazing how much easier it is to attract people when you are able to wield power and/or influence. Second, they provide regular newsletters and activities (not just campaigning). If you do both, all the better.

The ability to win elections is not always within your control. However, putting out a members newsletter every two months, and organising a social event every month is not as difficult. Note that I didn't say easy. In a Party where the cult of the campaigner is uppermost, finding members willing to produce newsletters and organise quiz evenings, pizza and politics nights or annual dinners is not easy. If you find one, treat him or her kindly...

All three candidates want to increase participation, and all have offered differing routes to getting there. Lembit proposes the least radical option of all, going out there and signing up more members. He has suggested setting individual targets for each Local Party and the first challenge is to overcome their sovereignty. After all, the carrot for retaining members is somewhat poor:
  • 20% of locally collected renewals

  • 50% on locally originated direct debits for the first time

  • 20% on ongoing direct debits

And, if an individual Local Party fails to reach its target, what is the punishment for failure? The reward for success? Again, we have awards for increased membership, but I've never heard one of my Local Parties mention them as an incentive.
Ros, on the other hand, proposes a form of associate membership. Local Parties are incentivised to recruit by a 100% share of the income generated. As long as Local Parties don't trick the system by converting full members to associates, it should help to some extent. Just how much is the question? And here, perhaps, the thoughts of Irfan Ahmed might have a part to play. If full membership comes with certain advantages (a 1% discount on energy bills through a significant supplier, a 5% discount on rail fares?), this would discourage such moves.

The most radical proposal comes from Chandila, the notion of effectively abolishing membership and replacing it with a declared supporter scheme, similar to the system which applies in the United States.

I retain an interest in American politics, and acknowledge that such a system works well... there. However, there are only two political parties of any significance, and each raises vast sums of money with which to campaign. There are three key questions which require an answer;
  • Who picks the leader and the candidates? The Democrats don't have a political leader per se. The Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is selected by members of that group. Candidates are selected by means of primaries, funded by the States.

  • Who decides the policy? For the Democrats, to be blunt, predominantly the candidates. The Platform Committee of the DNC meets irregularly and pretty infrequently, and agrees only the broad outline rather than the detail.

  • Who makes the decisions? Democrats organise on a state and county basis, and a lot of positions are filled by appointment.
The Party becomes a vehicle for campaigning individuals, with little control over the policy or the candidate. It's a model which is so far removed from the familiar that it would require a huge cultural change in the way we do things. It would also potentially require an vast increase in the resourcing required to reach our supporters, although this might be balanced by an increase in donations.

In turn, the costs of selecting candidates, and of selecting the local organisational leadership, are potentially ruinous. Alternatively, you could appointment the organisational leadership, which requires a top down approach whereby the leader selects federal leadership, who then select regional leaders, local leaders and so on. Can you do this and retain the essence of liberal democracy within it?

There are no easy solutions to the issues of member recruitment, retention and engagement. However, in a political environment where funds are in short supply, and where the public are deeply suspicious of the notion that state funding is the way forward, an ability to increase the pool of activists and participants will be vital to success for all of the British political parties.

Regardless of whoever wins, their success will be keenly wished for...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Your guide to the Party Presidential election

Less than four days until polls close, and people are still making up their minds and sending their ballot papers off...

However, I have been asked the 64,000 member question, "When do we get to find out the result?". And so, for your delectation and delight, here is what you need to know.

Polls close on Friday and, thankfully, the count will start at approximately 10.30 a.m. the next morning at Cowley Street under the watchful eyes of five counting agents from each campaign. It is hoped that the count will be concluded by 1.30 p.m. and the result will be announced after that. When after that, and how, is yet to be made entirely clear...

There had to be a catch, didn't there?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Steeling oneself for the final furlong...

Today saw another milestone in the race for the Presidency, the last Regional Conferences before close of poll, and Ros and I were in Sheffield for the last of the four informal hustings, hosted by the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Party.

I've become increasingly convinced that these events fail to allow anything other than superficial treatment of the serious issues that fall within the remit of the Presidency, but acknowledge that there have been few opportunities for members to compare the challengers in 'live time'.

However, Ros has made an effort to avoid the glib soundbite and engage in a serious debate with Lembit and Chandila, and the question and answer sessions have given her a platform to go into some depth in terms of what is possible and how it might be achieved. It is for others to judge how well she has performed, but I'm proud of her persistence in sticking to her gameplan and not seeking to push the populist button in the search for votes.

It does seem that most people who are intending to vote have now done so, although I'm sure that the final round of e-mails will act as a reminder to some to dig out that ballot paper and use it wisely.

By this time next week, we'll know our fate, and life will change, one way or the other. Whatever happens though, Ros, and her campaign team, will have done everything they could to persuade the membership of Ros's worth. We'll have had some fun along the way, and provoked a meaningful debate about where the Party goes from here.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I'm proud of what Ros has achieved, I'm proud to have been able to help in my own way, and I'm proud to be a Liberal Democrat. Not a bad way to reach the end of a campaign, methinks...