Saturday, February 28, 2009

A (European) Returning Officer's work is never done

One of my more pleasant tasks over the past ten years has been the five-yearly job of being Returning Officer for the South East European Regional List. On each occasion, I have enjoyed working with the Selection Committee, met and worked with a wide variety of applicants, and interacted with local members everywhere from Newbury to Canterbury, and from Oxford to Haywards Heath.

Curiously, with a list election, the Returning Officer remains in post until the close of nominations, so I am still technically on call. David Grace, who was selected to fill the tenth and final slot, and I have a running gag about a 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' scenario whereby candidates above him drop out, and he gets elected.

Frankly, I'd quite like to see David in Brussels, as he is one of the most forthright proponents of a European vision I have encountered. He's not pro-Europe for the sake of it, but has an acute understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the structures and policies of the Union.

As I've previously posted, I've already been called into action once, and, even at this late stage, anything can happen. So it was convenient that Ros was the keynote speaker at the South East/South Central Regional Conference, giving me the opportunity to touch base with members of the Selection Committee.

I also took the opportunity to discreetly lobby members of the English Candidates Committee in support of some of my proposals for reform of the candidate selection rules. Whilst the working group is now of the same view, we still need to convince English Candidates Committee and then English Council.

Friday, February 27, 2009

It's only a whimsical notion, to fly down to Reigate tonight...

Ah yes, another dinner beckons, this time in Reigate. It's been a pretty enjoyable day so far, having found time to meet my father and kid brother for lunch.

My father is celebrating his birthday over the weekend and, due to the difficulty in getting the family together, I grabbed the opportunity to spend a little time with him, with my brother, talking about family and stuff.

Given the difficulties on maintaining any sort of diet or exercise regime - I don't usually get to pick the menu, my routine is almost non-existent, I'm trying to develop the art of picking the least damaging options when I actually do have a choice. So I took the smoked chicken Waldorf salad which, I have to say, was very good. It was accompanied by two bottles of Viru, an Estonian beer which comes in curious octohedral bottles. Very nice, slight hint of vanilla, according to the tasting notes.

Best of all, I managed to avoid that 'I'm full and all I want to do is sleep' sensation that lunch often generates in me. Given the amount of work that needs doing, that's probably a good thing.

And now I'm on my way to Reigate. You know, I could really enjoy some fish. I wonder what they'll serve...

A 'strong leader' for London?

According to today's Evening Standard, the Labour Party have made a secret approach to Sir Alan Sugar to see if he would be willing to be their candidate for Mayor of London in 2012. Indeed, so secret is it now that most of London is either aware of it, or haven't left their offices yet.

Now I have no personal axe to grind against Sir Alan (although I'm guessing that Arsenal fans probably do...) but one does wonder what qualifications he has to run a city. In particular, does he have the skills required to work with a variety of local politicians, representing at least five political parties, whilst under public scrutiny? It isn't as simple as giving an instruction and expecting something to happen.

The job of Mayor requires diplomacy, tact and persistence. It needs someone who understands the art of the possible and that hard choices come with moral and ethical consequences, not just economic ones.

Oh yes, and you'll have to beat Ken Livingstone just to get the nomination...

Eighty years old - and still going strong

I have, from time to time, touched on the wonderfully collegiate feeling amongst the Parliamentary Party in the Lords, and last night was one of those occasions that brings a bit of a lump to the throat.

To mark the eightieth birthdays of four of our Peers, a party was thrown to mark the occasion. Naturally, given the difficulty of pinning everyone down to a date, it evidently took a little while to arrange, but a glittering array of Liberal Democrat Peers and their spouses, partners and family members gathered to celebrate the continuing lives of Lord (Eric) Avebury (born 29 September 1928), Lord (Bill) Rodgers of Quarry Bank (born 28 October 1928), Lord (Dick) Taverne (born 18 October 1928) and Lord (Geoff) Tordoff (born 11 October 1928). A pretty good month, I think you'd agree...

I have to admit to being a bit starstruck, as all four were political celebrities at one time or another, and I am a bit of an 'anorak' in that sense. Ros and I were at a table with Eric and Geoff, plus the noble Lords Dholakia and McNally, and it really was a lovely evening.

Eric is in astonishingly good form, having just got back from Bangladesh, and we had an opportunity to talk about his blog. Amazingly, it has never been part of the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and I asked him why that was. The answer? He didn't know who to ask, which just goes to show.

After an excellent dinner, the four octogenarians made brief speeches. Eric started by telling the story of how he became our by-election candidate in Orpington - I'm still not sure that if someone had published it as fiction, it would have any credibility at all... Bill then gave a speech which is unreportable, if only because it only really made sense if you were there (and I'm not wholly convinced that being there helped). Let's just say that I can claim to have met the unknown Python, and that Bill might be an undiscovered comic genius.

Dick waxed lyrical about the joys of being in the Lords, and listed the warning signs that you should look for to see if it might be time to retire gracefully, before Geoff told some stories of former Leaders and Chief Whips in the Lords.

As Eric noted, old age begins ten years beyond his current age, so most of us have a while to go before we're old. Except, of course, that Lord (Derek) Ezra celebrated his ninetieth birthday over the weekend, and Lord (George) Mackie of Benshie will reach the same age in July. And they're all still turning up at the Lords, still voting, still speaking, still asking questions, and still doing their bit for a more liberal society. We are very lucky to have them...

A question for the Daily Mail: second generation Englishman or fourth generation Nazi appeaser, which should you celebrate?

I'll be honest, when it comes to the Daily Vile, I yield to no one in my revulsion for a newspaper whose core readership is people who think that they're smart enough to have an opinion of their own yet believe everything they read in it. And so, when they announce that, if one of your parents is a immigrant, you aren't really British, it really is time to put the boot in.

Unlike the 1st Viscount Harmsworth, there is no record of my great-grandfather flirting with support for the Nazis, championing the British Union of Fascists or calling for alliance with Germany. Indeed, my great-grandfather was almost certainly less judgemental, more truthful and more measured in his language and tone than the average Daily Mail leader article is.

And these idiots would like to imply that I am somehow less than English? I am deeply proud of my status as an Englishman, proud enough to feel that I am privileged to be one. This does not mean that I am any less proud of my heritage, and given the behaviour of some of the people that qualify under the criteria of the Daily Mail's 'Britishness test', I thank my lucky stars that I have the diverse background that I have.

The day on which a Prime Minister tells the editor of the Daily Mail to go boil his head cannot come too soon...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Barry Gardiner MP - embarrassed yes, repentent no

Once a year, whether I want it or not, I get a missive from my MP. It's usually a sign that Labour are thinking of going to the country - I never hear from him otherwise. His two leaflets have plenty of glossy pictures of him with various people, although there is little evidence that he belives in much apart from getting re-elected.

So I thought that I ought to find out what he actually does believe in. Let's start with MP expenses... As a member of the Council of Unlock Democracy, I obviously believe that their expenses should be a matter of public record. Barry doesn't. When he does turn up, he votes against, but his attendance record is a bit thin on issues pertaining to 'transparency of government'. In fact, he achieves a score of 12.5%, with three votes against and five no shows. Curiously, he doesn't seem keen to mention that in his correspondence - no pictures of him consulting the 'John Lewis list' to see what sort of television he can get.

Of course, Barry represents a constituency which is 30 minutes by Jubilee Line train from Westminster (Kingsbury is in the heart of Brent North), so naturally he claims the Additional Costs Allowance in full (£22,110 in 2006/07). He needs a serious diary planner to make sure that he gets all of the photographs needed to fill his once a year glossy leaflet, so he claims the largest allowance for staffing costs of any MP (£119,193 in 2006/07, up 96% since 2001/02).

So I can see why he isn't keen on having his expenses published. He was, in 2006/07, the 19th most expensive MP, despite representing a constituency close to the Palace of Westminster (for comparison, Alastair Carmichael, our man in Orkney and Shetland, comes in more than £3,000 per year cheaper despite having to commute in from Kirkwall). He's even more expensive than Dawn Butler, his fellow second home owner from Brent South (she's more expensive than Alastair too)!

If only he spent the money on communicating with me, I might not begrudge it as much. But he doesn't, so I do. Remind me to put out a leaflet in my area in the run-up to the General Election...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Candidate selection reform - coming to English Council soon?

When a working group was set up to look at the Selection Rules by which we choose Prospective Parliamentary candidates, I was abuzz with ideas, many gleaned from the experiences I had had, and the comments that my previous writings on the subject had attracted. However, I wasn't exactly confident that much would change, especially given how conservative English Candidates Committee can be.

That all changed on Monday night, as the working group met to agree its proposals to be discussed at ECC's next meeting on 7 March. We've decided that we want to move to a new set of rules based on some key principles:
  • a two-tier system whereby weaker seats have a stripped down timetable
  • opt-up for Local Parties who are ambitious
  • greater involvement of stakeholders
  • Returning Officers as disciplinarians rather as police
  • freedom for candidates to campaign in new and innovative ways

We believe that this will make the Returning Officer's job easier and less bureaucratic, enable candidates to demonstrate the skills that need to be tested, reduce the burden on weaker Local Parties and connect up the work of the Campaigns Department and the English Candidates Committee in a way not achieved previously.

If approved by ECC, we'll then look to draft some new Rules and place them before English Council for approval. With luck, they'll be in place by the General Election...

Ivan Cameron: reminding us why you should play the ball and not the man

The sad loss of Ivan, David and Samantha Cameron's eldest child, should act as a reminder that, regardless of what we might think of individual politicians, we should never forget that they are human beings.

I have often commented as to the damage done to our politics by the sheer vileness of the abuse, especially that from some of the more right wing commentariat. I still firmly believe that such behaviour denies us the talent of those who would rather not be attacked for merely existing as opposed to being attacked for what they believe in.

When such tragedies as this occur, it is customary to note one's regret and pass best wishes to the bereaved, and it is good to note that so many of my fellow Liberal Democrats have already posted along such lines. However, those amongst the blogosphere whose stock in trade is personal abuse should be wary of doing likewise. It's called 'hypocrisy' where I come from.

And sadly, those who have been so abusive in recent years will continue as though nothing had ever happened...

The Camerons will have a particularly tough road over the coming months, with little opportunity to grieve away from the ever-prying eyes of the media. I wish them well, and hope that they are able to find time to deal with their loss in their own way, amongst those whom they love. The best we can do is leave them to it, and it would be nice if journalists gave them a little respite. Sadly, I don't think that they'll be that fortunate...

Heathrow - Susan Kramer strikes a blow for the forces of reason

Parliamentary anoraks may well be a bit excited, after a Liberal Democrat Bill was successfully given its first First Reading yesterday afternoon. Susan Kramer rose at 4.31 p.m. to speak, moving a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill under Standing Order No.23. So far, so dull. Such speeches tend to have the success rate of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

However, this one, seeking to amend the Planning Act 2008 to require parliamentary approval for proposals for the building of new major airports and additional runways at existing major airports; and for connected purposes, was the subject of an ambush. A brief speech in opposition by David Wilshire, the Conservative MP for Spelthorne, a vote called and, by a margin of 247 to 203, victory was gained.

Here is Susan's speech, and we can look forward to another uncomfortable moment for the Government on 20 March at Second Reading. I suspect that they will do everything they can to remove this obstacle, but with a number of Labour MP's supporting it, they may not find it as easy as they would like.

Congratulations to our Parliamentary Party in the Commons, and hopefully voters in Richmond Park will know who to thank in due course...

Conservatives - freedom of information if it embarasses Labour, unless...

it might embarrass us too!

Just as I was beginning to worry that the Conservatives might be able to fake a concern over our civil liberties long enough to fool enough of the people just once, Dominic Grieve kindly demonstrates that all they really want is to be in power so that they can use the cover of national security to keep key information nicely hidden, away from the public eye. In the midst of a pretty lame whinge against the Government, he gave the game away, saying;

"The code of practice on access to Government information introduced by the Major Government specifically and deliberately excluded minutes of Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, for the very reasons that the Secretary of State sets out in the statement of reasons he placed in the Library, and which plainly extend to all Cabinet minutes in general. Given what the Secretary of State has resorted to today, would it not be sensible to reintroduce that rule?"

So. let's see. His Party supports an enquiry into the Iraq War and the 'dodgy dossier' but wants the key information, the minutes of the relevant Cabinet meetings, to be secret. Is he not bright enough to see the contradiction, or is he an example of the distance the Conservatives have to travel before they have sufficient credibility to be a real governing Party, not just a pale imitation.

There you have it. Conservatives don't actually believe in civil liberties and freedom of information, they just want your votes. Hell, even Iain Dale thinks that they're wrong... albeit for an equally unprincipled reason.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Homelessness - pausing for thought

On Friday night, Ros and I paid a visit to the campaign headquarters in Bradford East, to meet a group of young people who were raising funds for Bradford Nightstop by sleeping in the office.

As part of the event, they had invited Bev Johnson, one of the Nightstop organisers, to give a talk on the work that they do to get young people off of the streets and into a place of safety. It turned out to be rather more thought provoking that I might have expected.

Firstly, Bev was convinced that the best option is to enable young people to return to the family home - as long as it is safe to do so. She strongly believes that long-term exposure to the hostel system tends to lead to worse outcomes and, indeed, I see her point.

We are all aware of the lack of prospects for young people who fall into homelessness. Job opportunities are harder to come by, education is harder to pursue, and both of these things can make it so much harder for someone to go on to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Her network of volunteer hosts provide a safe, hopefully one-off, place of safety, allowing the organisation to work with the whole gamut of public and private sector groups to find the best solution for the individual concerned.

She raised a whole range of issues, large and small, which demonstrate the problems that ned to be addressed. For example, they like to provide clean underwear, something that most people take for granted, yet if you have left home with only the clothes on your back, it is something to be valued.

On the macro level, Bev noted that funding for local councils to address the issue of rough sleepers is based on the number of people found sleeping in the open. As Jeanette Sunderland, our Group Leader on Bradford Council noted, she can easily find half a dozen young people sleeping at Bradford Interchange, who are clearly homeless but don't count because they have a roof over their heads. It's another example of well-intentioned Government failing to properly address a glaring need.

I was impressed, both by Bev and by the group of young people, whose initiative in organising the event and in working with the Regional Party to gather underwear (all new) for distribution to Nightstop hosts will make a difference in the lives of a few young people when they really need it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jacqui Smith - lying about points-based immigration isn't how you deal with the BNP

No sooner do I write about the BNP 'threat' and Labour's woeful response to it but we see another example of how not to address it.

Jacqui Smith is talking about the new proposals for a points-based immigration system, similar to that successfully employed in countries such as New Zealand. It is probably the best way of regulating the flow of migration into this country and, as Liberal Democrats, we are minded to support it. However, Jacqui has clearly not used the funds gleaned from claiming a room in her sister's house as her main home to study elementary logic.

Her view is that such a system will support the notion that British jobs should go to British workers. Sorry, Jacqui, but that just isn't true, and if you're hoping to persuade those disenchanted souls considering a vote for the BNP, you're just lying to them. Firstly, most foreign workers in this country come from within the European Union, and won't be affected by it. Second, whilst wage levels are higher here, people will come from Lithuania or Slovakia or wherever because they can send money home.

If only the issue were that simple. We are now paying the price for generations of neglect in a range of areas that, in isolation might not seem that important, but when added together create a competitive disadvantage that is only apparent at the level of the individual.

The people most impacted by a competitive jobs market are those who have less in the way of marketable skills, and the BNP taps that sense of vulnerability. They are undercut by people who have lower financial expectations and who have no long-term intention to stay. Unlike the Lithuanians and others, they can't go to other countries in search of work because they have a language gap to overcome, salary levels are lower and their outgoings higher.

The appalling level of competence in foreign languages, which first became apparent under a Conservative administration whose only thoughts in education revolved around the three R's, selling off playing fields and increasing central control over the curriculum, means that most people lack confidence that they can function adequately in Europe. As a result, they are loathe to seek out, and take up, potential opportunities in France or Germany, for example.

Our economy is not our own any more. Nearly 40% of the 800 largest employers in this country are apparently owned by foreigners, and that interdependence means that telling an Italian owned company to employ only locals is absurd. We need, as a nation, to understand that protectionism is a double-edged sword, and given our traditional reliance on exports, retaliation would be fatal to our economic prospects.

On the other hand, our service sector does well in terms of competitiveness in Europe. Workers who make their living from the use of their brain and creative flair benefit from the freedom that the Single Market offers and they see Europe not as a threat, but as an opportunity. But then, they're not likely to vote BNP.

Politicians who suggest that a change to the immigration laws will make everything better are fools, and the consequences of such foolishness risk driving voters further into the waiting arms of the BNP and other fringe groups. Jacqui Smith might succeed in drawing attention away from her domestic arrangements by such attention-seeking dishonesty, but our democracy is not served by such a mendacious approach.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Labour urged to take action to stop the BNP winning Euro seats... hello, is there anybody out there?

According to today's Independent, 'senior Labour figures' are said to have told Gordon Brown that the BNP are likely to win two seats in June's European elections. Oh dear, are we to see another attempt by Labour to hype the threat from the BNP so as to drive voters back to the shelter of the Labour Party?

It is true that the BNP have has a series of good by-election results, and this week's result in Swanley, where the Labour vote collapsed to allow the BNP to win, has highlighted what they are capable of in a small, highly targeted one-off campaign. What we haven't seen is any evidence that they have the capacity to fight anything larger against meaningful, engaged opposition.

It takes a lot of money to fight a Region-wide election. You need a pretty big bankroll even to put out an election address across the entire North West, for example, and given the media's tendancy to focus on the political big beasts, and their general lack of interest in European elections anyway, the ability to raise awareness in their policies might be limited.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that they are not a threat. Their message is easy to articulate and requires a response which is more multi-layered. However, they tend to do best where local democracy is fairly moribund, where one party is dominant to the exclusion of others, and where the black and minority ethnic community is comparatively small.

From the perspective of the major parties, the best form of defence is attack. Not an attack on the BNP, per se, but an attack on the sense of alienation from politics and the authorities. Voters who feel isolated from the decisions that impact on their day to day lives are more likely to vote for someone who comes along and says, "We know how you feel, we agree that your local politicians don't care about you, vote for us for something different.". It only needs to work once.

The challenge to Labour, the Conservatives and ourselves is to find ways of giving people a sense of personal involvement and a stake in what happens to their communities, their counties, their country. Technology potentially helps us to do that, but without an honesty of intent, it will take more than better PR to convince those who have given up on voting, or who vote for fringe, extremist parties of the left or right, to engage in the more complex debates that stem from genuine large-scale participation in our democracy.

Duncan Borrowman has noted the importance on running candidates everywhere - we failed to run one in Swanley for reasons unknown - and he is absolutely right to do so. If you don't give voters a choice, you risk having them vote for an option they're not so keen on as a means of expressing their disapproval of other parties. That sounds a bit negative, but there are plenty of voters who will vote on that basis. Some of them will vote for us.

Unfortunately, Labour just don't get that. They argue that the BNP are vile racists and that we, the established parties, must work together to stop them. There is a core of BNP support that is overtly racist, it is true, and there are others whose view of the world is guided by fear of difference. However, many of those now voting for them have been conditioned to do so by the stream of inaccurate reports from the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, implying that immigrants get priority for housing, that all new jobs are being taken by foreigners, and that if only we could achieve Gordon Brown's 'nirvana' of 'British jobs for British workers' and throw off the yoke of Brussels, we would all live happily ever after.

No, in order to defeat the BNP, we have to win the argument, making our case, campaigning in the community and addressing the day to day issues that affect it. Politicians talking in glib terms and implying easy solutions don't help that. Promising the Earth and delivering little visible change doesn't help either. And emphasising the threat from the BNP without addressing the root causes behind their support certainly won't help...

Friday, February 20, 2009

What is this cliche I see before me?

Now I'm not a great believer in the cliched 'it's grim oop North' stuff.

On the other hand, here in Bradford, it's a bit chilly, it's dark and it's raining. The shops seemingly all closed at 5.30 and it all feels a bit desperate. There are a whole bunch of dead shops in the city centre, which can't help. Nice branch of Waterstones though, with a statue of Cobden in it.

It'll be much nicer in daylight, with the sun shining, won't it...

A quick visit to our friends in the North

I write this entry from the comfort of a National Express East Coast service to Leeds. The free tea and light refreshments are very nice, and my first class seat is very comfortable. Curious, isn't it, that I generally have nice experiences on NXEC and Jonathan Wallace always has such awful ones. I still think that Jonathan should book his tickets under an alias... We're even on time...

Ros and I are on our way to Bradford as part of Ros's programme of visits to Regional Conferences, as promised in her manifesto. Unfortunately, we're not doing as many events as we might have wished, as it proved difficult to organise an itinerary in good time, but I'm sure we'll be back in due course.

I'm still asked if I enjoy these trips and, so far, I have to admit that I am. My past roles within the Party have allowed me to meet, and work with, people across the country, and it's always nice to run into them again, even if I have to reminded occasionally (I'm getting old, and the memory isn't what it was...).

This evening includes a visit to Bradford East, where there is an event to highlight homelessness issues. There will, I'm promised, be students and young people involved, so my Liberal Youth hat will be in evidence... If only I could have made the Brighouse quiz night... (I did see if it was possible, honest...)

Sarah T goes to Peckham

Yesterday evening was Local Party Executive night, so I arrived at a bungalow in Kingsbury to do my Secretarial duty and, I am pleased to report, it was a short meeting. This allowed me to get home in time to watch Question Time, not something I generally do, but on this occasion, Brent's very own Sarah Teather was on. It's not often that the media do anything in Peckham that doesn't mention crime, deprivation or racial tension, so I was intrigued to see what sort of audience turned up.

I have to confess that Sarah had not made a huge impression on me as a South Londoner, even as a South Londoner on the Regional Executive. Slightly fierce looking, a bit of a workaholic, not really the sort of person I would naturally warm too. If she knew who I was, she probably wouldn't be likely to warm to me either. Apparently, I was on her Parliamentary approval panel, although I don't claim to remember it (admittedly, there are dozens of people, good, bad and indifferent, whose assessment days I was on, and I don't remember them either).

However, once I moved to Brent, and become Secretary of the Borough Party, I realised just what loyalty she had instilled. My colleagues are almost fanatically dedicated to making sure that she wins Brent Central, and are determined that nothing will get in the way. I'm impressed, I admit, and I'm not easily impressed.

I was intrigued to see how she would get on with a Peckham audience, especially given the highly diverse one that turned up. Peckham has a large and lively Afro-Caribbean community, with an increasing emphasis on the Afro bit. I used to joke that there was more Sierra Leonean politics done in Peckham than of any of the British political parties. It is part of the Labour heartland in Southwark, although there were Liberal Democrat successes south of the railway tracks in the nineties.

So I was delighted to see her strongly civil libertarian, socially conscious views get a warm response from the audience. In an area that has voted Labour as consistently as Peckham has over the years (and look how much good that's done...), if a Liberal Democrat can draw such a response, it can only augur well for our prospects.

It does need to be borne in mind that Brent Central has a significant Afro-Caribbean population, particularly in Harlesden, Stonebridge and Kensal Green wards. In the past, these were not areas that saw much political activity. Labour took the vote for granted, and other parties lacked resource to challenge that. It's different now, as the boundary changes have made the new seat a battle to the death between two women, Dawn Butler, the increasingly paranoid Brent South MP, and our Sarah.

Dawn has struggled to adjust to life in a marginal seat - Brent South was pretty safe - and has repeatedly demonstrated that she is not in Paul Boateng's league. The Obama endorsement unleashed a wave of ridicule upon her that, whilst possibly harsh, showed that she doesn't understand why people are so cynical about politicians. The second home allowance claim didn't help either...

Sarah, on the other hand, has good relations with the local press, has worked hard to learn a second language so as to better interact with the sizeable South Asian community and is everywhere (and I mean everywhere). Her campaign to seek proper treatment of a Brent resident imprisoned in Guantanamo was very well received by constituents, and her consistent championing of issues that really do impact on voters has resulted in a tremendous level of name recognition and personal support.

I had a few private concerns that Brent Central would be a tough, uphill struggle too far. Not anymore, I don't. We have the team, we have the message, we have the candidate. I'm not saying we will win, but I'll be really disappointed if we don't...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dreams of a Wembley double

Meanwhile, my more traditionally beloved football team, Luton Town, have been struggling to overcome a thirty point deduction (thanks a million, Lord Mawhinney...). The Hatters have made it into positive numbers (slightly less points than a triangle, but there you go...) but, despite that, have managed a cup run in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, the hard way.

Wins against Brentford (currently top of League 2) and Division 1 sides Walsall and Colchester United (I'm really sorry, Bob...) were enough to reach a two-legged Area Final against Brighton. It took penalties, but Luton Town are going to Wembley! Alright, it may be to play Scunthorpe United in a cup competition that most football fans don't notice but I don't really care.

Of course, that leaves Luton on track for two unusual achievements. Firstly, the first team to win a Wembley final and lose their place in the Football League. Second, they'll join Oxford United as League Cup winners playing in the Conference. Unless, of course, they manage the escape act of all time...

It's Cup fever deja vu all over again...

Last season, I found myself in an unexpected dream of footballing glory as plucky Needham Market FC made their way through the rounds of the FA Vase to the semi-finals, where they were eventually beaten by the eventual winners, Kirkham and Wesham FC, over two legs. It was a great dream whilst it lasted, but a small town with a population of less than 5,000 at Wembley? Unlikely, eh?

But the team won't lie down, and they're clearly up for another tilt this year. In November, the campaign started with a narrow 1-0 win over Northampton Spencer in front of 175 hardy souls. St Neots Town fell 4-3 in the third round in front of 219, before the draw everyone dreaded, AFC Fylde (formerly Kirkham and Wesham FC). At least it was at home, but the Lancastrians snatched a 0-0 draw in front of 320 spectators and an away game didn't look promising. And yet, and yet... with enthusiastic travelling support, and the game moved due to problems with the Fylde pitch, the gallant Reds stole away with a 2-1 victory to stun a crowd of 457, earning yet another home draw against Ridgeons League rivals Dereham Town.

At the second attempt, the match was played on something of a gluepot, but Needham Market were worthy 2-1 winners in front of 448 mostly happy fans. And so to the quarter-finals. Joy of joys, another home draw, this time against Chalfont St Peter on 28 February. 

Unfortunately, I won't be there, as I'll be at the South East/South Central joint Regional Conference, but my thoughts will stray towards Bloomfields at about 3 p.m...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Liberal Youth: in adversity, strength

I have to admit that I'm suddenly rather impressed. I comment on Liberal Youth and, as if by magic, they demonstrate exactly why one could be optimistic about their future.

I have been approached by a number of key Liberal Youth personnel, each of them pointing out some element of recent efforts that address some of my concerns. It seems that there are all sorts of things going on to streamline processes, improve communication and increase delivery capacity. As an office holder of Liberal Youth, albeit a somewhat elderly one, I'm pleased to see this.

My Deputy Returning Officer, the estimable Erlend Watson, tells me that he was impressed by the qualities displayed by candidates in the hustings, and I am told that I can look forward to seeing them for myself in due course.

My only disappointment is that there are those who seem to take great delight in stirring things up. Why is someone called Tory Bear being fed a somewhat partial version of events, designed to discredit the organisation? Indeed, who is doing it and to what end? It must be assumed that such an individual is not a friend of Liberal Youth, or hopelessly naïve, to supply the enemy with information in such a manner.

We also have a RON (reopen nominations) campaign, it appears. I'm often troubled by such campaigns, as they tend to be negative by their very nature. However, it is permitted to run such a campaign, as long as it doesn't breach the anti-negative campaigning rules laid down by Liberal Youth's constitution, so I await events with a keen interest.

Preparations are well under way for the issue of ballot papers and manifesto booklets, so the debate over who is best qualified to take Liberal Youth into the future will widen further. I hope that we'll see the best of Liberal Youth in the coming weeks, and after the events of the past week, I'm quietly confident that we will.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Derek Draper vs the blogosphere

The latest development in young Draper's war against the blogosphere is an interesting one, if worrying to defenders of free speech.

The first salvo, accusing Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes of racism or, at the very least, pandering to it, seemed to be cliched but effective. It got everyone talking about him, put Iain and Guido on the defensive to some extent but rallied support for his opponents. So far, not so good.

Now don't get me wrong, there are some fairly vile people posting comments on Guido's blog in particular. I tend to the view that Guido's view of the world coarsens political debate to the point where you might wonder whether there were any principled individuals left at any level of government. Further, I am convinced that the fact that most of these individuals post under pseudonyms frees them to be far more offensive than they might be if their identity was known.

Many of them are, however, not racist, or at least, not overtly so. If there were more ethnic minority members of the Cabinet, we might see a different 'face', but, whilst their language is pretty ugly, there is little evidence of what one might definitively describe as racism. The problem is that, by tolerating such abuse, Guido does effectively provide a platform for them.

Iain doesn't permit such behaviour. Whilst he is pretty partisan, so am I, so nothing wrong there. Occasionally, his sense of humour goes astray, mostly when he hasn't quite worked out all of the implications of a posting but he's pretty quick to offer an apology when he's wrong and honest enough to hold his hands up.

So what would Derek do next? Now this is where a sense of evil genius kicks in, the idea of a multi-layered attack on the lifeblood of the really serious bloggers, cutting off the income stream. First, pressure advertisers by threatening them that their association with known racists will damage their brand, then threaten those behind the conduit of advertising to a range of bloggers, in this case Alex Hilton, 'Recess Monkey' and key player behind both LabourHome and Message Space.

It's classic in its simplicity, entirely consistent with the boycotting tradition of the radical left and guaranteed to keep Derek in the public eye. Labour have maximum deniability due to his somewhat damaged credibility (sorry Derek, but you did get a bit above yourself in the early days...), and the likes of Iain and Guido find themselves on the back foot (sorry guys, but you really are, at least for the time being...). Given the weakness of the Labour blogosphere, combined with the increasing lazy 'dead tree media', the idea of causing Conservative bloggers to at least ponder a degree of self-censorship can only serve to take a little pressure off of the Government. Not much, I suspect, as Labour activists don't really comprehend the real influence of bloggers - not as much as some of our number would have you believe.

The problem is that such a strategy only really succeeds from a position of moral strength against an idea or group who are generally accepted to be beyond the pale. Of all people, given Derek's career highlights, he probably fails to meet the moral strength criteria. A self-confessed Labour insider with a record of pressurising journalists is less than likely to seize the moral high ground.

If it was just Guido, his target might just be deemed as being beyond the pale by the court of public opinion, if it wasn't for the fact that he strikes gold just often enough to establish a degree of credibility. Besides, in attacking a government which seems to know no bounds in its efforts to take away our basic freedoms, he is reflecting a popular zeitgeist.

So I find myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to defend the right of an individual to launch an advertiser boycott whilst despising his attempts to threaten a fellow blogger or two, whilst also defending the right of a fairly unpleasant individual to propagate a message of destructive cynicism which, if left unchecked, devalues our political culture and weakens our society.

Ultimately though, principles have to rise to the surface. Derek, you're wrong in your approach, wrong to use threats against individuals to attain your goals and wrong in your desire to silence a voice which makes you and those you purport uncomfortable. In a free society, we establish laws which delineate the types of behaviour which is offensive to the broader community. If Guido breaks them, use the law to stop him. Otherwise, leave him to his own devices.

The problem, you see, is that two can play at this game. A political movement on its way out is far more vulnerable than one on the rise and, if you've spent any time looking at the sheer hatred displayed by some of the more rabid Guido posters, you will realise that, given the opportunity, they will do anything to stop you, and your colleagues, from regrouping after your defeat at a General Election.

I have been increasingly saddened by the vitriolic tone of politics in this country in recent years, and maintained a fond, if increasingly forlorn, hope that the Internet could encourage a renaissance of ideas and substance over spin and soundbite. If all it does is release the restraints of civility that demonstrate our qualities as human beings, there is little hope for the civil society that so many of the protagonists in this conflict claim to be fighting for.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Make mine a bottle of badly labelled beer

As a Valentine's Day treat, Ros arranged for us to take a tour of the St Peter's Brewery in St Peter South Elmham, one of a clutch of hamlets named after their church - there are five South Elmhams in close proximity, south of Bungay, near the Norfolk border.

The tour itself is pretty basic, although our guide, John, was excellent value and great entertainment. For those who don't know much about how beer is made, it was sufficiently informative for Ros to learn the meaning of 'cask conditioned' but not so technical that you needed an 'O' level in Chemistry to understand it.

The tasting session afterwards was very pleasant, with a variety of the brewery's products available for tasting, and very good they were too. So much so that we were inclined to buy some of their fine products for further research later. We were then introduced to one of the benefits of visiting a brewery.

Labelling machines do go wrong from time to time and, naturally, supermarkets and the like don't want to have poorly labelled products on their shelves. So the brewery boxes up these rejects and sells them in boxes of eight at a notably reduced price. Frankly, as long as I know what it is, the state of the label doesn't matter, so Ros and I are now the proud possessor of twelve bottles of Old Style Porter plus eight each of Golden Ale, Ruby Red Ale and Grapefruit Fruit Beer.

That should keep us going for a while...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

25 random things about me... the Empire strikes back

Mark tells me that this is all the rage, so here goes...
  1. My middle names are Serena Isabella Caterina Grimnar - when your family has links to most other royal families, you tend to want to keep in with them...

  2. In 1957, I won the European Under-18 whitewater rafting championship, aged 8.

  3. My first pet was a marine iguana. I called him Iggy.

  4. When Ludwig and I awarded Mark the Knight Cross of Amaranth with oak leaves, I had drunk so much champagne that I called him Franz all evening. He was very good about it.

  5. I took skiing lessons some years ago. My ski instructor was a young man called Nick but he didn't last very long...

  6. I love madrigal singing, and am a stalwart of the Amaranth team at international events.

  7. My cousin Jaime was the junior member of the military junta that ran a small Latin American country. He has never admitted which one it was.

  8. Amongst my directorships is one for the company that owns the exploitation rights for Stephen Tall across Oceania.

  9. Rupert, my eldest son, has been treated for his psychopathic condition. Apparently, the most successful treatment was to join the Conservative Party...

  10. My father-in-law owns a large tract of rainforest in Central America with the aim of protecting the giant sloth.

  11. I zorb, therefore I am.

  12. In my spare time, I sit on the Amaranth Electoral Commission. We haven't found a way to introduce plurality into national politics here because the Authentic Radical Liberal Party repeatedly gain over 99% of the vote.

  13. I was forced to take tennis lessons as a child - it didn't work because I couldn't understand why someone was hitting the ball back at me.

  14. My favourite job was the one I did for a few years in the mid-eighties as the SDP MP for Greenwich - you wondered what had happened to Rosie Barnes, didn't you. The rabbit was delicious.

  15. I like to hunt endangered animals... with my camera... My friend Carol then paints them - it makes it easier to recognise them later but I'm not sure that a tiger should be purple.

  16. My doctoral thesis was on peach schnapps and innovative uses for it - I met my future husband, Ludwig, in the course of my research.

  17. I share a hair colourist with a leading Liberal Democrat blogger.

  18. My favourite traditional Amaranth event is the feast day of St Catherine, marked with virgins, garlic and red wine. We import the virgins from Romania, but I'm not sure about the quality in recent years - they have a terrible urge to sing... terribly.

  19. I have a gall bladder called Rex.

  20. In 1965, I was chosen to fill a vacancy on the Security Council of the United Nations, aged 16.

  21. I have an intern to help me with answering my post. His name is David Milliband and his hobbies include being Foreign Secretary of your country. At least, that's what he tells me.

  22. In the 1970's, I ran a spy ring from an office in the Kremlin. If the Soviets had found out who I was spying on, they would have been somewhat upset.

  23. When I am stressed, I like to take my pet monitor lizards, Martin and Huw, for a walk. They may have a nasty habit of biting and killing people, but they're big softies really.

  24. Every Saturday afternoon, at half past two, come rain or shine, I put on any old clothes and I'm an ordinary person...

  25. I am part of a secret team of celebrities who write Iain Dale's blog

Friday, February 13, 2009

Liberal Youth: campaigning hots up

Well, it's been less than three days since nominations closed, and much has happened already. I've been bombarded with invitations to join Facebook groups, questions about process and general organisational stuff. And I'm the Returning Officer...

The Spring Conference takes place this weekend at the University of Warwick, just outside Coventry and, if you're a member of Liberal Youth, try to get along if you can. There will be hustings, although I encourage members to put their questions directly to the candidates whenever an opportunity arises.

After the Conference, the formal ballot will take place, with a manifesto booklet and ballot papers for members to peruse and complete. At the end of March, the count will take place in Cowley Street, and I will announce the result as soon as I can after it is concluded.

Let the best candidates win...

Boris blows a fuse...

It would appear that Keith Vaz has managed to upset Boris Johnson to the point where, in a telephone conversation between the two men, the latter "launched an X-rated tirade" at the former.

Now I freely admit that Keith Vaz frequently irritates me, it's something about his style, I suppose, but he was quite legitimately seeking clarification after Boris's stellar performance in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This is only to be expected after Boris fluffed his lines as badly as he did, providing a series of variations on the facts.

Boris may not have been my choice for Mayor, but his eccentricities added to the gaiety of nations. Now, however, we discover that he is a foul-mouthed oik, perhaps ill-suited to the role as chief diplomat for London. I expected him to be harmless if ineffectual. I also expected a series of gaffes. I didn't expect him to interfere with police investigations and abuse Members of Parliament.

It's high time that the gloves came off, and that we really test Boris to see who he really is, methinks...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Liberal Youth elections: Returning Officer ruling no.1

As part of a move towards improving the transparency of elections within Liberal Youth, there follows the full text of my first communication to candidates...

Dear All,

Firstly, may I welcome you to the process of electing the new Officers and Executive Committee of Liberal Youth. As the Returning Officer, my job is to steer you all from close of nominations to declaration of the results on 31 March.

I attach a copy of the Constitution of Liberal Youth, and refer you to Article 9 which defines the framework within which these elections will be run. Failure to read them will not be accepted as an excuse if you breach the Rules, I fear, so do take the time to familiarise yourselves with them.

Now that nominations have closed, I must advise you as to a series of rulings that have been sought as follows:

Membership Lists, access to

It had been my intention to make these available to candidates, subject to completion and return of a data protection certificate. Unfortunately, Article 9.15 (a) forbids me from doing so. For the record, I believe that this restriction may have implications in terms of equality of access to information, but the Constitution is quite explicit. I may return to this point after the elections are completed.


I am currently involved in reviewing the Parliamentary Candidate Selection Rules, which gives me an opportunity to use you as guinea pigs. I intend to take that opportunity by declaring that the inclusion of Party 'celebrities' etc in photographs in manifestos is not deemed to represent endorsement unless explicitly stated. It is my intention that a statement be included prominently in the manifesto booklet to this effect.

Please note that there is one exception, the Liberal Youth Administrator, Paul Pettinger. It is the convention that Party staff remain neutral in internal Party elections, and it is my intention to protect that neutrality as far as I can.

Explicit endorsements shall be vouched and, if challenged, written evidence provided to me as Returning Officer. Any unverifiable endorsement shall be treated as a breach of Article 9.15 (h), and lead to disqualification.

This means that endorsements are allowed, especially given that the Constitution does not rule them out.


Candidates may set up Facebook groups in support of their candidacy, and are asked to invite me to join, so that I might monitor them in the event of a complaint.


I will rule tomorrow on the amount of time available for speeches following consultation with Paul, bearing in mind the availability of time within the agenda for the weekend.

That's it in terms of general rulings thus far. There are some other issues but I will take these up individually, as they are issues pertaining to accuracy, or application of a specific Rule.

If you have any questions, I can be reached by any of the means below. I would be grateful if you could keep contact during work hours to a minimum, as I do have a full-time job drinking blood and eating babies on behalf of HM Revenue & Customs...

Good luck to all of you. I will post a full list of candidates on my blog and on the Liberal Youth website in due course.

The unbearable lightness of Liberal Youth: the Returning Officer's cut

Having just completed a lengthy review of the Liberal Youth constitution and then issued a bunch of election rulings, I am a mite weary this morning, especially as my rulings were issued in the early hours.

It is interesting to operate with a set of rules which leave vast areas of doubt and uncertainty. There is no guidance about endorsements, and given the apparently general assumption that these are barred - indeed, they are in most internal Party elections and selections - the ensuing debate about the use of photographs with celebrities in them rather misses the point in this instance.

I have therefore chosen to assume that inclusion in a photograph does not imply endorsement unless said individual explicitly endorses the candidate whose manifesto it is in. It is my intention that this assumption is clearly stated in the manifesto booklet. The flip side of this ruling is that, if an explicit endorsement is claimed, it must be vouched by the endorser on pain of disqualification. And yes, for the avoidance of doubt, I really mean it.

Use of Facebook is in. I want candidates to use the free tools available to them. I want members to be able to engage with candidates. I want experimentation, initiative and imagination because these are the sort of skills that can make radical organisations work more effectively, achieve more and make more of an impression.

It hasn't all been as I would wish. The Rules explicitly prevent the membership list from being made available to candidates for purposes of campaigning, and I'll be looking at this again after the conclusion of the elections. I do think that this hands some individuals a potential advantage but my hands are tied.

Lastly, what I would like to see is a campaign of ideas, of proposals and of commitment. What I don't want to see is negative campaigning, abuse and cheap shots. I don't approve of it and, of course, I have the authority to do something about it.

So watch this space, as I'll be using this blog from time to time to report on the campaign...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Local Government Review - Norfolk and Suffolk: County elections likely in June as Boundary Commission accidentally shoots itself in the foot

We were expecting to hear the final proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk this month but, following a partly successful application for judicial review of the review process in Devon by East Devon District Council, the Boundary Commission will now report to Hazel Blears on 15 July.

It appears that the Boundary Commission were of the view that they could only offer one proposal. Surely they haven't been influenced by the New Labour version of choice, have they?

Braving the elements in North East Hertfordshire

I have to admit that Friday night's Presidential visit was not necessarily ill-starred, but it felt like it at times.

The original plan had been to drive from London, attend the dinner, and then drive to Suffolk. However, last Monday's snow put paid to that idea and, instead, we were forced to improvise.

Continued snowfall on Friday had led to the early closure of the Revenue & Customs office in Hitchen, which hardly boded well for either attendance or our ability to get there and back, but we set off optimistically, Ros from Watford and I from Euston. Our journeys coalesced at Stevenage and we were only four minutes late at Baldock, where John and Linda White were there to pick us up and convey us to Cottered, where the village hall was our venue.

A very good meal was served, a lentil soup followed by roast lamb with stuffing, roast potatoes and some well-cooked but not overdone vegetables, before Ros spoke to those present.

John then ran us back to Baldock, where we caught the train back to London with seconds to spare. When we got back to Kingsbury, we discovered that Arriva had suspended all bus services in Hertfordshire.

A great night out though, and many thanks to all in North East Hertfordshire Liberal Democrats for making it happen!

How many countries does Mozambique have a border with?

Wednesday night saw Ros and I in Brentford for the Brentford & Isleworth Quiz Night, fish and chip supper thrown in. Ros was there to give a speech and I was there... because I could be. Besides, I should be there to make sure that she gets home safely, right?

After the speech, the quiz got started, and I have to say that the difficulty of the questions was notable. I normally fancy myself at a quiz night, but these were tough ones, almost as tough as the evening I spent with Duncan, Grace, Jessica and David in Lewisham and Beckenham North two years ago. Luckily, because of the journey home, we couldn't stay long enough to take part, so my reputation in such things remained unblemished.

I was impressed by the fish and chips though. Served in individual boxes, and delivered straight from the shop, they were warm, tasty and filling. I've never seen anyone attempt that before, but it's certainly a good idea.

The journey home was much smoother than one might have feared. We just caught a bus to Gunnersbury, just caught the connecting train to Brondesbury, before just catching the number 32 bus to home.

On our way, we also ran into the new Chair of Camden Borough Liberal Democrats, Elizabeth Stanton-Jones. She has recently celebrated the award of an OBE to her son, Nick, our Leader on Southwark Council, for services to local government. Well deserved, if you ask me...

Another day, another unfunded mandate. Say goodnight, Mr Burnham...

In the excitement following our various Olympic triumphs, the Government decided that we should encourage swimming as a means to improve the health of the nation. Free swimming for the under-16's and over-65's, that was the plan.

And now, surprise, surprise, we discover that the funding is only guaranteed for two years and is so paltry that 143 local authorities have decided that they cannot take up the offer because the resultant loss of income exceeds the proposed grant. Best of all, irony of irony, Mansfield, the home of double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, is one of those opting out in the face of a £400,000 shortfall.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm entirely in favour of encouraging greater fitness and better health amongst the populace. However, this is yet another instance where the Government makes an announcement in pursuit of a cheap, favourable headline, without any real thought for the consequences. Their hope, it seems, is that local councils will take the rap - how many councils does Labour run now? - and the Government can walk away, regretting their unwillingness to cooperate.

Government is about taking hard decisions. It is also about honesty. When Government ministers forget these two self-evident truths, it's time to go. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport doesn't get that. Time to go, Andy...

Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit...

Elmer Fudd may have been spot on in his intent, if not in his execution, if you'll pardon the pun.

Yes, we're back in Suffolk. To celebrate, we decided to have a nice home-cooked meal, and went to our local farm shop for something to eat. Unexpectedly, they had some wild rabbit, so it was agreed that a stew was what was called for.

Whilst Ros chopped vegetables (including carrots, of course), I was outside spraying the external surfaces of the shed with wood preservative - yes, another new skill for this urban bureaucrat. The unfamiliar sight of sunshine made the afternoon that much more pleasant and, once I'd mastered the technique, the job was done quite quickly. I even had time to treat some of the fence panels before Ros decided that she fancied a go too.

Then indoors for the rest of the evening, playing on the Wii for a while before eating the rabbit stew. One of the great things about rabbit is that it is very lean but, even better, it's very reasonably priced here in the country. One rabbit, with enough meat to feed two, costs about £3.50. Cooked at a low temperature for about four hours with a variety of root vegetables and a handful of puy lentils, and served with roast potatoes (25kg for £6.99) and you've got a meal fit for a baroness.

Then time to read the newspapers, a bit more time on the Wii (new personal best on the shooting range for me) and time for bed...

Sunday, February 08, 2009

If it's good enough for Labour: Labour politician watch

This Government, and all of its elected officials, believe that we should be monitored. Alright then, two can play at that game.

Therefore, you are courteously requested to take part in an exercise. If you see a Labour MP, MEP, MSP, AM or councillor, use your blog, or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, to publish the location of that person and, if possible, what they are doing. Be accurate, and there is nothing to fear.

They can have no complaint. After all, they are of the view that we have nothing to fear from the surveillance society that we live in and, surely, they aren't guilty of anything (unless you know different, of course).

Oh yes, pass this request on, the more of us the merrier...

"We know what you're saying, we know what you're writing... and now we know where you're going"

According to today's Sunday Times, the Government is building a secret database to track and hold the international travel records of everyone in this country. Well, apart from the fact that it isn't a secret any more, is there no point when the British rise up as a nation and say, "Mind your own business, nosey parkers!"?

Apparently, this new database will be enable government agencies to, amongst other things, monitor presence in the United Kingdom for tax residence purposes, child absences from school during term time and even who your travelling companion is.

What that implies in sharing of information between central government and local government (who else is likely to want to act if you take your kids to Spain in November?), and heaven only knows who else. And worst of all, this information will be retained for ten years.

Now I can actually see the benefit of having this information. Those claiming to be non-resident for tax purposes, those who are under suspicion of illegal activities might well be worthy targets for surveillance, but the rest of us?

In the case of non-residents, if you tell them that, as a condition of claiming the status, they must accept that they will be monitored, it acts both as policing and deterrent. Indeed, non-residents get something in return for the 'inconvenience'.

Otherwise, we should treat this database like the DNA register - no right to retain information beyond the return journey unless there is legitimate suspicion of criminality, and only then if it has been approved by some form of accountable authority.

This Government continues to operate on the basis that we are all likely to be guilty of something. Accordingly, we all need to be monitored so that, when we inevitably commit a crime, we can be tried and found guilty without delay. Well, I've had enough.

If this level of surveillance is good enough for me, it's good enough for Labour politicians. I've had an idea...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Derek Draper - getting his canvass data in early?

There has been much puzzlement, and not a little anger, with the recent activities of Derek Draper who, in following Iain Dale's Twitter feed and then deciding to follow everyone who follows it, has impressed upon many that he doesn't really get it. Alright, it should be said that, from his perspective, there is little to be lost by annoying a bunch of Tories and Lib Dems. One presumes that he is learning something from this.

It is interesting though that his appearance coincides with Labour proposals to monitor and retain our e-mail correspondence. Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist - who needs one when you have Guido and his band of cranky, foul-mouthed renegades - but I'm astonished that nobody has suggested that the two are linked.

Naturally, access to the e-mail addresses and written thoughts of millions of citizens would give any who had it a unique perspective on the way we think, would allow them to accurately determine political allegiances and to eavesdrop on internal party communications. How could anyone believe that our Government, or a Government of the future, could ever abuse such a database? Who would believe that such data could be lost, stolen or even sold? Perhaps, as a Revenue & Customs official, I shouldn't answer that question...

Alright, I'm not being entirely serious, partly because I just can't believe that such a thing would happen. However, if you create a tool, it is not unreasonable to think that someone might use it.

Returning to Derek Draper though, his rather blundering efforts thus far have providing some entertainment. I for one don't presume that he has some Svengali-like influence over the Labour Party's e-campaigning - let's face it, he's had a rather overblown sense of his own importance for some time.

So, let him build a reputation. If it is a positive one, he'll become a counterbalance to the blogging legions of the Right. If it is negative, he'll achieve a degree of notoriety, and a solid if unspectacular readership base, until someone better comes along. The blogosphere needs a credible multiplicity of views, and for all of his failings as displayed so far, if he helps to provide a platform for new, fresh voices, we may end up owing him a small debt of gratitude.

Friday, February 06, 2009

How we pick a candidate for Mayor of London - starting the debate

Alright, it is true that I said that I would write a motion to go to the London Region Conference on the question of how we select our Mayoral candidate for 2012. Why should I feel moved to do so? Well, I'm kind of unhappy about the way the debate is being steered at the moment, and rather less happy about the way that the decision has seemingly been made with the views of four people, one of whom has subsequently quit the Party.

That said, there are options, each of which will have its supporters. Me, I just want a proper debate so that those of us who will be expected to work for the candidate, whenever he or she emerges. However, we've also had some issues regarding our Regional List, so why not 'kill two birds with one stone'. So, here goes...

Picking Mayoral and Assembly Candidates for London

Conference notes the disappointing outcome of the 2008 Mayoral and London Assembly campaigns, where the Party lost two Assembly seats and polled below expectations. One factor contributing to that underachievement was the lack of cohesion between the Mayoral campaign and that for the Assembly.

Conference also notes the controversy caused by our selection process for the constituencies and the Regional List.

Therefore, Conference calls for stronger linkage between the campaign for Mayor of London and those for the Regional List and the GLA constituencies, and for a selection timetable and process which encourages fairer competition and reflects diversity within our community by:
  1. Establishing a direct link between the Regional List and the Mayoral campaign by making the candidate at the top of our Regional List our Mayoral candidate.
  2. Ensuring that the Regional List is selected prior to the constituencies.
  3. By removing restrictions that prevent candidates from demonstrating their ability to campaign during the selection process.
  4. By providing training for potential candidates in fighting internal region-wide selections.
  5. By encouraging potential candidates to come forward by means of an organised outreach process.
Those are my opening thoughts. Amendments and suggestions via comments please...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Credit card providers cutting people off at the knees

I consider myself incredibly fortunate, in that I have a dread aversion to debt, mostly thanks to my parents, whose eminently sensible approach to money has rubbed off on their eldest child.

Accordingly, I treat credit cards as a convenience rather than a loan and pay off my bill in full every month. If ever I needed a reminder that this is an excellent strategy, it came recently when my credit card provider sent me details of their new terms.

As of April, any payments made will set first against those amounts attracting the lowest rate of interest, thus allowing them to extract the maximum amount of interest out of you and, in the process, making it even more difficult for those in financial difficulties to extract themselves from their dilemma.

I accept that the days of cheap, freely accessable credit are probably over, and that less and less of us will be permitted to take out credit cards in future, bringing us into line with our continental cousins. However, I don't imagine that credit card companies see it as 'doing us a favour'.

There is a wonderful irony at work here. When times were good, credit card companies were delighted to increase our credit limits and tell us about all the wonderful things we could do with our newly found access to a line of credit, those adverts for Mastercard being but one example - flight to Barbados £600, new swimwear £45, interest to be paid on holiday you couldn't actually afford... er, priceless? Now we are being told that, regardless of our payment history, we should be reined back. Who, might I ask, tempted us into mass foolishness in the first place?

Over the years, my credit limit seemed to rise exponentially as though the better behaved I was, the more temptation they would put in my way. Indeed, I discovered at one point that I had a credit limit five times that of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (although given Norman Lamont's tendancy towards illfortune, probably a good call). And now that they've discovered that I don't have limitless wealth, my credit limit is being 're-evaluated', shorthand for 'being cut'. Fine for me, but trickier for others.

It is time for us all to develop a more cautious approach to debt. However, perhaps a more gradual tightening might be more effective?

Can evolution make you less intelligent?

One of my pet irritations is the stupidity of other people. Getting things wrong is one thing, but doing something and then complaining about the inevitable consequences of doing it is quite another.

Yesterday evening, I was on my way to collect Ros, and I boarded a Circle Line train at Embankment. So far, so good. The driver pushed whatever button is required to close the doors, causing a warning sound to be emitted. The doors began to close and, as they did, a man stepped through them. Unfortunately, he had a computer case over his shoulder, and this was trapped between the doors. He tugged at the case, but he couldn't budge it, and a bystander forced the door open so as to free it.

Now I don't tend to help out in these situations because, by forcing the door against the motors that close it, you risk damaging the door, thus obliging the driver to take the train out of service. Add to that the cost of repair work, which I as a passenger have to fund, and I have reasonable cause to object. Besides, there'll be another train in a few minutes.

So, bag released, what is the response from this person? "Bloody trains!", he exclaimed. "Bloody idiot!", I should have replied...

Monday, February 02, 2009

In Today's Super Soaraway Snow!


Snowmen in Cumbria went on a go-slow in protest against the decision by local children to build snowmen using snow imported from Eastern Europe. A spokesman said, "These snowmen blow in from Poland and Lithuania, taking our jobs. The Government should act now!".

A Government spokesman said in response, "We believe that freedom of movement within the European Union has been good for the UK economy. There is nothing stopping British snowmen from plying their profession in Greece or Italy, or even French Guiana. If they're able to lodge competitive tenders, I have no doubt that British snowmen are the best in the world. Indeed, since 1997, numbers of snowmen in the workforce have increased by 6.32%.

David Cameron, for the Conservatives, claimed that, "The Labour Party have failed our snowmen. If elected, we would ask Richard Whiteley to chair a commission to come up with some ideas for reform of the snow personnel sector.". When told that Mr Whiteley had sadly passed away some time ago, he was dragged away by Ken Clarke before he could respond.


Baroness Snout of Snow-on-the-Wold, 38-26-36, pictured above in her bikini, was condemned today for suggesting that the use of snowploughs in these horror snowstorms would be a good idea, despite the fact that her ex-husband's sister-in-law knew a bloke in the pub who owned shares in a snow clearance company.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Home Affairs immediately demanded a full police enquiry, "This is yet another example of corrupt practice in the House of Lords. Action must be taken to clean up these practices immediately.".


It is time for the Government to act to stop foreign weather from denying the British people from enjoying our typical wet, grey winters, and making us to accept a climate forced us by faceless Eurocrats in Brussels.

Gordon Brown, we want our British weather back!

Twenty five random things about me

I've been tagged on this meme by Duncan Borrowman, and so, here are a few things that you might be interested in or surprised by;

  1. The first letter of the alphabet which doesn't start a country I've visited is K.

  2. I've worked for the same (dis)organisation for more than twenty-two years.

  3. I'm double-jointed in both hands.

  4. A giraffe once licked me.

  5. It took Ros to persuade me to get, and carry, a mobile phone.

  6. I am an honorary Kentucky Colonel. There is no free chicken involved.

  7. I once assassinated my freezer by trying to defrost it with a screwdriver.

  8. As a child, I fingerpainted the garage doors, only to find out that we had no white spirit in the house...

  9. I have a worrying knowledge of London bus routes.

  10. Touch wood, I am yet to break a bone of any kind.

  11. I was there the day that the Cincinnati Reds beat the Colorado Rockies 24-12 in a National League baseball game.

  12. I've visited the most dangerous post office in the world.

  13. In 2006, I held the hand of an orangutan in Seoul, South Korea.

  14. The largest pyramid in the Southern Hemisphere is in Invercargill, New Zealand. I saw the family of tuataras there, amongst other things.

  15. I have nine 'O' levels, one of which is in Graphical Communication.

  16. You'll believe that a man can fly... like a brick. I can bungy but I can't indoor skydive.

  17. It is my personal view that, if you marinate fruit bat in red wine for long enough, it tastes like kidney. I didn't say whose...

  18. The European Liberal Group once put me on a policy working group to devise a cultural policy for Europe. It wasn't a success...

  19. I'm the oldest member of my generation on my father's side of my family. It's a pity that we tend towards matriarchs.

  20. I attended four different infant schools yet remain well-adjusted. At least, that's what my invisible friend tells me.

  21. My horoscope sign is Scorpio and I was born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon. So much for astrology then...

  22. My perfect day would be to zorb in the morning and spend the afternoon in a spa being pampered.

  23. I would like to go to Madagascar to see lemurs in their natural habitat.

  24. In 2007, I chaired the Foreign and Military Policy Commission of Americans for Democratic Action, the first non-Amercian to do so.

  25. I once anonymously paid for the dinner of a young Bolivian couple when I saw him go down on one knee and pull out an engagement ring. It would be nice to think that they're still together...
I think that I won't tag anyone else. Is there anyone out there who hasn't been tagged anyway?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Keeping warm the Duncan Hames way

And so, an early start for Bradford-on-Avon, where we were met by Duncan Hames, the livewire PPC for Chippenham, and Rosemary Brown, our candidate for the new unitary Wiltshire authority.

We were conveyed directly to Winsley, where a chill wind was blowing. Fortunately, there was plenty of leaflet delivery to keep me warm, and to burn off the excellent cooked breakfast that Liz and Hilary had laid on for us. I actually enjoy leafletting on days like this, and as long as it isn't raining, I'm reasonably brisk.

Today's missive was Duncan's annual report, plus a letter reporting back on the successful campaign to save the local post office. Ironically, it was under threat because the shop it was housed in was part of a chain which went into liquidation, but a campaign to rescue it has resulted in the reopening of the shop under new management.

Then back into town for lunch with members of the Bradford-on-Avon branch at a fantastic restaurant, which I'll go into more detail about later...

An evening with Bradley Stoke and his black sheep brother, Harry

We couldn't stay for the conference dinner, so were whisked off to Frenchay, for an evening with members in Filton & Bradley Stoke (Harry Stoke is next to Bradley Stoke, by the way). Our hosts for the night, Hilary and Liz Kitchen, made us very comfortable, before we set off for the Trust Hall in Stoke Gifford for the evening's event.

Filton & Bradley Stoke is one of those seats beloved by political anoraks, a genuine three-way marginal, and much debate takes place online about what might happen if... well, if just about anything really. As a brand new constituency, it offers all sorts of potential organisational problems, in terms of leadership, in terms of campaigning strategy and in terms of identity. I'm sure that all political parties have experienced a degree of difficulty in the transition.

It was a very pleasant evening, with baked potatoes, chili and salad and, of course, the obligatory raffle. I've been buying a lot of tickets recently, in the hope of winning a peerage, but there never seems to be one amongst the prizes. Clearly, I need to join the Labour Party and buy more expensive tickets...

Ros, as the guest speaker, gave her third speech of the weekend before taking questions. It is, in many ways, good that members ask penetrating questions about how the Party works, what it does and how it campaigns. In return, they get thoughtful and honest answers, and I find that strangely reassuring. After all, how often do senior politicians offer more than platitudes when they're away from Westminster?

Today, we're off to Bradford-on-Avon and Salisbury, so more reportage later...