Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Liberal Youth elections: the results - General Executive Members

This was probably, from a technical perspective, the most complex. The first preferences were as follows;

Michael Atkins - 16 votes
Alan Belmore - 25 votes
Victor Chamberlain - 31 votes
Cara Drury - 48 votes
Patrick Elsdon - 22 votes
James Harrison - 20 votes
Richard Morgan-Ash - 13 votes
Alexandra Royden - 37 votes
Martin Shapland - 23 votes
Jennifer Warren - 21 votes
Richard Wilson - 6 votes

The quota was 29.01 and Chamberlain, Drury and Royden were elected on first preferences.

Transferring the Drury and Royden surpluses failed to elect anyone else, and as the Chamberlain surplus was less than the gap between Wilson and Morgan-Ash, Wilson was eliminated and his votes transferred at face value.

That transfer elected Warren, and Morgan-Ash was then eliminated, whereupon Belmore, Elsdon and Shapland were elected. Elsdon's surplus was then transferred, whereby Harrison was elected without quota.

That left Atkins as runner-up...

Liberal Youth elections: the results - Vice Chairs

A big Returning Officer hello to Liberal Youth and innocent bystanders. Oh yes, and Tory Bear, who clearly didn't believe me...

The Vice Chair election results are as follows:

VC Campaigns

Ben Mathis - 202 votes
RON - 78 votes

VC Communications

James Shaddock - 233 votes
RON - 46 votes

VC Finance

Daniel Snowdon - 232 votes
RON - 46 votes

VC Membership Development

Mohammed Ali - 8 votes
Neal Brown - 132 votes
Chris Jenkinson - 123 votes
RON - 11 votes

After the elimination of Ali and RON, the final score was;

Neal Brown - 137 votes
Chris Jenkinson - 128 votes
non-transferable - 9 votes

Liberal Youth: Chair election - the result...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Mohammed Elias Ali - 4 votes
Elaine Bagshaw - 148 votes
Sara Scarlett - 92 votes
RON - 44 votes

I hereby declare that Elaine Bagshaw has been elected Chair at count 1.

Counting ballots the Amaranth way...

As one of Liberal Youth's Deputy Returning Officers, I'm in Cowley Street, preparing for the count. Surprisingly, having done a lot of research on student politics, I have discovered that most of my preparations won't actually be helpful on this occasion.

Whilst I firmly support the concept of a participatory and scruplously run election, I do also believe in reflecting cultural diversity. Accordingly, I had arranged for the creation of election count software that contained code designed to distort the result - so popular in Ohio, tI'm told, a suitcase filled with completed ballot papers and, if all else failed, CS gas to clear the room of those pesky observers. Naturally, the count was to be surrounded by the best cavalry unit that Amaranth can put into the field, instructed to act without mercy on my command.

But no, Mark assures me that these won't be necessary. Sometimes, just sometimes, he lacks a sense of humour...

Liberal Youth : count delayed (slightly) due to congestion - Returning Officer en route

You know how it is, everything set and ready to go, and I'm on the Northern Line.

But relax, all those of you awaiting the results, work will commence shortly...

Liberal Youth - the waiting is nearly over...

Polls have closed, the ballots await the tender mercies of the count, and a Returning Officer's thoughts turn to transfers and quotas. Watch this space, as results will emerge throughout the afternoon.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOh yes, and for the benefit of Tory Bear, we don't hide our election results - publish and be damned, I say...

Barry Gardiner - value for money?

So, the figures are out and how much did our MP cost us, here in Brent North?

£93,888 Staffing costs
£15,079 Cost of staying away from own home
£11,946 Office running costs
£10,587 Communications Allowance
£4,549 Stationery associated postage costs
£1,799 Centrally purchased stationery
£1,333 Central IT provision

Total cost... £139,181.

Compare and contrast with his fellow Brent MPs... Dawn Butler first...

£88,783 Staffing costs
£23,083 Cost of staying away from own home
£15,137 Office running costs
£11,396 Communications Allowance
£4,972 Staff cover and other costs

£4,887 Stationery associated postage costs
£2,029 Centrally purchased stationery
£1,039 Central IT provision

My arithmetic tells me that this totals £151,326... not good. So, what about Sarah Teather?

£83,630 Staffing costs
£26,118 Office running costs
£8,013 Communications Allowance
£2,812 London Supplement
£2,217 Stationery associated postage costs
£1,158 Central IT provision
£933 Centrally purchased stationery

This totals £124,881, so clearly Sarah is by far the best value for money...

Monday, March 30, 2009

When you're a political spouse, you give up your anonymity...

Richard Timney is learning this the hard way at the moment, and perhaps he needs a reminder as to the identity of his wife.

Traditionally, political wives have lived a comparatively low-profile existence, required to look decorous on occasion, pose with hubby, children and labrador in front of picture perfect period house, and do good deeds in the constituency. Dull, worthy, true, but that's the way it is, particularly if you're a career woman in her own right. At least there was a template though...

The increasing interest in the private lives of our politicians has changed that though, and the simultaneous emergence of the political husband has created a whole new field of interest for journalists. What's the husband up to? What influence does he have on his wife? Not fair, I know, and casually sexist, it's true, but as my junior school teacher so rightly told me, life isn't fair.

So you have to be careful. The Press are not averse to going through your rubbish, quizzing your best friends or following you. They will, if they can get away with it, bug your phone or hack your e-mail if your spouse is important enough.

Now you know Richard. You've paid a high price for not knowing sooner, but hopefully you and Jacqui will patch things up. Piece of advice though, if you're going to watch porn movies, put them on your personal credit card next time...

News from Creeting St Peter: we've got a brand new notice board

News of another communications breakthrough reaches your correspondent, deep in the mid-Suffolk countryside. We've had a new noticeboard put up near the centre of the village as the old one was getting a bit tatty and worn. You may think that this is not exactly big news, but it provides the one location where information can be placed which might be of interest to the population of our thriving metropolis in the absence of newspapers, radio and television stations.

I had noticed that two men were working on it as we drove past on Saturday afternoon, and so thought that it would be interesting to take a closer look at their handiwork. They've done a nice job, and it looks quite impressive in terms of the carpentry involved (not that I'm a good judge, but...).

It's amazing what you can find out by studying the contents of a village noticeboard though, and I was delighted to discover that... actually, let's save that for another time...

That's right John, pick on the public sector again...

If in doubt, change the subject, is John Healey's motto. As the Minister for Local Government, he claims that his aim is to stop overgenerous remuneration packages in the public sector. Clearly, he hasn't been entirely paying attention to the policies his Government have been promoting since 1997.

It is entirely accurate to suggest that pay rates at the top end have gone up rather faster than inflation, and the Conservatives have been quick to point this out - no hypocrisy there, obviously. However, the pressure to make the public sector more businesslike in its approach, and the devolvement of responsibility in terms of education budgets mean that you need to offer remuneration packages that reflect that. It is, after all, supposed to be a free market.

And yes, there are benefits to being in the public sector - a comparatively generous pension scheme and relative job security - but those benefits are not as obvious as they once were. Look at Sir Fred Goodwin's pension arrangements or, for that matter, the average director of a FTSE100 company. As for job security, when politicians opt to pass the buck rather than take responsibility, it's the official who is thrown to the media wolves. What price job security then?

It is entirely right that the public sector seeks value for money, and that remuneration packages factor in some of the benefits inherent in public sector employment. However, when those calls come from the same people who are adamant that details of their own remuneration packages are a private matter, it's time to keep up the attack on their hypocrisy and evasion.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

One day I'll wish I could remember what I learned yesterday

Amidst the wide-ranging activities that Mike Dixon had arranged for Ros and I in Birmingham was something a little different. Usually, we do Party oriented things, (P)resident surveying, or a dinner, but this time we were taken to see a new short term care and rehab centre, built under the Liberal Democrat joint administration.

Cllr Sue Anderson is the Cabinet member for Adult and Community Services, and is justly proud of the effort that has gone into creating the £11 million facility known as the Ann Marie Howes Care Centre, in Sheldon, deep in Hemming territory in Yardley. We were given a guided tour by the centre's manager and I was incredibly impressed by the attention to detail and the thoughtfulness that has gone into the design of each element.

One of those elements is a new unit for victims of dementia. Each room has a 'memory box' on the door, so that the resident can recognise which room is theirs from the contents on display. Something that I hadn't known was that those who develop dementia also lose the ability to recognise certain colours, whilst red and yellow are recognised for much longer.

This knowledge is used in unexpected ways. Plants in the garden with red leaves are used to delineate paths, red edging is put on steps to make them easier to spot.

The centre has a wide range of facilities, with a gymnasium for helping the elderly to maintain fitness and thus independence, a lovely little restaurant, free wi-fi so that residents can communicate with friends and family and connect to the rest of the world, and such seemingly small things as podiatry services. Cutting your toenails isn't easy when your flexibility and mobility are limited, and having someone to do it for you is invaluable.

Sue clearly has a passion for what she is doing, and her determination to give the elderly an opportunity to live in dignity in decent accommodation is a reminder of why we are in politics, to change people's lives for the better. This is the fourth new centre that has been opened, replacing aging, below standard facilities - another Labour failure caused through years of neglect, and if the finances can be settled to the satisfaction of the Council, there may be more, if the demand exists.

I should also note that we were treated to lunch at the centre. If you ever happen to be in the area, and the chicken and ham pie is on, trust me, it's very, very good.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Picking up the ball and running with it...

Time for another weekend away, this time to the West Midlands, as Ros and I converged on Rugby for a Local Party dinner in the recently built village hall in Dunchurch, the village where, it is said, the organisers of the Gunpowder Plot met to agree their strategy.

I've had the pleasure of working with the local PPC, Jerry Roodhouse, before, and it was nice to be able to catch up. He had chaired an inquiry into the affairs of one of the London Local Parties, and I was one of the Regional Party nominees on the panel. Jerry carried out a very effective scrutiny, making some solid, practical recommendations that were only too readily accepted.

The local members made us feel extremely welcome, and the dinner, served by Sarah and her team, was of a very high standard, roast beef with all of the trimmings being the centrepiece. I had been promised a never-ending diet of rubber chicken when Ros became President and, it must be said, I've eaten pretty well. Local Parties go out of their way to lay on a good spread when we turn up, and are often incredibly imaginative in terms of how they organise their dinners.

Our table included the newly elevated Freeman of Rugby, Ron Ravenhall, whose service to the town makes him an extremely apt recipient of the honour. He isn't well, but turned up to meet Ros, and I was impressed by his enthusiasm and impish humour. Olga, the Local Party President, was celebrating a significant birthday, which was marked with the presentation of a gift on behalf of the Local Party.

Ros's speech went down well, and some interesting questions followed from an audience who were clearly out to enjoy themselves. I put on my 'Honourable Lady Mark hat' and drew the first winning raffle ticket. It was, I must acknowledge, a very good set of prizes.

Today, we're in Birmingham, with a full day of activities ahead...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Andrew Adonis, you're a bit of a fraud, really...

Yesterday's Evening Standard includes a story about a gallant Government minister attacking Network Rail's incompetence in managing to close both the East and West Coast main lines on consecutive weekends. Yes, it's Lord (Andrew) Adonis, standing up for the travelling public.

Yet there is, as there usually is, some backstory here. Let's go back to the beginning of the story. Far from this being the initiative of an on the ball minister, this is actually the story of a rather frustrated baroness. As Ros relates, because it is her, gentle reader...

Asked By Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they advise Network Rail on the strategic impact of its engineering works programme.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Government do not provide such advice. This is an operational matter for Network Rail, overseen by the independent Office of Rail Regulation. As part of the Periodic Review 2008 final determinations accepted by Network Rail on 5 February, the Office of Rail Regulation has set targets and provided funding for Network Rail to reduce the impact of its engineering works on users of the railway.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the weekend after next both the east coast and the west coast main lines will have severe delays due to engineering works and that it is not uncommon for two of the three routes into East Anglia also to be subject to delays? Who speaks on behalf of passengers when the overall network delays are simply unacceptable?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s point about inconvenience to passengers. It is precisely for that reason that the Office of Rail Regulation, which is the body responsible for ensuring that the voice of passengers is conveyed loud and clear to Network Rail, has agreed with Network Rail that over the next five years there will be a reduction of more than one-third in the disruption caused to passengers by engineering work. Of course, it is not possible to maintain the railway without engineering work, which will cause some disruption to passengers, but we expect that the target of a one-third reduction in that disruption will make a big difference to the experience of members of the travelling public.

So, on 2 March, our noble friend Lord Adonis is saying that, "It's nothing to do with me, talk to the Office of Rail Regulation.". In other words, we don't have anything to do with it.

And yet, and yet... Andrew then writes to Iain Coucher, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, raising the subject. Iain then writes to Ros, providing an explanation but nothing resembling a genuine apology. Of course, it's nothing to do with Andrew, as the Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for ensuring that the voice of passengers is conveyed loud and clear to Network Rail, his words, not mine.

And so we reach yesterday, when Andrew suddenly claims the credit for putting a rocket up Network Rail.

All I can say to Lord Adonis is;
  1. Either your answer on 2 March was deliberately evasive, or you are an interfering busybody, bypassing the Office of Rail Regulation when it suits, hiding behind it when it doesn't.
  2. You are an appalling glory seeker, only interested in burnishing your personal reputation regardless of the facts.

Frankly, you're lucky that Ros adheres to the courtesies of the House of Lords. If I was in her place, I'd be looking for the metaphorical lamppost and piano wire. Andrew Adonis, you are no gentleman...

Alice, I hope your neighbours don't read the Times...

Alice Miles has had a piece published in today's Times, entitled "Don't blame second-home owners for all rural ills".

She starts off with a fairly uncontroversial reflection on a consultation exercise in her village regarding a proposal for some affordable housing, noting that 90% of respondents had rejected all of the options. So far, so worthy. And then the wheels not so much fall off as sprout Boadiccea-like spikes...

Whilst she acknowledges that second-home owners are usually blamed for the unavailability of affordable homes, and admits that, in some holiday areas, there are too many, her real fire is turned on what I might effectively describe as 'permanent villagers'.

In the sort of blanket attack that indicates that Alice has her village home on the market, she asserts, "As a rule, rural people work far less hard than city people and pay less tax. Their quality of life is high, compared to the city dweller on his hamster wheel.". Gosh, Alice, don't beat about the bush, tell your neighbours how you really feel, why don't you? She goes on, "The relative laziness is accompanied by lack of imagination and a poverty of ambition.".

I've got to say that, if I was one of Alice's neighbours, it would be time for the pitchforks and flaming torches, as she clearly has no respect for her community, and is happy to tar them all with the same brush that journalists too lazy to actually seek out the truth use so freely. Oh, sorry Alice, that's a lazy generalisation, isn't it? You don't mind though, do you?

The reason that rural dwellers pay less tax is... trumpet fanfare... because they earn less (duh!) - excluding of course those city people with their second homes who invest their money so as to avoid paying levels of tax of which they disapprove. And yet their quality of life is higher. Might that be because they live a less consumer-oriented lifestyle, with less pressure to buy all of that 'stuff' that advertisers think we must have?

I don't know, if truth be told, although Ros has referred to issues of rural isolation and poverty that she encountered as a district and county councillor. However, perhaps if Alice did her own consultation exercise, she might discover that the truth, as it usually is, is rather more multi-faceted...

Help Unlock Democracy to develop something really useful

Last year, in the period leading up to the London Assembly elections, Unlock Democracy promoted London Vote Match, a tool which allowed voters to match their views with those of the various competing parties to see which one best represented them. I was enthusiastic about it then, and remain so now.

The good news is that Unlock Democracy will be promoting Vote Match Europe in the months leading up to the European election in June. However, they need your help, so why not use this link, and contribute your ideas and thoughts?

And, once the final 'product' is available, why not mention it to your friends?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The patience of the long distance Komodo Dragon

I'm not sure how many of you picked up on the story of the man who recently died after being attacked by two komodo dragons who had been waiting for him to fall out of a tree.

Komodo dragons are interesting creatures, in that they are remarkably patient hunters. They aren't particularly quick, and they aren't so large as to be able to overpower their prey. What they do have is an incredibly nasty bite. Their modus operandi is to bite their prey and then wait patiently. You see, their saliva has an unpleasant necrotising effect and so, like journalists who've got Dawn Butler in their sights, they follow their victim until death inevitably follows, when they then settled down for an unhurried meal.

They are, if you like, a metaphor for the Conservative Party, who do little more than give the Government an occasional nasty nip before sitting back to await the inevitable collapse and death of this Labour government. Indeed, the Conservative Party is a bit slow, contains its fair share of reptiles and speaks with forked tongue on civil liberties. On the plus side, it is a survivor from a bygone age...

To cut a long story short...

... Spandau Ballet are reforming, one of those throwbacks to an earlier, rather gentler era when the New Romantics bestrode the musical world like colossi (if that's the wrong word, I don't care, it looks pretty!).

The downside is that I am reminded as to just how old I am, especially given that Tony Hadley has gone from smooth-jawed babe magnet (just check the videos if you don't believe me) to slightly gone to seed, puffy middle-aged West Ham season ticket holder. By the way, that's the look, not the actuality, before anyone gets too excited.

Spandau Ballet were one of those bands who defined my teenage years, a band for whom the look was core to the musical package, all sharp suits and art school videos. They could perform though, and their first big hit, 'To Cut a Long Story Short', with its video set in some windowless room masquerading as a castle, with the band in highland dress, certainly made an impression on this haplessly romantic teenager. Yes, I wanted to be like that - and never would. Yes, I had the hips, or complete lack of them, to be more accurate (we're talking really, really thin here - hard to believe, I know), but was far too self-conscious to carry it off.

But at least they weren't punk rockers. The idea of sticking things into myself made me wince even to think of it, and the notion of anarchy grated against the moral and social conservatism of a kid brought up in the comfy middle-class suburbs. We just didn't do that sort of thing in Kingsbury.

I won't be rushing to buy tickets for their world tour, although if Ros is keen (and I'd be surprised), I might be persuadable. You know, sometimes it's better to retain those memories of being sixteen and confused...

Liberal Bureaucracy has a new second cousin!

News reaches me that my cousin Clint and his wife Kalina have brought new Valladares life into the world - Kaia Elaine Valladares was born on Saturday. Here's a picture of mother and child, everybody say aah...

Kaia is their first child, and a continuation of a statistically unlikely pattern of births. My generation produced an overwhelming majority of boys, whilst this new generation is equally overwhelmingly female. Indeed, so much so that there is a risk, albeit a small one, that the Valladares line will screech to a halt. The five Valladares males in my generation have so far brought forth five girls and a boy, so no pressure, Lucas, no pressure...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dawn Butler: how not to show that you empathise with your constituents

I have, in the past, been critical of Dawn Butler's claim to a second home allowance given the location of her Brent South constituency. I had assumed that her primary residence was some way away from both the constituency and Westminster, so you can imagine my surprise when it was revealed that she lives in Stratford, in East London, courtesy of Liberal Democrat Voice.

It is twenty-four minutes from Stratford to Westminster, and thirty-two from Wembley to Westminster. It is forty minutes by train from Stratford to Willesden Junction, in the heart of her constituency, using the Overground. These are not horrendous journeys by any standard, and journeys that my fellow residents of Brent make every day without (much) complaint. It is hard to justify why Ms Butler should receive more than £20,000 a year to fund a home which is not her family home and which probably doesn't get much use - after all, if she is returning to her family most evenings, when does she spend time in the Wembley property?

Brent South, her current constituency, and Brent Central, the constituency she hopes to represent, are the home of some quite deprived communities. Life in Harlesden has, in the past, been punctuated by drug-related crime and violence, and unemployment is higher than the regional and national average. Somehow, I can't imagine that the locals are terribly impressed by her claim.

Yet again, the financial arrangements for our MPs have brought the institution into contempt. Rules that are better suited to a gentlemen's club look more and more shabby by the day, especially when taken advantage of for purposes never envisaged when they were drawn up. It is high time that the use of expenses and allowances to disguise the real level of MP pay were swept away, and replaced by an independently set and monitored system whereby an appropriate salary is paid, and properly invoiced expenses refunded so as to allow them to do their job properly.

I take the view that democracy costs, and that we should pay MPs a salary that reflects the complexity of their alloted task. That almost certainly means a significant rise in the headline figure but it would at least have the advantage of honesty and transparency. And, right now, Dawn Butler might feel that such a system would be preferable to being dragged through the mud by the media for doing something entirely within the rules but deemed to be wholly unacceptable by the court of public opinion.

Is it just me, or is this recession encouraging sexual liberation?

My professional speciality is tax, and I like to keep up to date with business news accordingly. It is, to my mind, important to have an understanding of the issues facing the predominantly small and medium-sized enterprises I work with.

In my reading though, one trend appears to be emerging, in that those businesses at what one might delicately refer to as the raunchier end of the leisure market seem to be outperforming the economy as a whole. This week, Agent Provocateur announced that profits were up 8% , and last month, the Times reported on the increasing sales of sex toys. It seems that the British are turning to sex as a means of diverting their attention from the recession. This possibly presents us with an export opportunity, a far cry from the 'no sex, we're British' days gone by.

Of course, not everyone is responding to the recession in the same way. Whilst our transatlantic cousins are also reaching for lingerie and electric erotica, our neighbours across the Channel have rather lost the urge. Have the Anglo-Saxons given up banking and being sexually repressed just as the European social welfare model turns frigid?

I think we should be told...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Twenty years too late - a Conservative finally sees the flaw in 'Right to Buy'

The Independent reports that Iain Duncan Smith has concluded that the Conservative policy of 'Right to Buy' which saw so much of the public housing stock sold of to tenants at sub-market prices is one of the primary causes of the ghetto estates that have emerged since.

There is something of an irony here, given that I criticised Caroline Flint for not actually understanding this last year. Mr Duncan Smith makes the point that, by creating a situation where council housing only gets allocated to the most broken families (I'll excuse the reference back to our 'broken society' - this time...), you create communities where expectations are low and role models often negative.

However, realising that there is a problem and developing the means to do something about it are two very different things, and there is no sense that the Centre for Social Justice is any closer to proposing action. Indeed, there is no sign that the Conservative Party has any policy in this field other than to claim that they wouldn't have done what Labour did.

The cost of these ghettos is terms of crime, underachievement and poor health is a burden that the rest of us have to bear with our taxes and our insurance premiums, and until a government invests in the types of programmes that will reintegrate these people back into mainstream society, providing opportunity and incentive, we will continue to pay the price of the 'there is no such thing as society' mantra that Iain and his friends were so gung-ho about in the 1980's.

I'm not going to claim that my beloved Liberal Democrats have the answers, although I might suggest that they've been asking the right questions for rather longer that our parvenu colleagues in blue. However, we do deserve some evidence that this is not just another plank in the campaign to persuade us that Conservatives are not simply content to jettison a chunk of the population as too poor and too stupid to matter...

Nigel Griffiths: it's not the sex, it's the lying that'll get you in the end...

Poor old Nigel Griffiths, the MP for Edinburgh South with the majority of 405, is taking a fair bit of flak for having the audacity to have sex with 'person unknown' in his Parliamentary office.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Let's put aside the adultery, a matter between Mr Griffiths and his wife in the first instance and then maybe, just maybe something for voters in his constituency to consider if they are that way inclined. Let's even overlook the sex - it is his office, after all, and both parties were consenting adults. There is, is there not, a long and noble tradition of people having sex in their offices after Christmas parties and the like.

No, what will really hurt is his attempts to explain away what happened. The denial was standard, as you might not realise that there is evidence when you are initially approached. However, claiming that you had no recollection of the incident sends out one of two subliminal messages, either:
  • this is a regular occurence and you simply couldn't remember this incident amongst so many others, or;
  • you were incapable of memory, indicating that you were too drunk/stoned/whatever to remember what you were doing
I'm not suggesting that either of these is the case, and wouldn't want to unnecessarily traduce Nigel Griffiths here, but those were the first two things that came to mind when his comments became public. The photographs don't help, as they appear to imply that he took them himself, unless there was an accomplice.

Ironically, the sex is rather an irrelevancy, but of more concern is the fact that he has little recollection of an incident, whereby he signed someone in, allowed them into a restricted area, and then allowed photographs to be taken which them fell into the hands of someone willing to sell them to the News of the World. Is that a breach of security? I think so.

Once upon a time, the likes of the KGB would have had a field day with an opportunity like that, with a significant likelihood of blackmail and espionage. Nowadays, the primary risk is to have your life, and that of your family, ruined by the redtops. It doesn't change the fact that he has potentially jeopardised the security of other Parliamentarians, and should be held accountable for that.

There is an alternative, i.e. it was someone who already has access to Parliament. If so, given the pictures, it shouldn't take long to work out who the 'mystery brunette' is, and perhaps that exclusive is being held back for next week. An anxious nation waits for news... at least the political classes and readers of the News of the World, that is...

The basis of an economy, and if all else fails, you can eat it too!

Sunday was free admission day at the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket's premier tourist attraction. Ros and I only actually knew this because the Committee Administrator for Stowmarket Town Council told us (admittedly, that's Sally Scott, as in Ros's daughter), but it seemed like a fun thing to do, especially as I'd never been.

The museum itself is right in the heart of the town, opposite Asda, and comprises of a deceptively large patch of land containing a number of preserved buildings, some farm animals, and exhibits of agricultural stuff. To mark the occasion, there was a small funfair and two steam engines.

However, I was more interested in the livestock. There were chickens, some enormous pigs, rabbits, sheep and goats. The sheep weren't exactly a popular attraction, but for those with an interest in the history of East Anglia, and in particular Suffolk, they represent something quite important - the basis of the wealth that built some of the finest architecture that this country possesses.

For it was the wool industry that made Suffolk one of the wealthiest parts of the country in the Middle Ages and, for that matter, right up to the Industrial Revolution. Sales of wool and woollen cloth across northern Europe and beyond brought wealth and power to what is now a sleepy corner of rural England.

Ros is still surprised by my interest in such things, but I'm just taking an interest. After all, you really should understand why your locality is as it is...

Liberal Youth: when you're the Returning Officer, everyone's a critic

I have been the subject of some criticism for my recent ruling, preventing the publication in 'The Libertine', Liberal Youth's e-newsletter, of an article by a member of its Editorial Committee, Alasdair Wood. Perhaps I should, therefore, explain my reasoning, now that Alasdair has published the intended piece on his own blog.

Censorship is a dirty word, especially in liberal circles, and there seems to be a view out there that, by preventing publication as intended, I am somehow engaged in a programme of 'censorship and attempts to silence', as that well known liberal, Tory Bear, describes it. Others, Alasdair included, seem to think that a factual (as he puts it) report on the elections is perfectly legitimate.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
I'm not a censor by inclination, indeed I've opened up the campaigning element of these elections by allowing endorsements, freeing up the use of Facebook and encouraging debate. However, there are channels of communication that need to remain properly neutral, and those that don't.

The official publication of Liberal Youth, for example, has a formal status, and expresses the view of the organisation as a whole, unless clearly marked as an opinion piece. If an opinion piece is written about an election which is underway at the time, and it is to be published in 'The Libertine', then it should not be prejudicial in favour, or against, any candidate. I considered the content of the article, and belived it to be contentious and potentially prejudicial to the concept of a campaign whereby candidates stand or fall on the merits of their ability and campaigning ability.

It is the policy of Liberal Democrat News that, during leadership and Presidential elections, it remains entirely neutral and I ruled earlier in the campaign that official communications channels of Liberal Youth should not be used for campaigning purposes, either for or against a particular candidate, applying a similar principle. Otherwise, it would be possible for a senior, influential figure in Liberal Youth to ensure favourable coverage of their activities during an election campaign to the detriment of their opponent. Indeed, if any candidate had control of 'The Libertine' at such a time, they could potentially use it as a means of reaching every member of the organisation with a positive message in their favour. Such a possibility needs to be prevented in order to maintain that equality of opportunity we so treasure as liberals.

On the other hand, individuals are at liberty to publish anything they wish on their own media, be it a blog, Facebook or other social networking sites. Indeed, two articles have been posted on Liberal Democrat Voice on the subject of Liberal Youth in the past fortnight. I have no intention of preventing that form of communication, although the laws of defamation do potentially apply (not my decision, I emphasise, merely cautionary advice to anyone foolish enough to test the limits of acceptable commentary).

Alasdair has chosen to do that, and he has a right to do so, as it is clear that this represents his personal view on the events of the past two months. However, his expectation that I should hasten to explain my ruling to him, and his stance that the decision to publish is linked in some way to my failure to do so within a timescale of his choosing does irritate me to some extent. I am, as I occasionally like to remind people, a volunteer, i.e. I perform my Returning Officer duties in my spare time. Astonishingly, I do have other things to do, for example, my job, my responsibilities as a Local Party Officer, a member of a English Party committee, and, oh yes, the rest of my life.

Liberal Youth requires a Returning Officer who is not a member of the organisation, and who actually knows how elections should be run. That limits the number of potential volunteers quite dramatically, even before you consider how many of them might not be willing to field telephone calls at midnight or at work, to have their weekends disturbed by a stream of e-mails and text messages, or to have to deal with individuals who are quite angry about something but can only think of the Returning Officer as the person best suited to a session of spleen-venting. Oh yes, and there are no expenses in it...

There are those whose opinions I value who believe that I was mad to take on this assignment, and are amazed that I intend to continue in post, subject to the approval of the incoming Executive Committee. However, internal democracy comes with a cost, and for the timebeing I am willing to bear it for the good of Liberal Youth, an organisation I firmly believe in - after all, I was Secretary General, Secretary, International Officer, President and Treasurer of its predecessor organisations, the Young Liberals and then the Young Liberal Democrats.

And I'm perfectly happy to justify my rulings, even if I don't actually have to. After all, the constitution clearly states that any ruling I make can be appealed to the Appeals Board. So perhaps before criticising, you might actually ask yourself why I might have made the ruling I have. The answer might be staring you in the face...

Monday, March 23, 2009

News from Creeting St Peter: what is it with people?

I'm back in London after a weekend at the country estate, made more pleasant by some sunshine.

With the improved weather comes an opportunity to take a walk, and so Ros and I set off out of the village on the road towards Stowupland. My back is playing up a little, so we took it easy as we strolled in a northerly direction.

As I've noted in the past, the scenery isn't exactly spectacular, although it is peaceful, and the land gently rises and dips, so that you don't get the kind of 'arable prairie' that appears in other places. There is a little wildlife, with hares and pheasants, the occasional deer or bird of prey, enough to encourage you to keep your eyes open. I've also taken a little more interest in the environment around me, and my attention was drawn to a blue McDonalds soft drink container, lying in the grass verge.

Amazing, really, because the nearest McDonalds is on the northern edge of Ipswich, quite some way away. Clearly, someone has gone to the trouble of buying their McDonalds meal, driving ten miles and throwing their drink container out of the window of their moving vehicle. They weren't alone, either, as I spotted two more, slightly older ones, as we headed back to the village. In my more engaged mode, I picked up all three and brought them back to the house for proper disposal.

I accept that Creeting St Peter is not Machu Picchu, nor the Great Barrier Reef, but it is part of our countryside, to be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to do so. And if you're in a car, you can hardly claim that it is a huge burden to take your rubbish home, or otherwise dispose of it thoughtfully. So next time, why don't you?...

George Osborne or Ken Clarke - who to trust?

Ken Clarke says that changes to the inheritance tax regime are now a lower priority for an incoming Conservative administration. They are, he says, an 'aspiration' and 'not something we are going to do the moment we take power'.

George Osborne says that it will be a manifesto commitment, and that it is 'a promise we will keep'. Putting aside the fact that it is one of the precious few commitments that any Conservative has made on anything, it demonstrates the ongoing tension between George and Ken and, in turn, between the Conservative frontbench and Conservative activists.

And this is where the Conservative failure to comprehend how strategies employed by others work before using them themselves shows itself. In the years from 1992, New Labour promised financial stability but also investment in public services and infrastructure. There was a tacit understanding that this would mean higher levels of public spending, and voters knew that Labour would do that - it was in their historic DNA.

The Conservatives, by applying the same strategy of promising little but embodying change, need to persuade people that they can cut taxes without hurting the public sector. Therefore, David Cameron and George Osborne talk about the well-off 'paying their fair share' and have withdrawn their public opposition to the proposed 45% tax rate. Unfortunately, the activists and carriers of the Thatcherite 'low tax, smaller government' flame don't like it. Indeed, they don't like it at all.

The risk for Messrs Cameron and Osborne is that they fall between two stools, failing to convince the public that they want fairer taxes whilst maintaining public services, whilst at the same time leaving their activists disenchanted and less committed to the struggle. As an activist, the question is, who to believe? Is it Ken, the big beast brought in to add ballast to the Conservative frontbench, or George, the unproven Shadow Chancellor with a tendancy towards flakiness under pressure?

The answer to that question may cast a shadow over perceptions of Conservative competence on tax and the economy for some time...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88

The bookshop Housmans will be holding a special event next week with guests Peter Facey (Director, Unlock Democracy) and Anthony Barnett (co-founder, Charter 88 and co-director of the Convention on Modern Liberty).

Event information:

Wednesday 25th March – 7pm
Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
King's Cross
N1 9DX

Tel: 020 7837 4473

Free entry

Nearest tube: King's Cross St Pancras

If you're in the area, why not drop in?

Not exactly the last train to South Cambridgeshire

Halfway between Kingsbury and Creeting St Peter is the railway station at Whittlesford Parkway, a fact which, until recently, had no particular value to me. Until last night, that is, when I found myself on the 17:28 service from Liverpool Street to Cambridge.

It's not a journey that I've made very often, and certainly not recently, but the route up the Lea Valley is pretty enough once you get beyond the London suburbs and a pretty good sunset meant that I could look out of the window and enjoy the scenery. Darkness fell as I left Essex and entered Cambridgeshire, and I was met by Peter, who had very kindly offered to pick me up and take me to the evening's event, a dinner hosted by the South Rural branch of South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats. Ros had arrived separately, and was out knocking on doors with one of the local campaigners, Tim Stone.

My first surprise was to run into Balan Sisupalan, a former colleague on the London Region Candidates Committee. He has a home inside the Cambridge city boundaries, and had dropped in to see what was happening.

However, Balan wasn't the only person I know in the South Cambridgeshire area. Sebastian Kindersley, the PPC for the constituency, was approved as a Parliamentary candidate by a panel which included your correspondent, and Fiona Whelan, recently elected to the County Council in a pretty sensational by-election win, turned up with her two sons - nice jacket, by the way, Fiona!

Best of all, my old friend Peter Facey was able to make it. Whilst he has recently moved over the border to North East Hertforshire, he has retained his links there, and it was great to have a chance to catch up.

Ros opened the event by speaking and taking questions. You can never predict the types of questions that get asked on these occasions, and last night saw a number of foreign policy questions. Our members in South Cambridgeshire come from a variety of backgrounds, and a retired professor of philosophy raised the interesting dilemma of what to do about Afghanistan. Should we stay and fight an apparently unwinnable war, or should we just withdraw and let the Afghans decide their future?

Dinner followed, with curry and desset, and an opportunity for me to talk about sport - should tennis be an Olympic sport? - Argentina and why it's wonderful, and the fact that South Cambridgeshire is the second best rural authority in which to live. Did I mention that Mid Suffolk is the best?...

And then back to Creeting St Peter for a glass of wine and then sleep...

Unlock Democracy - fighting to close the democratic deficit

I've been involved with Unlock Democracy and one of its predecessor organisations, the New Politics Network, for a few years now, after their Director, Peter Facey, asked me if I would be interested in getting involved. Given my long-running interest in the workings of our democracy, and twenty-five years as a jobbing Returning Officer at student union and Party levels, it was an easy offer to accept, and I've served on the Council of the two organisations since then.

However, last month my level of engagement rose to a new height, when I became a member of the Management Board of Unlock Democracy. Our role is best described as working with our Director to develop a strategy whereby the aims of Unlock Democracy are best pursued.

It is vital that such organisations are supported, as they fulfil a role unsuited to political parties, and I take the view that, in this regard, I'm there as a believer in a stronger democracy rather than as a Liberal Democrat.

At last night's event held by South Cambridgeshire Lib Dems, Peter and I coincidentally happened to be present, and we took the opportunity to catch up on how things are going. We're very lucky to have people like James Graham and Alex Runswick, to name but two, working for us, and I am conscious of my responsibilities as part of the management team. So I'm hoping to dedicate a bit more time towards Unlock Democracy in future - not to interfere, you understand but to support their efforts as best I can.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hazel Blears and the Token Gesture

It would appear that this Labour Government is so sold on its rhetoric of 'do nothing Tories' that it is desperate to prove that it is 'do everything New Labour'. Yesterday's announcement of a £50 visa 'surcharge' for those wishing to work or study here is one of those examples where that mania for action is all about show rather than substance.

One must acknowledge the background to this decision. Local authorities have been concerned for some time about the burdens caused by inward migration, in terms of additional costs for housing, education and social services. Many have appealed to the Department for Communities and Local Government to make provision for those costs in order to prevent cuts in other services, and there can be no doubt that they have a case. They will doubtless be disappointed by the response.

They won't be alone. One of the key groups impacted by this will be American students coming to the United Kingdom on study abroad programmes. They have no real impact on local government, pump valuable money into the economy and, rather importantly, can go elsewhere. A number of our academics are employed to teach them, and any potential loss in student numbers will cause them to lose income which supplements rather poor salaries in the tertiary education sector. In this instance, the surcharge is a rip-off, plain and simple.

Indeed, our universities receive vital funds from overseas students coming here to further their education. £50 might not sound like much, but in addition to other fees, is likely to make them feel that they are, more than ever, a cash cow. They too can go elsewhere, and some might.

For those coming here to work, we are already establishing a points-based immigration system, which will presumably whittle out those most likely to become a burden on the public purse. So how will an additional £50 help here? Why not insist on minimal language proficiency levels and that any dependents be the responsibility of the foreign worker instead? Such a rule isn't uncommon elsewhere, and I can't see much objection to it.

No, I'm afraid that this is just a gesture which appears to respond to the local government family, whilst reassuring Labour voters toying with the likes of the BNP that they are being tough on economic migrants.

However, let's consider what the likely outcomes are. A few people are put off the idea of coming to the United Kingdom. They are people who would qualify for admission under a points-based immigration system, and thus fairly highly-skilled. We clearly still need their skills, but will have to make do with someone less highly-skilled. Not necessarily good.

Perhaps they are students. In not coming here, we need to provide greater levels of financial support to our universities to make up for the loss of income. Those academics earning extra income from teaching study abroad students will be worse off, and less likely to stay in the academic sector, potentially impoverishing our universities and colleges. Hmmm... still not good.

However, we've raised some money which, all being well, we can distribute to those local authorities which need it. Yes, there will be administrative costs - we need civil servants to collect it, account for it and distribute it. Oh yes, and we don't accurately know where these people have gone, so we'll need to create a formula to decide where the money goes.

And that's the point where my confidence fades altogether. I've already touched upon the issues of grants for the concessionary bus scheme, with the Government throwing its hands in the air as if to say, "we've dished out the money, stop whinging" whilst failing utterly to acknowledge that it might be in the wrong places. This is another grant which will be inaccurately distributed, failing to address genuine need effectively.

Foreign workers and students provide a welcome infusion of wealth for our battered economy. Exploiting them for the sake of an easy headline does them, and us, no favours.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stopped and searched in the best possible taste

According to the Times, security is being stepped up in advance of next month’s G20 summit in East London. The fear is that, instead of attacking the actual venue, which is quite easily defendable, protesters will opt for soft targets such as hotels and public buildings.

This puts yesterday’s incident into perspective. Ros and I were heading to the London Regional Conference when, at Westminster station, I was called over by a British Transport Police officer. He courteously explained that he and his colleague were undertaking stop and search checks on individuals, and asked if their rather cute springer spaniel could check the small suitcase I was dragging. Naturally, I had no objection, placed the suitcase on the floor and stood back whilst the dog did its work.

I had assumed that the bag was being checked for drugs or explosives, although the rationale for stopping me wasn’t made entirely clear. I was asked whether or not the bag was mine, and had to acknowledge that it was Ros’s. They then took some details from her - name, address and the like - before explaining to us that the stop and search had been conducted under the auspices of Section 44(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000. A copy of the report was supplied, Ros put it in her handbag and we continued on our way.

I might have thought no more about it until this morning, when I read the document and, in particular, the back of it, which explains what should happen. Apparently, I should have been told why I was being stopped, and the relevant legislation quoted. I’m not going to get excited about it, and I’m confident that the officers had no malicious intent – most people don’t care about the legislative background, and are, like me, happy to cooperate with the police in the pursuit of their legitimate business, i.e. protecting us from criminals and terrorists. However, we all have a duty to ensure that those exercising power are held to account and, as we might see a lot of this over the coming weeks, here’s the legislation…

(2) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a pedestrian in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search—

(a) the pedestrian;

(b) anything carried by him.

Section 45 (1) explains that suspicion is not required in order to carry out such searches…

1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)—

(a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and

(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.

Authorisation must be given, in London at least, by an officer at Commander level or above. So, clearly, a senior officer has deemed it necessary to so authorise, which is where the story from the Times picks up…

Naturally, you are protected by statute from inappropriate application of this legislation. Given that many of you reading this will be keen to ensure that your rights aren’t taken from you unduly, here is Liberty’s advice on what those rights are

Monday, March 16, 2009

Equal pay too expensive? What price justice in a recession?

I am astonished. News from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that equal pay is too much to hope for in the midst of a recession is one of the most depressing comments that I've heard for a long time.

There is no doubt that the legal process that claimants have to get through in order to assert their legitimate right to equal treatrment before the law is labyrinthine. However, to soft pedal the requirement for companies to hold equal pay reviews is an admission akin to saying that the 17% pay gap between men and women is a low priority.

Worse yet, an entirely new equal pay act is apparently needed, and will take years of work to construct. Now, either there is an assumption that the Conservatives will be equally convinced of the need for expeditious progress towards equality in the workplace (don't all laugh at once) or that Labour will be re-elected with a majority sufficient to push it through (didn't think that you'd stop laughing...). Either way, why should it take that long?

What next, not enforcing the National Minimum Wage because it puts jobs at risk? Actually, given the visibility of the teams who enforce it (have you heard of many prosecutions lately?), perhaps that's already happening.

The EHRC is supposed to be the body which campaigns for equality, yet it appears willing to sacrifice the disadvantaged in order to fulfil the new Peter Mandelson inspired New Labour agenda. They need to take a stand, and be more assertive in campaigning for equal rights. We need to be standing with them to provide some moral support.

Fish? Barrel? Just too tempting...

Many thanks to Jonathan Calder for giving me the opportunity to do this...

There's nothing wrong with alcohol... in moderation. So why can't I be left to decide what 'moderation' means?

At least the Government has chosen to kick the latest proposal from the health police into touch. The idea of a minimum charge per unit of alcohol for retail sales is a seductive one, especially given the incidence of binge drinking amongst the young. Yet it managed to provoke James Parnell, not usually a friend of this blog, to say that he didn't think that everyone should suffer for the behaviour of a minority.

Good. I admit that I enjoy a drink from time to time, although not as much as I used to when I was younger. My capacity, for one thing, is reduced as I get older, but I can now drink a higher quality product. Real ales from micro breweries in Suffolk, a nice sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, an Alsace or a pinot noir, all of these meet with my approval. Because I enjoy the taste and the complexity, I might have a bottle of beer with lunch at the weekend, or share a bottle of wine over dinner occasionally.

I learned most of my early lessons with alcohol at university, one of the safest environments in which to do so. You're generally surrounded by friends who will get you home safely and stop you from doing anything too embarrassing. You're also generally too poor to get dangerously drunk, i.e. the point where you do serious damage to yourself. In such an environment, you learn what your limit is, and the art of nursing a drink so that you have the social benefits without the hangover at the end of it.

So, rather than distort the market, wouldn't it be easier to educate young people to drink responsibly and use the existing legislation to punish those who make alcohol freely available to young people. Note the use of the word 'freely'. I'm not suggesting that parents who allow their older children a glass of wine or something similar should be punished. Indeed, parental supervision can only help young people to develop a mature approach to alcohol. But in moderation, that's all...

There's no snout about it, you can do something for British farmers

"And what is that?", I hear you ask. It isn't a huge sacrifice, unless you're a vegetarian, but you might make a difference. You see, it is Bacon Connoisseurs Week and so, to mark the occasion, you are asked to make yourself a bacon sandwich. If you don't fancy making one, you can always visit your local cafe, who'll doubtless be happy to do it for you.

Now I admit, I do enjoy a good bacon sandwich. I'm a brown sauce man for preference, but with good bacon, the sauce is somewhat unnecessary. And, of course, spending my weekends in Mid Suffolk means that I have access to some marvellous, locally cured, bacon.

As I've noted in the past, British pig farmers have taken a bit of a pasting in recent years. Undercut by imports, many have chosen to leave the industry. And yet the flavour of pork from an animal that is allowed to root around outside is so much better than that from an intensively reared indoor pig.

You can do more with bacon than sandwiches though, tempting though one might be to stop there. Don't take my word for it, check out this website for more ideas on creative use of bacon...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mid Suffolk mon amour

Alright, I freely admit that, until I met Ros, the smallest place I had lived (apart from my university days) had a population in excess of seven million - a cosy little place called London. Now I spend my weekends - apart from those on the road with Ros - in Creeting St Peter, population 260 (and that's the entire parish!).

The area has no stunning scenery, no significant tourist attractions, no unusual wildlife. It does have a gentle pace, some charming villages and some great food. Locally produced pork products, cheese, beer and some marvellous farm shops and butchers. There is game in season, including rabbit, pheasant and quail, and some great pubs, serving decent beer and good food.

However, it is peaceful, well connected to London - the hourly train service takes less than an hour and a half to Liverpool Street via Ipswich, and there are also regular trains to Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Norwich and Peterborough - and now the rural authority with the best quality of life in the country.

According to a survey carried out by the Halifax, Mid Suffolk scores well for traffic flow, its low burglary rate, high life expectancy (79.9 years) and its weather (sunny and dry). House prices are reasonable, and more than 70% of its 87,000 residents live in villages and rural areas.

And so, quite by chance, I find myself living in a great place. Don't be jealous now...

Conservatives in Europe: setting sail for the fringe

And so the Conservatives have finally given notice of their intention to quit the European People's Party (EPP). Let nobody accuse them of doing nothing, although it has taken them the best part of three years to carry out David Cameron's campaign pledge when he ran for the party leadership.

Once upon a time, I was involved in international youth politics. In the three years from 1989 to 1991, I attended events across Europe from Helsinki to Lisbon, from Hebden Bridge to Budapest, held by various international liberal groups at both European and worldwide levels. They were entertaining, informative and intellectually challenging. Most of all, I learned the value of being part of something bigger, of being part of an international family. It looks like the Conservatives could benefit from that lesson...

The European Parliament is dominated by the two big groups, the Socialists and the EPP. Neither has enough votes to achieve anything on its own, yet nothing can be achieved unless one or other is supportive. The Liberal grouping, ALDE, is a key swing voter, and its representation in most EU states gives it the credibility to play a leadership role.

Groupings are important. Recognised groupings get funding, attract privileges, gain places on committees. The bigger the grouping, the better the spoils. However, to get such things, you have to be sufficiently credible. You have to gather together members from at least six member states.

As a result, the Conservatives can't just leave the EPP, they need to create a new grouping, or join an existing one, which is not as easy as it sounds. Parties tend to seek partners who share their philosophy or background, they want to be part of something bigger. What that means is that the types of political party that are looking for a dancing partner fall into three categories;
  • the eccentrics
  • those whose views are seen to be beyond the pale by the larger groupings
  • those who flit from group to group in search of a deal

To be honest, none of them make ideal partners, but when you've walked out on your former partner and you're looking for love, sometimes you have to take what you can get. But are Polish racists and homophobes, and Czech climate change deniers the best that the Conservatives can find?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Creeting St Peter needs a Parish Councillor or three? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

I have been passed a copy of the second issue of the Creeting St Peter Newsletter, published this week. It is, I have to admit, not a huge document, A4 double-sided, but does include reports from the Parish Council, the Community Council and the Parochial Church Council. It is also in colour and is quite professionally done.

Big news in Creeting St Peter is talk of the lorry park, planned for the area. Our local MP, Sir Michael Lord, is clearly too busy to do much, so his neighbour, David Ruffley, who represents Bury St Edmunds is leaning on the District Council to speed things up.

What else? Work will be done to revitalise the Notice Board, parish boundary signs have been put up so that people know where they are - not always entirely obvious - and nothing is being done about the street lights (both of them?) as consultation drew no response whatsoever.

There are three vacancies on the Parish Council, and they're keen to fill them. Hmmm...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fuel Poverty - David Heath demonstrates what Parliament is really for

I haven't actually read the piece of legislation that David Heath is promoting as his Private Members' Bill, and whilst I probably support it, that isn't really the point.

Parliament should really be about debating the issues that really matter, and there are many amongst us who have genuine concerns about how they are going to keep warm in winter, in particular the elderly. Indeed, as fossil fuels begin to run out, it is likely that the cost of heating will rise rather faster than inflation, and the problem will intensify.

So I'm pleased to see David use his opportunity to do something serious and let's hope that the issue gets the full debate that it deserves...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Vince Cable Tapes -part 2: in which our hero assists in my quest to be extremely rich

So far, so good. I had managed to maintain my anonymity, at least as far as Vince was concerned, and even managed to resist the temptation to eat another chocolate coated doughnut. There were signs of trouble ahead though...

Jo was keen to contrast the value of Vince's brand vs that of the Liberal Democrats. Vince's diplomatic response was to emphasise that our position, in comparative terms, is stronger than it has been at equivalent points in previous electoral cycles. He has attempted not to be tribal whilst ensuring that there is a Lib Dem 'strapline'.

Me, I just wanted to make money. In 1987, I was confident that South East Asian unit trusts were THE place to invest my money and, had I done so, I would probably own you all. In a good way, of course. Anyway, I digress. Vince knows stuff. He's a man of the world. He'd know what to do with the Valladares millions, wouldn't he?

Diversification is key, he said, although he thinks that large swathes of assets are now undervalued. I think so too, if you are able to hold your nerve. I should have followed this up though...

Andy next picked up on the article in the Guardian on alleged Liberal Democrat use of 'game theory' in modelling potential hung parliament scenarios. I had read the article too, and thought that it looked rather intelligent. Best of all, it would appeal to geeks, an important subset of the voting public.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a non-story, melded together from bits of unrelated material. Vince was a bit annoyed about it, as the story had upset a few people. Oh well, it was a great story while it lasted...

Richard raised the proposed sell-off of the Royal Mail. As Vince sagely put it, it is unlikely to be the best time to sell if you want to get the best price. He did emphasise our support for liberalisation of postal services, although we oppose cherry picking. Funds raised from shares in the Royal Mail should be used to strengthen the network and we want to encourage staff to become part-owners of the service, giving them an interest in its success.

By this point, we had asked so many questions that loss of inspiration, and possibly a lack of preparation, were causing hesitation. Alix sprang to the rescue though (that's why she's award-winning, I presume), noting that Howard Dean felt that targetting was wrong. Vince held to the Rennard line, noting that we don't have a Presidential system. Nearly all of our seats were once no-hopers, proving that, for us, targetting does work.

Seguing neatly in, Jo touched upon his experiences as a candidate (apparently, she's a prominent figure in the PCA, did I mention that?) - he had run three times before getting elected. What did he gain from it? Well, experience. He learned that you need to be persistent and to build up a team of supporters. You develop friendships and relationships as you go, and these tend to buoy you up when you most need them.

I got the last question, noting that Vince had put a lot of energy into Local Party visits. He felt that he had a responsibility to encourage and nurture both target seats and less obvious but potentially successful seats. We exchanged a few comments about Wycombe, where his visit coincided with a surge in success for Liberal Democrats there. He had particularly enjoyed that event, and was impressed by the efforts of the local PPC and his wife, the Chair of the Local Party (that's Steve and Wendy if you didn't already know). I couldn't agree more, I was the Returning Officer when they selected him...

And with that, our interview was over, leaving just enough time for Helen to carry out what may be the longest twelve second soundbite in history and for photographs to be taken.

It was time to scatter into the night or, in my case, meet the Party President for dinner...

The Vince Cable Tapes: part 1 - where Vince doesn't eat a doughnut

So, what were we to do? Were we fated to be squeezed into a tiny office with not enough room to swing a small, adorable kitten, or even a fluffy elephant, in?

Super Vince to the rescue, and he found us a room to occupy whilst we roasted him over an open flame, sorry, lauded him to the skies.

Everyone seated, and doughnuts distributed, we started our hostile interrogation/gentle probing. Alix wanted to clarify that our tax plans were still viable, and Vince confirmed that our principal premise - cutting taxes for most lower and middle income taxpayers by the equivalent of 4p in the pound, thus putting money into their pockets, whilst removing tax loopholes that favour the wealthy - was still absolutely solid.

It was interesting to see that each blogger had their own agenda, with questions veering from topic to unrelated topic, and Jo 'I'm a senior member of the PCA' Christie-Smith chose to start with Vince's role on the Diversity Engagement Group. Where were the signs of progress? Vince was of the view that our National Diversity Advisor was doing some very good work to assess where we are, despite various distractions. He did feel that opportunities in the urban North may enable us to elect more BME candidates.

I have to say that, in all honesty, Vince has only recently become involved in our diversity work in a meaningful way, and probably hasn't been briefed on the likelihood of this being true.
2014/15 perhaps, but not next time...

Vince fangirl Jennie was intrigued about Vince's interest in bees. Apparently there is an apiary at the end of his street and the group that run it invited him along to see. He asked some questions in the House of Commons and was given very short shrift, which so annoyed that he got more involved - this is important. He is now part of a cross-party group to raise awareness of bee diseases and the impact of falling bee populations on agriculture.

And then it was my turn. I haven't sensed that Vince or, for that matter, most senior Lib Dems, are particularly sensitive to public sector employees. I was therefore keen to probe his comments about civil service bonuses and public sector salaries. He had not expected the response he got from the local government community when he attacked the 'civil service aristocracy' who combine high salaries, job security and generous pensions. However, he understands that there are issues at the lower end of the pay scales, and is willing to work with public sector unions to address these.

My view is that, in order to get the best people to run public services, you need to pay attractive salaries. Part of the package is a generous pension, yes, but if the package is broadly comparable with the private sector, that's what you need to pay. Naming and shaming them doesn't help.

Mary was keen to elicit Vince's views on local government finance, given the unfair treatment of so-called 'leafy suburbs' in terms of the grant calculation by the Department of Communities and Local Government. Vince was clear about the lack of clarity and the weakness of the existing formulae of calculating entitlements, but expected that our policy of local income tax would help address the problem.

Time for a big issue, as Andy probed on talk of global regulation. Brown's ideas are really just evasion of the key issue. Actually, a lot of the issues can be addressed at national level by means of proper application of the Basle Rules, and proper application of the regulation regime. International co-operation allows us to avoid competitive gestures that harm us all.

Next, Millenium's daddy on the Euro - whilst there are potential casualties (Italy and Greece), the position of the UK is a precarious one. If there is a critical assessment of the public finances, the risks to sterling are high. It may be that we need to take a more aggressive stance on the Euro as an alternative to a weakening currency, but we need to see how the current crisis impacts on the Eurozone.

Helen wanted to know why Vince doesn't blog. Although Lynne Featherstone has made a strong case for him taking up blooging, the issue of time prevents from him from blogging - his heavy schedule and commitment to being available to his constituents take priority. At this point, there was a general clamour for Vince to blog. Well, except from me. I know how long it takes and how careful you need to be to ensure that it doesn't take over your life...

Can anyone think of a good pun involving Vince?

I had always said that the series of blogger interviews organised by the delightful Millennium and his daddy were not really for me. I'm not really a policy wonk, and generally assume that there are people more likely to ask searching questions.

At least, that was the case until the opportunity to interview Lembit came along last year. Even then, I applied as much to seek an answer to the question, "Whither Lembit?", as anything else. And, alright, I did ask two of the most aggressive questions put to any interviewee since the series began, but as much because I was astonished that nobody else asked them, as out of a personal dislike of the man himself.

However, the opportunity to interview Vince was too good to miss, so I arrived at Portcullis House at about 5.45 p.m. to join the gathered throng. Luckily for me, I have a spouse pass and can avoid security lines and bag searches, so I got myself a Hot Chocolate Extravagance (marshmallows, whipped cream and a flake) from the cafe in the tree-lined lobby and waited for everyone to arrive.
But what was this? It was Vince, with a drink, sitting at a table with an unknown person. Should I take this opportunity to get in some early questioning before the horde arrived? Perhaps not, as my incisive questioning might put him off of the idea.

Luckily, I could see the interview panel gathering on the other side of the glass security barrier. This gave me a chance to do my world-famous zoo animal impression, pressing my nose against the glass and begging for doughnuts.

Vince then came over to escort his visitor back, and I introduced myself before pointing out the collective ranks of blog heroes awaiting their audience. And there lay our first problem, There were too many of us to fit in his office. How would this be solved? This was a job for SUPER VINCE!...

Harrogate - Day 3: the postscript or, "when Jodie met monkey"

As Ros was on her way to introduce Kirsty, a monkey was thrust into her hands, a raffle prize from an event we had been forced to leave before the draw could be made. Whilst it was cute, we weren't certain what we could do with it. However, we were headed for North London, so I put it somewhere safe for the journey.

The train to York was the usual bus on rails, and crowded to boot. At York, we transferred to an absolutely packed National Express service, where our reserved seats were even more highly prized. Our table was shared with a couple and their five-month old daughter, Jodie. Jodie was cute, as advertised by her bib, and the journey was passed with the occasional gurgle.

And then it hit me, there was someone who would appreciate the monkey more than we would. So we gave it to Jodie. I wonder if she'll ever know that a baroness gave her a monkey?...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Harrogate - Day 3: Nick Clegg speaks (with commentary by Bob Russell MP)

And so, the Conference reached its climax, the Leader's speech. Naturally, the great and the good were positioned on the front row, and a camera panning it would have spotted senior frontbenchers, the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, leading MEP's and the Party President. Oh yes, and someone in a lightly pinstriped suit with a dark tie with flowers. Must be a big donor, because the media would have no idea who he was. Perhaps he just found a spare seat and occupied it when nobody was looking?

But anyway, the Leader comes on, and delivers the speech that is the result of so much careful preparation. And it was a pretty good speech (I have always been known to be a hard marker), with plenty of 'red meat' and messages that really resonated with his audience. Indeed, there were elements that, I believe, will resonate far beyond the hall.

I have always wondered why the directors of the banks have been treated so leniently, especially given the amount of time I spend at work explaining to directors that they are liable for their compliance failures. Nick's call for them to be prosecuted under company law is, I think, entirely fair. They clearly didn't exercise control, for if they had, the inability to calculate their potential liabilities should surely have made them stop and think. It's not simply retribution, it's a clear sign that failure has its consequences.

One thing I like to do is to monitor reactions around the hall and, this year, my barometer was Bob Russell. Bob knows where his constituents live, so to speak, and I tend to respect his thoughts. He seemed to like the speech, and was never short of an approving comment.

And so the Conference was over, and it was time to go home...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Harrogate - Day 3: Clutching the symbols of power!

And so the moment I'd all been waiting for, the moment when Ros seized the symbols of ultimate power from the cold, dead hands of the ancien regime, the moment when everything became possible, when... oops, err... Let's start that again, shall we?

It is a tradition, passed down from the Liberal Party, that the outgoing President passes to his or her successor the symbols of office, the gavel and the sacred text, 'On Liberty' by John Stuart Mill. The book is obvious, the gavel perhaps less so.

In the 'old days', the President of the Liberal Party chaired every session from opening to closure of the Assembly. The gavel was used, and had a power. Of course, there is a entire Federal Conference Committee to do these things now, and the President's role is much more ceremonial, but symbols have their place in our memories.

It was left to Phil Willis to introduce Ros, and he was most gracious with his introduction, before El Presidente (outgoing), Simon Hughes, presented Ros with the gavel and the book. Ros made a gracious speech in praise of Simon before performing her first awards ceremony as President, honouring Greater Reading for the largest increase in membership by a Local Party. And she was right, all of the students who came on with Gareth and Daisy did make Gareth look a bit old and knackered... She then presented the award for biggest percentage growth to Leeds East before handing back to Phil for the financial appeal.

Whilst Tim Farron tried to distract him by folding his appeal form into a paper aeroplane and throwing it at him (nice craftsmanship, Tim), Phil extorted us to be generous in his own inimical style - "Give us your bloody money!".

Having so persuaded us, he noted that he'd better hurry up, as a young man was due on next to give us travel and weather reports for the journey home...