Monday, August 31, 2009

Drink ASBOs - missing the point yet again...

And so we can expect the dawning of a new age of responsible drinking, following the introduction of so-called 'drink ASBOs'. Well, probably not.

You see, the problem is that ASBOs are merely a way of delaying action. In order to get an ASBO, you must have committed an offence, right? If you haven't, society has no right to stigmatise you, does it? All right, so you've committed an offence. The police find you and arrest you, charging you with the offence. So, instead of prosecuting you and punishing you, you get an ASBO. Breaching the terms of the ASBO is an offence, for which you will be prosecuted. Alright, I'm beginning to lose sight of the point of this arrangement.

Let's see now. Someone guilty of a criminal act is caught and given an ASBO. That person then needs to be monitored to ensure that they don't breach its terms. Police will be needed to do that, although PCSOs and CCTV cameras will be there in support. There will doubtless be a new offence linked to serving someone with an ASBO, placing the onus on publicans and their staff to be able to identify individuals.

It strikes me that it would be much easier to just charge an offender and have a formal process for punishment and rehabilitation instead. Apparently, we have such a thing already, known as a justice system, staffed with magistrates, judges and probation officers, with big buildings called courts and prisons.

Unfortunately, once again, this Government has gone for the complex and probably ineffectual, instead of using the array of tools that already exist. They're called laws, lest we forget...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

PPC selection rules: in the forest, a new kind of regime stirs

There has been, for as long as I can remember, generalised unhappiness with the way we select Parliamentary candidates. Too complicated and long-winded for smaller, weaker Local Parties, too restrictive for candidates, too quasi-legal for Returning Officers, the list goes on. Well, things are going to change. The third draft of the proposed new rules has reached 'Liberal Bureaucracy' and, I must say, I'm pretty pleased. Much of what I've called for is in, and major issues addressed.

A further drafting exercise is under way, and I expect the next draft to be discussed at the meeting of the English Candidates Committee for Sunday, September 20th, with the final version potentially debated at English Council on Saturday, November 28th. I guess that, if such a schedule is achievable, the new Rules would come into force immediately after a General Election.

The style might prove to be a bit of a surprise too...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why this woman may well have changed blogging forever...

The young lady in question is called Rosemary Port, the once-anonymous author of a blog called 'Skanks in NYC'. Last year, she accused a Canadian model, Liskula Cohen, of being, amongst other things, psychotic and lying. Unusually, Ms Cohen sent the lawyers in, demanding that Google reveal the identity of the author, and after a hearing in the Manhattan Supreme Court, Google, and its subsidiary, were forced to reveal the identity of Ms Port.

Now, bear in mind that this took place in the land of the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, in a jurisdiction that has been frequently unfriendly to those seeking to limit said rights.

But the story gets better. Ms Port has announced her intention to sue Google for $15 million for revealing her identity. Now I may be a lay person when it comes to privacy laws, but it strikes me that Google were given little option. The potential fines for contempt of court would have been eye-watering, and why should they pay for the supposed right of an individual to defame anonymously?

The serious issue, however, is that this case will make Google, as well as other blog platforms, rather nervous. If individuals use Blogger or Wordpress or any of the other alternatives to defame individuals (as opposed to criticising them), will the host disown them? Is it worth the financial risk that a series of high-profile libel suits here in the United Kingdom, a notoriously friendly jurisdiction for those seeking to supress criticism, might bring?

There are those who blog anonymously with good cause. Issues related to confidentiality or commercial sensitivity, or individuals who wish to cast light on areas of public life that are otherwise hidden away but risk censure or worse, make anonymous blogging a necessity. However, anonymity is increasing used as a shield to attack freely, without fear of reprisal. And whilst I might have personal qualms about such an approach, no illegality takes place until defamation occurs.

As a liberal, I obviously believe in freedom of expression. However, I cannot accept that such a freedom extends to the right to defame and, if someone chooses to do so, they should understand that there are consequences. After all, with rights come responsibilities.

It has become increasingly clear that the tone of discourse in the blogosphere has fallen somewhat. Wit is replaced by brutality, disagreement is marked with abuse rather than counter-argument, the assumption being that, by holding a contrary view, you are insane, corrupt or worse. Unfortunately, the likes of Guido Fawkes encourage such an approach be seemingly endorsing their views. Given that his success stems from the nature of the stories he uncovers, it is a pity that the published comments give an impression so cynical and destructive that one might wonder why he, or any of us, bothers.

Eventually, someone prominent will step over the line, the Government will feel obliged to act, and the rest of us will be regulated because a few individuals are unable to remain within a fairly broad framework. Another freedom, sacrificed in the name of freedom...

Big Brother IS watching you...

Apparently, the taxman has taken to Facebook in the US. By using the search facility, they have been able to catch up with tax evaders who, it seems, are determined to avoid their obligations yet, simultaneously tell the rest of the world what they're doing and where they're doing it.

If it's any consolation, at HM Revenue & Customs we don't have access to social networking sites. Some of us do have a BlackBerry though...

'Liberal Bureaucracy' reaches a typically cautious half-century off 131 balls

Yes, the most recent Golden Dozen saw the fiftieth entry from this blog, which comes as a bit of a surprise. My readership has never been vast, although it appears modestly loyal, and my subject matter varies from frivolous (crayfish aphrodisiacs) to mild outrage (anything to do with railway breakfasts) via my increasingly eccentric travels and life as a late convert to political campaigning.

However, I would like to thank you all for passing through these halls over the past two and a half years and, hopefully, I'll give you cause to continue to do so. Let's just say that the next twenty-one months should give me plenty of material...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice not to be disappointed by a law firm...

I am a cautious soul for the most part. I moderate comments to this blog, generally because this is my space, and I set the rules. And so I discovered that the following comment had been left for me to publish;

If you are interested in the authorisation process for Heathrow runway 3, check out my blog, which monitors the implementation of the new regime under the Planning Act 2008, which the runway will need to use:

You'll note that I have not hyperlinked the website address. I fundamentally object to a commercial organisation attempting to leech off of my blog for their own gain. However, I suspect that I'm not alone so, if you've had a similar comment posted, you might like to complain to this person, who appears to be responsible...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

American crayfish - oversexed, oversized and over here...

This is a white-clawed crayfish (shoulders back, lovely boy). It is native to this sceptred isle (cue strains of Elgar) and can be found in rivers and streams everywhere. It is the very essence of Englishness, no?

And now it is under threat from an invader from across the Atlantic, the signal crayfish, which has come over here, aggressively out-competed our white-clawed friends and, worst of all, spread the deadly crayfish plague amongst them.

Fortunately, all is not lost for the home team. White-clawed crayfish are being rescued from across East Anglia and brought to a secret location in Suffolk, where an 'ark' has been created in the hope of breeding new 'super crayfish', able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound and swim faster than a speeding bullet.

The Environment Agency have appealed to anyone with a large pond, lake or gravel pit to contact them in the hope of creating a second ark. In the meantime, if you see any crayfish wearing bermuda shorts, or pronouncing Leicester Square incorrectly, feel free to eat them. Apparently, they're delicious, and an aphrodisiac to boot...

Monday, August 24, 2009

A very productive weekend indeed...

The leaflet is now delivered across the ward, thanks to the efforts of Ros and Jamie yesterday, and the process of doing so has been very informative. I've met more dogs than I ever would have in London, and they're all friendly. Big, soppy labradors, bouncy Jack Russells, I've patted them and made conversation with their owners, virtually all of whom have been friendly too.

Now I'm long enough in the tooth to know that, just because people are friendly, they aren't necessarily going to vote for you. However, there isn't a history of intensive campaigning in large parts of Suffolk, and the fact that someone is taking an interest is enough to gain some attention.

I've also seen a few things that might benefit from improvement. Not huge things that will 'change the world' but which might help a few people along the way, so I'll be working on those over the coming weeks...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Where the streets have no name...

One of the aspects of rural campaigning that I have had to adapt to is, and those of you who live outside of a town will doubtless recognise, the idea that the houses aren't always conveniently next to each other.

For example, in Creeting St Peter, there are one hundred and five houses on the register. Seventy-eight of them are in the village, which is fairly easy. The other twenty-seven are scattered across the parish so, if I wanted to deliver to them, I could walk around, but it would take quite some time. So, instead of a delivery walk, there is a delivery drive.

But, in order to deliver efficiently, you need to know where all the houses are. Fortunately, with an electoral register, maps provided by the Ordnance Survey and a car, you can plot them all, and design a route that gets you to them all. It also means that, using the skills gleaned from years of watching 'Blue Peter', you end up with a map of the entire ward, made up of bits of map cut up and stuck together at the back with sticky tape.

So, the preparation work is done, and delivery has begun. I'm out again this afternoon with Ros, and we might even be finished in time for dinner.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bringing the message to the people

Amazing, really. On Sunday, I had some material for a Focus leaflet. Kathy, our County Group Leader helped me convert it into the finished product and, by Monday, with some help from Lib Dem Voice, I had sent it to the printer, the Chair of Ipswich Liberal Democrats, Tim Lockington. Today, it was ready, and so Ros and I drove to Ipswich to collect 1200 leaflets, the amount we thought would be needed.

But where to deliver them? Cue 'Election Maps', a service provided by the Ordnance Survey for political campaigners, which allows you to trace the boundaries of your ward and print out street maps of different bits of it. Meanwhile, Wendy Marchant, one of our district councillors in Needham Market, was putting word out across mid-Suffolk to obtain the electoral register for the ward and, by early evening, I had a full set of canvass cards.

So, a delivering we went, Ros driving. We delivered more than 40% of the ward, explored some of the outlying areas, pinpointed most of the outlying houses on the northern edge and designed some walks for the future.

Tomorrow, we'll be delivering more of the ward, and hope to have the job finished by the end of the month.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Are the old-fashioned courtesies just that - old-fashioned?

The publication of the new Liberal Democrat policy paper on issues related to women has drawn most attention for those elements addressing issues of imagery and how it influences people.

However, it almost certainly doesn't address the question of how the sexes interact. At least, I hope that it doesn't. After all, this really isn't an issue that can be addressed by policy, legislative or indicative. And yet, there is an issue to be raised here.

I was brought up to believe in the old-fashioned notion of chivalry. A gentleman held doors open for ladies, offered them the shelter of his umbrella, offered his seat on buses or trains, and stood up when a lady joined a gathering. All quite harmless, some might say touchingly cute. But that was the way things were done. And you didn't do that for men...

In these more 'enlightened' times, when women expect to be treated equally, one risks being caught by a paradox. If you maintain such habits, you run the risk of being seen as patronising, and there are some who will not hesitate to tell you as much. At the same time, there are those who are content to be treated in such a manner, and appear to appreciate such an approach. All very confusing...

So, is being a gentleman contrary to the ethos of equality for all, at all times?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

MPs and second jobs - this Mark reckons different

To defend MPs at the moment is to take an unpopular position, and yet that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Mark Thompson suggests this morning that MPs shouldn't have second jobs, and that Matthew Parris, writing in the Times, is wrong to differentiate between 'cuddly' second jobs (charity work, doctor etc) and 'non-cuddly' ones (company director, barrister and the like). And so, the non-slave to conformity that I am, I'm going to disagree with both of them.

It is, in the nicest way, none of our damned business what MPs do when they're not performing their duties in the role. Since when did the public have the right to dictate what anyone does with the one hundred and sixty-eight hours a week that an MP has? No, our concern should be twofold;
  1. Is the MP meeting our expectations in terms of performance?
  2. Are they engaged in activities which represent a conflict of interest?

If an MP is generally accepted to be performing well, and they spend sixty hours a week doing so, why should we be dictating to them what they do with the other one hundred and eight hours? We don't dictate their reading matter, or their holiday destination, or their residence, so why are we dictating any other aspect of their lives?

I have already made the point about how we are merely repeating the mistakes of over-regulation so beloved by the Labour Party. It's not about money, an assumption that most cynics would draw, it's about freedom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Darrell and Jane - is it me, or have they never been seen together in the same room?

It is only at times like this, early in the morning when it's a bit too sticky to sleep, when ideas pop up like mushrooms.

So, is it me, or are Darrell Goodliffe and Jane Watkinson the same person? And why do they publish the same postings at slight intervals? Don't get me wrong, it isn't a criticism, it just confuses me when I read Lib Dem Blogs using my BlackBerry and the same title appears twice...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Liberal Democrat Voice - just like a big, extended family

The internet is a wonderful, terrible thing. It allows us to exchange information, communicate with people around the world, abuse people that we've never met.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceYesterday, however, it had a benevolent air to it, at least as far as this Suffolk-based Liberal Democrat is concerned. I had produced the leaflet, and only needed to send it to a friendly printer. The only problem was, I rely on mobile internet, signal is weak and variable, and the file was pretty big. How to resolve this? Well, what else is Liberal Democrat Voice for if not to provide a means of tapping the knowledge of friendly others?

So I post what, if memory recalls accurately, is my first topic in the members forum, in an attempt to get an answer. And, as I hoped, Chris Keating and Anthony Fairclough give me the benefit of their experience. I do as they suggest, shrink the file, send it, and I have completed a task.

Hoorah for the internet!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A bureaucrat, a Group Leader, the Party President and a computer - it takes a village to produce a Focus

So, with Irfan's encouragement ringing in my ears, I ventured to Capel St Mary, where I was to receive an introductory course on PagePlus, and produce a Focus leaflet, courtesy of Kathy Pollard, our Group Leader on Suffolk County Council.

Kathy has been incredibly supportive of my attempts to get involved with campaigning here in Suffolk and today was fascinating, as she demonstrated the basics of what PagePlus can do, and even had a photo taken of the two of us for one of the articles for the leaflet. Ros, who has been pretty inspirational in keeping me focussed, was at the other end of the camera.

I was pleasantly surprised that, whilst there is plenty of complicated stuff you can do with PagePlus, it appears to be designed so that, even if you're a novice, it can be used to make something basic yet professional looking. Much kudos must go to whoever it was who decided that this should be the preferred software for the Party.

Anyway, the leaflet is now ready to be printed, and when I manage to work out how to compress the pdf file to a small enough size, I can send it to the printer.

One small step for a liberal bureaucrat, one giant step towards 2011...

Point and shoot - starting a campaign the Liberal Bureaucracy way

Alright, I confess that, in the past, I've not always been keen on 'retail politics'. Happy to help, deliver leaflets, canvass (a bit), do the odd residents survey, but somebody else can be the candidate. It's all a bit aggressive, urban campaigning.

However, now that I've got a feel for how politics is done here in our rural idyll, I've changed my mind. This rather more gentle politics is more my speed. It's no less important, but there is less overt unpleasantness. So, I've sought an opportunity to be a candidate in 2011 with the intention of actually having a campaign - you know, doing something.

I have a long and honourable record as a paper candidate - Roe Green ward in 1990, somewhere in Southwark in 1994, Village ward in 2006, and, in June, the Upper Gipping division here in Suffolk. The Party wanted to fly the flag in each case and I was happy to be a name on a ballot paper. Now, however, it's different. I am moved to want to make my community better, and feel obliged to try myself, rather than to help someone else to get elected.

So, how does this work? You need a leaflet, which means that you need material and photographs. There aren't many pictures of me so, yesterday afternoon, we went out to take some. Mark with bus stop, Mark with field, Mark with village sign - you know, the stock photos of candidates through the ages. I may even have pointed at things.

Next, I need to create the leaflet. Luckily, my brains trust, who've done all of this before, have offered to do the first one for me. PagePlus? No clue, personally, but I'm going to have to learn - I'm hoping that there will be training at Bournemouth - and I could always borrow my brother's graphic design skills if need be.

So, with a bit of luck, a leaflet may exist soon. The next question is, how do I get it from printer to doormat?

We are top of the league, yes we are top of the...

Blue Square Premiership.

Hmmm... isn't it nice that such small things bring joy?

P.S. Condolences to Norfolk Blogger. It's not easy...

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Amaranth Guide to Dueling

I suppose that I should have realised that something was afoot when Mark stormed into the Great Hall, pulled one of Great Uncle Otto's (silver medallist, Antwerp 1920) duelling sabres out of its display, and stormed back out again. Ah, the impetuosity of youth. It brought back memories enough to make an Empress blush...

Of course, being a civilised country, Amaranth banned dueling some years ago, although there is still the odd incidence of individuals being rushed to hospital having sustained rather severe shaving cuts. Curiously, the history of Amaranth was shaped by two duels in particular, the first in 1863 when the Papal Nuncio was caught in an indelicate position with Crown Prince Klaus, whereupon the Dowager Empress sought satisfaction at swordpoint. Despite sustaining a quite serious wound to her forearm, she dispatched her opponent, leading to a breakdown of the Vatican-led coalition and the inevitable formation of the new Italian state.

The 1911 'Lugano Incident', where Ludwig's grandfather upheld the honour of Amaranth after an accusation of sharp practice during negotiations over the future of Albania, led to the withdrawal of Amaranth forces from the battle order of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. Who knows what might have happened at Vittorio Veneto had Amaranth cavalry been there to repulse the first wave of Italian attacks?

It is clear that dueling can be quite influential in changing the course of human affairs. Accordingly, there follows the Empress Jessica guide to duelling. You'll thank me one day...

Once upon a time, it was impossible to be a gentleman if one did not possess a set of dueling pistols. Admittedly, what this meant was that there were disproportionately low levels of life expectancy amongst gentlemen, but given the prevalence of war and disease, and the tradition whereby officers led their men into battle, it was probably seen as character building. On the positive side, dueling with pistols tended to be fairly quick - one shot apiece tended to suffice. Unfortunately, accuracy with a pistol tended to be fatal and even if you intended to miss, or wound, you could kill an opponent with a misfire.

Generally speaking, if neither party hit their opponent and the challenger was satisfied that his honour had been upheld, a duel could be declared to be over. However, there was nothing to prevent further shots from being fired, although anything more than three was considered barbaric. My cousin Jaime tells a story of two Latin American generals who, in the course of their duel, emptied the magazines of two automatic pistols at each other without drawing blood.

Prior to the development of pistols, swords were the obvious weapon of choice, and duels would continue until blood was drawn. This tended to ensure that fatalities were limited, although they were not unknown. The offended party could choose the point at which a duel would be brought to a halt in advance (the drawing of blood, the wounding of an adversary sufficient to make them unable to continue, death) and seconds would attend in order to ensure fair play.

I tend to see Mark as a 'pistols at dusk' sort of duellist - he isn't a morning person. So I did the decent thing, and asked Rupert to take the sabre from him and lend him Ludwig's Caron dueling pistols (rather lovely, cherrywood case), before giving him a short course on dueling strategy. Shots to the head look dramatic, but the Carons tend to pull to the left, so aimimg at the body will at least discourage an opponent from firing back with accuracy. Allowing your opponent the first shot is only advisable if you are a) the party accused of giving offence, and b) a formula has been agreed whereby blood will not be spilt and honour is maintained by both parties.

In the end, of course, the Carons remained unused. But there was a steely glint in his eye as he retired to the study...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is the NHS really what we want?

Isn't the NHS wonderful? It was there when my [insert family member]'s [insert name of dreadful injury/organ failure/whatever] exploded/failed/turned green.

And yes, in terms of emergency treatment, the NHS is pretty good. Not so great at preventative treatment, overly target driven, but nonetheless, if I suffered a heart attack or other severe trauma, I would fancy the odds of survival to be as good or better here than in most other countries.

It's the N, as in National, that concerns me slightly. How much provision do we want to have dictated from the centre? How does a National Health Service fit into the mantra of localism? Indeed, should it?

I tend to the view that power should be diffused, that communities should decide for themselves the level of provision that suits. That might mean an emphasis on geriatric care in Eastbourne, on lung cancer in Pontefract. It might mean that Shetland does not fund IVF treatment, or that Powys doesn't fund cosmetic surgery. There are obvious difficulties, of course. How is the decision made, and by whom? How do you decide who is impacted by a decision? What minimum level of provision should everyone, regardless of location, have access to?

And it is interesting that none of the political parties want to touch the concept with a bargepole. I can see why - the prospect of the national press raising the spectre of a 'postcode lottery' is enough to send most sane people running for cover. Better to be safe than sorry, after all. And given the likely quality of any such debate - shroud waving doesn't begin to cover it - and the equally likely lack of backbone in those obliged to defend and justify the decision of the people, one might despair as to the prospects of a positive outcome.

However, money is tight, and obvious ways to cut spending on healthcare are somewhat noticeable by their absence. Anyone willing to come out in favour of cutting doctors? Nurses, perhaps? Cleaners, anybody? The cost of drugs has been closely examined already, PFI deals for new buildings place an extra burden on the budget, and miracle cures come at miraculously high cost.

So it comes down to, what do you want, and how much are you willing to pay? And until someone is willing to break the 'circle of reassurance' (the NHS is safe in our hands), I won't be holding my breath in anticipation of a meaningful debate.

Privatising the NHS - how much are you willing to pay, and to whom?

Alright, so I've been a mite mean to Charlotte and Sara although, if you make trite comments, you do risk retaliation. However, I promised some thoughts of my own, so here goes...

It is said that you get what you pay for. In healthcare, that isn't exactly true. Does 15.3% of US GDP purchase a healthcare system that is 84% better than that of the United Kingdom (8.3% of GDP)? Almost certainly not. Yes, there are other factors - the increasingly vast burden of medical malpractice insurance, for example - but it isn't the amount of money you throw at it, it's the effectiveness of how you use available resources.

Across the OECD nations, an average of 73% of healthcare spending is funded through taxation, a figure doubtless depressed by the US data (putting the statistic into context, Luxembourg, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the UK fund 85% or more of healthcare spending through taxation). There are very few examples of privatised healthcare in the developed world, so the only model in existence which demonstrates how effective a predominantly privatised healthcare system can be is the United States.

It would be foolish to assume that the US healthcare system has reached that nirvana of perfect efficiency. However, if we assume that additional spending, sufficient to bring the proportion of GDP spent up to the US level, was required, we would be talking about an additional spend in 2006 of £72.6 billion (average exchange rate for 2006 was £1 = $1.8424, 2006 GNP was $1911 billion). Frankly, that isn't going to happen, especially if you try to explain to people that they'll have to find that figure - approximately £1,200 per person - themselves, with no tax refund available to offset it.

Alright, we need to bridge the gap. There are large amounts of waste in the US healthcare system, which manifests itself in three ways:

Choice requires spare capacity

Choice. It's wonderful. However, privatisation only gives you choice without rationing if it allows spare capacity. That spare capacity costs. Extra doctors, nurses, cleaners, scanners, ambulances, wards, how much money does that cost? You have to maintain these things unless you assume a constant and even flow of customers, an unlikely occurence. Without the spare capacity, you are rationing by availability. If I'm paying extra each year, I'd like to be seen at the time of my choosing, I think. Otherwise, what am I getting for my money? Besides, spare capacity eats into my profit margin as a supplier of healthcare services. Why should I provide spare capacity? Let someone else do it!

Bureaucracy costs, it always does...

One of the burdens on the American patient is that of the bureaucracy of billing. The hospital bills the insurer, who quibbles a bit - was this necessary? Our expert thinks not... An exchange of views follows, all of which costs. In fairness, we've experimented with charging here in the UK, and succeeded in creating a bureaucracy to compete with any the world over. I'm yet to be convinced that public health has improved as a result though...

You don't think that we're going to give you a chance to sue, do you?

American healthcare is, in terms of equipment, what French healthcare is to the pharmaceutical industry. They've got a lot of kit, and they're going to use it just in case. in 1992, an admission to hospital for what turned out to be a really bad migraine cost an unlucky insurance company approximately $7,000. We never did find out what caused it for certain... Someone has to pay for that and near-certainty doesn't come cheap...

So the difficulty for our friends in favour of contracting out healthcare is in squeezing the gap between the cost of a free market and that of predominantly state provision. They've jeopardised the benefits of economies of scale, failed (thus far) to convince the people who really matter (few of whom will be reading this posting) that rationing by resourcing, the increasingly disguised British approach, is less good than rationing by availability. Yes, they come down to the same thing, but the former is in the hands of the public through democratic accountability, whilst the latter is biased towards the provider in the absence of functional collective bargaining.

Conclusion? I'm obviously opposed to any move to privatise the NHS. Actually, no. I'm just unconvinced that privatisation can provide tangible improvements without greater infusions of money, regardless of its source. But I'm not finished yet...

Hattip to James Graham at the Social Liberal Forum for pointing me in the direction of some useful statistics...

Irfan Ahmed - this is your fisk!

Readers of 'Liberal Bureaucracy' will be aware that I have had my problems with young Mr Ahmed over the past year. There have been issues regarding his use of language where I have felt it appropriate to register my concerns. For the most part though, I have overlooked a series of faux pas on the grounds that I have no desire to act as some kind of 'school prefect' for the Lib Dem blogosphere.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceHowever, that came to an end when he decided to launch a salvo at the 'Liberal Bureaucracy' household. I wrote what I thought was an astonishingly restrained response (you will never see my first draft... or the second or third ones for that matter...). Here is Mr Ahmed's response, with some commentary...

I know what many think but the problem is that I don't know my elbow from my as* if I can use the term when it comes to issues that matter to everyone.

Interesting that this doesn't restrain you in any way. However, the problem is no longer yours - it is mine - especially when you bring the Party and a senior figure within it into potential disrepute.

I make comments on issues from time to time that everyone doesn't agree with and after I have made them I notice that it was a bad mistake making them in the first place.

Yes, and then you end debate by closing the piece to further comments and issue a feeble apology. And you only notice because a horde of people descend on your blog to question your judgement and your liberalism. Interesting how you get so little support...

A lot of my views that you don't see as being acceptable are due to my cultural and religious views and the rest are just because I am a naive child on the block.

The first half of that sentence might have some credibility, except that you're not being judged on the basis of your culture or religion but on your liberalism. And as for 'naive child on the block', you've been called for being anti-semitic, homophobic and sexist. At what point am I supposed to conclude that, whisper it gently, you might not actually be a liberal? Besides, you're an adult, the child defence is demeaning to you, and insulting to the rest of us.

The current issue has been understood wrongly, I personally was promoting a whistle blower for writing about issues e.g. how the party claims one thing and does another.

No, you libelled the Party President. There is no scope for wriggling here, no scope for misunderstanding. You still do not understand the gravity of your actions, or the responsibilities you take on when you claim the mantle of a partisan blogger. You are entitled to promote anyone you like, regardless of my personal opinion as to their stance. You are not free to defame without consequence. But because you either do not understand or choose not to, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia...
In law, defamation – also called calumny, libel (for written words), slander (for spoken words), and vilification – is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).
Is that sufficiently clear?

The problem is that we didn't give the Lords who were in the expenses scandal a hard enough time but many will think an 'investigation' is enough but I don't.

Call me old fashioned, but I am led to believe that 'innocent until proven guilty' remains the foundation of English law. I am also aware of the limitations of the power of the Federal Executive and its Chair over either Parliamentary Party. Perhaps checking out both sides of the story might make you a better journalist?

Clearly Mark you and me have a lot of differences but I think its time we settled our differences and worked together as Liberals who want to promote our party.

So, you defame a member of my family and threaten me with physical violence and think that we should settle our differences and work together? You're certainly demonstrating naivety there. Either that or you're insulting my intelligence and sense of personal honour. I'd go for the latter, given your form so far...

P.S. You can get my email address from my blog, please do drop me an email and lets have a civilised conversation about this.

You can take that as a no, I think...

I did respond though, along the lines of 'it'll be a cold day in hell...', which drew the following rejoinder...

I have made my piece offering to you, I have apologised to the people I offended but I think its time to end these games and lets have a civilised conversation and end our problems.

I think you misunderstand the situation. We don't have a shared problem. My problem is you, your actions and your seemingly total inability to understand what you've done and what potential impact it might have.

If you don't want to then that’s your choice but I can no longer carry on with this duel and accept that you have won.

No, this is not a duel. A duel would assume that I intend to seek retribution for a public slight. Luckily (very, very luckily...) for you, I have no intention of seeking retribution, violent, organisational or social. Although, put it this way, if somebody else were to do so, organisationally or socially, I would be happy to act as a character witness...

Two hundred years ago, if you had levelled such a charge, the injured party would have invited you outside and given you a 'damned good thrashing' for your behaviour. Nowadays, I am restricted to giving your character a sound thrashing. It will have to do, I'm afraid...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Privatise the NHS? Ah yes, our social Darwinians are among us again...

The argument raging in the US about President Obama's plans for a scheme to ensure that all Americans have health insurance appears to have spread over here via a 'hashtag war' - #privatisetheNHS versus #WeLovetheNHS, or some such thing.

I will say this, for trite comments, Sara Scarlett and Charlotte Gore have set an astonishingly high standard. 'We love the NHS... Like hostage victims love their hostage takers." is slightly more patronising than "If you love the NHS so much - marry it!", but as neither of them will be using the system any time soon (that would be far too hypocritical, wouldn't it?), perhaps one shouldn't be too hard on them.

Most people who have taken sides seem to have opted for the 'save the NHS' option, with the ever controversial Sara and Charlotte batting for the opposition. With the greatest respect for Sara and Charlotte, if not the manner in which they express themselves, I'm obliged to add to the weight of opposition to their stance. And not because I have a fixation for public provision over private, but mostly because I remain unconvinced that the private sector has the means or the will to provide universal healthcare.

It is an almost universally accepted viewpoint amongst the American right that state provision of things that they disapprove of is bad, and that anything that might increase the expenditure levels of the Federal Government is worse - except interfering in other people's countries, subsidising large chunks of their economy and anything that might come to their home district in the way of 'pork'.

In terms of healthcare, they are so determined to keep the state out of provision that they are apparently happy to condemn the poor to lower life expectancy and the rest of society to spending a higher proportion of GDP on healthcare than virtually any country on earth. And Sara wants us to go the same way. Bless...

There is little doubt that general levels of health and of life expectancy in this country have increased substantially as social provision has improved, be it through the NHS, social security payments or old age pensions. None of these things are, in themselves, a universal panacea, but by providing innoculations for children, medication at affordable prices (and free for the poor and the elderly) and modern surgical techniques free at the point of access, one cannot doubt that the NHS has achieved much.

It is, however, legitimate to question whether the NHS, in its current form, is best designed to deal with our future societal challenges. If inflation within the healthcare sector continues to run above that in the wider economy, is state provision capable of keeping up, especially in a time of shrinking government revenues? Can the private sector meet public aspirations and maintain its current standards?

So, perhaps, could we have the debate?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Puzzled by a sign at Shenfield...

Idly glancing out of the window this morning as my train put in a stop at Shenfield, I noticed a square sign with an orange border with a big question mark on it, beneath which was the word 'Romford'.

Is it just me, or is that one of the most intriguing philopsophical statements I've seen in a long time?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Irfan - isn't it nice that we've moved on from Victorian times?

A month or two ago, I was quite unkind to Paul Walter - as much out of anger and frustration as anything else. Since then, we have exchanged e-mails and have settled our differences. All very courteous and civilised.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThese days, duelling is banned - which is fortunate in so many ways. It was, of course, the way in which gentlemen settled matters of honour. After all, it was rather more satisfying than a libel suit, and much more immediate. Of course, if you lost, it probably wasn't as satisfying, but there was a sense of tragic romanticism about it.

In Pakistan, as I understand it, matters of family honour tend to become blood feuds. Less romantic, they can continue for generations, which does seem a little over the top, although I wouldn't be critical of the traditions of others.

I would say this though. I don't think that I'll be exchanging e-mails with Irfan any time soon. For the record, I don't accept the apology that he has offered, because I don't believe for one moment that it is genuine. Simply saying sorry doesn't get you off the hook, Irfan, it really doesn't...

Celebrating a birthday, the Liberal Bureaucracy way

It's Ros's birthday today (she's 24, in case anyone asks...), so I've taken her to Bury St Edmunds for lunch. Fine wines and good food have been partaken of, gifts presented, and a generally fun time has been had.

Call me old fashioned, but I do think that birthdays should be marked - except mine that is. There may be some shooting this afternoon, if we're up to it - thank heavens for the Nintendo Wii...

Parliamentary reform - buying into the New Labour philosophy

One of the great ironies of 'Expensegate' is that, whilst framed in the context of cleaning up our politics, what we seem likely to end up with is a triumph of New Labour philosophy and strategy.

As liberals, we talk about reducing regulation, or using the legislation and powers that are already well-established, of giving people control over their own lives. But what do we apparently demand? Layer upon layer of regulation and monitoring, on the basis that politicians - all of them - can't be trusted. So we punish all of them for the sins of a few, and the criminalisation of society takes another step forward.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that all is rosy in the governmental garden, far from it. Setting aside those who have admitted to making false claims, most of the other 'exposed' MPs were perfectly honest about what they were claiming, and those claims were approved. You could legitimately argue that some of the claims were greedy, but I suspect that most of us, in a similar position would have been tempted, and a number would have succumbed. Human nature kicks in under such circumstances. And guess what, MPs are human too.

The public have been encouraged to believe that politicians are self-serving, greedy individuals, remote from those they serve. They are encouraged to believe that they are overpaid fatcats, whose pampered lives bear no semblance to those of their constituents. And yet, did we believe that ten years ago, or even five? Do we, as a society, even comprehend what Parliamentarians do?

The best part of £70,000 per year is, for a standard 36-40 hour week, quite a lot by the standards of the average full-time worker. On the other hand, for a seventy hour week, it's not that great. And if you've got a modest majority, that might well be the hours you put in. The Commons may sit until 10, 11 or beyond midnight, and whilst an MP may not be operating machinery or serving a customer, their job is to be there, holding the government of the day to account, taking part in devates, casting votes and representing those that sent them to Westminster in the first place.

And it's not just a Monday to Friday job. Constituency surgeries at the weekend, meeting voters at village fetes, a bit of canvassing perhaps, keeping up with e-mail, reading all of those letters, briefing documents and what have you. If you're doing the job properly, you might not get much time to yourself.

The reward, especially for those who genuinely wish to serve their community, and who have done nothing wrong, is to be attacked as though they were guilty of fraud, lazy and ineffectual. No wonder so many have decided that they don't want the job any more. And, irony of irony, those who remain are likely to be the tougher, more cynical ones, the ones less likely to empathise with their constituents. How badly must you want to serve your community to be willing to put up with the poison dripped daily into our political system? Most people will turn round and say, "Actually, I don't think so.".

There is a belief that there is no shortage of people who want to wield power on behalf of the masses, and I often hear that argument. Yet I know very few people who actually seek it. Members of political parties, a group who would be more likely to volunteer one might think, don't exactly rush to offer themselves as candidates, even at local government level, especially if they might win. I've not yet experienced the Local Party which hasn't had to twist arms to run a full slate.

The recent invitation from the Conservative Party for new potential Parliamentary candidates has, according to Conservative Central Office, attracted 4,000 applications. Once the mad, the bad and the sad have been filtered out, how many of them will want to do the work involved in getting elected? Are they willing to have their private lives, and those of their loved ones, in the spotlight? In some cases, are they willing to give up their career in order to hold a marginal seat until the next revolution of the political cycle? Are they happy to be away from their families, their loved ones, their friends for five days a week, possibly more? And are those families and loved ones willing to make the sacrifices that are asked of them?

Once you've excluded those who can't answer all of those questions in the affirmative, who do you have left? Do they represent even a modestly accurate reflection of the community? Almost certainly not.

But some of them will get elected anyway. And how will we judge their performance? The number of speeches made in debates, the number of questions asked? The time taken to answer correspondence or the number of constituency surgeries held? All we will have achieved is the sort of 'tick box', target driven culture that has driven initiative, discretion and innovation out of so much of our public sector.

Is that really what we want? Is quantity, so easy to judge and measure, so much more important than quality, a rather more intangible concept? Is an MP who speaks regularly and adds nothing to the debate better than someone who speaks rarely but whose contributions change minds and agendas? Is rent-a-quote better than research?

And how about this for a contradiction? The public don't want professional politicians, they want rounded individuals. Yet they apparently don't want MPs to have second jobs (which might expose them to the experiences the rest of us have, they want them to live in glorified barracks (which will remove them further from the rest of the community) - in short, they want them to be full-time politicians. Definition of a professional, anybody?

You know something? It almost makes me want to protect what we're about to lose. Tighten up the expenses rules by all means. Encourage MPs to communicate better, yes. Change the electoral system to rid us of one party fiefdoms, why don't you. But for heavens sake, don't do to them what New Labour are doing to the rest of us...

Saturday, August 08, 2009

And what's wrong with award ceremonies anyway?

It's kinda funny that, when talk turns to awards, there is a debate as to whether the blogosphere should pander to them or not. So, as someone unlikely to win an award, although I've been nominated for one in the past (for metaphorically slashing my wrists in public), I thought that I should contribute my thoughts.

There are those who take it all far too seriously, I accept. In blogging, as in life, there are those who are seeking attention, those in need of some external validation. If it wasn't blogging, it would be something else that would provide a platform. And if they're good, they win awards. If that makes them happy, and better people to be with, I can't see that there is any harm. If they aren't good, they don't win awards and little changes.

On the other hand, there are bloggers who genuinely entertain, inform or influence. They may not see themselves as big, or clever, or talented, and awards offer an opportunity to recognise their achievements. By doing so, the rest of us encourage them to continue through those patches when blogging seems too much like hard work, or when inspiration just won't strike. It isn't just about readership figures, although the wider your readership, the greater the likelihood that you will get nominated.

There is no pattern in terms of what is in fashion in a particular year, although humour is often a factor. Looking at the three winners of the Lib Dem Blog of the Year award (and isn't a BOTY a wonderful name for an award?), they have just one thing in common, the sheer quality of the writing. Which is exactly how it should be.

Stephen Tall was a worthy winner in 2006. He was a bit of a trailblazer, and most of us who were blogging in those early days recognised a craftsman when we saw one. His use of polls, experiments in podcasting (retained that manly physique have you, Mr Tall?) made his choice as winner pretty easy to bear. Besides, one of his postings had more influence on me than even I realised at the time...

In 2007, James Graham cut loose. Aggressive (for a Lib Dem), with a sharp tongue, issues of how the Party and the country should work, mixed with a fascination with action comics, made for a heady mix. I couldn't say I agreed with him all of the time, but you certainly knew what he thought, and I was always forced to think. He made it to the big time, with regular pieces in 'Comment is Free' and became a respected commentator on issues related to the Party. These days, I work with James (in the loosest sense, I'm on the Management Board at 'Unlock Democracy') and he is just as good as ever. I still don't always agree with him though...

In 2008, you voted for Alix Mortimer. My god, she was funny. We all knew that she was going to win a stack of awards and, whilst we might have liked to see someone else get a look in, it was a meteoric rise to fame. And yes, I did sort of wish that I could write like her. It turned out that I couldn't...

Three winners, one suave and sophisticated, one blunt and angry, one funny with a highly tuned sense of outrage. Doubtless we'll see something different this year and, for a rare change, I'll be attempting to submit a full list of nominations (I keep meaning to, and yet never quite get around to it). I might even post them, with my justifications.

But I've strayed from my original point (hmmm, that might explain a few things...). Awards present us with an opportunity to reward innovation, talent and all of those other things that keep us reading. I know that Ros was really rather touched to be awarded a BOTY for best use of blogging and social networking by a Liberal Democrat (it wasn't a bad campaign, was it?...), and it took pride of place on our mantelpiece until it, like much of the London property, went into storage (it'll be in the new office when the builders finish).

So I urge you to reward the very best of Lib Dem blogging this year by nominating not just the obvious (and I think we have a pretty good idea who they are...) but those who are less so, who inform, enlighten and entertain. We are immensely fortunate to have a space in which so many divergent voices thrive, and if, as Irfan Ahmed rightly points out, blogging is part of the future of political campaigning, encouraging newcomers and oldtimers alike can only help us reach that bit further.

Finally, there is one person who probably won't get an award this year but without whom none of this would be possible. Ryan Cullen is a bit of an unsung hero to my mind, having created and nurtured Lib Dem Blogs, and played a key role in Liberal Democrat Voice. Perhaps there should be a small token of our collective appreciation?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Considering myself part of the furniture...

The busy life of a Parish councillor leaves little time for a social life, so it was nice to take in some culture on Wednesday evening, as Ros and I went to see 'Oliver' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

I'm not wholly convinced about musicals, and the tickets weren't exactly cheap, but I have to admit to having rather enjoyed myself. Omid Djalili makes for a pretty good Fagin, and can sing well enough, the kids are enthusiastic and the set is almost worth a ticket in its own right.

There is an irony, in that Londoners have all of this culture on their doorsteps, and only really appreciate it (or take advantage of it), when they move away. It's something that I want to do more of, and I really have no excuse now.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Creeting St Peter, the Luxembourg of Mid Suffolk...

I have noted the comparative size of my small, but perfectly formed, village in the past and even done so in the context of the Wider Stowmarket Community Board, one of Suffolk's pilot projects to bring government closer to the people. There are twenty representatives on the board, and I am Creeting St Peter's sole member. Alright, it sounds like a lonely existence, but in terms of relative populations, for every representative of Creeting St Peter, there should be seven from Stowupland, and sixty-one from Stowmarket. So, in the same way that Luxembourg is massively over-represented in the European Parliament, Creeting St Peter is on the Wider Stowmarket Community Board.

This probably wouldn't matter if the body was simply a talking shop. However, there is money involved, £60,000 of it, and as the project is a pilot for the introduction of participatory budgeting, it is important that all three communities feel that they benefit, if only, in Creeting St Peter's case, at the periphery. After all, if we have 1% of the population, we're not likely to get a sizeable share of the catch, so my aim is to encourage projects that Creeting St Peter residents might be able to benefit from, even if they are based in Stowmarket or Stowupland.

However, all of this is irrelevant if the decision making is dominated by small, narrowly based interest groups. And so, Sara, our support officer from Suffolk County Council, has come up with the notion of asking each of the Board members to allocate five tickets each for the hundred strong 'citizen jury' tasked with selecting the projects to be funded. That means another Luxembourg-style over-representation for Creeting St Peter. Now all I have to do is work out how to allocate my five tickets...

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Someone should really tell them that the world is still watching

I am somewhat surprised to hear the news that senior officials at the Palace of Westminster have been rewarded with rather chunky pay rises. I have, in the recent past, been somewhat critical of the Fees Office of the House of Commons, which appears to have had a policy of agreeing any claim that crossed its desk.

However, there is no way to make this look good. It may be that the pay rise awarded to Andrew Walker is perfectly justified, although 9% is really rather in excess of the Government's declared 2% limit. However, in a now much more cynical and suspicious world, there will be very few people willing to stand up in his defence. There will be those on the more paranoid fringes who will suggest that it represents a pay-off for his silence (and wouldn't we all like to hear what he has to say?), and others who will conclude that the public sector operates to a rather different set of rules to the rest of society (don't start me on that point...). And to some extent, the latter group would be correct.

The great irony is that, whilst the expenses system itself was clearly flawed, staff in the Fees Office were hitting the targets set for them. and are due to be rewarded for doing so. This merely goes to show, once again, that targets distort behaviour. If you reward someone for processing 99% of claims within a certain period of time, you encourage speed over accuracy, action over scrutiny. No wonder so few claims appear to have been challenged!

However, someone has made this decision. It might be too much to ask them to justify it, but they might want to look at the criteria for rewarding success next time...

Saturday, August 01, 2009

From A to B via X, Y or Z? Decisions, decisions...

I love to travel. I'm still hopelessly romantic about the concept of going to far-flung, quirky places to do the unexpected. I've fed the national treasures of Nara, gone clubbing in Bogota, discovered my own beach in Mauritius and risked death by post office in Tanna.

The direct route is the one less travelled - I've done London to Quito via Washington, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Bogota and Luxembourg City to Ho Chi Minh City via Frankfurt and Mumbai. Armed with a decent sense of geography, an worryingly encyclopaedic knowledge of airline hubs and enough imagination for a firm of travel agents, I can come up with enough ways of getting somewhere to make decision making rather difficult. Via Warsaw, Lisbon or Vienna, by Lufthansa, Finnair or Adria, the opportunities are endless.

And now I have a new trick up my sleeve, the stopover disguised as transfer. If I'm travelling from London to New Delhi, do I fancy spending a morning in Vienna? You see, if you time your connecting flight skilfully, the airline will allow you to spend twenty-three hours in your transit city without charge. On our honeymoon, I organised our return flight from Mumbai so that we could sleep on the flight to Vienna, shower in the business lounge on arrival, eat an excellent breakfast on the way to Zurich, potter about the home of gnomes for the day and catch an evening flight back to London City, allowing us a chance to break the journey, stretch our legs and not have the hassle of dragging luggage around.

Alternatively, using the right flights from Port Vila to Melbourne allows you to attend your niece's birthday party in Auckland, buy a new suitcase and still have time to visit the Antarctic Adventure.

So, why the travelogue? Well, an opportunity has come up, and I need to get there at low cost and high comfort. And my solution? Via Turkish Airlines, with a twenty hour connect in Istanbul. Ferry to Asia, anyone?