Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thoughts from the Train*: as you near your destination, the more you're slip sliding away...

There will doubtless have been some sensation of discomfort amongst Conservatives as they gathered in Brighton this weekend. As what looked like an unassailable lead has ebbed away, there has been little sign of Messrs Cameron and Osborne finding that special something that will stop the rot.

The supposed 'magic app' that was the offer of discounted bank shares to the public came and went without much more than criticism from sensible financial commentators, the talk of business tax cuts misses the point that it only affects companies, and not the majority of the public who are employed, and the cry of patriotism is forever dangerous - frankly, UKIP and the BNP will play that card far more overtly.

But let's not get carried away as we 'enjoy' witnessing the schadenfreude of leading Conservative bloggers and commentators. They are still in front, the polls in key marginals are apparently favourable, and they have lots of money. Labour's ability to shoot itself in the foot cannot be underestimated, and the breakthrough of consistent poll numbers above 20% still eludes the Liberal Democrats.

All of this said, I continue to be surprised by the sense that Conservative policy on the economy is so woolly. Everyone accepts that there will be tough decisions ahead on taxation and spending, and yet George Osborne and David Cameron waver between serious cuts in public spending and delaying their introduction, between promises of tax cuts and protestations that they can't guarantee to reverse NIC rises.

I understand the temptation to keep their powder dry, and whilst I was critical of the sheer vacuousness of their public utterances a year ago, I almost despair at their current inadequacy. With the serious media studying the choices with increasing vigour, there is that sense that whilst a good snake oil salesman might win an election, George Osborne isn't even that.

There is an irony here. Whilst David Cameron suggests that it is my patriotic duty to vote out Gordon Brown, I would suggest to him that it is my patriotic duty to elect and support a government that will fix the structural problems in our economy, create equality of opportunity and generally make me proud to be British. It is therefore his duty to persuade me that, if his lot win instead of mine, that they will at least make a decent fist of these things. At the moment, I am not convinced that I care enough to feel kindly towards either the blues or the reds. Given that I've suffered thirteen years of this increasingly incompetent government, that speaks volumes.

I do know what I might get if Labour discover competence. I have a nasty idea what I'll get if the Conservatives discover it too. If they discover compassion too, they might just salvage this...

* Peterborough to Stowmarket via Ely, for a change...

From the bottom of my heart, thank you Jennie

I am, it is fair to say, a pretty lucky guy. Life is for the most part good, I have a lovely wife, my job unexpectedly allows me to be nice to people, and I come from a family who take a curious interest in what I do. My finances are healthy, I meet interesting people all the time, and my health is undeservedly good.

All that said, we all have those darker moments when we need a kind word. Inevitably, Jennie gets there early, and I should really like to take this opportunity to thank her.
Mat's a lucky guy, Jennie, and the sooner you two get a date in the diary, the sooner I can look for a new hat...

Liberal Youth: I've got to admit it's getting better, a little better all the time...

And so another Liberal Youth Conference is at an end, and whilst it was a mite fractious, I thought that it went rather well.

Hustings were delivered, and although the agenda didn't really allow an optimal amount of time, the hustings for Chair in particular were lively and, I think, well received. Ballot papers were distributed to members, and I'll be taking care of postal ballots tomorrow. I also ended up aiding the Chair in the Executive Reports section that followed, on the probably sensible grounds that having an old hand around might prove useful.

The Executive Committee discussed a timetable for the next set of annual elections in its afternoon meeting. Whilst the constitution does lay down a number of minima, it is usefully silent in the issue of maxima in some instances. Accordingly, I have proposed a timetable leading to a count on 16 June as follows;

Late March/early April - issue of election notice

17 May - close of nominations

26 May - issue of postal ballot and manifestos

16 June - count, location to be decided

This allows the calling notice to go out well in advance of the General Election, allows candidates a chance to campaign amongst the membership, gives members time to vote and provides a little time for new members of the Executive to plan for the year ahead.

All in all, a good day's work. And best of all, my second leaflet is printed and ready for delivery in Stowupland. So I've achieved something too!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

On the whole, I'd rather be in Clare...

There are times when you realise that you may have made a mistake, and this evening is one of them.

I could have been at a birthday party in Clare, a lovely little town on the Suffolk border, with the woman I love (for the avoidance of doubt, that's Ros). Instead, I'm in a perfectly harmless Holiday Inn in suburban York, having eaten a perfectly harmless but lonely dinner. In short, all is not well on Planet Bureaucrat.

And why am I in York (apart from the obvious - it's the Liberal Youth conference, I'm their Returning 0fficer and there are by-elections)? Because I'm a nice person, that's why. It's why I am giving up a large chunk of my weekend, at my expense, without compensation, to show my support for an organisation that could be so valuable in spreading the Liberal Democrat message (and may well be, who knows?).

So, why am I less than ecstatic? Perhaps because I'm going to spend the day surrounded by people who will make me feel old and slow, perhaps because I will then have a long, dark journey back to my home, my wife and my cats or maybe because my journey will have little real purpose. After all, there will be an all-member ballot of Liberal Youth members for a new Executive within two months of the declaration of the result of these by-elections. It does feel a mite futile.

No, I think that it's mostly down to a sense of a lack of achievement. I've been very busy of late but achieved very little. So, weekend survived, I need to focus my energies on getting some things done. It would be nice if tomorrow runs smoothly, but we'll see about that, won't we?...

Friday, February 26, 2010

London to Stowmarket, via Wolverhampton, Kidderminster, Huntingdon and York...

It would be unusual if I were to travel from A to B in a straightish line, and this weekend is no exception. I'm currently on the Virgin service from Euston to Wolverhampton, where I'll be attending the Wolverhampton South West Liberal Democrats Annual Dinner, before heading over to Kidderminster tomorrow morning for the West Midlands Regional Conference.

Next, by road to Huntingdon, before I head for York and a deserved night's sleep, before having to run hustings for Liberal Youth on Sunday. Then, back to Stowmarket for a day off, with changes at Doncaster and Peterborough.

Don't forget to wave...

Liberal Youth: runners and riders for the by-election handicap chase

I've prepared the ballot papers, sifted the applications, and can finally announce the candidates to fill eleven vacancies on the Federal Executive of Liberal Youth. And they are as follows;


Alan Belmore and Sam Potts

Vice Chair Campaigns

Matthew Folker

Vice Chair Communications

Charlotte Henry and Nathan Khan

Vice Chair Membership Development

Paddy Elsdon

General Executive Members (7)

Sophie Bertrand, Robson Brown, Cara Drury, Charlotte Harris, Thomas Hemsley, Usaama Kaweesa, Callum Leslie, Callum Morton, Ed Sanderson and Callum Stanland

Voting will take place at the Spring Conference in York, and postal ballots are available to those unable to attend, with polls closing on 16 March.

Liberal Youth: a unexpected intimation of mortality

There I was, minding my own business when, rather unexpectedly, the skinny guy in the black, hooded cloak carrying the very sharp piece of farm equipment looked me in the eye and said, "Have you really looked at that last manifesto for Liberal Youth?".

I admitted that I hadn't, after all, you know how it is, it's early in the morning, or late the night before, that kind of thing, and I'm looking for gratuitous offence rather than paying close attention to the purple prose. So I had another look. "Date of birth, ......... 1993."...

And with that, my heart sank. Oh yes, I had begun to accept the fact that my sporting heroes are younger than I am, that policemen, the Party Leader and, for that matter, a whole bunch of our Parliamentary candidates are younger. But to discover that I am now Returning Officer to people nearly thirty, yes thirty years, younger than I am is a bit of a blow to the solar plexus of the soul.

Perhaps all I have to look forward to is a gradual decline into senescence and the 'Twilight Home for Confused Returning Officers', although I have no doubt that Ros will have something to say on the subject. However, I don't intend to wait, and it's time to rage into the bureaucratic night.

Look out Liberal Youth, the Returning Officer is on a mission...

Liberal Youth: where have all the cowboys gone?

An evening spent checking my Liberal Youth e-mail account, the spam trap on my AOL account, Facebook, studying manifestos for potential problems and thinking about an innovative style of ballot paper has left me slightly groggy. However, I am beginning to make progress on phase 3 of "I'm a member of Liberal Youth, get me out of/in (delete as appropriate) here!".

I'll be announcing the candidates in the morning, but to outline what thrills still lie ahead, there is the possibility of having to co-opt another Vice Chair, followed by the start of the formal election season for the year from 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2011.

However, enough of my problems...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Could a 'Spring of Discontent' be to Labour's advantage?

The announcement from the Public and Commercial Services Union that members have voted strongly for strike action (64% for), and even more strongly in support of action short of a strike (81% for) will come as a bit of a blow to the Government. The announcement that notice is to be given of a two day national strike on 8 and 9 March will be even more troubling.

Memories of the late seventies, and of public sector workers on picket lines, will haunt those Labour activists who experienced the dying days of the Callaghan government, but this does potentially present Labour with an opportunity to look tough.

The issue in dispute is that of redundancy compensation, and proposed changes that reduce the level of payouts in the event that redundancies are needed. Whilst this might be of major importance to civil servants, it is likely to meet with little sympathy from those in what one might describe as the 'real world', where redundancy packages are rather less generous.

Given that PCS do not give money to the Labour Party (Civil Service unions don't, for obvious reasons), there isn't any money at stake for Labour, they can stand firm against against an unpopular opponent, and establish a bit of credibility in the fight against public spending.

So, expect a couple of weeks of debate about the impact of spending cuts and pay freezes on driving instructors, coastguards and job centre workers, whilst the union and the Government dance around each other. Me, I'll be looking forward to a couple of days without pay, the loss of two days of pension entitlement and a pile of work to catch up with on 10 March...

Liberal Youth: by-election nominations are formally closed

The third phase of a seemingly unending series of ballots is now well underway, following resignations, co-options of three Vice Chairs and four General Executive members (there may be a partridge in a pear tree involved, but don't hold me to it). I was hoping to announce the candidates, but I'm having connectivity problems with my laptop, and can't access my e-mail at work.

So, ladies and gentlemen, watch this space, and as soon as an announcement is possible, you'll be amongst the first to know... see you in York?

Bangladesh - mentioned in Lords dispatches

From Monday's debate on the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme Order 2010...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I thank the Minister for bringing this important instrument to the House today. My noble friend Lord Teverson, who knows so much about these issues, is unable to be with us this evening. However, we have had a number of discussions about this. I can say at the outset that we on these Benches are very positive about what you are seeking to achieve through this.

The timing is particularly good for me because last week I was with a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Bangladesh. This is a country where the rising sea levels in the south are already leading to mass migration and where melt waters from the Himalayas are causing widespread devastation. Climate change is a reality there that one can see every day and it puts this, and what we are seeking to achieve through this, very much into context.

I have a few questions for the noble Lord. First, can he confirm that fuel consumption is being calculated for these purposes on an average carbon emission level-in other words, that it is not taking into account how the carbon is generated? It seems rather odd to make no differentiation between organisations that are generating carbon that comes from renewable sources and those that are using coal-fired fuel. Is that the case, and might it be possible to adapt the scheme as we go on to recognise organisations that choose to use more sustainable energy forms?

Secondly, with the fixing of the carbon price at £12 per tonne, how confidant is the noble Lord that this is sufficiently high to genuinely have an impact on the behaviour of these large organisations-as he described it, the organisational inertia which has bedevilled us? How confident are the Government that there will be sufficient trading of these permits in order to create a viable market? There is certainly some doubt among experts that there will be.

Finally, even within the highly regulated EU ETS, there have been incidents of fraud and forged permits. Given that this scheme will include thousands of organisations, how confident are the Government about the auditing and management of the scheme?

We very much support what the Government are seeking to achieve with this instrument.

Escaping London, but only just...

A new Local Party for me on Tuesday night, as 'First Husband' duties took me to Warlingham, in East Surrey, the scene of a recent Conservative selection contest starring Iain Dale.

After a rather unpleasant journey caused by a signal failure at Wandsworth Common, we were met by Jeremy Pursehouse, our candidate there last time, and whisked off to the home of the Morrows, our hosts for an evening of pasta and politics.

And it's strange how, even when you feel slightly cranky and irritable, just how restorative an evening spent with Liberal Democrat activists and members can be. Within minutes of walking through the door, I felt rather upbeat and enthusiastic, aided only by a glass of white wine. There was much talk of the Conservative selection, won by Sam Gyimah, and tales of dark mutterings from disgruntled local Tories.

The event seemed to go well, with some very good questions and plenty of good humour and only too soon, it seemed, it was time to go. I wonder if I won a raffle prize?...

Bangladesh - kind acts in an often unkind world

When there is talk of a UN Mission to somewhere hostile, there is often a debate in Europe about carrying our fair share of the burden. Often, that consists of rather hoping that someone else will do it. And yet, Bangladesh has a well-earned reputation for punching above its weight in terms of peacekeeping.

Indeed, Bangladeshi troops have been active in;
In addition, there are Bangladeshi police personnel in;
By any standards, that isn't bad. And perhaps, when the British public complain about sending troops to Afghanistan and elsewhere, they might like to contrast the resources we dedicate to keeping them safe, well-fed and well-armed, with those available to Bangladeshi troops in some of the grimmer corners of the so-called 'Dark Continent'...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bangladesh - changing lives, building a healthy community, one yogurt at a time

Bangladesh has, since its independence, struggled with the difficulties of a rapidly growing population, and one of the side effects of this is relatively high levels of malnutrition amongst children. Whilst rice is filling, and as agricultural improvements have increased supply, proteins and vitamins are more of a problem.

And so, in 2005, the founder of Grameen Bank, Professor Yunus, met with the head of Groupe Danone in France and, between them, the idea of producing something to address the issue. The answer was a small, low cost yogurt called Shakti Doi, made from pure full cream milk, that contains protein, vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc and other micronutrients.

What has made it so successful is that the product, which comes in small 80 gramme pots, costs just 5 Taka (about 3p), and is therefore comparatively affordable. The first production plant opened in 2006, and it is hoped that as many as fifty such plants will be operational by 2016.

Best of all, Grameen Danone has been set up as a social business enterprise, run on a no dividend, no loss basis. In addition to the improvements in public health, the business creates jobs for livestock herders and in distribution, and profits will be used to create new opportunities for welfare and development.

Sorry, I'll say that again... National Express East Anglia's latest contribution to the gaiety of nations

Spotted at Liverpool Street station yesterday, as the 11.00 service from Norwich was emptying, a group of people wearing tabards emblazoned with the legend 'Train Presentation Crew'. That would be the cleaners then...

* holds head in hands in total despair... *

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bangladesh - bringing a financial revolution... to Glasgow and New York?

Those who take an interest in economics will be aware of the Grameen Bank, and some will know that it is a Bangladeshi creation, founded by Professor Muhammad Yunus.

For those of you who know less, Grameen Bank specialises in micro-finance, and started off in 1976, offering loans of as little as $1, allowing individuals to create self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. It has developed from such humble beginnings to an organisation with eight million members, having lent $8 billion to the poor of Bangladesh, and has inspired similar enterprises across the developing world.

Recognition came in 2006 with the joint award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Yunus and the Grameen Bank, and last year, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Professor Yunus.

And now, Grameen comes to the West, with a start-up being developed in Glasgow, and has started operations in the home of the brave and land of the free. Ironically, the Scottish project has run into the barrier of the Department of Work and Pensions, with questions being raised as to the impact of withdrawal of benefits on incentives to strive for self-sufficiency.

But that isn't all that Grameen are doing, and tomorrow, I'll be looking at a project attempting to address malnutrition...

Thoughts from the Train: when a confidential helpline stops being confidential...

I may post something on the bullying allegations made against Gordon Brown at some point, although given how much has already been said, one does wonder how much value can be added. However, my thoughts have strayed to something which is more a question of ethics, i.e. how much damage has been done to the National Bullying Helpline by this spat?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFirstly, I don't buy the fact that Christine Pratt is a Conservative stooge. The idea that someone should set up an organisation in the hope that, one day, they might get some dirt on political opponents is too repellent to even think about. And to be honest, even if she is a Conservative, that really shouldn't be the issue.

No, the concern I have is over her judgement. She may have been incensed over Lord Mandelson's denial of the bullying charges, but that does not excuse contacting the local radio station in the way that she did, calling for Gordon Brown to effectively confess that the charge was accurate. You could, and I would, argue that such a comment was just bullying of a more subtle kind. Had she stuck to stating that bullying in the workplace is a problem for the organisation and calling for Gus O'Donnell to investigate the allegations as head of the Civil Service, she would have done her job as an advocate for proper action on bullying.

Unfortunately, having pointed the finger at Gordon, she didn't stop there. By stating that members of staff at 10 Downing Street had called her helpline, she opened Pandora's box. Yes, you can't suggest that she has broken the covenant of confidentiality between her callers and her organisation, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the hunt will be on to see who they were.

If 10 Downing Street is as dysfunctional as is suggested, they will want to find out, and over a two-year period, the list of potential callers is a limited one. Meanwhile, the press, in search of the next story, will be doing the same. Freedom of Information request, anybody? And if I was one of those callers, who had rung in confidence, I wouldn't have very much right now, even more so if I was still working there.

So, if Christine Pratt happens to be reading this...

con·fi·den·tial  (knf-dnshl)

1. Done or communicated in confidence; secret.
2. Entrusted with the confidence of another: a confidential secretary.
3. Denoting confidence or intimacy: a confidential tone of voice.
4. Containing information, the unauthorized disclosure of which poses a threat to national security.

There's a kind of irony about the last of those, isn't there?...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bangladesh - when two tribes go to war...

Bangladeshi politics is dominated by two political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Such a two-party system is, in itself, not unusual. However, the divide between the two parties is based on the relationship between two men, both of them dead, and is the cause of genuine and sustained hostility, up to and including violence and murder.

The Awami League is the older of the two, founded in 1949 and, amongst its key players was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a persistent thorn in the side of the Pakistani government, and a passionate believer in greater autonomy for the Bengali community who made up most of the population of what was then East Pakistan. He spent most of the following years in prison, gaining a reputation as an inspiration for the freedom movement.

After the 1971 war, when Indian forces supported an uprising of Bengali troops, Bangladesh became an independent state, and he was named as its first Prime Minister, going on to become the country's President in 1975. And that is where the second man, General Ziaur Rahman, enters the story.

In August 1975, a successful military coup took place, led by General Zia, during which Sheikh Mujibur, his wife, three sons and other family members, were murdered in his home. The ensuing military dictatorship lasted for four years before elections were finally held.

In that election, a new political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, designed to be a platform for General Zia, made its electoral debut. Politics could not have been more personal, with one party mourning the loss of its leader, competing against a party led by his effective assassin. But fate had another twist in store for Bangladesh.

In 1981, in an abortive military coup, General Zia was assassinated and Bangladeshi politics entered a new phase, with two political parties, led by the widows of their founders, opposing a military-led government, distrustful of each other. And, astonishingly, following the resumption of democracy, the two women, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda, still lead their respective parties to this day.

As a result, the emnity between the two parties is as strong as ever, with the older members of the leadership couching everything in terms of 1975 and 1981, whilst a younger  generation strive to move the debate on. When power changes hands, bridges, airports and other public facilities are renamed to suit the history of the new ruling party and snub the outgoing one. It might be said that the people of Bangladesh have other priorities...

Hey George, we're in debt, remember!

Today's interview in the Sunday Times with George Osborne provides further evidence that the Conservative Party still haven't made time in his busy schedule for that Economics 'A' level that he so badly needs.

His suggestion that a Conservative government might sell off its shareholdings in the banks at a discount in order to offer the public a 'people's bank bonus' is, in the shallowest sense, good politics, in that it will be popular. However, the country's finances are in crisis, the national debt enormous, and the burden of servicing that date a heavy one. So how would giving state assets away at a discount actually help?

Yes, those people who buy those shares will have an immediate profit. However, they are people who have money anyway. Those who don't have money won't buy any, so they will remain without. So, George is calling for a redistribution of Government assets to the comparatively well-off. That would be a bribe then...

I would have thought that any Government would have a responsibility to get the best price for those shares that it could, and use the funds raised to lower debt levels - in the same way that a household would arrange its affairs. Instead, George wants to be altruistic with my money, having spent so much time telling me how much of a debt Gordon Brown has run up on my behalf.

I have no objection to selling off the shares. Indeed, I would accept the premise that, in an ideal world, the Government would divest itself of the shareholdings in the likes of Lloyds TSB or HBOS, because I have never believed that governments are terribly good at active shareholding. However, the market decides how much those shares are worth, that figure is factored into the Government's finances, and potential purchasers of gilts and the like value those assets on a cold calculation of expected profit. For George to announce that he will effectively write off a proportion of their worth is to encourage overseas investors to be nervous. At the moment, nervous isn't good.

But how much will the potential profit for those purchasing shares actually be? Who knows, after all, these plans are still being drawn up, although the suggestion is that people would be offered shares worth between a few hundred and a few thousand pounds. So, unless there will be a really serious discount, you'll need to be at the 'few thousand' end to make a profit worth having, a profit that will be on paper only, unless the shares are sold on.

And so, yet again, George demonstrates his flair for low politics and his disregard for those at the bottom end of the economy by promoting a scheme that will hand money to those who have already, people like him. Perhaps he might like to go to a Peckham housing estate and explain how his cunning plan will help them?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Liberal Bureaucracy' launches 'Bangladesh Week'

To mark the return of a delegation from the UK Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I thought that it might be nice to post a few pieces linked to their destination, Bangladesh.

Over the next week, I'll be exploring micro-finance, Bangladeshi politics and the history of the nation, amongst other things... but let's start with a few facts.

With thanks to Lonely Planet, from whence this map is reproduced, you can get an idea as to the political issues. Almost surrounded by India, the country is criss-crossed by major rivers, and prone to flooding.

Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan in 1971, and a short but bloody war ensued, with India siding with the Bangladeshis (indeed, a member of my family saw action as an officer in the Indian Air Force). However, it developed a reputation for poverty and misfortune, with a fast-growing population.

Today, Bangladesh is the seventh most populous nation on Earth, estimated as having 167 million citizens, and is one of the most densely populated countries too. And despite that density, and the fact that 40 million live on less than 50 cents (U.S.) per day, it has an economy that is growing fast, 5% per annum on average since 1990, according to the World Bank.

The population is 87% Sunni Muslim, and 9% Hindu, with a small Shia Muslim minority, a few Buddhists, the odd Roman Catholic or two and a few animists. As for language, the official, and most widely used language is Bengali.

So join me over the coming week, it will be informative, and won't hurt at all...

Liberal Youth: the result of the election to co-opt four General Executive Members

With all eleven votes now in, I, Mark Jonathan Valladares, Returning Officer to Liberal Youth, do hereby declare that the result of the election to co-opt four General Executive Members is as follows; 
  • Cara Drury - 3 votes
  • Usaama Kaweesa - 2 votes
  • Callum Morton - 2 votes
  • Ed Sanderson - 2 votes
  • Caroline Boyd - 1 vote
  • Callum Leslie - 1 vote
With eleven votes cast, and four vacancies, the quota required to gain election is 2.2, and Cara Drury is declared elected on the first count.

For the second count, Cara's votes are transferred at a value of 0.26, leading to the following outcome;
  • Callum Leslie + 0.52 votes
  • Callum Morton + 0.26 votes
  • rounding error + 0.02 votes
The new totals after the second count are;
  • Cara Drury - elected at count 1
  • Callum Morton - 2.26 votes
  • Usaama Kaweesa - 2 votes
  • Ed Sanderson - 2 votes
  • Callum Leslie - 1.52 votes
  • Caroline Boyd - 1 vote
  • rounding error - 0.02 votes
I therefore declare Callum Morton elected on the second count.

For the third count, Callum's surplus is transferred at a value of 0.02, leading to the following outcome;
  • Caroline Boyd + 0.02 votes
  • Callum Leslie + 0.02 votes
  • rounding error +0.02 votes
The new totals after the third count are;
  • Cara Drury - elected at count 1
  • Callum Morton - elected at count 2
  • Usaama Kaweesa - 2 votes
  • Ed Sanderson - 2 votes
  • Callum Leslie - 1.54 votes
  • Caroline Boyd - 1.02 votes
  • rounding error - 0.04 votes
For the fourth count, there being no further surpluses to transfer, the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, that being Caroline Boyd, whose votes are transferred at face value, leading to the following outcome;
  • Ed Sanderson + 1.02 votes
The new totals after the fourth count are;
  • Cara Drury - elected at count 1
  • Callum Morton - elected at count 2
  • Ed Sanderson - 3.02 votes
  • Usaama Kaweesa - 2 votes
  • Callum Leslie - 1.54 votes
  • Caroline Boyd - eliminated at count 3
I therefore declare Ed Sanderson elected on the fourth count.

For the fifth count, Ed's surplus is transferred at a value of 0.27, leading to the following outcome;
  • Usaama Kaweesa + 0.27 votes
  • Callum Leslie + 0.27 votes
  • non-transferable + 0.27 votes
  • rounding error + 0.01 votes
The new totals after the fifth count are;
  • Cara Drury - elected at count 1
  • Callum Morton - elected at count 2
  • Ed Sanderson - elected at count 4
  • Usaama Kaweesa - 2.27 votes
  • Callum Leslie - 1.81 votes
  • non-transferable - 0.27 votes
  • rounding error - 0.05 votes
I therefore declare Usaama Kaweesa elected on the fifth count, and Callum Leslie to be the runner-up.

I should thank the candidates for putting themselves up for election, and the Federal Executive of Liberal Youth for casting their votes promptly and efficiently.

Why I will never accept that Liberal Conspiracy are anything other than magpies......

I do find Liberal Conspiracy to be so tiresome. It is liberal, in the sense that Americans think of as liberal, and even they use the word 'progressive' these days.

The claiming of the word liberal is something that flashes warning signs in my eyes. Some of us have marched under that banner for a quarter-century or more, the inheritors of a tradition that was almost snuffed out in the immediate postwar years. I have the huge privilege of having known people who fought hopeless election campaigns through the 1950's and who, were they around now, would have been in Parliament, people like Penelope Jessel (read the obituary and weep). It would have been easier had they joined Labour or the Conservatives, but they stuck to their guns.

And whilst we might argue amongst ourselves about what liberalism is, and where it might go in the years ahead, we tend not to lose sight of the fact that we are all proud of the word 'liberal'.

When Sunny Hundal whisks the name off in an attempt to rally the left behind some less scary banner, but actively excludes most of us in the process, including those who I would freely admit are more radical than I am (look, I'm a bureaucrat for pity's sake), I feel that I have every right to protest and point out the evident contradictions. So, this evening, I have done. I've called Sunny out on his claim to inclusiveness and pluralism because I'm convinced that it is merely show. He has taken a word, a concept, a dream if you like but certainly a torch, and used it as a figleaf for something that claims to represent me but doesn't.

And of course, in doing so, some of his friends go on to demonstrate exactly why we don't feel welcome, and why this liberal won't be coming back...

Friday, February 19, 2010

As far as I know, there are no Conservative* District Councillors buried in the foundations of the new office...

...although, in truth, there could be and I'd never know. At least, it would probably take a long time until I did.

Before we continue, let me assure any casual readers that this is not the sort of thing that a bureaucrat would encourage. In any event, burying people in the concrete tends to destabilise your foundations and cause potential subsistence difficulties.

Yes, the concrete has been poured into the trenches and I am therefore unlikely to come home and fall into a seven foot deep trench. The duckboards are still there, and the garden is a sea of mud, but things are certainly happening. Every time I look, there is something new to see, a little more progress.

Anyway, I was reminded of Jimmy Hoffa, and the rumour that he is buried under Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Apparently, an experiment was carried out whereby dead pigs were buried under concrete, and it was discovered that wet concrete drying over a corpse takes on the smell of that corpse, especially as the gases escape from it as it rots and percolate upwards. Indeed, a body encased in concrete creates a pocket around it from the gases.

Amazing what you learn from the Internet...

*Why Conservative councillors and not Labour councillors? What Labour councillors? We don't have any of those in Mid Suffolk...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An open letter to Luke Richards, a.k.a. 'Hypnotic Monkey'

Dear Luke,

Thank you for your comments. Whilst I understand the points that you make, I have to disagree as to their import. Taking your first post;

Assume for a moment:

Gordon Brown called the GE and it is taking place in 2 weeks. Every moment is vital and Liberal Youth own a printer, folder and stuffing machine that works at light speed. It would be a waste of time to open every request for a ballot and return them in dribs and drabs, so the exec decide to just print all the ballots and post them out to every member, for expediency. Rule that unconstitutional, would you?

I don't have to rule it as unconstitutional because it still is. Producing endless variations on the circumstances doesn't actually change what the Constitution says, and the Constitution is as members of Liberal Youth have chosen it to be. However, your example is flawed.

There is a minimum period in which an General Election can take place. It's rather longer than two weeks and the de minimis schedule can be found here. However, in the event that a General Election had been called, would you seriously expect a Liberal Youth election to proceed? As Returning Officer, I would consult senior figures in the Party and, in all likelihood, postpone any election until afterwards. And yes, I understand that such an act would be unconstitutional, which is kind of ironic, isn't it? But you know something, I don't think that anyone would complain, at least nobody with the interests of the Party at heart.

At the end of the day, 9.7 is there to ensure a basic minimum - that those who can't attend conference can still vote.

The 19th Ammendment to the US constitution reads:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

This doesn't mean it's unconstitutional for a specific state to pass a law to have universal automatic voter registration, it just provides a basic minimum right.

No, Article 9.7 was designed for an organisation where Officers and General Executive members didn't resign at a rate of one every three weeks (I believe that that is the average period of time between resignations since 1 July 2008 but am happy to stand corrected). And whilst your quotation of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is entirely accurate, nobody is being denied the right to vote, merely that they will have to take an action to allow them to do so.

In short, your argument implies that members are being denied the right to vote. That argument, carried to its logical conclusion, means that all elections held in this country are invalid, as people have to either apply for a postal vote in advance, or go to a polling station. Indeed, if they have not registered to vote, they don't get to take part at all. If you are suggesting that, you have a campaign to run, because this country is, on that measure, not a democracy.

So, Luke, I'm sorry, but I didn't sit up until three in the morning, making sure that my position is a secure one, only to be dissuaded from it by someone who has a gut feeling that they would rather have things differently but cannot express it in a way that reflects the Constitution of Liberal Youth. Of course, you can always change that Constitution...

Liberal Youth - voting now under way to fill GEM vacancies

Yes, the manifestos have been vetted, candidates have been given a bit of time to canvass for support in advance, and now voting is under way.

Watch this space for a result declaration in due course...

HM Revenue & Customs, coming to a television near you soon...

I cannot resist bringing this news to the masses. Wild horses wouldn't drag a comment from me though...

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is sponsoring a new TV series looking at turning around the fortunes of struggling small businesses.

The Business Inspector sees entrepreneur presenter Hilary Devey showing companies how to avoid the consequences of not taking reasonable care of their tax affairs.

A mini-advert for HMRC, which is co-producing the series, will appear at the start and end of the show as well as during the commercial break. This will display a link to the Business Link website (web), where advice on tax issues for small businesses can be found.

The hour-long documentary will appear on Five at 8pm on 10 March 2010 and runs for four weeks.

Business Customer Unit director Stephen Banyard said: “We know that most small businesses want to get their tax right. But we also know too that failure to take reasonable care costs the Exchequer more than £6 billion a year, with a major cause being poor record keeping.

“We hope this series will raise awareness of the need for good record keeping. We also want small businesses to realise the benefits to them – such as improved cash flow – of taking better care of their records and paperwork.”

Hilary, who appeared in the Channel 4 show The Secret Millionaire in 2008, added: “Britain’s brimming with creativity but a terrifying number of businesses go bust each year and this shouldn’t be happening.

“I’m going to teach businesses how to improve their all-round business knowledge and direction, cash flow, marketing strategy and in some cases even their enthusiasm.”

An Office for Tax Simplification - what are politicians for then?

My colleague, Mark Pack, has indicated an enthusiasm for the proposal for an independent Office for Tax Simplification. And yes, he and I would almost certainly agree that the tax system is now more complex than it has ever been. However, he perhaps misses the point as to why the system is as complex as it is. Luckily, I discussed that yesterday evening. So, why am I so unconvinced by the idea of an independent Office of Tax Simplification?

Firstly, Mark misses the point altogether when he discusses rewriting the tax code so that it is easier to understand. That isn't what the Conservatives are calling for, although any ideas for tax simplification might achieve that (I emphasise might).

Indeed, the Inland Revenue set up a Tax Law Rewrite Project in the dying days of the Major administration, which aimed to create a more accessible version of tax legislation. It was intended that the project would run for two years. Seven years later, they were still recruiting staff. Strangely, it turned out to be rather more difficult than expected, as the simpler you made the language, the less watertight it became - bad news if you want to discourage avoidance and the creation of loopholes.

I digress though and, returning to the Conservative proposals, if such a quango (they're bad, if Conservatives are to be believed, unaccountable, from a liberal perspective, and necessary for delivery, if you're a Labour supporter) was to be created, what power would it have? Enough power to overturn Government legislation? On what basis - administrative, cost, philosophical?

The whole point of being the Government is to change things to reflect your beliefs as to how an economy and a society is best run. Are Dave and George seriously saying that if a quango came along and said, "Interesting proposal, gentlemen. However, we think that it makes the tax system more complex and you shouldn't do it.", does anyone seriously believe that they would pay heed? And if they did, why is a non-elected, unaccountable quango being given an effective veto over the policy of a Government with a mandate?

This is yet another example of politicians holding their hands in the air and saying, "we're not good enough to do this ourselves" or, alternatively, "you can't trust us to do this", very much like the Fiscal Responsibility Bill that Labour have proposed. Ultimately, if politicians want to be respected, they have to have the guts to take decisions, defend them and execute them. That's why the rest of us vote for them, not to watch them hand over key decisions to faceless bureaucrats like myself, most of whom are rather better paid than politicians but with none of the risk of being turfed out.

I return to the noble Baroness Thatcher. Can you imagine her, or Nigel Lawson, placing such authority in an unelected body? No, me neither. On the other hand, perhaps it might be better with David Cameron and George Osborne...

Liberal Youth: a Returning Officer, a constitution and a petition

Those of you who follow these things will be aware that recent events in Liberal Youth have been consistently interesting, if less than entirely ideal.

Following the resignation of Elaine Bagshaw as Chair, and consequent other resignations, the remainder of the Executive Committee have required bolstering with a series of co-options pending an opportunity to hold elections as specified by the Constitution of the organisation. The nature of those elections is now the matter of some debate, and I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position.

A petition has been gathered, calling upon the Executive Committee and myself as Returning Officer, to hold a full postal ballot of the membership to fill the currently existing vacancies until the end of their current term (30 June). Martin Shapland explains their motivation here...

There are two aspects here and, in the spirit of openness, it seems appropriate to discuss them in the public domain.

Firstly, I would suggest that asking the Executive Committee to respond is unhelpful. If the request of the signatories was consistent with the Constitution, the Executive Committee would expect the Returning Officer to implement it. Indeed, as the Returning Officer, I would be obliged to do so. If, on the other hand, the request is contrary to the requirements laid down by the Constitution, the Executive Committee would be expected either to reject the request or instruct the Returning Officer to proceed in a manner contrary to the Constitution. The difficulty is, I feel, an obvious one.

Indeed, if I was to receive such a request, I would be obliged to refuse it in any event. To operate in a manner which contravenes the Constitution would jeopardise the status of Liberal Youth as a Specified Associated Organisation of the Party, would leave the elections wide open to appeal, and risk making the organisation rudderless in the run-up to a General Election. For that reason, I have asked the Executive Committee not to respond to the petition as I feel that by doing so, they risk muddying the waters.

So, that said, time to look at the Constitution...

Article 9.7 states that, for elections at conference under Articles 9.2 and 9.6 all members shall be entitled to request and receive a postal vote before close of nominations. In turn, Article 9.6 (the relevant clause here) states that by elections to fill vacancies under Article 10.6 shall take place at the earliest possible conference where election deadlines can be maintained. For completeness, the relevant element of Article 10.6 states that vacancies for members of the Executive under Article 6.1 a) – f) shall be initially filled by cooption and then by by-election under Article 9.6.

That means that these instructions relate to the election of the Chair, the four Vice Chairs and the eight General Executive Members.

On the other hand, Article 9.3 states that Liberal Youth shall elect by all member ballot, within two months of Spring Conference each year, the members of the Executive under 6.1 a) – f).

There is, I suggest, a clear differentiation between what is required for the mandatory annual elections and the casual vacancies caused by resignations, deaths and defections, and, whilst the idea of an all-member ballot might be enticing to some, it is not what was intended by the drafters of the Constitution, for if it were, they would have explicitly required it.

There is some contradiction here, in that, as a democrat first and a liberal consequentially, the ideal of a universal franchise is appealing. However, it is not for a Returning Officer to superimpose his world view on an organisation which is sovereign, has constructed its own organisational framework by democratic vote, and of which he is not a member.

And therefore, I have decided not to grant the desires of the signatories of the petition. I have not, as I see it, made a ruling, as there has been no challenge to Article 9.7, merely a request that we grant extra-Constitutional rights to members.

I am aware that this decision will be unpopular in some quarters. So be it. If Returning Officers strove to be popular rather than correct, it would make it virtually impossible to do the job in a manner which properly balances the interests of individual members and of the organisation itself. There is an Appeals Panel which has the power to overturn any ruling, or perceived ruling, made by me. And, ultimately, if the Executive Committee is unhappy with my performance of the duties of Returning Officer, it is at liberty to replace me, assuming that I would wish to continue in the role.

It is, after all, a two-way street...

Liberal Youth co-options update - General Executive Members

Heavens, this is complex...

Alright, we've co-opted the Vice Chairs, now it's time for the General Executive Members. I am currently finalising preparations for a ballot of the Executive Committee but can announce that we have six applicants. They are, in alphabetical order by surname,
  • Caroline Boyd
  • Cara Drury
  • Usaama Kaweesa
  • Callum Leslie
  • Callum Morton
  • Ed Sanderson
Due to some minor confusion over the necessity to file a manifesto, some e-mail difficulties on the part of candidates and Returning Officer, and a touch of misinformation, the manifestos are being sorted through, and members of the Executive Committee will be called upon to vote shortly.

More news as it becomes available...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Conservative tax proposals - motherhood, apple pie and platitudes

The fact that my colleague, Mark Pack, has indicated an enthusiasm for the proposal for an independent Office for Tax Simplification has, unsurprisingly, encouraged me to take a look. What I find doesn't, unfortunately, encourage me.

Courtesy of the Conservative Party's website...

We will restore the tax system’s reputation for simplicity, stability and predictability. In our first Budget we will set out a five year road map for the direction of corporate tax reform, providing greater certainty and stability to businesses. We will publish all technical changes to the tax system by the Pre-Budget Report in advance of each Budget for consultation and proper Parliamentary scrutiny, and we will create an independent Office of Tax Simplification to suggest simplifications to the existing tax system.

In truth, the tax system responds to changes in the market. As financial instruments grow more complex, as the behaviour of those with money changes, tax systems have to respond. As accountants explore new and intricate forms of tax avoidance, HM Revenue & Customs is obliged to respond with more legislation, more carefully drawn. That means complexity, inevitably.

Admittedly, that complexity doesn't impact much on ordinary taxpayers like most of you. Your salary is taxed on a fairly simple basis, in that we grant you the first £6,500 or so free of tax, the next £35,000 or so at the basic rate and anything above that at 40%. If you earn quite a lot by most people's standards, you'll be taxed at 50%. Complex? A bit. However, when I first started dealing with personal tax, back in the late 1980's, we were still dealing with a basic rate plus upper bands at 40%, 45%, 50%, 55% and 60%, plus an 83% rate if you had to go back a few years, an investment income surcharge at 15% on top of that... need I go on?

Predictability is probably a good thing, unless you have to change your mind suddenly. For those of us in the industry, the changes in corporation tax rates (an increase in the small companies rate, and a shadowing cut in the basic rate) implied a move towards a single rate of 25%. And if the economic crisis hadn't hit, we'd probably have got there by 2015 or so. There are, if you study changes closely enough, trends.

Oh yes, there can be no doubt that companies benefit from stability and certainty - we all do - but that would equally apply to interest rates, inflation, exchange rates, and tax policy impacts on those things too, not always directly, not always tangibly. A 1% change in corporation tax rates is unlikely to cause vast behavioural changes (it will influence behaviour, just not as dramatically as some might believe). A new relief probably will, but that's the point of introducing or abolishing reliefs.

And as for better consultation, you'd be amazed at how much there already is. The Treasury is very keen on consultation, because there is a sense that it is nice to see what the other side think. It isn't very high profile, because it's predominantly for tax professionals, but it does go on.

Finally, with regard to Parliamentary scrutiny, the sad fact is that scrutiny is dependent on the available time, the ability of opposition parties to resource appropriate levels of research and, in truth, a bit of specialist knowledge. There used to be the odd accountant in the Commons, and whilst the likes of Jeremy Hanley and Anthony Stern might not have been on the cutting edge of technical knowledge, they did at least have a grasp of the impact of day to day legislation on a broad range of taxpayers, corporate or personal.

In short, most of this is policy flowing from people who know what they'd like, but are rather shaky on what's already out there.

However, I did start by referring to the proposed Office of Tax Simplification, so I'd better return to it, hadn't I? Tomorrow, I think...