Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wifi comes to the East Anglian mainline...

At last, an improvement for passengers travelling between Norwich and London, which includes Stowmarket. National Express East Anglia have announced that they will be introducing free wifi on trains later this year. However, this should not be seen as an unusually generous gesture on their part, as they aren't paying for it.

So, I should thank Norfolk County Council, Suffolk County Council and the East of England Development Authority. Powerpoints would be nice too, but I'm not getting my hopes up...

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm eighty-four?...

One aspect of yesterday's 'Ask the Chancellors' debate which drew my attention in particular was the brief, but heated exchange on personal care for the elderly. As someone in his mid-forties, it is an issue which I expect to exercise me more as old age and infirmity approach.

My parents are part of that generation whose call upon the NHS and local government provided social care is beginning to put genuine pressure on the resources of both. They were told that they would be looked after, and that's what they expected. On the other hand, my nephew and nieces will probably grow up knowing that such provision will not be possible. For those trapped in the middle, the future is a worrying one.

What I found so disappointing was the desperate efforts by Alistair Osborne and George Darling to avoid saying anything on the subject that might upset anyone. Ruling out what George insists on calling a 'death tax' was effectively admitting that it is all too difficult, and yet someone is going to have to face up to the problem eventually, or bankrupt the country.

With an ageing population, the cost of providing care for the elderly, regardless of where, increases, and that cost must either be borne by a working population which is shrinking in relative numbers, or by raising the age whereby one qualifies for financial support, or by reducing the level of care provided by the State. Indeed, I suspect that I will see a combination of all three.

And therefore, the idea of signing over a sum from my estate is actually quite attractive. Effectively, with the flat rate option, one gambles that one will get value out of the deal, a notion no more ludicrous than a contributory pension. Of course, the devil is in the detail, but it was an idea that, as one of a range of options, offered genuine freedom to those wishing to provide for the cost of their care in later life, a government backed equity release scheme if you like.

I very much suspect that the idea will return to haunt Labour and Conservative politicians before too long. It will be interesting to see how they respond when reminded how hasty they were to discard such an option in 2010...

Chancellors on Ice - Vince keeps his cool

So, the big debate is over, and the dust has settled. Time to mark the contenders, I think, and, in a nod towards modern culture, the marks are inspired by 'Dancing on Ice'...

Alistair Darling

artistic impression - 4.2
technical merit - 4.8

He clearly doesn't rate George Osborne, and was only too keen to attack his proposals on National Insurance Contributions. Indeed, his attacks displayed a sense of passion that has seldom surfaced in the recent past. He does give the impression that he is grimly determined to fix the economy, and one sensed that, if it were down to him, and an election wasn't pending, there would be far more detail on proposed cuts.

George Osborne

artistic impression - 5.2
technical merit - 3.7

As I noted this morning, George used his prepared soundbites well, and said the right things in terms of what needs to be done - deficit reduction, supporting enterprise, rewarding work - without ever convincing that he could demonstrate how it would be achieved. The problem is, what he says is so obviously correct that you want to move straight on to the detail. As was pointed out, you can't ridicule Labour plans for efficiency savings and then use them to justify tax cuts, and you can't say that reducing the deficit is the key priority and then dedicate a large chunk of savings identified to tax cuts. You certainly can't claim to be protecting the NHS, defence and overseas development unless you can say how this will impact on other spending areas.

Vince Cable

artistic impression - 5.5
technical merit - 5.7

Vince went in with a Channel 4 poll showing that, of the three, he was the preferred choice as Chancellor. He kept it steady, playing a straight bat, not attempting to pin zingers on his opponents, but attracting virtually all of the applause. He attacked Alistair for failing to provide sufficient detail on proposed efficiency savings, whilst making George look like the history graduate and spin merchant that he actually is. Virtually all the specifics came from Vince and, let's face it, the audience response spoke volumes.

In summary, 'Good Time George' demonstrated that, whilst he would be passable in a strong economy, you wouldn't want to depend on him. Alistair, the county town solicitor, appears trustworthy if uninspired. But Vince, now there's a man who you'd entrust your savings to.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Is being beastly to Gordon really a good idea?

If playing the man and not the ball is a sign of weakness, then Conservative Central Office must be a pretty desperate place. The latest set of Conservative posters, featuring Gordon Brown and a variety of statements blaming him for the state of the economy risk inviting the question "And what are you going to do about it?".

And, unlike the famous 'Labour Isn't Working' poster, there is a rather thin set of policies on offer this time. It just seems like a collection of cheap shots for, let us be honest, there is no evidence to suggest that Gordon Brown doesn't have the nation's interests at heart. I accept that such a view isn't an easy sell, especially with the rather more vitriolic elements amongst Conservative supporters, but it's the policies that have failed, not the man.

All that such a campaign does is stiffen resolve amongst Labour activists, alienate waverers and convince those who were leaning away from the Conservatives that they are right to do so. Politicians and political parties have a very poor reputation for honesty and decency, and such a negative campaign does little to change that.

All in all, it looks like the first signs of panic, and reminds you of the bad old Tories of yesteryear. Given how unkind social history has been to them as individuals, had I been their advertising consultant, I might have sought to avoid stirring up those memories...

How do you solve a problem like George Osborne?

How do you catch a cloud and bring it down?...

If the Observer is to be believed, Labour intend to target George Osborne as the weak link in the Conservative leadership team. What astonishes me is that it has taken them so long to reach the conclusion.

It may be that, in tonight's 'Ask the Chancellors' debate, George will do quite well against Alistair and Vince, especially if it boils down to a battle of soundbites. However, he still has a barrier to negotiate before he can establish a degree of credibility where it really matters, with the pundits and the public.

I've done a lot of Local Party events over the past year, and one consistent feature is the response when Ros suggests that one rarely hears that what our economy needs is George Osborne as Chancellor. That response is not muttering or discontent, it's laughter. I freely admit that Liberal Democrats are hardly likely to display any warmth towards a Conservative politician, but it is unusual for any of them to attract such a degree of ridicule.

Having been pretty critical of Conservative proposals on tax and the economy, and they can't be called plans in the absence of substance, you might think that I would be personally critical of young Master Osborne. Actually, I think that he's pretty bright, or is at least sensible enough to surround himself with bright people. The problem, as I see it, is that his skill set is wrong.

He has a keen eye for a soundbite, as I noted earlier, and his call for a dramatic rise in inheritance tax thresholds was well-timed and achieved its political aim, to prevent Labour from calling, and winning, an Autumn 2007 election. The fact that it was, in fiscal terms, barely literate, and would have helped far fewer people than seemed to be the case, was hardly relevant. What it also achieved was to secure his position, despite the doubts about his overall ability to do the job for real.

But now, with the public finances in a desperate state, with the economy fragile, what the country craves is reassurance. And what George doesn't do is reassure. Worse still, he seems determined to offer tax cuts in the belief that the soundbite is enough. The notion that people want to know how any cut in taxes will be funded doesn't seem to have registered, creating a sense that he doesn't really have what it takes.

And so the pressure is on today. Another announcement of tax cuts, this time National Insurance Contributions, is a typically flashy effort, with nothing to indicate how it will be funded. Tonight, you can be sure that he'll be pressed on the point. He'd better have a good answer...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's official - I'm relaxed

So, as advised by the optician, I had arranged to have my blood pressure checked. Let's be honest, I'm out of shape, eat badly and enjoy the occasional real ale. My job is a sedentary one, and if it wasn't for the Wii Fit, I probably wouldn't get much exercise apart from leaflet delivery.

I was therefore, not unreasonably, expecting a bit of an alarm call, so you can imagine my surprise when the reading was 119 over 84 (normal being 120 over 80), with a resting pulse rate of 62. There is, it seems, no justice in the world...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cincinnati (1993-2010)

It is with much regret that I announce the death of Cincinnati, our much loved and much treasured orange and white cat, of multiple causes, this morning at approximately 11.30.

For those that knew him, especially in his prime, it will be hard to imagine his passing, as he was the ultimate 'people cat'. He was always first on the scene when there were visitors to the house, and he took a keen interest in the activities of service engineers, estate agents and Liberal Democrats.

But it was our personal bond that made him a central part of my life. A combination of the world's loudest purr, the rich orange colour of his fur, and his utter conviction that my life would be improved by regular grooming, especially if administered by him, meant that, no matter how messy my personal life was, a few minutes in his company would be enough to bring a smile.

In his last years, he discovered outside, an additional room which came with a soft, green carpet, high ceilings and a revolving set of moving furniture, apparently called birds or squirrels. He took to it like a zoo lion transferred to the Serengeti. It was obviously designed for him to wander around, and the garage was perfect as a place for an old codger to sit peacefully.

His final move to Suffolk added an additional year to his life, and he took to village life with enthusiasm. His late-blooming interest in local politics, his careful project management of the new office building, despite a combination of an overactive thyroid, failing kidneys and a growing tumour at the base of his tail, gave him purpose in his final months.

He will be greatly missed, by both of us...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: does technology simply make us more stressed?

I have a new gadget in my hands, a BlackBerry 9700 Bold. It is something of an upgrade on the BlackBerry 8700 I had before and, whilst I am struggling to make it do all of the things I could get its predecessor to do, I'm sure that it and I will get on swimmingly in due course. However, it does serve to remind me that technology is not altogether the boon that we are often told it is.

When I was Secretary of the Young Liberal Democrats, many years ago when I was a much smaller, more evenly furry mammal, I produced the minutes on a primitive electric typewriter, photocopied them and posted them to each Executive member. It took time, but expectations were proportionately low. If anything was urgent, you picked up the telephone and rang the relevant person. You only posted something if you needed to, and the flow of information was very manageable.

Nowadays, technology allows me to transmit information in any direction quickly and easily. Unfortunately, it allows other people to do the same. Now, whilst I like to think that I only tend to do so if it is necessary, not everyone else is the same. I often find myself caught in an avalanche of e-mail, most of which is of little interest to me, because people feel that they must make their contribution, regardless of relevance, value or originality.

That might not be particularly stressful, but I do have to check it to see if it is important, or requires me to do anything. It is, however, nothing compared to the pressure to reply to e-mail directed at me.

At work, I have external e-mail, a rarity indeed. I used to include the e-mail address in my correspondence because it provided another way of reaching me. However, I learned over time that this was a bad idea because the fact that e-mail was immediate led correspondents to assume that they would get an early response. The fact that, regardless of means of communication, I deal with it in order of receipt, didn't stop a stream of e-mails along the lines of 'I e-mailed you yesterday and you haven't replied...'. Indeed, one taxpayer rang me fifteen minutes after e-mailing me to demand to know why I hadn't replied yet!

There is a tendency to assume that the use of e-mail telescopes the time required to respond to questions, yet there is little evidence that people apply the same sense of urgency when they are responding to an exchange that they do when initiating one.

That potential immediacy also helps to harshen the tone of our discourse. As I learned during last year's Liberal Youth elections, it is too easy to react hastily, thus prolonging vitriolic exchanges when having to work harder to communicate might allow a cooling off.

Our politics is also more febrile, with a flood of comment often made on the basis of a partial set of facts, which seeks to pressurise opponents into a response. Especially in the Westminster village, and the blogosphere in particular, there is a sense of urgency that drives debate along without a chance to stop and reflect. The expenses scandal saw a number of incidences of 'kangaroo courts' finding individuals guilty and calling for sanctions without waiting for the facts to fully emerge. Had those calls been heeded, the consequences might have been grave indeed.

Technology allows us to do things that would have amazed our parents twenty years ago, and our world is the better for it. But there is a price to be paid, and we need to understand that paying it isn't always easy...

45,000,000 reasons not to love HM Revenue & Customs

It appears that the Department for which I work is rubbish at answering telephone calls, according to a report issued today by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. In 2008/09, out of 103 million calls made to HMRC's main helplines, 45 million went unanswered and, even if you get through, the average hold time before an advisor is available is two minutes, and up to four minutes at peak times.

And whilst those figures have improved this year, whereby 77% of calls are answered, one can only say that, from the perspective of its 'customers', it isn't good enough, especially when callers are using 0845 numbers.

You could argue that the problem is linked to the ongoing programme of job cuts, some 25,000 in total, and I for one would. Yes, efficiency savings are necessary, and you certainly can't afford to employ people to sit around waiting for calls, but as you reduce staff, the scope for having spare resources to deal with peaks of demand falls. Ultimately, it comes down to the level of service that the public want, and are willing to pay for.

However, the Department does little to help itself. With only 38% of call centre staff time actually spent on dealing with telephone calls and linked follow-up work, compared to the industry average of 60%, something is clearly wrong. The failure to invest in technology is another weakness, with the absence of technology to tell callers how long they can expect to wait to reach an advisor a major cause of frustration.

To add to the hurdles that stand between the Department and improved performance, there is a clear sense that its staff have little trust in the ability of senior management or in their sense of empathy. It is a truism that happy staff perform better, take less sick leave and are more willing to step up to the plate when times are tough. And, unfortunately, an ageing staff, with one eye on retirement, under threat of more job losses and with continuing drops in real salaries on the horizon, are less likely to want to be the Department's salvation.

Undoubtedly, call answering statistics will improve as a result of this report. Of course, one wouldn't want to comment as to what other work will be left undone to achieve this... Perhaps the Public Accounts Committee will find out in a few years...

Is this defection a sign of things to come?

An unexpected defection in Babergh, the District Council which covers most of South Suffolk, has seen Dean Walton, the councillor for Sudbury East, join the Green Party. So far, so uninteresting. However, what is interesting is that he has left the Conservative Party to join them.

From the perspective of Babergh, which is in no overall control, the new composition of the Council is:
  • Conservatives - 18
  • Liberal Democrats - 16
  • Independents - 7
  • Green - 1
  • No Description - 1
However, given the rather vast gulf between Conservative and Green policy on virtually everything, one does wonder whether his switch indicates a lack of ideology or philosophy. Alternatively, one might wonder if his adoption as a Conservative candidate was based on anything other than living locally.

I've been involved in the process of approving council candidates in the past, and in every instance, we've attempted to ensure that all candidates are actually Liberal Democrats. However, where local community campaigners have been suborned to one or other political party, there is the risk that their loyalty is to their causes rather than their party.

It is a sign of the times that candidates are often adopted because they are willing rather than because there is a choice of options, even where the party has been in power for some time, and even though there is more money available to councillors than ever before. Frankly, not many people want to serve at local level, even if getting elected in some cases is inevitable.

In my own ward, my councillor doesn't live here. She doesn't live in any of the neighbouring wards either, not that this is in itself a criticism. However, given that it is currently a safe Conservative seat, it might be reasonable to wonder why a more local candidate couldn't be found.

Perhaps it is the commitment of time that is required. In a rural area like Mid Suffolk, council meetings and committee meetings don't take place in the evening, thus ruling out most people with jobs. What that means is that councillors are disproportionately self-employed and/or old, and by implication rather unrepresentative of the population.

That lack of effective competition means that voters are likely to be poorly served by their councillors in terms of feedback, in terms of communication and in terms of accountability. After all, what is the incentive to interact if you were the only choice?

I do wonder whether, due to the reasons above and many others, the strength of the link between candidate and party has weakened in recent years, increasing the risk of defections, encouraging early resignations and a lower rate of re-election as councillors grow weary of public service rather sooner than was once the case.

Perhaps we need to worry about the effects this will have on our democracy?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I can see, I can see!

As part of the process of impending death, there is an increased risk that various parts of me start to fail, pack up or drop off. Given that I'm not particularly focussed on seeking all things medical, I'm quite likely not to notice until it's too late to do anything much about it.

However, my local Health & Safety pixie had been nagging me to have an eye test on HM Revenue & Customs's tab, so I finally arranged one. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I turned up at the branch of Specsavers in Brunswick Square, mentally prepared to be told that, yes, your eyesight is fading, Mr Valladares, and we'll be prescribing a pair of spectacles so that you can peer over them in a disapproving manner.

Except that it didn't work out like that. Yes, aged 45 (and a bit), my eyesight is still perfect. I can still read the bottom line on the chart, and all is well. Well, not all, which is why I've just registered with the surgery in Combs Ford and am seeing them for a blood pressure check on Friday morning...

So, how was the budget for Suffolk?

Well, that was an hour of my life that I'll never get back. So, what are my thoughts, and, of equal interest, what impact will they have on my village and my community?

It was a very 'political' budget, with little economic content and much posturing about where we are relative to our competitors and how much worse it would have been if the Calamity Kids, Cameron and Osborne, had been at the controls. Now, whilst that may be true (how's that 'Economics for Dummies' book going, George?), borrowing £167 billion (that's €184 billion, or $259 billion, or ¥22.5 trillion) is hardly loose change. A structural deficit of £74 billion is eyewatering in anyone's terms.

From a personal perspective, the portents aren't good. Pay increases for civil servants are likely to be non-existent for the next two years, so I'll be worse off in real terms, and with one-third of London-based civil servants to be relocated over the next five years, there is the prospect of a pay freeze until my salary is matched by the rather lower National pay scale. That will, naturally, impact upon my future pension, so all in all, not a great day for the bureaucracy.

Locally, Suffolk is not renown for heavy industry, so the cut in the National Business Rate will be very welcome. Investment in small businesses and the creation of the new green investment bank will, if any of the funds come to Suffolk, help our local food producers, with one exception.

Our local cider producer (yes, Suffolk does produce cider), Aspall's, will be hit very badly by the huge hike in duty on cider. Now I do understand that binge drinking is a problem, but it is generally caused by the likes of 'Diamond White' and not Aspall's 'Peronelle Blush'.

The staged introduction of fuel duty increases will benefit the small towns and villages where public transport is rare and cars a necessity, but it is only a delay rather than concrete action to support the rural economy. Of more value are proposals to improve access to high speed broadband, something which will encourage the growth of small-scale service industries, retain local services and staunch the flow of populations to larger towns where public services and facilities are more available.

On the negative side, there was little to address issues of rural isolation, little on affordable housing, little to put more money in the pockets of rural poor, most of whom will be hard hit by the fuel duty increase.

All in all, there won't be much dancing in the streets of Creeting St Peter tonight...

Liveblog: Budget 2010

Welcome to Creeting St Peter, where 'Liberal Bureaucracy' is warming up with a nice cup of tea and a small handful of fruit sherbets for the speech to come.

12:33 - Alistair rises to his feet. It's an interesting tie, purple with blue blotches, and a nice piece of colour coordination with Harriet to his right (purple jacket) and Gordon to his left (purple tie).

12:35 - First announcement - £2.5 billion package for small businesses. Details to come but will shore up support in the service and light industrial sectors.

12:37 - Time to talk about how well we're doing relative to selected others.

12:39 - Bank recovery means that Government will be able to sell its shareholdings and recoup all of the money invested in them. £8 billion has already been recovered from the banks from fees and charges. The bonus tax has already raised £2 billion(somewhat more than expected, I note).

12:42 - Alistair isn't just bashing the banks though, as he needs them to help balance the books. He'll also need them to ensure that everyone has access to a basic bank account (is it me, but is the right to a bank account more important than, say, the right to privacy?).

12:45 - More comparisons designed to make Alistair look good, with unemployment figures contrasted favourably with those in the Eurozone.

12:48 - Another goodie for the young, with a guarantee of employment for the under-24's

12:49 - Mortgage interest support maintained at the higher level for another six months. And now time for stamp duty... the exemption limit for stamp duty for first time buyers will be doubled to £250,000 for two years. Stamp duty will be raised to 5% for residential properties worth more than £1 million (how many Tory MP's will be upset by that, I wonder?).

12:51 - Savers will be pleased to see the index-linking of ISA investment ceilings...

12:52 - 2010 growth prediction - 1-1.5%, 2011 growth prediction reduced slightly to 3-3.5%.

12:54 - Fuel duty rise will be phased in, with an extra penny in April, another in October, and the last tranche in January 2011.

12:56 - Budget deficit was predicted to be £178 billion for 2010, but with income and corporation tax reciepts holding up well, the new prediction is for borrowing of £167 billion in 2009/10, £131 billion for 2010/11, £110 billion in 2011/12, £89 billion in 2012/13 and £74 billion in 2013/14. As a proportion of GDP, those figures represent 11.1%, 8.5%, 6.8%, 5.2% and 4%. The structural deficit will be reduced to 2% by 2013/14 (if he's right, this will be pretty impressive...).

13:03 - Inheritance tax thresholds to be frozen for four years (how long ago does 2007 seem now?).

13:04 - Cider duty up by 10% above inflation (that's Herefordshire lost for ever), tobacco duty up by a penny, beer, wine and spirits by 2p.

13:06 - Public sector payroll increases held to 1% for the next two years, £20 billion worth of savings and efficiencies already found. Another £11 billion to be announced later today. The Civil Service will relocate one-third to its staff in London away from the capital within five years.

13:11 - All a bit dull...

13:13 - 15% of central government contracts will go to small companies.

13:15 - Business rates to be cut for one year from October, time to pay arrangements will be extended throughout the next Parliament. The annual investment allowance will be doubled to £100,000. The Entrepreneur's Relief will be increased too.

13:18 - More money for roads, especially motorways (another bribe for motorists, I see...).

13:19 - But there will be a new green investment bank, with £2 billion to play with, and investment in manufacture of wind turbines.

13:21 - Help to be given to the video games industry (as recommended by the Lords Select Committee on Communications).

13:24 - £270 million modernisation fund for universities in 2010/11 to allow the creation of new facilities to support additional university places.

13:26 - Time to screw the rich... tax agreement signed with Liechtenstein will bring in £1 billion in additional revenue. Three new agreements will be concluded with Dominica, Grenada and... Belize! These deals will be signed within days.

13:28 - A joke from Alistair... "rather faster than the ten years taken by the Conservative Party to exchange information with Lord Ashcroft".

13:29 - Child tax credits to go up by £4 per week by 2011/12.

13:31 - Time to sit down. A pat on the shoulder from Gordon, and a job well done, if only from the perspective of politics.

Evensong for Her Majesty's Courts of Justice

Sometimes, just sometimes, you find yourself at an event which makes you proud in a quirky sort of way.

Traditionally, Justice services initiated by the High Sheriff were held on the first day of each Assize to pray that God give his blessing and guidance to the visiting High Court Judges in their work. Given that the office of 'High Shire-reeve' was initiated towards the end of the tenth century, this is something that is part of the very foundations of our country.

Admittedly, the job is mostly ceremonial these days, with the original powers having been superseded by Parliament and the office of Lord Lieutenant, or through delegation to local authorities, the Police, the magistrates, the Civil Service and, last but not least, HM Revenue & Customs.

There is a uniform, which consists of a black velvet frock coat, matching breeches, stockings and buckled shoes. There is even a sword, and I noted a discreet hook on the end of one of the tails of the jacket to prevent the sword from dragging along the ground.

The service was a gathering of the great and the good of Suffolk society, with both Liberal Democrat Peers (Lord Phillips of Sudbury and Ros) plus far too many Tories, Lord Tebbit amongst them. Nigel, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, was there in his robes, various civic dignataries in their chains of office, and all in all it was a fine affair, with the cathedral choir in good voice.

The address was given by the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who turned out to be, by Suffolk standards, an appalling liberal, talking about the rights of homosexuals, amongst others, to be treated equally under the law. Was that Lord Tebbit I heard muttering away in the background?

And once the service was over, we all retired across the road to the Athanaeum for tea and surprisingly good sandwiches. I was introduced to Charles and Sarah Michel, and to Eddy Alcock, who are councillors in Mid Suffolk and on Suffolk County. They seemed like nice people, which does go to demonstrate that Conservatives aren't evil, just misguided for the most part...

It was, however, time to go home...

Mid Suffolk: are local Tories lost and confused?

I have returned to Suffolk to be greeted by a piece of post, indeed a glossy A3 leaflet wrapped in polythene, extolling the virtues of Dr Daniel Poulter.

Dr Poulter does give 'good leaflet' and there are pictures of him with various Suffolk folk, fighting to defend Ipswich Hospital, campaigning for proper labelling of bacon, attending a fish and chip supper, all of that sort of stuff. He tells me, as does the Chair of the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Conservative Association, that he will be proud to represent us in Parliament.

There has to be a catch of course, and I wouldn't be writing this if there wasn't. And that catch is that young Daniel won't be representing me if he wins in May. That's because the entire Parish of Creeting St Peter was transferred into the Bury St Edmunds constituency in the recent boundary changes, where David Ruffley is defending a 10,000 majority over Labour.

Of course, if the Conservatives had local activists who delivered their leaflets, instead of relying upon the Royal Mail, they'd know that... Which reminds me, I've got a leaflet delivery to finish...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'Liberal Bureaucracy' takes industrial (in)action, Comrade...

Tomorrow is the third day of strike action to be taken by members of the PCS union, of which I am a member. Accordingly, I'll be at home so, if I can be bothered, there will be news and commentary on Alastair Darling's Budget speech...

For the record, I certainly didn't vote for this strike, but one should respect a democratic vote, a lesson that some of my union-hating Conservative fellow bloggers might like to note. I always find it intriguing that their view of democracy is supportive right up to the point where it produces a result that they don't like...

Tories - it's the sheer arrogance that I can't stand...

Last night saw the final stage in the Lords of the Orders which bring into being new Unitary authorities for Norwich and Exeter, an issue which has been raised here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy' before. There was to be one last attempt to stop the Government from continuing with its proposals in the face of near unanimous condemnation, as the Liberal Democrat Peers were rallied to support a fatal motion from Lord Tope to 'decline to approve the draft Order'.

The chamber was full, as Liberal Democrat and Conservative Peers attacked the arbitrary nature of the Order, the failure of the Government to adhere to their own published criteria, for the impact on the rural parts of Norfolk and Devon to be abandoned. Yes, the votes were there to stop the proposals dead in their tracks.

And then, Lord Bates got up to summate on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition. Amongst his comments was this statement;

"Her Majesty's Opposition have made it absolutely clear that should we form a Government after the general election, one of the first acts that we will take will be to issue an order to annul these orders."

This was a bad sign, in that, to be able to issue an order to annul the orders, they have to be approved in the first place. So, in effect the Conservative position was declared to be, "we hate the Order, we oppose it, but rather than defeat it, we'll wait until we win the General and then scrap it". And sure enough, when a vote was sought, the Conservatives sat on their hands and the vote was lost. Less than ten minutes later, a vote regretting the Order was carried with a large majority.

And here's the kicker. If the Conservatives do win the General Election, then they probably will annul the Orders for Norwich and Exeter. But what if they don't? Will a coalition Government, or worse still, a minority administration, find time to annul them? Would that even be a good use of Parliamentary time, given the more pressing issue of the economy?

So, the Conservatives, wasting your time and your money in Swaffham and Ilfacombe, North Walsham and Teignmouth... 

Monday, March 22, 2010

A night out in Congleton

Just because you've started the day in one constituency, and campaigned in another, doesn't mean that your day is over. And indeed, that was true on Saturday, as we drove to Stoke, grabbed a coffee at our hotel, and grabbed an hour's break before heading to Alsager for the Congleton Liberal Democrat Dinner.

Our candidate there is Peter Hirst, a fellow member of the Unlock Democracy Council, and it was nice to have a brief opportunity to catch up. Ros's speech went down well, and some robust questioning took place (lesson to be learned for the future, don't suggest to Northern women that they might be delicate flowers...).

Dinner was a buffet carvery which suited this carnivore well, and I had a pleasant evening talking to some of the members and activists before the raffle draw, in which I broke a recent worrying trend of not winning anything. Given that I've probably bought enough raffle tickets in the past to stretch from Creeting St Peter to Montgomery, that is a bit worrying...

But the evening came to an end, and we returned to our hotel room and prepared for a civic day in the morrow...

Over the Edge and over the border

Friday night saw Ros and I in a rather fine inn just outside Craven Arms for an evening dinner in support of Heather Kidd's campaign to regain Ludlow from the Conservatives. The national swing might have made this seem unlikely, until an unexpected intervention from the former Conservative MP for the seat, Christopher Gill, who has announced that he will be fighting the seat for UKIP. All of a sudden. a 2,000 Conservative majority seems to be less than comfortable, and Heather and her team are determined to push them all the way to the finish line, all of which made the evening all the more interesting.

It also helped that the Crown Country Inn in Munslow was the venue, and a fantastic meal was served. As regular readers will be aware, I take my pork very seriously, and the belly pork was particularly fine, perfectly cooked with proper crackling.

A good night's sleep was followed by a trip over Wenlock Edge and up the A49 to Wrexham, where we were going to take part in some campaigning in that Welsh target seat. The rain kindly held off as Tom Rippeth, the local PPC, Bill Brereton, our candidate in nearby Delyn, and Eleanor Burnham, the energetic Assembly Member for North Wales, and a team of activists handed out leaflets in the pedestrian area in the middle of the town, before a quick lunch and a trip out to Marford to do some canvassing in a ward which we won by just one vote last time.

I found some support for Liberal Democrats, including a few who vote Conservative nationally and Liberal Democrat locally. It may well be that persuading them to vote Liberal Democrat nationally is the key to winning seats off of Labour. Vote Conservative, get Labour anybody?

A chance meeting with the station cat at Craven Arms

Having made it to Craven Arms rather earlier than I had expected, and with Ros delayed by a combination of an errant satnav and roadworks on the M6, I found myself with an hour to kill in a town perhaps not renown for its attractions. However, I was not alone.

Although the station has no facilities at all, not even a ticket machine, and even the sole bench on the southbound platform is fiendishly positioned outside the shelter, an inveterate cat lover like myself is not completely devoid of activities with which to occupy himself.

The station cat is a tortoiseshell, evidently well-fed and cared for, obviously aware of the timetable, as she was sitting on the platform as my train pulled in, and equally obviously sees her role as being an ambassador for the town. So, if you're ever in the area, and you're missing your cat(s), perhaps a visit to the station might help.

Oh, and one other thing, trains for the Heart of Wales line to Swansea via Llandrindod Wells leave from the northbound platform...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Whatever happened to the Interim Peers List? (part 4)

With an increasing fall in the level of interest - it was becoming apparent that election to the list guaranteed very little - the 2006 contest for places on the Interim Peers List was rather more gentle than even the 2004 contest was. The result was;
  1. Michael Steed - stage 1
  2. Dee Doocey - stage 1
  3. Kate Parminter - stage 1
  4. Philip Goldenberg - stage 1
  5. Gerald Vernon-Jackson - stage 1
  6. Steve Hitchins - stage 1
  7. Sue Garden - stage 1 (12 September 2007)
  8. Paul Marshall - stage 1
  9. Olly Grender - stage 1
  10. Stan Collins - stage 1
  11. John Howson - stage 1
  12. Christina Baron - stage 3
  13. David Walter - stage 3
  14. Stuart Mole - stage 4
  15. Elizabeth Wilson - stage 19
  16. Kathy Pollard - stage 22
  17. Christina Jebb - stage 25
  18. David Griffiths - stage 27
  19. Philip Bennion - stage 30
  20. Rabi Martins - stage 33
  21. Meral Ece - stage 33
  22. Robert Woodthorpe Browne - stage 33
  23. John Fox - stage 33
  24. Zulfiqar Ali - stage 33
  25. Ian Cuthbertson - stage 33
  26. Nahid Boethe - stage 34
  27. Marie-Louise Rossi - stage 34
  28. Joyce Arram - stage 34
  29. Chris Foote Wood - stage 34
  30. Reg Clark - stage 34
Unfortunately, there have only been two Liberal Democrat creations since then, on 12 September 2007, when just four new Peers were announced, the other two were Baronesses Neville-Jones and Warsi, who sit on the Conservative benches.

Of course, there was another election in 2008...

A brief explanation for the non-geographically challenged

London to Craven Arms, change at Shrewsbury, obvious really. So why am I going to Wrexham General? Easy really, because I can... full steam ahead for the Marches!

All aboard the Wrexham & Shropshire!

Some months ago, I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece about how nice it would be if Deutsche Bahn ran the trains between London and Norwich.

However, it was pointed out to me that they do actually run trains in this country, as Chiltern Railways and the newest addition to the ranks of Train Operating Companies, the Wrexham and Shropshire, are partly owned by them.

The Wrexham and Shropshire, which runs four trains a day in each direction between Wrexham General and Marylebone (except Sundays, when there are three trains), has, according to Passenger Watch, a 98% satisfaction rating. So, when Ros was invited to Ludlow, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to test the newcomer, especially as the Trainline recommended route was via Newport, using First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales.

So, here I am, ensconced in the First Class carriage of a four carriage train, somewhere north-west of Princes Risborough. My ticket, sent to my BlackBerry, has been checked, the very friendly senior steward has brought me a Diet Coke with ice and lemon, and we are speeding towards Banbury, our first stop.

Lunch, included in my astonishingly reasonable £55 ticket, consists of a game terrine, served with warm toast and a salad garnish, followed by stuffed chicken with spinach, leek and tomato with mini jacket potatoes and carrot bundles. And whilst, alcohol isn't included, the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu, a 2006 Chablis, is just £15.

The windows are clean, so that I can enjoy the view, my seat is perfectly positioned so that it is uninterrupted, there is a power point to charge my BlackBerry and power my laptop, and all in all, it is a splendid way to travel to Wrexham General. Of course, the fact that my final destination is Craven Arms is merely a detail.

Ah well, my main course, and a half bottle of Chablis has arrived so, if you'll excuse me...

Whatever happened to the Interim Peers List? (part 3)

In 2004, it was time for a new list, and another election was held. For those who hadn't been lucky thus far, another hurdle beckoned. At least this time, the competition was less fierce... much less fierce.

The result was;
  1. Robin Teverson - stage 1 (10 April 2006)
  2. Ramesh Dewan - stage 1
  3. Hilary Stephenson - stage 1
  4. Monroe Palmer - stage 18
  5. Celia Thomas - stage 49 (10 April 2006)
  6. Jonathan Fryer - stage 56
  7. Jock Gallagher - stage 61
  8. Dawn Davidson - stage 67
  9. John Stevens - stage 69
  10. Bill Le Breton - stage 69
  11. James Kempton - stage 72
  12. Ben Stoneham - stage 72
  13. Robert Adamson - stage 73
  14. Chris White - stage 73
  15. John Smithson - stage 75
  16. David Williams - stage 75
  17. Jo Hayes - stage 76
  18. Catherine Bearder - stage 76
  19. Jane Smithard - stage 76
  20. Maitland Mackie - stage 76
  21. Jackie Pearcey - stage 77
  22. Ruth Coleman - stage 78
  23. Celia Goodhart - stage 78
  24. Julie Smith - stage 78
  25. Peter Price - stage 78
  26. Qassim Afzal - stage 78
  27. Alan Sherwell - stage 78
  28. Jonathan Marks - stage 78
  29. Paul Tilsley - stage 78
  30. Liz Barron - stage 79
Only two successful candidates this time, and another candidate made it to the European Parliament at her third attempt, Catherine Bearder in 2009.

There were only two lists, however, the Dissolution Honours List in 2005, when David Chidgey, Nigel Jones, Archie Kirkwood, Jenny Tonge and Paul Tyler were the nominees of Charles Kennedy, and 2006, when another five were favoured, the two from the list, and John Burnett (who lost Torridge and West Devon the previous year), Brian Cotter (likewise in Weston-super-Mare) and John Lee.

The bad news was that the list was only good for two years... time to go back to the electoral drawing board...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Whatever happened to the Interim Peers List? (part 2)

So, we know what happened to the original 1999 list. i.e. nine of them got peerages. That doesn't sound very impressive, until you look at the number of Liberal Democrat peerages created in the five years.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIn fact, 22 Liberal Democrats were ennobled, nine in 2000, five in 2001 (the Dissolution Honours List) and eight more in 2004. The 2000 list included seven from the list, Jamie, Earl of Mar and Kellie (a recycled hereditary who returned as Baron Erskine of Alloa Tower) and John Roper (who now sits as a non-aligned peer due to his current role as the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees).

The 2001 list, Paddy Ashdown, Ronnie Fearn, Richard Livsey, Robert Maclennan and Rae Michie, was limited to retiring MPs, and so falls outside the scope of the list.

It was the 2004 cohort where the list began to be overlooked. David Alliance, Hugh Dykes, Kishwer Falkner, Tim Garden, Julia Neuberger and Ian Vallance were, admittedly the sort of candidates who, for various reasons, were unlikely to have contested the 1999 election, and it would have to be said that most of them had made significant contributions to society that might have caused them to be ennobled anyway. There were two more drawn from the list though - Roger Roberts and Jane Bonham-Carter - just in time to be able to avoid having to contest another election.

So, seventeen peerages granted, nine from the list. But then, it was time to elect a new, slightly shorter list...

Whatever happened to the Interim Peers List? (part 1)

My mind was drawn to the question of the Interim Peers Panel last night, whilst doing some research for a Liberal Youth count. So, as a service to historians, I thought that I'd look back at the 1999 election, and see what happened to some of the fifty eminent Liberal Democrats who were successful.

In order of election, with the stage at which they were successful (those who got a peerage are highlighted in Lords colours);
  1. David Bellotti - stage 1
  2. Ramesh Dewan - stage 1
  3. Tony Greaves - stage 1 (31 March 2000)
  4. Rupert Redesdale -stage 1 (31 March 2000)
  5. Roger Roberts - stage 1 (30 April 2004)
  6. Lindsay Granshaw - stage 29 (31 March 2000)
  7. Viv Bingham - stage 57
  8. Jane Bonham-Carter - stage 79 (30 April 2004)
  9. Elizabeth Shields - stage 84
  10. Alex Wilcock - stage 85
  11. Joan Walmsley - stage 91 (31 March 2000)
  12. Ros Scott - stage 98 (31 March 2000)
  13. Fiona Hall - stage 100
  14. Candy Piercey - stage 108
  15. Flo Clucas - stage 115
  16. Philip Goldenberg - stage 119
  17. Monroe Palmer - stage 121
  18. Sharon Bowles - stage 122
  19. Jonathan Fryer - stage 124
  20. Val Cox - stage 125
  21. Flick Rea - stage 125
  22. Michael Steed - stage 128
  23. David Williams - stage 128
  24. John Tilley - stage 131
  25. Sue Baring - stage 132
  26. Hilary Stephenson - stage 132
  27. Atul Vadher - stage 132
  28. Paula Yates - stage 132
  29. Robert Adamson - stage 133
  30. Michael Anderson - stage 133
  31. Sarah Boad - stage 135
  32. David Boyle - stage 135
  33. Alan Butt Philip - stage 135
  34. Ruth Coleman - stage 135
  35. Gordon Lishman - stage 135
  36. Keith House - stage 136
  37. Bill Le Breton - stage 136
  38. Dee Doocey - stage 139
  39. Iain King - stage 139
  40. Rowland Morgan - stage 139
  41. Alison Willott - stage 139
  42. Ralph Bancroft - stage 140
  43. Frances David - stage 140
  44. Jock Gallagher - stage 140
  45. Josephine Hayes - stage 140
  46. Matthew Oakeshott - stage 140 (31 March 2000)
  47. David Shutt - stage 140 (31 March 2000)
  48. Paul Tilsley - stage 140
  49. James Walsh - stage 140
  50. Joanne Whitehouse - stage 140
So, we see that nine of the fifty got a peerage, seven of them from the top twelve. The future Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay and Lord Shutt of Greetland, just scraped in, but as they're apparently amongst the twenty-five most influential Liberal Democrats, they would probably be judged to have been worth it.

An interesting sidenote is the position of one Alex Wilcock. I wonder how different the world would have been if you'd been ennobled, Alex. Would that have brought us the Honourable Millennium Elephant? Also, the two contenders at numbers 13 and 18 didn't do too badly, gaining seats in the European Parliament in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Liberal Youth: wanted, someone else who can count

A Returning Officer's work is never done and so, with a new Federal Executive mostly in place, there is a vacancy for the position of Vice Chair Finance, following the elevation of Alan Belmore to the position of Supreme Leader (and no, that doesn't mean that he's the senior backing singer for Diana Ross, although, now that I mention it, why is that so ridiculous?).

So, in due course, a calling notice will be issued for a co-option to last until 30 June. As a one term Treasurer of the Young Liberal Democrats of England (1992 wasn't a great year...), I know how difficult the job can be. However, with Katy in the office and Alan to handover, anyone who wants to take on the role shouldn't feel overwhelmed.

But, in an attempt to inspire someone to run, here's a video from a time before any current Liberal Youth member was born...

House of Lords reform (part 37 of 94)

Just too late to make any difference, Jack Straw finally lets slip that he has a plan for reform of the Second Chamber. Because, let's be honest, thirteen years is barely long enough to even scratch the surface of getting rid of an unelected legislature and replace it with one that is fit for the third millennium.

Best of all, it is all being done by leak. There will be just 300 seats in the new House, provisionally called a Senate. Salaries will be less than that for those in the Commons (will that be renamed too?). It will be elected on a proportional basis, in thirds. Existing members will be bribed given an incentive to retire.

So far, so good(ish). If only there weren't less than two months before a General Election, and nowhere near enough time to ram the legislation through a reasonably pliant House of Commons. Even if there were, one can assume that the Lords would want a good, hard look at any legislation before signing its own death warrant.

One must therefore assume that this is a cynical attempt to peel off a few voters who consider constitutional reform to be important. The catch is that we've all been here before. The Jenkins Commission which led to precisely zip, nada, nothing, was the point where it became clear that the only power that Labour were willing to 'give away' was going to go to people who they could trust, i.e. other Labour politicians in Scotland, Wales and London.

And, like Gordon Brown's Damascene conversion to the cause of electoral reform, talk of enhancing our democracy is just so much window dressing. For let's be truthful here, even the Conservatives are more truthful on the subject than Labour are.

So, if you really want fairer votes, localism and a Bill of Rights that you can rely upon, one that doesn't rely on a Government that graciously allows you to have it, you know where to go. And with that, 'Liberal Bureaucracy' endorses the Liberal Democrats (alright, no great surprise, but I thought that I ought to do it anyway...).

Liberal Youth: here today, GEM tomorrow

Alright, so the abbreviation of General Executive Member is pretty tempting. And so I include a nice picture of Colombia's third most well-known export (I understand that the first two are brought to you by the letter C).

But this isn't getting the result declared, is it? Time to get on...

With ten candidates for six places, the first task was to calculate the quota. There were seventy valid ballots cast, with one spoilt by the use of three crosses and no numbers. As a result, the quota was determined as 10.01.

The first preferences were as follows;

Sophie Bertrand - 7 votes
Robson Brown - 19 votes
Cara Drury - 11 votes
Charlotte Harris - 10 votes
Thomas Hemsley - 3 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 7 votes
Callum Leslie - 2 votes
Callum Morton - 3 votes
Ed Sanderson - 8 votes
Callum Stanland - no votes

This meant that Robson Brown and Cara Drury were elected at the first count.

Robson's surplus was transferred at a value of 0.47 (this is where the mathematics gets interesting), and the result after the second count was;

Sophie Bertrand - 8.41 votes
Robson Brown - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Cara Drury - 11 votes (elected)
Charlotte Harris - 11.41 votes
Thomas Hemsley - 3.94 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 8.41 votes
Callum Leslie - 2.47 votes
Callum Morton - 4.41 votes
Ed Sanderson - 9.88 votes
Callum Stanland - no votes
rounding loss - 0.06 votes

Accordingly, Charlotte Harris was elected at the second count.

The third count saw Cara Drury's surplus transferred at a value of 0.09, and the result after this was;

Sophie Bertrand - 8.59 votes
Robson Brown - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Cara Drury - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Charlotte Harris - 11.41 votes (elected)
Thomas Hemsley - 4.12 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 8.59 votes
Callum Leslie - 2.65 votes
Callum Morton - 4.5 votes
Ed Sanderson - 9.97 votes
Callum Stanland - no votes
rounding loss - 0.06 votes

This having not elected anyone, the fourth count saw the transfer of Charlotte Harris's surplus at a value of 0.12. The result was;

Sophie Bertrand - 8.97 votes
Robson Brown - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Cara Drury - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Charlotte Harris - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Thomas Hemsley - 4.48 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 9.17 votes
Callum Leslie - 2.65 votes
Callum Morton - 4.5 votes
Ed Sanderson - 10.09 votes
Callum Stanland - no votes
rounding loss - 0.11 votes

This meant that Ed Sanderson was elected at the fourth count.

Unfortunately, his surplus was insufficient to make a difference, and the fifth count saw the elimination of Callum Stanland and Callum Leslie. The result was;

Sophie Bertrand - 9.06 votes
Robson Brown - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Cara Drury - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Charlotte Harris - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Thomas Hemsley - 6.48 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 9.26 votes
Callum Leslie - eliminated
Callum Morton - 4.97 votes
Ed Sanderson - 10.09 votes (elected)
Callum Stanland - eliminated
rounding loss - 0.11 votes

The next to be eliminated was Callum Morton, and the result of the sixth count was;

Sophie Bertrand - 11.06 votes
Robson Brown - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Cara Drury - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Charlotte Harris - 10.01 votes (elected, surplus transferred)
Thomas Hemsley - 6.95 votes
Usaama Kaweesa - 10.82 votes
Callum Leslie - eliminated
Callum Morton - eliminated
Ed Sanderson - 10.09 votes (elected)
Callum Stanland - eliminated
rounding loss - 0.11 votes
non-transferable - 0.94 votes

This meant that Sophie Bertrand and Usaama Kaweesa were elected, leaving Thomas Hemsley as the first runner-up.

So, this set of elections is over, pending any appeal. Good night, sleep well...