Monday, June 28, 2010

A bad week for the Conservatives in Bury St Edmunds

Hot of the presses comes news that our local MP, David Ruffley, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his position, following last week's incident where he narrowly avoided death after falling under a train at Victoria Station. In the meantime, neighbouring MP's, Matt Hancock (Suffolk West) and Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) will be taking surgeries within the constituency.

Whilst I am deeply sympathetic as to David's plight, it does leave the constituency effectively unrepresented in Parliament, and there is a question as to whether this is acceptable. Unfortunately, the job of Member of Parliament is an unusual one, in that there is no right of substitution, and until such time as this exists, residents from Creeting St Peter to Bury St Edmunds are without their tribune at Westminster. Perhaps, in such a circumstance, where the MP is unable to perform his/her duties due to ill health unlikely in itself to be terminal, there should be a means whereby someone could stand in.

You see, I can't help feeling that the pressure to resume his duties is not conducive to a swift recovery, and depression is not something that can be treated on a schedule. However, my thoughts go out to David, and I trust that we'll see him resume when he is confident and comfortable enough to do so.

Meanwhile, on Friday, news leaked out that Tory-run Mid Suffolk District Council had engaged bailiffs to visit the constituency Conservative Association's headquarters at Woolpit to collect more than £2,000 in unpaid business rates. Apparently, a number of letters from the council had not been responded to, so they called in the bailiffs in March.

Curiously, the current Chair claims that they have no financial problems now, yet their then Chair sent out a letter to members only last January seeking contributions to pay off a debt of £130,000. Either they have done some stellar fundraising, or their finances aren't quite as rosy as they're letting on...

Liberal Youth: It's the final countdown!

Yes, polls close tomorrow and for the myriad candidates, the tension really starts.

However, for those of you who enjoy the excitement and humour of a good count, the results show will commence at 1 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday) at Party HQ in Cowley Street, where my team of wizened Italian democracy engineers and I will attempt to demonstrate what you can do with an 'O' level in Mathematics, a sense of humour and a lot of imagination. I'll be live blogging the results as best I can, which will doubtless improve the visitor numbers at 'Liberal Bureaucracy' (cynical, moi?).

Naturally, I'll be starting with the election of a new Chair, working through the posts, with the English Convenor being declared last - unless I change my mind (and that's always possible).

Bonne chance to one and all!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

An idyllic weekend in the Gipping Valley

It's late on Sunday evening as I write these words, and it's been a pretty good weekend. Ros and I have spent the weekend expanding into our new building, which is shorthand for 'Ros has organised everything and I've done what I'm told to do'. The sun has shone, the odd glass of wine has been drunk, the barbecue has been cranked into action for the first time this summer, and life looks a lot clearer all of a sudden.

I am, it seems, beginning to get the hang of village life. Paying our annual subscription for 'The Grapevine', our local parish magazine, chatting to the neighbours about the appalling state in which 'Cross Keys Cottage' has been left in, talking to the outgoing Treasurer of the Community Council about transferring responsibility for financial reporting over to the Parish Council, it's the small things that make a village tick. I even found time to tidy the Parish noticeboard.

And it dawns on me just how many of my fellow villagers contribute to those activities. Five Parish Councillors, Violet, our churchwarden, Neighbourhood Watch members, Liz who organises the Bonus Ball for the Community Council, Georgina who delivers 'The Grapevine' and collects subscriptions, all of them contribute in their own way, finding a little time in their day to make a difference.

Ah well, better get on, I suppose, back to the city in the morning...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Liberal Bureaucracy, in conjunction with the Party Presidency, opens its new office!

It has been a long time in the building, but today saw the 'official' opening of our new office. All of my stuff arrived from storage yesterday morning, and Ros and I have spent two days unpacking and putting away a whole bunch of stuff. I've reassembled the PC, printer and other stuff, and I am now sitting on our new office chair (built by my own fair hands), at our desk, looking out across our garden (the less said about that, the better, I'd say).

We have bookshelves to keep our papers and books organised, a CD rack (my classical music collection is back in my own hands after more than a year), and even a separate WC so that we don't have to go back into the house if nature calls.

What this means is that I can actually function as a bureaucrat for the first time since the house in Kingsbury was sold. It also means that Ros can do her research from home, respond to correspondence easily, and is able to function as Party President when not in London.

All in all, it's pretty exciting. And now that it's done, I can catch up with everything else...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Liberal Youth: where the Constitution is silent, the Returning Officer speaks...

15.1 In the event of an ambiguity arising concerning the interpretation of this Constitution, subject to the provisions of 12.10 above, the matter shall be referred for a Rule of Interpretation to the Chair or, if the ambiguity relates to an LIBERAL YOUTH election, the Returning Officer.

Curiously, the Liberal Youth Constitution is silent on what happens if an ordinary member commits an election offence as defined by Article 9.15. It does, at Article 9.12 (h), give me the power to take action, up to and including disqualification, against candidates who breach any clause of Article 9.15.

However, it seems to me that, if an ordinary member commits such an offence, and cannot be directly linked to the campaign of a candidate, the authors of the Constitution would not have intended that they be at liberty to do so without hinderance or penalty. I therefore declare, using the powers vested in me under Article 15.1, to issue the following Rule of Interpretation;

Article 9.16 (a)

Any member of Liberal Youth, other than a candidate, deemed to have committed an offence under Article 9.15 by the Returning Officer, might be punished by loss of franchise for a specified period. The same right of appeal as specified in Article 9.12 (h) shall apply to any such ruling. Such a ruling shall not preclude further action being taken against said person(s) under Article 4.4 of this Constitution.

And, having posted notice of this Rule of Interpretation, it is my intention to utilise it...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Liberal Youth and the (lack of) respect agenda

It had all been going reasonably well. Lots of candidates out there making the case for their election, plenty of interest, my e-mail had been pretty quiet, and I was just beginning to relax... Big mistake.

The most frustrating part of last year's round of Liberal Youth elections was the sense that individuals felt themselves free to write and propagate attacks on opponents, bystanders and, to be honest, anyone who took an interest. Leaking selectively to a prominent Conservative blogger (although not always accurately), endorsements made on behalf of groups without even the faintest veneer of proper consultation and a widespread lack of consideration for the feelings of others were just some of the 'highlights'.

It wasn't big, and it wasn't clever, and it sent out a signal that this was an organisation not to be taken very seriously, an organisation so mired in personality clashes that it would be unable to function without continuous infighting. And so it turned out, with virtually every member of the newly elected Executive having to be replaced at one point or another.

I had hoped that the lesson would be learned. Clearly, it hasn't been. So, putting aside my Returning Officer hat and replacing it with my 'old enough to be your father' hat, here are some suggestions for Liberal Youth members...
  • Why not, if you are endorsing a candidate, or making the case for yourself, talk about your strengths and qualities rather than frame the discussion in terms of the perceived failings of others?
  • Remember, what you place in a public domain is just that, public. It can be used, abused and recycled endlessly, and regardless of whether you, or your chosen candidate win or not, it will limit what you can achieve and with whom. In any event, it hardly marks you out as a potential team player.
  • Do you enjoy being slagged off by your peers? If not, how do you justify slagging off other people? If you do, on the other hand, there may be other ways of satisfying that...
  • Indeed, do you really mean to come across as rude and vaguely unpleasant? Do you look like an adult? Wouldn't it be better to sleep on it before you press the send button?
I think that I've said enough. I can't and won't discipline individuals for behaving like idiots, although the rules on defamation etc. still apply. I would be happier, however, if some of the more trigger happy members refrain from intimidatory threats of legal action (I judge that to be likely to represent a breach of Article 9.15 (g) of the Liberal Youth Constitution).

All of the above said, Liberal Youth is the property of its members, and as such, individual members have a right to behave as they see fit. It will be for others to judge whether or not that is a good thing. However, as John Donne might have put it;

No SAO is an island, entire of itself...any SAO's death diminishes me, because I am involved in the Liberal Democrats; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Good evening, Liberal Youth, and God bless...

David Ruffley: vulture watch over Creeting St Peter...

The report that my local MP, David Ruffley, threw himself under a train at Victoria on Thursday, comes as particularly unwelcome news. In truth, there had been rumours about his state of mind for some months, and his public appearances were said to be increasingly rare, but I cannot imagine that anyone had expected events to take such a dramatic turn.

So let me put on record my hope that David recovers quickly, and that those who care for him are able to rally around quickly. Issues surrounding depression are still very much taboo in the Westminster village, and it seems likely that he needed more support than he was getting from those around him.

Of course, what this means is that, whether one likes it or not, Bury St Edmunds is on by-election watch. My preferred option is that David Ruffley is given the time and space to recover, is allowed an opportunity to make a decision as to his future in politics that is best for him, and that whatever decision he does take is respected by politicians of all parties and by the local media. I fear that it will not be easy though.

In the meantime, I presume that all four national political parties represented in local politics here in mid-Suffolk will be considering how to react to this development. The need to be ready in the event that a by-election is called means that there will be conjecture and speculation. Given the size of his majority, it will be seen as a genuine opportunity for an ambitious Conservative, especially given the predilection of local Conservative Associations not to select local candidates.

The other parties will see a by-election as an opportunity to test their strength in a post-Coalition environment. Will the Liberal Democrats be able to hold onto the second place they gained in May, or even advance? Will Labour make up ground lost in a seat where they only narrowly lost in 1997? Will the Greens have more luck in a seat where they have both county and district councillors than their rather disappointing performance last month might indicate? All of this is conjecture, and is contingent on David Ruffley and how he fares over the next few weeks.
My hope is that everyone can behave sensibly in the coming weeks, and that any vultures choosing to circle over our constituency will at least behave with discretion. In the past, there have been suggestions of opportunism related to potential by-elections but it is difficult to perform sensible short-term and medium-term planning when events are fast-moving and unpredictable. One can only really hope for the best...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Glamour and the Liberal Democrats - not a phrase I would expect to write...

In my role as Presidential Consort, I had been invited to attend what had been billed as a party for Liberal Democrat staff and volunteers on Tuesday night. The venue, the Park Plaza London, across Westminster Bridge from Parliament, was interesting, as it only opened recently, but given the recent announcement of job losses in Cowley Street, I was expecting a slightly subdued event.

I put on a suit and a happy smiling face, and turned up to find that something strange was happening, in that this was a much bigger event than I had expected, with a ballroom filled with tables and an all-star cast of ministers, MPs and Peers. All in all, it looked like an event held to celebrate a glorious victory, an event reflecting confidence in the future.

Having shed my wallflower disguise, at least for the time being, it was nice to catch up with a lot of people I have run into over the past two years, including Ian Swales and Mike Crockart, who we visited during the campaign, the ubiquitous Daddy Richard and Auntie Helen and a number of senior Peers, including our Glorious Leader, Tom McNally (I have to confess that my loyalties are to the Lords these days rather than the Commons).

With a speech from our host, Ramesh Diwan, a few comments from Ros and a speech by some chap called Clegg, it was turning into quite an evening, but the Shirley Bassey impersonator (good enough to fool many of us), turned it into something definitively LibDem.

In truth, we aren't used to glamour as Liberal Democrats. Our events, with the exception of our Federal Conferences, tend to be slightly amateurish, if more accessible than similar events held by the Conservative and Labour Parties. We're more school hall, than conference hotel, and it will be interesting to see if that changes now that we are a party of government.

I should also note my regret at the loss of some very good people. It is true that, after General Elections, we frequently make significant staffing cuts, but it is never pleasant or desirable. We are very lucky to attract some very dedicated people to our cause, and I hope that those who have had to be released will find new jobs very soon.

The Lords discusses short-term, high-interest credit... and so does the Office of Fair Trading...

Loan Companies: Interest Rates - 17 June 2010

Asked By Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to regulate loan companies charging high rates of interest.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox)
: My Lords, my noble friend’s Question is timely as the Office of Fair Trading has just released the findings from its review of the high-cost credit sector. Many noble Lords will be aware that I am a long-standing campaigner for consumer rights in this area, and I see this review as an opportunity for Government to reflect on these very high rates of interest and consider whether there is a better way for us to approach this market.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Is my noble friend aware of the growing number of companies, some of which advertise on television, which offer short-term loans at extremely high rates of interest—in one case the APR is 2,689 per cent—plus an arrangement fee? Does she share my concern that a small short-term loan could very quickly turn into a very large lifetime millstone?

The debate that followed touched on issues of accuracy in advertising, as well as the validity of using APR as an indicator, but I would pick out Michael Martin's contribution, seeking support for community-based credit unions as a means of increasing the options available to those on the financial margins, as a potentially important solution to the problem of lack of choice and information in the short-term credit market.

Meanwhile, as indicated in Baroness Wilcox's answer, the Office of Fair Trading published its review of high cost credit. I admit to some surprise that the sector is worth £7.5 billion, but suspect that it is growing fast. Working in an environment where many of my colleagues earn less than the national average salary, I know that a number of them have, at times, lived from pay cheque to pay cheque, and with this emerging option to bridge the occasional gap, I suspect that some of them may have considered using payday loans.

I'm not keen on introducing onerous restrictions on these small-scale lenders, so the OFT's suggestion that the key issues revolve around enhanced choice and better information as to the options available appeals to me. However, it is a subject which lends itself to populist campaigns by the press, and I would be surprised if we didn't see further debate in the coming years.

Suckling pig in the oldest restaurant in the world

Still slightly surprised by El Clegg's visit to Madrid, we were in need of sustenance. It was time to eat...

Restaurant Botin is the world's oldest restaurant, first opening its doors to hungry Madrilenos in 1725, as vouched by the 'Guinness Book of Records'. It specialises in suckling pig and, given my enthusiasm for anything pork-related, it seemed like an obvious choice for a meal out.

We were escorted by a waiter through the kitchen to a small room with just five tables in it, and served by an ageing but very efficient waiter. An excellent bottle of rioja was ordered and produced, and after a not unreasonable wait, three plates of suckling pig, cooked to perfection, arrived.

Alright, it may all be a bit cliched, but it was a really good meal, served by waiters who know their job and do it well, so if you're in Madrid, I'd recommend Restaurant Botin as well worth a visit.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ros in the Lords - 15 June 2010

Question: Elected Mayors

Asked by Baroness Quin

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to carry out a consultation about the role and number of elected mayors.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment. Her many years of experience in local government will be a great help to this House and to the Government. Does she agree that the creation of single-person executives requires close attention to be paid to checks and balances to prevent abuse of power? What discussions are being had on term limits such as those in other countries?

Baroness Hanham: I thank my noble friend for her very kind comments and welcome. The intention is to give mayors powers, but those powers will be subject to scrutiny by elected councils, which will have full scrutiny over what is being done. The terms of mayoralties have not yet been finalised.

Unfortunately, not the most enlightening answer from one of the more knowledgeable Conservative frontbenchers. I have to admit to doubts over elected mayors, as I deeply suspect that they act to take government further away from the people. We will see how this pans out...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

La 'cleggmania' llega a Espana

Here in Madrid (ah yes, I may have forgotten to mention that I'm in Spain for a long weekend), 'El Mundo' reports on the latest political visitor to the home of the EU Presidency.

With the almost obligatory picture of Nick gazing out of a window overlooking the city with a somewhat contemplative mien, the interview that follows, given in Spanish (and isn't it great that he can do that?), includes the unexpected news that he flew EasyJet to save money in the new 'age of austerity'.

This is a momentous week here in Spain, marking as it does the twenty-fifth anniversary of the country's accession to the European Union. There have been conferences, with such luminaries as Mario Soares, who led Portugal when they joined in the expansion from nine to twelve, a concert and much coverage of what membership has done for the people.

And no, it is not wholly uncritical. But on the whole, Spain and its people have taken advantage of the opportunities that membership offers, building key infrastructure projects with the support of cohesion funds and giving credit where it is due.

I am not of the view that membership of the European Union is the solution to all that ails our country. But a more dispassionate debate of the pros and cons of Europe and its works might allow us to gain more from its programmes and actions.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The 'Liberal Bureaucracy' guide to Parliamentary jargon

I mentioned 'hybrid bills' in passing the other day. For those of you who wondered, "What is a hybrid bill, then?", the answer is;

“public bills which are considered to affect specific private or local interests, in a manner different from the private or local interests of other persons or bodies of the same class, thus attracting the provisions of the Standing Orders applicable to private business"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What do the Liberal Democrats need in their candidate for London Mayor?

Now that Lembit has announced his intention to seek the Liberal Democrat candidacy for Mayor of London, now might be a good time to consider what sort of candidate we need and what sort of campaign they should run. And, as you might expect, the answers are rather more complex than might be apparent.

There are at least four key players whose views need to be taken into account;
  • the London Regional Party – they are responsible for selecting the candidate, developing the campaign strategy and raising the funds to support the campaign
  • the Liberal Democrat Group on the Greater London Assembly – the quality of the candidate determines whether the Mayoral campaign helps or hinders efforts to increase our representation on the Assembly – does he or she have coattails?
  • the London MPs – a good campaign helps them in their campaigns for re-election in 2015 (or whenever) by bolstering the Party’s general credibility in their area
  • the Federal Party and the Leader in particular – given the extent of national press attention, a shambolic, unsuccessful campaign in London, where most national media are based, would damage credibility
Of course, their varying needs will impact on the process.

The Regional Party will want to consider what they hope to achieve from the campaign. Is it a hook on which to hang the Assembly campaign, whereby the candidate is the air war component, drawing attention to our manifesto, whilst our Assembly candidates in the constituencies provide the ground war, and our List candidates slot into the targeting strategy? Or, is it an opportunity to find an individual whose profile we might wish to raise for a future Parliamentary campaign in a target seat? Indeed, are we fighting in the expectation of winning?

There are two types of potential candidate;
  • the ‘celebrity’ candidate, as Simon Hughes was in 2004 and Brian Paddick to perhaps a lesser extent in 2008. Yes, they start off with an advantage in terms of profile, but they come with a price. They expect to be the figurehead of a well-resourced, high intensity campaign – something that the Regional Party is unlikely to be able to finance – are unlikely to want to start campaign very far in advance, and are more difficult to manage in terms of any Regional strategy that might exist.
  • the ‘team’ candidate, as Susan Kramer was in 2000. Susan wasn’t very well known when she was selected, having fought Dulwich and West Norwood in the 1997 General Election and gained 11% of the vote. She was well integrated into the London-wide campaign, worked very hard without complaint, and the campaign was a generally happy one. Her media profile rose steadily, and she was seen by the end as being a perfectly legitimate candidate to be Mayor of London. The profile that she earned for herself made her by far the most likely candidate for Richmond Park when it subsequently became available.
The risk in seeking to attract a celebrity candidate is that, in waiting for someone to come along, you risk losing the opportunity to start raising the Party’s profile in the key regional media. And, if they don’t come along, you inevitably end up resorting to someone who might make a thoroughly decent candidate but has very little time to develop that key media profile.

In terms of a strategy, there are competing interests too. There are significant areas of London where there are no Liberal Democrats on local councils (Hammersmith and Fulham, Croydon and Bexley to name but three) but where a little effort might potentially yield dividends in terms of building up our Region-wide vote and therefore electing more List candidates. Yet, by sticking to our established targeting strategy, we can secure those seats that we currently hold at other tiers of government.

The Regional Party must, in developing its strategy, balance those competing interests. As the only English Region fighting a region-wide election other than at European Parliamentary level, it offers a laboratory for testing different styles of campaigning, especially important as we move towards STV for a new second chamber at Westminster.

Whatever they decide, those of us outside London will watch with interest...

An omission for those of you who aren't Liberal Democrats

It is occasionally easy to forget that this blog is read by people who aren't Liberal Democrats - my father, for example - so here are links to three pieces I wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice...

Diversity and representation – instead of whinging, why don’t we do something about it? (19 May)

"I have a reputation for being a bureaucrat. Gradualism is my watchword, and has been for most of the twenty-five years that I’ve been a Liberal and then Liberal Democrat. However, suddenly, I have become an old man in a hurry. Alright, old relative to most of you at least, but still in a hurry. So, imagine I’ve sprouted an Old Testament beard, donned a white flowing robe and found a nice stout staff and harken to my words. I have a few jobs for you to do…"

Your LDV guide to the new Parliamentary selection rules (31 May)

"There has, for some time, been genuine concern about the way that the Liberal Democrats select their Parliamentary candidates. How they are approved, how the process whereby candidates are selected has become more and more out of touch with modern campaigning methods, let alone questions of diversity, all of these have come under attack in recent years..."

The English Party welcomes careful, and discreet, participants… (8 June)

"Yes, it’s that time once again when one of the Party’s least visible, yet most important internal bodies, English Council, gathers for the first of its two scheduled meetings in 2010.

On Saturday, July 3rd, 125 or so representatives from the English Regions will gather in central London to hear speeches from the Party President, Ros Scott, and the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunnell MP..."

I hope to continue writing for Liberal Democrat Voice over the coming months, so with any luck, there'll be more of these links in future...

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Parliamentary Party in the Lords elects a Convenor and Deputy Convenor

Word has reached me that, following the elections held earlier today, white smoke has emerged from the Whips' Office in the Lords as follows;

In the contest for the newly created position of Convenor of the Parliamentary Party, John Alderdice defeated Joan Walmsley by fifty-nine votes to ten. The new Deputy Convenor will be Jane Bonham-Carter, who triumphed over Kishwer Falkner by forty-three votes to twenty-four.

Congratulations to John and Jane, commiserations to Joan and Kishwer...

'Liberal Bureaucracy' declares its undying support for... Honduras!

Yes, it's World Cup time, and this year, rather than endure the agony of following England (who will they lose to on penalties this time?), here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy', we've looked around for a team that suits our temperament.

Our decision? A team with a bit of Latin American flair, aren't very well known, and who aren't drawn to meet England until at least the semi-final. Oh yes, and a goalkeeper called Valladares... Noel Valladares.

Drawn in a group with Chile, Spain and Switzerland, their prospects aren't great, and if they do get through, they're likely to meet either Brazil or Portugal in the last sixteen anyway. So I guess that I won't be following them for long. All the same, given that their only previous World Cup was 1982 in Spain, when they drew 1-1 with group winners Northern Ireland, and 1-1 with the hosts but lost 1-0 to Yugoslavia, there is a touch of romance to their campaign.

And this time, El Salvador are unlikely to invade...

Liberal Youth: musings on the sovereignty of endorsements

One of the things that has always puzzled me about endorsements is the way in which people claim to endorse on behalf of organisations or groups. Yes, if member X decides that they would like to announce their undying support for candidate Y, that's fine, but when members A, B and C announce the support of branch D for candidate E, I find myself wondering what say other members of branch D had in deciding upon such an endorsement.

Last year, I had to caution members of London Liberal Youth for issuing an endorsement in the name of the Regional group when I knew full well that there had not been a process of consultation with members across London, and ruled that branches or Regions could only endorse if it could be demonstrated that consultation had occurred prior to publication of the endorsement.

So, I should take this opportunity to convey a message. I do not approve of individuals using their organisations as means to misrepresent the view of the members, regardless of the circumstances. I have received some complaints already, and I intend to act upon them over the coming days.

If, on the other hand, any branch or Region of Liberal Youth wishes to endorse and has doubts about the legitimacy of doing so, please feel free to ask me via my Liberal Youth e-mail account...

Liberal Youth: a brief message to the candidates

Dear All,

Please be advised that no ballots for the elections have yet been issued. After a week and a bit with some turmoil in the Cowley St office, we are back on track with somewhat reduced deadlines. An external mailing company will be dealing with the posting of ballot papers and manifesto booklets, arriving Friday 11th at the earliest, and Monday 14th or later more likely.

I have thus set a new deadline for votes to be returned, being June 28th, with the count scheduled for the following day.

A new opportunity for an online hustings event has arisen. The web address for details of this will be published in the manifesto booklet. Alan Belmore and Paddy Elsdon tell me that they are arranging their chair candidate hustings for a date next week, I am sure they or I will be in touch with you about that should this develop further.

In the meantime, I have been asked if the rest of you (GEMs, VCs and committees) could assist in the scheduling of the times next week when the LY Elections team should host an online hustings.

These hustings will be held using the Skype software and chaired by a member of the current Executive, ideally one who is not up for election. Members of Liberal Youth will be able to submit questions to the chair. You will need to register for a Skype account and download the software if you have not already.

A webcam is not needed, a microphone is desirable for speed and clarity, but again not needed. If you cannot attend the hustings your position is scheduled for, you will have the opportunity to submit a short general statement to the Chair, and an email address for further questions.

The Coalition demonstrates that it doesn't have a majority everywhere...

With the only reference to the House of Lords thus far being the proposals to reform it outlined by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier in the week, it was inevitable that members of the second chamber would find a way to get a little attention.

Yesterday, the Local Government Bill, intended to revoke the legislation creating unitary authorities for Norwich and Exeter, fell victim to an Opposition ambush, as it was referred to  the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills to clarify whether or not the bill is hybrid, by a vote of 154 to 150.

Whilst the Coalition does have a majority over Labour in the Lords, the presence of 182 crossbenchers, 26 archbishops and bishops, plus 33 others, means that it can be defeated if the Opposition manages to persuade enough of these swing voters to lean their way.

It was noticeable in yesterday's vote that, whilst both Labour and the Conservatives both managed to get half of their members into the lobbies, and the Liberal Democrats fielded 70% of their strength, the crossbenchers split 40-14 in support of the Labour motion, and four bishops leant that way too.

It is clear that the Coalition is going to have to work hard to convince the crossbenchers over the coming months if it is going to successfully carry out its ambitious plans to reform government in the United Kingdom, especially that related to the House of Lords itself. Yesterday was a reminder that they can't expect to have it all their own way...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010 - a loan shark with good PR?

I don't watch vast amounts of television, but my attention was drawn recently to an advert for something called (no, there's no link, for reasons that will become obvious). Cheaply made, the advert explains how you can borrow small(ish) amounts until payday with little hassle and immediate decisions on whether or not you will be approved.

Yes, another opportunity for people to get into debt and, as a concept, probably filling a niche in the market. However, such services come at a cost, and I was intrigued to find out what that cost might be. The answer was a typical APR of 2,689%, the sort of rate that one associates with large gentlemen in ill-fitting suits calling at your door at unexpected moments and offering you the use of your fingers back in due course.

Let's put that into context. If you were to borrow £200 for twenty days, the interest would amount to £40.53, i.e. interest would accrue at more than 20% in the short period of the loan's existence - assuming that you could pay it back at the end of the term. There is also a £5.50 transmission fee to be added on, making the total cost of that loan £46.03. Now compare that with an unapproved overdraft at, say Santander, at 19.9% annually, and you can see why I take the view that I do.

Now I wouldn't necessarily say that such lenders should be banned, as people should take responsibility for their own stupidity (and if you're borrowing at that sort of interest rate, you might not be the sharpest pencil in the box), but there is a good question as to the appropriate level of regulation to be applied. After all, if people get into serious debt as a result if using such services - and 'serious' is entirely relative to your income levels - ultimately, society suffers through consequential losses.

So, I will be interested to hear how the Government responds when this question is raised in the Lords next Thursday. One assumes that, given their desire to introduce better, more effective regulation of the financial sector, this would be one of the areas they might want to prioritise.

Some thoughts from the Party President...

I thought that it might be nice to cover some of Ros's work here, so there follows her piece for last week's 'Liberal Democrat News'...

The phrase ‘rollercoaster ride’ is barely sufficient to describe the events of the past seven weeks. The apparent surge in support following the first Leaders debate, the euphoria of genuine three-party politics, followed by the disappointment of election night itself was the cause of enough emotional turmoil, but the subsequent negotiations and the entry of our Party into government for the first time since 1945 had its share of heart-stopping moments too.

It was, I felt, essential that, even though the criteria for going into coalition had been met by overwhelmingly supportive votes by the Parliamentary Party in the Commons and the Federal Executive, members and activists were given a chance to have their voices heard, and I was proud of the way in which so many of you came to Birmingham, heard the arguments and reached your conclusion. It was an emotional affair, but the fact that you were able to give your wholehearted support to the decision to form a coalition spoke volumes about our maturity as a political party. Indeed, our openness and inclusivity impressed Conservative Party activists, many of whom feel that they would have liked to have had an opportunity to voice their support or concerns over the coalition agreement.

So, here we are, in power. However, there are challenges beyond those of running the country with our coalition partners, massive though they are, and it is clear that the way that the Party deals with those challenges will be key to sustaining ourselves as an independent campaigning force in British politics.

Firstly, it will be vital that our policy-making continues as a means of bringing fresh ideas into government, that the creativity and original thinking of our members can be expressed. Sometimes, that will have the potential to create tensions within the coalition, but without new ideas and fresh thinking, we run the risk of becoming an adjunct to our Parliamentary Party. We may have to consider how that policy comes forward, but I am keen to give voice to ordinary members and activists as a means of keeping us at the vanguard of change in our country.

On the same theme, I am anxious that our Federal and Regional Conferences retain that inclusive quality that makes them different to those of the Conservative and Labour Parties. The idea that they should become rallies designed to provide a platform for a series of keynote speakers without an opportunity for genuine dialogue between our leadership and our members doesn’t appeal to me, and I don’t think it appeals to you either. 

There will need to be a complete review of how the Party works, given the change in our circumstances. Under the leadership of our newly confirmed permanent Chief Executive, Chris Fox, and myself, we will be looking at how Cowley Street works, what tasks are essential for our future success, and how they can best be delivered.

And whilst all of this is going on, preparations for elections to Holyrood and Cardiff and the round of local government elections in 2011 will need to be made. How we campaign effectively whilst part of a coalition will present new challenges and opportunities, and I am sure that Hilary Stephenson and our campaigns staff across the country will be turning their thoughts to that once the review of this year’s campaign is complete.

I will do my utmost during the remainder of this term in office to ensure that you, our members and supporters, and your views are represented to our leaders in Parliament and elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats are proud of their tradition as a truly democratic party and, as your President, it is my proud duty to ensure that this tradition is upheld.

'Liberal Bureaucracy' does William Tell

Of course, as a jobbing bureaucrat, weapons training is not part of my day to day activity. However, one should never turn down an opportunity to gain new skills. And so it was that I found myself in the Elveden Forest on Saturday afternoon, with a crossbow in one hand and a bolt in the other.

My stepdaughter Sally and her fiance, Brij, had graciously invited Ros and I to spend a day with them at Centre Parcs, with some activity involved, and they thought that some archery would be nice. So, into the car we got, and Ros drove across Suffolk until we reached Elveden.

Presenting ourselves at the archery range, we were taken through the finer points of shooting apples perched on people's heads (basically, the advice is not to do it, especially with your own children...). Next, we were taught how to load a crossbow, something which is more difficult than it looks, given that the draw is about 100 pounds. A bit of safety advice, and we were off. To spice things up, after three fairly wild practice shots, we were set to compete against each other, and the other four participants.

It turns out that I'm pretty good, scoring 46 out of 60 with my twelve bolts. Once I'd mastered the recoil and made some adjustments, I would be likely to wound you quite badly three times out of four, although I'd need you to be at fairly close range and not moving about too much.

Meanwhile, Ros was getting steadily better as she mastered the equipment. I think that, as a baroness, she should have a crossbow, as a broadsword is really difficult to drag around, and doesn't fit neatly in a handbag... something in red, perhaps?

'Liberal Bureaucracy' by the numbers - May 2010

As promised, May was a bumper month here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy'.

Readership was up dramatically, with 3,653 visits during the month, compared to 2,255 in April (down 62%, or 56.8% adjusting for the uneven number of days), and 1,853 in May 2009 (up 97.1%).

Income from advertising has increased again, to £2.01, up from 31p last month, and from last May's £1.15. As a result, my first cheque from AdSense is now expected to arrive in September 2014.

Oh yes, my Wikio ranking is 210 (General), 107 (Politics), so I'm drifting further from the big league...

Monday, June 07, 2010

National Express East Anglia - the curse strikes again!

As part of an attempt to do more non-Party stuff, I took Friday afternoon off to attend UEA Court, one of those ceremonial things that we do so well in this country. Given that both Ros and I are UEA graduates, it seemed to be right that we accept their invitation.

Unfortunately, not far beyond Stratford, the NXEA curse struck. A train in front of us had broken down, blocking the line. An obvious solution would have been to switch the points to allow us to travel around the blockage but, in one of those coincidences that drives people off of the railways, there had been a points failure, and we were stuck - for about an hour and a quarter.
The result, trip to Norwich cancelled, leaving us to enjoy a beautiful mid-Suffolk evening. Ah well, every cloud has a silver lining... and NXEA will be sending me vouchers equivalent to the cost of my trip...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Liberal Youth: Facebook pages etc. for the Vice Chair candidates

As part of my continuing efforts to bring this election "to the people", here are the places that you can find information about the candidates for the Vice Chair positions;

Vice Chair Campaigns

Vice Chair Communications

Vice Chair Finance

Vice Chair Membership Development

Another late night propping corpses against the battlements

I am, undoubtedly, too old for this. By "this", of course, I mean the Liberal Youth elections, where people less than half my age remind me of my mortality whilst I try to uphold the Constitution in a manner akin to Beau Geste in the 1939 film version of the book (you know, propping corpses up at the battlements to fool the attacking Tuaregs into believing that there are more defenders than there really are).

And it is difficult. Much of what might seem unfair is not prevented by the Rules, so far as they exist, and with Facebook groups, and much public information, deciding upon what should be stopped and how that might be done requires imagination and pragmatism. Unfortunately, it also requires time, and I'm rather time poor at the moment (you know how it is).

However, I'm committed to the task now, and my next aim is to get the manifestos to Katy to produce the manifesto booklet. If only AOL wasn't proving to be such a problem...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Meeting the Managers - a reminder that National Express East Anglia don't get it

I freely admit that my opinion of National Express East Anglia's management is a pretty low one, although they do seem determined to reinforce that at every opportunity. And so, the fact that they were holding a 'Meet the Managers' event at Stowmarket this morning seemed too good to miss.

My suspicion that it wasn't going to be a blazing success was highlighted as I walked through the station past the booking office - which was closed, in mid-rush hour. From a personal perspective, having to collect my ticket from the machine, that meant queuing behind people relatively unused to using it, delaying me in my quest to reach the London-bound platform. However, I was early, so no crisis.

I raised the matter with the lady on the platform with a badge saying that she was Head of Customer Services and her response was that there is another machine on the other platform. Accurate in its simplicity, but no comment on why the ticket office was closed at a mainline station on a weekday in the rush hour. "Oh no, it's your fault.", seemed to be her attitude.

Alright, what about your poor punctuality and performance record on the mainline service? "It's getting better by the week.". So, no apology for your appalling performance so far. "We would do much better if there was investment in the track." Hang on, when you signed the franchise agreement, wasn't that a given? "If the track was better, we could run services like Virgin." What, Pendolinos? Are you serious, on a relatively backwater part of the rail network?

Increasingly frustrated, I turned to the Service Improvement Plan. Don't you think that it's dishonest to claim credit for improvements that will only come into effect after you lose the franchise. "No." After all, you've lost the franchise for being so thoroughly useless.

In summary, my exchange exemplifies every reason why National Express East Anglia deserve all the opprobrium they get. They don't seem to understand that, regardless of whether or not their performance is improving, it is doing so from an almost subterranean base, is still at levels far below its competitors, and is delivered almost grudgingly, despite the fact that their staff are at least trying.

Naturally, I will be looking at ways of addressing my frustrations...

An afternoon at the Middy

For those interested in what are now known as 'heritage railways', Suffolk is a bit on the barren side. Much of its old railways are now closed and, at least as far as passengers are concerned, long gone. Amongst those lines lost;
  • Cambridge to Sudbury via Clare
  • the Eye branch from Mellis on the London to Norwich line (Mellis itself was closed years ago)
  • the Framlingham branch from the East Suffolk line
  • the light railway to Southwold
  • the Aldeburgh branch from the East Suffolk line, partly retained to serve Sizewell B
  • the Waveney Valley line serving Bungay
  • the Snape goods line
The one remaining line even partly open to the public is the Mid Suffolk Light Railway, originally opened in 1902 to goods traffic, with passengers carried from 1908, which ran from Haughley, north of Stowmarket, on the London to Norwich line, eastwards across country to Laxfield.

Originally, it was intended to run to Halesworth, to connect with the East Suffolk line and connect Cambridge with Lowestoft more directly. However, by 1907, the railway was effectively bankrupt, and the money ran out more than eight miles short of its intended terminus. Similarly, a southern branch, intended to connect the railway with Ipswich, only reached a mile or so towards Debenham before work stopped.

What remained was a meandering light railway, serving a series of small, rural villages reliant on agriculture for goods traffic. It never really stood a chance and, by 1952, was closed forever. Or so it seemed. A group of enthusiasts formed a society designed to salvage the heritage and, eventually, run some trains again. Ironically, the committee on Suffolk County Council that gave them one of their primary grants in the early days was chaired by my lovely wife.

Today, based at the old station at Brockford, the Mid Suffolk Light Railway Museum has recreated the station, laid some track, and run steam trains up and down a short stretch of track from time to time. There is a museum with photographs and models, a shop where you can buy old railway magazines, books and other railway memorabilia, a pretty good tearoom and, on occasion, a real ale bar serving the finest products of the Earl Soham Brewery.

As Ros and I are quite keen to explore Suffolk - well, Ros wants me to see more of it, and I'm perfectly happy to do so - we decided to take her sister for a visit. A theme day was being held - 'Music on the Middy', with a folk band, including an accordion player, and there were quite a few people who had made their way to what is, I admit, a fairly remote corner of mid-Suffolk.

We rode the train, drank tea (or in my case, real ale), I took some pictures. All in all, it was rather fun. And, best of all, I am now the proud possessor of a season ticket for the rest of the year, so I may well return, if only for a beer...