Thursday, September 30, 2010

I don't care how commercial it is, it's still a bus service...

We have had some potentially good news, here in Paradise-sur-Gipping, in that the persistence of our Parish Clerk appears to have finally paid off.

Rosemary was of the view that getting Tesco to run a free shopper bus between Creeting St Peter and their Stowmarket store could only be a good thing, and I couldn't help but agree. So, she wrote to them, and followed it up when they were slow to respond.

And would you believe it, we've been offered a weekly bus. Every Monday, should there be any demand, the bus will pick up mid-morning and return about ninety minutes later, allowing adequate time for a decent shop, plus a quick coffee should the mood take you.

It would be nice if it served Creeting St Mary and Stowupland too, but we'll see how that works in due course.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alas, poor Jennie, I knew her well...

The news that Jennie Rigg has failed to gain enough nominations to be accepted as a validly nominated candidate has come as a bit of a disappointment to me. Don't get me wrong, as a very publicly declared neutral, I announced that I would not, and could not, nominate a candidate. After all, there are too many out there who believe that I am some sort of unspoken frontman for Ros (and you wouldn't say that if I had been the President and she had been my consort, would you?).

However, a contest for the Presidency, with three distinctive voices, would have ensured that, at the very least, there might have been an attempt at triangulation, an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Throwing a grassroots activist into the mix would have ensured that the issues that matter to them would be part of the equation to be solved in order to win.

All of this said, Jennie has demonstrated something deeply important. She has demonstrated that her campaign, which I initially thought was a quixotic one, was about more than a few friends with a idea, it had genuine roots. I don't know if Jennie will attempt to run again in the future - whoever wins might do such a good job that there is no desire to replace them in 2012 - but there is now a reservoir of goodwill which might be drawn on one day.

In the meantime, we are left with Tim Farron and Susan Kramer. They are each offering something different, and members will need to choose based on what they believe is best for the Party. It won't be an easy choice, as each has much to recommend them. And I intend to remain neutral until the bitter end, even if I do cast my ballot in the end...

Mid Suffolk and Babergh: bigger, better, further away?

Last night, Babergh District Council voted in favour of a full merger between itself and Mid Suffolk District Council, with the expectation that £1.3 million could be saved with no effect on services. Good news then, for the council tax payers of Mid Suffolk, one presumes.

To be honest, I've developed the view that District Councils in Suffolk are too small to be efficient, unable to recruit and retain staff at a sufficient level, providing services that cost more than they should at a lower quality than they should. Indeed, I was of the view that, with proper standards of democratic accountability, unitary government for Suffolk, be it through a single countywide authority, or through the reinstatement of East and West Suffolk, was a step forward.

There will undoubtedly be short-term costs. Two Chief Executives, two Heads of Planning and so on, will have to be reduced to one, and that one might not be either of the incumbents. Pension enhancements, redundancy payments, they won't come cheap. On the other hand, the continuing savings will be substantial, especially if the number of councillors is cut by one-third (as the rumours indicate).

Of course, this does mean that, here in Creeting St Peter, we will be more remote than ever from the levers of power. New people to deal with, new relationships to build, something for our Parish Clerk, Rosemary, to get her teeth into. It could be good, it could protect some of the services we rely on as a small village.

On the other hand, depending on where power lies, we might find it harder to make our voice heard, that services will be focussed on those places with larger populations. At the moment, we are represented by about 10% of a district councillor, who is evidently more interested in Stowupland than in us. In the new setup, we'll be represented by about 6% of a district councillor.

There will, we are promised, be a referendum to decide whether the proposal goes ahead or not. As council tax payers, we need to make sure that there is something in this for us, even if it's only lower council tax levels or better services than we might otherwise get.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why voting for the Federal Executive is important...

I'm not actually on the Federal Executive. Not only that, I've never run for a place on it, and nor am I doing so this time. However, it is important.

In the past, the view has been that the Federal Executive is just a talking shop, where difficult issues can be parked until they fade away. The inability of the body to get through its business in past years, so that important decisions were deferred, and some devolved to much less accountable bodies (or individuals), meant that those who were elected to take a more radical line were defeated by sheer inertia.

It is generally accepted that the body now works more efficiently. Proper agenda management, married to effective discipline and preparation, means that the Federal Executive has been rather more successful in its roles of scrutiny and strategic decision making. Meetings even end at a reasonable time...

Therefore, rather than voting for the same old people, why not, as I suggested from the platform on Sunday morning, vote for those candidates who have done things, rather than been things. I'll be looking at the manifestos but, if you want to make a pitch for my first preference, feel free to leave a comment here with your e-mail address. I won't publish your comment, because it might be seen to be a breach of the Election Rules, but I will respond directly...

Simon Hughes and the Federal Constitution - might an introduction be needed?

I had an unexpected experience on Sunday morning, as I was flicking through the channels to see if anything worth watching was on. BBC Parliament was showing the Diversity debate from our Conference last week, and Simon Hughes was on my screen.

Given that I disagree wholeheartedly with Simon's stance on the issue, my finger was lingering on the 'next channel' button, until I caught him saying that he was going to be bringing proposals to the next Federal Executive calling for more quotas, beyond even those called for by the motion being debated.

I do hope not. As the evisceration of the motion demonstrated, Liberal Democrats do not like quotas. It is, however, a sign of Simon's utter disregard for the Federal Constitution of the Party that he can get up and make a speech like that. The selection rules for Parliamentary candidates are, ironically, the responsibility of the State Parties, and whilst the Scottish and Welsh Parties are increasingly following a similar path to the English, they do that of their own volition, not because the Federal Party tells them to. Yes, the Federal Conference can probably instruct the States, but the Federal Executive cannot and should not.

It isn't as though Simon doesn't have form. His appointment of a cohort of Deputy Presidents during his term as Party President was greeted with a degree of derision from those who dislike the granting of pompous titles, and concern from those who actually care about the constitution. The latter group, including myself, wondered whether there was a risk that these arbitrarily appointed individuals might take on extra-constitutional responsibilities and, perhaps, powers.

However one spins it, the Party have again taken a view on the diversity issue. If the movers of last week's motion think that, having lost the argument, they can use Federal Executive to construct a trojan horse for quotas, they are very much mistaken...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Do not feed the Constitution, as it requires a healthy and balanced diet."

Sometimes, the life of a bureaucrat is complicated by people wanting to do things. The reasoning behind their desire might be entirely well-meaning, occasionally not. As a bureaucrat, one lives with that. Well, usually... One thing that makes me nervous, however, is proposed constitutional change. Something that someone doesn't like has happened, and something must be done. You've all heard it before, generally from the Daily Mail, and you know what the standard response is.

This weekend, I have been made aware of concerns about the powers assigned to our Regional Conference Committee. It is required to rule on whether motions submitted by Local Parties, Specified Associated Organisations or groups of Conference Representatives will be accepted. Apparently, there are questions about the way in which it reaches its decisions, and the apparent lack of an appeals process. Therefore, a Constitutional amendment has been called for.

I had generally assumed that any decision, taken by virtually any body, can be appealed. The usual problem is that an appeal takes time, requires submission and consideration of evidence. Given the fairly tight scheduling of a Regional Conference, and the need to appoint an appeal panel, this really should be a last resort in any event. However, it seems that this needs to be confirmed.

My first thought was that the right of appeal was enshrined within the Constitution. Perhaps it isn't. Alternatively, the Conference Standing Orders contain the solution. However, adding anything to a Constitution, especially one so infrequently read, is unlikely to help...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Can HMRC bear another 7,000 job losses?

The rumours emanating from Whitehall that, as part of the review of Government spending, 10% of the current workforce, 70,000 strong, will be of concern to those who believe that service levels are already poor. From the perspective of the 'poor bloody infantry' on the frontline, it will certainly come as a blow.

And yet, there is potentially scope to achieve such job losses. The new PAYE computer system spells the end of manual reconciliations, and therefore the people who carried them out. Mandatory e-filing of company tax returns for corporation tax will severely reduce the need for filing and data entry clerks, whilst mandatory electronic payment will reduce the ranks of those handling cheques.

Retirements will thin numbers too. My office has a significant number of staff who will be able to retire soon, and many of them will be only too keen to go, given morale levels. Whilst Andrew Tyrie and his colleagues condemn HMRC's senior management for presiding over a continuing drop in morale, staff survey after staff survey indicates that the problems do not change, they merely intensify. It hardly provides an incentive for experienced staff to do any more than get to sixty, or complete forty years, and go, lump sum and pension in hand.

Funnily enough, I'm not attacking HMRC. It is inevitable that technology and the Government's near bankruptcy will conspire to reduce the number of warm bodies required. However, the ability of senior management to convey a sense of strategic direction and integrity is doing them, and HMRC as a whole, no favours. At a time when goodwill is more necessary than ever, the way that the PAYE debacle was handled has put the Department firmly on the back foot. The diet of media bouncers which has followed was an inevitable result.

If politicians conclude that, like the Home Office before it, HMRC is not fit for purpose, the Government will need to act quickly and decisively. At a time when politicians are searching down the back of the sofa for pennies, a crisis of confidence and credibility at HMRC could be very costly.

Diversity: the rumbling continues...

I've been taking part in a lively debate on Liberal Democrat Voice, sparked by a young black woman (her description, not mine) called Davina Kirwan. And whilst her approach is rather spikier than mine (whose isn't?), it has been interesting as a means of rooting around behind the text of the Conference motion to see what the underlying evidence is.

As a result, I am more troubled than ever. There appears to be little available data as to the success and failure rates for BAME applicants in target seat selections, and at least one proponent is convinced that there is little point in them even trying. One wonders, if this is true, how ensuring the presence of one BAME applicant on the shortlist would make a difference.

There does seem to be something of a generational split too. Younger women, BAME and LGBT activists seem less comfortable with reserved places and restricted shortlists than their older equivalents, and that has been the case for some time. They appear to have adopted the techniques that have worked for the ambitious in the past, building networks, tapping the knowledge of others. As I've already mentioned, people have approached me for advice or information, and whilst a few years ago, they were predominantly female, now they are BAME too.

There are rumours that English Candidates Committee want to postpone candidate selections until after the Boundary Commission has finished its work. If that is true, and I emphasise, it is only rumour so far, there is a window of opportunity for any candidate to focus on a seat that they really want, and start working it before the formal selection process starts. And this time, with the graduates of the New Generation Programme amidst the fray, perhaps we'll see a difference.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Suffolk: a virtual County Council?

For all the criticism of Barnet Council's 'easyCouncil' model, whereby if you want anything more than the basic, you pay for it, Suffolk County Council is now proposing a move towards a scenario whereby the council provides no services at all directly, instead operating through a series of sub-contractors. Leader of the Conservative-run authority (it was so much better when Ros ran it), Jeremy Pembroke, suggests that the only staff left would be engaged in contract management.

And curiously, I'm not absolutely opposed to such a radical notion. As far as most Suffolk residents are concerned, they don't really care who provides services as long as they are provided at a suitable quality level. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Government, at whatever level, is not always good at obtaining value for money, or at properly defining the terms of a contract. Given that long-term contracts tend to give better value than short ones - you can, for example, depreciate over. Longer periods, any flaws will tend to be costly to correct. The Public Finance Initiative, and the often inflated costs of essential works should be a warning.

Democratic accountability is another issue requiring caution. An unpopular council, entering into unwise contracts, can tie the hands of a successful opposition for years. Why vote, if the only thing that changes is the name of the councillor?

The role of a councillor, on the other hand, might not change much. Instead of calling a council officer, one might call the contact point or call centre of a big, national organisation. However, the quality of scrutiny would need to improve, and the ability of councillors to absorb more information would be acutely tested. More training, more support, more engagement, all of these would be needed for, and from, councillors.

The rights, pay and conditions of staff would need to be preserved too. Forget the fact that the County employs 4% of the county's population, and probably about 8% of the working population (oh yes, Jeremy, they and their families have votes too...), they have to be persuaded that the services they proudly deliver would survive.

There are also implications for other tiers of government and local communities. The Sustainable Communities Act has the teeth drawn from it if contracts for county-wide delivery are signed. And in view of the expected proposals in the Localism Bill, would towns and parishes be attracted by the prospect of taking on contracts they didn't sign, weren't consulted over, and would be better suited to more local providers?

Ultimately though, I cannot bring myself to believe that the uninspiring collection that is the Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council is really up to it. Parochial, lacking in strategic vision, and often more interested in being something rather than doing anything, without a strong officer corps to advise and monitor, they would soon be more out of their depth than a kitten in a whirlpool. Be afraid, Suffolk, be very afraid...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Farewell, but not goodbye...

And so, it is farewell from me, the outgoing First Husband, and El Presidente, at least as far as Federal Conference is concerned. On the other hand, if you're in Devon & Cornwall, Western Counties, the East Midlands, the East of England, Plymouth, Bury St Edmonds, Huntingdon, Harwich & North Essex, Copeland & Workington, Cardiff, Stirling or West Aberdeenshire, or attending the ELDR Congress in Helsinki, we'll see you there.

The last day of Federal Conference did not go entirely as I had hoped. My plan to have Ros accompanied on stage by two Imperial stormtroopers to the tune of the March from 'Star Wars' failed to come to pass, as Messrs Clegg and Alexander were unwilling to hire the outfits. I thought that Nick's excuse, "I've got to save Africa from malaria!", was a bit unlikely, but as everyone seems to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose that I ought to.

The warmth of Conference's reception was incredibly touching, and I know that both Ros and I were moved by the kindness shown to us, for which we are both very grateful. But Ros and I aren't done yet, as the visits listed above indicate. There are still some things that Ros wants to do before her term is up, and the Federal Executive will doubtless remain busy until the formal handover at the end of the year.

But for now, it's time to take a breath, to reflect on the events of the past five days, and head back to our Suffolk demesne to recharge the batteries...

Diversity Debate: EMLD and Simon 0, Merit 3

Another diversity motion, another failure, would be my pithy summation of today's debate.

I have never been happy about quotas, preferred status or all-anything shortlists, and I had already made my concerns known. The late withdrawal of the paragraph requiring two all-BAME shortlists in winnable seats went some way to addressing those concerns, and what was left, while it had serious flaws, was a genuine response to perceived failings.

Unfortunately, the golden rule of achieving radical change was overlooked - you need to build a coalition. Getting Simon Hughes to speak for you and implying that opposition is a vote against the BAME community is not enough. EMLD failed yet again to engage with key individuals and groups. There was no attempt to talk to returning officers and candidate committee chairs, no attempt to test opinion, no sense of compromise until it was too late. Even then, it shouted "our way or the highway, brooking little or no dissent from those BAME activists who disagree.

Liberal Youth's amendment, removing all the proposed actions that aren't already in place, was purist in nature but liberal in intent. I wasn't in favour of the second element, arbitrary in nature, inaccurate in fact and unachievable in timing. It is a sign of EMLD's failure to establish a credible case that it was passed anyway.

Given the butchered state of the motion as finally passed, it is as though the past four and a half years had never happened. There have been some bright spots. The appointment of a National Diversity Advisor, the creation of a Diversity Unit, a dedicated post for dealing with minority and specialist media and, above all, the Next Generation Initiative, are genuinely positive steps. But we need real action across the board, with more people with more knowledge brought into the network.

I have been contacted by a number of individuals, women and BAME, who think that my experience may be of use to them. Apart from being flattered, I am delighted to be able to make a small contribution towards helping them to make the breakthrough. Success as a candidate is dependent on talent, but also being in the right place at the right time, and seizing the opportunities when they come. A bit of information, well-applied, will make that easier.

Finally, we are where we are. All of us, if we're serious about establishing a diverse party at every level, need to do our bit, and fast. Selections in winnable seats will start, and unless we are ready, they will slip by, leaving us to play catch-up with lead shoes on. There simply isn't time to lose...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A smallish pile of good news...

Last winter, when snow fell in unusual large amounts in mid-Suffolk, my village was lucky enough to be gritted. At least, the main road through the village was gritted and remained pretty passable.

However, for those of us who live on The Lane, the village's only other significant street, the road surface was like an ice rink, treacherous underfoot, and decidedly tough to drive on. And so, as a Parish Council, we decided to seek help from the County.

Today, I'm told that the County Council have decided to provide us with some grit piles (apparently, these are not some kind of ailment), and we get to decide where they will go. I suggested that one be located part way up The Lane, next to the post box, where there is a small space. Yes, it's opposite my house (well, nearly) but without pavements, we'd have to put it in the road - not a good idea - or in somebody's front garden - probably an even less good idea.

We'd like grit bins, ideally, but they cost money. Luckily, our county councillor, an evil Tory a decent Conservative chap, has a new quality of life budget, and as we don't usually ask for, or get, much, he might oblige. We'll see...

Monday, September 20, 2010

"And could Mark Valladares stand by..."

It would be fair to say that I am not a frequent speaker at Federal Conference. I think that, over more than twenty years, I've probably spoken five times. It may have been four. It isn't what I'm good at. However, when word reached me that there was a serious lack of cards for the consultative session on Strategy, I thought, "What the hell, what's the worst that can happen?". Admittedly, I hadn't read the paper. Alright, I'd never seen the paper, or even been aware of its existence, but it did contain a reference to the English Regions.

I know a bit about the English Regions. I've been to a Regional Conference of every one of them, and been the Secretary of two, London and the East of England. And when it comes to a critique of their strengths and weaknesses, I'm modestly well placed to comment. Luckily, most people seemed to want to talk about identity and differentiation, so I wasn't altogether surprised to be called. At the lectern, I found a pair of glasses, evidently left there by a previous speaker, so I tried them on and asked if anyone thought that they suited me. Cheap laugh, it's true, but it broke the ice.

I started with an observation about Regional Executive Committees, a combination of the able, the willing and the grudgingly press-ganged. I noted that they are short of resource, with already busy people trying to handle more tasks handed down from the centre. Squeezed in terms of fundraising capacity between the centre and the Local Parties, manned by individuals who are councillors, Local Party officers or deliverers of candidate selection and approval, there is little resource left. To ask these people to take on a greater role in leading the organisation is, to be generous, optimistic.

Moving on to our internal democracy, I noted our tendency to elect virtually everyone to virtually everything, yet we have no means of holding them accountable other than to vote them out at the end of their terms. Manifestos describing their future ambitions with no reference to past achievements makes it difficult to properly evaluate their worth.

Finally, I questioned the purpose of the English Party. Is it, as I suspect, a vestigal tier of party bureaucracy which could easily have its functions and resources devolved to the Regions, giving them meaning, purpose and credibility? We need a leaner, more effective structure, accessible to members, and I mused as to whether we had that.

And then I was gone. It was a little odd to hear Ros refer to me in her summation in the third person, although she could hardly do anything else. It was even odder to have to collect her later in the evening from an English Party event sponsored by National Express... I didn't stay long...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Liberal Democrat Conference, Autumn 2010 - a preview

A year ago, I set off for Bournemouth with little enthusiasm and not a little dread. Whilst the message for public consumption was upbeat, there was a small, still voice, clamouring for attention, warning of a likely third party squeeze, and of losses to the Conservatives as they swept to power.

Little did any of us know that, a year later, we would be gathering to reflect on the unpredictability of politics, and we would have Liberal Democrats as Ministers of the Crown. And with that comes a whole world of questions, risks and opportunities.

Will our conference change? Will the sudden appearance of the world's media cause a general battening down of the hatches, the emergence of a command and control style management of agenda, speakers and dissent? After all, that is what we have come to expect from Labour and, sadly, our coalition partners.

The signs are, thus far, positive. Debating Trident, marriage rights for all and diversity indicates that, whilst the leadership (or at least, some of it) might prefer us to look like a 'party of government', delegates are unwilling to allow themselves to be dictated to by the likes of the Daily Mail*. Indeed, following staffing cuts, more motions than ever are springing up from groups of ordinary members, as the ever lovely Baroness Scott** notes in her pre-Conference piece in Liberal Democrat News.

And what an opportunity now presents itself. We will be able to question real ministers, with real power to change things, to implement Liberal Democrat policies and ideas. Whilst the idea of being a middle class pressure group is a cosy one, the whole point of involving oneself in politics is to make people's lives better, to protect the poor and vulnerable and build a nation where there is genuine opportunity for all.

People suddenly want to talk to us now. Our International Office have never been so busy, fielding requests from diplomats keen to find out who we are. The very idea of the Chinese Embassy hosting a fringe meeting would have been unthinkable even a year ago, but they feel the need to make their case - we have a junior minister in the Foreign Office, Jeremy Browne, who appears to have the East Asia brief.

Business too. The fringe agenda is filled with opportunities to meet with industry lobby groups who have suddenly realised that we need to be 'made nice to'. Actually, we don't, but we do want to find out what they have to say, and how we can develop a positive relationship. For the most part, we're idea driven, and the more data we have, the better our decision making is likely to be. The fact that we've never been the prisoners of the unions or of big business, means that we're relatively open-minded.

Of course, we are blinking in the media spotlight. There are more journalists than ever before, most looking for stories of dissent, of policy splits, of fears about the Coalition and its effects on our future prospects. And they'll find them. If they don't, they'll probably make them up, as it suits their agenda. We don't believe in corralling journalists so that they only meet trusted individuals, not that it would be possible anyway. Besides, I fear that they'll find that, for the most part, we look and feel like everybody else, a bit earnest, perhaps a bit worthy, but pleased to see old friends and share a pint at the bar.

So, enjoy our conference, whoever you are and what your reasons for attending are. We don't bite (unless you really like that sort of thing), we have a quirky sense of humour, and we'd like you to like us. See you there...

* We know that they don't like us much, and we're not expecting much in the way of positive coverage.

** Yes, she's my wife, and I'm damned proud of her

Friday, September 17, 2010

Party Presidency: do it quickly, use your friends!

Two hundred elected conference delegates, from at least twenty different Local Parties or Specified Associated Organisations. Shouldn't be a problem, after all, there are about 1600 either in Liverpool or on their way. However, there are at least four of you (and perhaps more, after all, Chandila Fernando only decided to run at Conference two years ago), which narrows the field a bit.

Using one list ensures that you don't get duplicates, but it's slow. You don't really want a queue, as people are in a hurry. So, you might want to have a team spread out, each with a list. You'll get your nominations more quickly, most people will remember whether or not they have signed already. And speed is of the essence. If you get your papers in early, you can focus on profile raising and, most importantly, denies your nominators to the other candidates.

Of course, you'll need to compare all of the sheets to weed out duplicates, and to monitor progress against the target. Designate someone to act as the co-ordinator - not the candidate, who should be out there selling the product, i.e. Themselves.

So, good luck to the candidates and, if they have any questions, my consultancy fee is very reasonable...

Party Presidency - the rules for hustings, candidates take note...

You might be wondering about hustings, now that I mention them...

The presidential election rules provide:

(a) The Acting Returning Officer shall co-ordinate arrangements for official party member hustings events via the states and regions with a view to balancing the competing demands for media coverage of the campaign, parliamentary and other duties. Other party bodies may only hold hustings-type events if they invite all candidates to attend, but they do not require the agreement of all candidates to attend or send a representative in order to proceed. Events designated as official hustings by the Acting Returning Officer shall take precedence over any other arrangements a candidate may have made.

(b) Official party communications channels may only be used to promote hustings events approved by the Acting Returning Officer. Responsibility for organising and paying for any hustings event shall lie with the hosting organisation, but the Acting Returning Officer will assist in publicising official hustings events via the party’s website, e-mail communications, Liberal Democrat News, etc.”

The official hustings are most likely to be linked to Regional and State Conferences, and the English Regions have been asked to lodge their bids by close of nominations (I assume that Scotland and Wales have been approached separately but, if you know anyone on their Conference Committees, it might be worth giving them a nudge just in case...).

I'll reprise good hustings practice later...

Party Presidency: the timetable and potential hustings

There is a small piece of me that is glad that I'm not involved in what is to follow. However, having been here before, I feel that my role as public information announcer for the contest to come is my contribution to enhancing our internal democracy. The key dates are as follows;

29 September - close of nominations

16 October - issue of ballot papers

10 November - deadline for receipt of ballot papers

13 November - count of ballot at Cowley Street and announcement of result

As for hustings, here are the potential locations...

9 October - Dunfermline (Scottish Conference)

16 October - Brecon (Wales)*, Gateshead (North East) and Nelson (North West)

23 October - Eastbourne (South East)

30 October - Huntingdon (East of England), Mansfield (East Midlands) and Oxford (South Central)

* The Welsh Conference starts on 15 October and ends on 17 October.

The English Party has invited the Regional Parties to bid for the right to host an official hustings meeting, so there'll be more news when I have it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Party President nominations - breaking news...

Just a note so that anyone reading this, candidate or potential nominator, is aware.

You can only sign one nomination paper for the position of Party President!

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFor what it's worth, I'd also recommend that you get at least 10% more nominations than the minimum (some of them are bound to be invalid, and with at least four candidates doing the rounds, some people will sign anything and everything...).

Party Presidency - there's a familiar look to some of these faces...

Gosh, haven't events moved quickly? From there not apparently being a vacancy a week ago, we now have four candidates emerging to contest for membership support. For obvious reasons, I'm not going to endorse any of them, especially as I have a lot of respect for all of them, but particularly because I promised one of the candidates that I wouldn't.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI know Tim Farron from my days in the Young Liberal Democrats. He was one of those annoying Student Liberal Democrats (in fairness, I thought that they were all annoying, bloody students...). Expert paper aeroplane manufacturer, Blackburn Rovers supporter (ah well, you can't please everybody...), and a successful campaigner.

Susan Kramer and I don't go back quite as far. I was on her Westminster assessment day panel, and had the great good fortune to have her as my PPC in Dulwich & West Norwood in 1997. We've remained friends ever since, and I was quite depressed to hear the result from Richmond Park this year. Susan knows how to run things, and is good at team building. I'm not so sure about her paper aeroplane skills though...

Jennie Rigg is someone I think of as a friend. She isn't a Parliamentarian, she's a grassroot, gloriously bohemian. You know what you're getting with Jennie,and you know that she won't hold back in expressing what she believes. Her campaign is already off the ground, and I'm expecting innovation, colour and a blog to die for.

I don't know Jason Zadrozny as well as the others. Ironically, I was on the panel for his Westminster approval day too, and was impressed by his commitment, dedication and knowledge. He will certainly know what it's like at the campaigning coalface, and his gallant campaign in Ashfield is an example to us all.

I certainly have no reason to vote against any of them, and would expect to cast all four preferences (I know that the last one has no electoral purpose, but it does indicate a positive endorsement) if this turns out to be the final field. All four of them have skills that fit with my perception of the Party Presidency, and I wish all of them the very best of luck with their campaigns.

I just wonder who ends up getting my job...

Welfare and the Poor: has Nick forgotten whose Party he leads?

Reading my copy of the Times this morning, I am confronted with a front page headline suggesting that the man I voted for to be Leader believes that the State must not "compensate the poor for their predicament".

I can't help but feel that he is either being wilfully provocative or foolishly naïve. And, ironically, the rest of his piece contains much that Liberal Democrats can readily agree with. He makes entirely valid points about marginal tax rates for those seeking to move from benefits to work, on the increasingly frustrating multiplicity of forms and rules, about the need for root-and-branch reform. But all of those good things are for nought when the headline reads "Poor must accept cuts in benefit, says Clegg".

I came into politics to improve the quality of life within my society and to build a more liberal state, where individuals have greater freedom. To my mind, that implies a degree of compassion, blended with altruism. It also means demonstrating that compassion and altruism, as opposed to just using the vocabulary of caring.

I'm not suggesting that we refrain from the tough decisions that reform of the benefits system demands. Increasing the amount of benefits paid by 40% has proved to be unaffordable. But we need to be much smarter about how we allocate those funds that we can afford, with the aim being to ensure that those in genuine need are sustained, and the vulnerable protected.

As Liberal Democrats, our task is to articulate that message, to deter Conservative elements of the Coalition from carrying out the slash-and-burn carnage that some, but not all of them, would like to see. It is consistent with our philosophy, indeed, it is consistent with my interpretation of 'The Big Society'.

And if I am expected to campaign for the election of more Liberal Democrats, including (hopefully) myself, it would be helpful if my Leader was just a mite more careful about the language he uses. This isn't an intellectual exercise, these are real people, with genuine fears. Labour will not hesitate to spread fear and despair in support of their efforts to defeat us. Feeding them with unimpeachable attack lines really isn't helpful...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's the little things that make a difference

It was back to the demesne last night for Parish Council and, to be honest, there wasn't anything on the agenda to indicate that the meeting would be anything other than routine. It appears that we don't do routine...

We normally kick off with a report from our Safer Neighbourhood Team, and PC Stefan Henriksen turned up in his hi-tech police uniform to inform us that, since our last meeting, we had been a crime-free zone. There had been a report of a stolen car at the last meeting, but it turned out that the vehicle had been misplaced. Let's just say that CSI: Creeting St Peter is unlikely to be commissioned any time soon...

Our county councillor, an evil Tory (actually, he's a pretty decent bloke, is Gary) told us about his new 'Quality of Life' budget, so we told him that we'd like a grit bin for The Lane - it was like an ice rink during last winter's big freeze - and he was very supportive, so we might get lucky.

The subject of badges for Parish Councillors was raised, as it was felt that, in the performance of our duties, it would be nice if people knew who we were. The mood being fairly relaxed by then, talk turned to uniforms, chains and imperial standards. Personally, I tend to think that a discreet lapel pin would suffice...

The rest of the meeting was occupied with talk of play equipmment and dog fouling, of planning concerns and financial administration, the stuff of Parish Council legend. It's all so comfortable... Where was Creeting St Peter all my life?...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: is this blog just an attention-seeking self-indulgence?

It has been suggested to me in the past that blogging is merely a means of saying "Look at me! Look at me!" in cyberspace, an attempt to find a place in the sun. 

And I suppose, in their way, they're right. I hold a minor public office, which is for the most part dealt with by my other blog, I hold an obscure bureaucratic position at the Regional level of a political party, my job is, for the most part, covered by the Official Secrets Act. Not obviously the basis for a riveting read, perhaps. To make matters worse, I write in a style which can only be described as cautious. I am, after all, a civil servant, prone to avoiding extremes, abuse and hyperbole.

Blogging is also resource-intensive. I spend valuable time blogging when I could be doing other things, although I have got better about that, thanks to the BlackBerry and the laptop (he writes, as his train hurtles through Essex...). Sometimes, I find myself drafting a post on a subject that, on reflection, I'd be better off not touching with the proverbial bargepole - more wasted time.

However, it does give me an audience, a means of influencing others. It also acts as a conduit for people to find me, as happened this afternoon. I, like a number of Liberal Democrat bloggers I suspect, received an e-mail from an intern at the Independent on Sunday, James Burton, which read,

"Dear Mark,

I'm putting together a piece on the Liberal Democrat grassroots' view on the coalition four months on and after two local elections. I've been reading your blog, and was wondering if this is something you'd like to comment on.

Do you feel the coalition is a cause for commiseration, or celebration?

Please give me a call any time today (before, say, 10 pm) if you'd like to comment.

Many thanks,


It isn't the first time that this has happened to me. However, I'm not really a grassroot, and it seemed a bit unfair to pretend otherwise, so I rang him, explaining why I could only really respond with "no comment". But it does remind me that, as part of the spectrum of Liberal Democrat membership, 'Liberal Bureaucracy' represents a viewpoint that should be heard.

So, the blog continues, with its mission to explain the bureaucracy, explore some of the issues of the day, and to give those who don't know me a taste of what it is to be a Liberal Democrat, a parish councillor and a bureaucrat. Besides, if I leave it to the rest of you, the world will assume that we're all Doctor Who obsessives...

Gosh, I've been shortlisted for a BOTY!

Today's announcement of the shortlists for the Liberal Democrat Voice Blog of the Year Awards brings the rather surprising news that we at 'Liberal Bureaucracy' are in with a shout of the Tim Garden Award (see pretty picture).

I admit to some guilt about this. My fellow nominees are a Member of Parliament, and some serious councillors. Me, I'm a humble parish councillor, not even elected to the position (co-options, aren't they great?). They do serious stuff, impacting on the lives of thousands. Me, I fret about bus stops and ten street lights.

However, that said, parish councils are the backbone of local democracy, and it is nice to carry the flag for thousands of my fellow councillors across the country, serving towns and villages as best they can.

I'd like to thank those of you who have nominated me, and wish the best of luck to my fellow nominees. There's some excellent writing out there, and a lot of blogging councillors, MPs, MEPs and Peers, so to even reach the shortlist is an achievement to treasure.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Public sector unions vs Liberal Democrats - a hint of what is to come

I've received an e-mail from my union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), an excerpt of which reads;

Branches will be aware that government are using a little known procedural legislative process to push through the detrimental changes to the CSCS called a Money Bill.

These bills are used to rush through emergency revenue generating measures, and DO NOT get readings in the House of Lords. They remain the property of the Commons only.

The second reading of the Money Bill takes place on 7 September. We have calculated that there is literally only a handful of votes in this, around 11 MPs can change the outcome of this crucial vote. With this in mind branches should redouble their efforts to lobby Liberal Democrat MPs.


Branches should focus all efforts on lobbying Liberal Democrat MPs. They should encourage all members in those constituencies to write and ask them to sign EDM301 and to vote against the Money Bill on the 7 September. Where MPs fail to respond to members letters, branches should keep a tally of the numbers of letters issued and to notify John Coote of numbers and the MP involved.

It is, perhaps, a sign of the competence of my union that I received the message this morning. However, I am intrigued by the sheer ineptitude and mendacity displayed in such a brief message.

A simple check of the Parliament website will confirm that the Superannuation Bill is scheduled to be considered by the House of Lords and, even if it is a money bill, the Lords can hold it up for a month (admittedly, that isn't much). As Francis Maude said, at last Tuesday's Second Reading,

"If this Bill progresses through the House, achieves Royal Assent and goes on to the statute book, it will come into effect, so the cap will apply as of the day of commencement. As I said, I hope that we achieve something frankly more grown up, more sustainable and more long term by having an agreed long-term comprehensive settlement. If both Houses of Parliament agree that the Bill should be passed, however, it will come into effect."

I admit to having reservations about the proposals. However, I also understand that the current arrangements are wholly unaffordable. The fact that the bill has a sunset clause, requiring review annually, should be taken as a sign of good faith, indicating that if a formula can be agreed by all participants, it will be put into force.

Hopefully, PCS will improve their campaigning techniques - on Tuesday, they protested outside the House of Lords, despite there being nobody at home. We'll find out when they protest outside of our conference next week, I guess...

Diversity in the Liberal Democrats: mixed race need not apply?

With another setpiece debate approaching fast, my thoughts have turned to a question that always troubles me. Not "Is this liberal?", because to my mind at least, quotas aren't, but, "Who decides who qualifies for such preferential treatment?". It is one of those 'elephants in the room' that lurks, just waiting to spring out and trample the unwary or imprudent.

If the motion as currently written is passed, said elephant will be loose. Why? Because the definition of BAME will need to be nailed down, with individuals having to demonstrate that they are 'BAME enough' to qualify. At the last census, nearly one in six of those described as non-white were of mixed race, a proportion likely to increase as time goes by, if a gentle stroll through Peckham will demonstrate.

We mixed-race types vary, depending upon dominant genes, some of us are relatively dark-skinned, some of us pretty pale. For the most, we self-define as non-white, even if in doing so, we draw attention to ourselves as different. So, do I qualify, am I sufficiently BAME? Ironically, the motion, if passed, will invite claims to minority status that might surprise. I have friends and colleagues who are part Roma, one-eighth Maori and one-quarter Pakistani. Are they BAME, or would it be seen to be just a 'flag of convenience'?

So, defining what is meant by BAME may prove to be necessary, a challenge requiring, potentially, the wisdom of Solomon. And it will matter too. If a self-defined BAME applicant is successful in gaining the nomination from an all-BAME shortlist, and an unsuccessful opponent appeals on the grounds of ineligibility, on what basis does an appeals panel rule? Perhaps referring back to the last attempt to define individuals racially might be of use, although whether or not Apartheid-era South Africa is an example to be valued is open to reasonable doubt, I suspect.

Ultimately, whilst I am willing to accept that the movers of the Conference motion simply aim to redress an imbalance. However, merely insisting that a BAME applicant is shortlisted will achieve nothing if they are not strong enough to compete credibly for member support, and may act as a positive disincentive to campaign building before the shortlisting phase.

Where their proposal does guarantee the election of a BAME candidate it is, I believe an illiberal manifestation of the notion of equality of outcome, which rejects merit and effort and rewards status over quality. It will provide false hope, without even a token effort to discover why BAME candidates don't apply and don't get selected if they do. Until or unless proper research is done to find out what the real problems are, we are condemned to repeat the failures of the past. I fear that the movers are responding to the issues of a different generation, one that seeks to change the culture of an organisation to suit it's needs without seeking to address the existing philosophical foundations of it.

And accordingly, I don't agree with Nick, and I certainly don't agree with Simon...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Party Presidency: a job description

Now that the debate has moved on to "Who next?", perhaps some information about what the job entails/requires might be helpful. And given that I've had a ringside seat for the past two years, and that the information might inform anyone seeking to fill the vacancy, here goes...


The President has three primary roles;
  • chairing Federal Executive - which is rather more than just turning up and doing the job. The agenda has to be agreed, papers commissioned, debate managed so as to ensure that all of the business is given a proper airing. The President is also a member of the Chief Officers Group, Federal Conference Committee, Federal Policy Committee, Federal Finance and Administration Committee and the Campaigns and Communications Committee. All meet in London, mostly in the evening, and occasionally on a Saturday.
  • representing the membership to the leadership - responding to hundreds of e-mails and letters (some of them astonishingly rude or even abusive), travelling around the country to regional and state conferences, to local party dinners, to campaign events, and then conveying the information and views gathered to the Leader, the Chief Executive and now to the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians in ministerial office.
  • representing the Party, as opposed to the Parliamentary Party, in the outside world, to pressure groups, media, lobbying organisations and, leading our international delegations to organisations such as Liberal International and ELDR.

  • It is not a salaried position.
  • No office accommodation is provided.
  • No staff are exclusively given over to support for the President.
  • The total budget is £5,000 per annum - this has to cover all travel expenses, including international events, and any other costs which might arise.
  • Volunteer help. People do come forward, but you have to find somewhere for them to work (see above).

Time Commitment

An absolute minimum of 30 hours per week to do all the things above, and, combined with most people's need to earn a living, that does mean that most of your waking hours are filled for you.

And a personal comment, if you’ll indulge me, if you have a family, or loved ones, you will therefore not see much of them, unless they can afford to pay to travel with you. If you don't live in London, you might not see much of your home either, which can get a bit depressing if you let it.

Required competences 

Having considered this, and having reached a personal view on what is required, I'm not actually going to list them. Ros had her way of doing the job, and her predecessors likewise, and each differed in terms of their personal skill set, likes and dislikes, methods of working and priorities. Oh yes, and the needs of the Party vary over time too.

Given that the membership needs to decide upon its priorities for any incoming President, it seems appropriate to leave this element of the debate for others to pontificate upon...

I certainly wish Ros's successor well, whoever it turns out to be. Because, to do the job well, and to meet the expectations placed upon them, they'll have to work bloody hard...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Campaigning: smarter, better, winning?

I'm in Henley, at my County's campaign training day. As the weather is a bit grim, it's good to be inside.

Ros spoke first, an unscheduled speech only possible because she had to drop me off - Henley isn't easily accessible from Creeting St Peter - before Keith House took centre stage. He had very kindly driven up from Eastleigh to impart his accumulated wisdom on the subject of winning. Given that Eastleigh are very good at winning, there was much to make me think, "Yes, I can use that.". And I plan to do just that. He very kindly brought copies of some of the leaflets they have used in the past, and my future leaflets will benefit from their example.

After a very good lunch (pork pies were particularly welcome), we spent the afternoon learning about the nuts and bolts of a campaign - how to organise action days, how polling day should be managed, how social media can support your campaign. It's been an education, although I have been surprised at how much I've picked up over twenty-five years as a bureaucrat. Clearly, all of those meetings at local, regional and state levels have left their mark.

I've also realised that I need to be better integrated with my District and County Council Groups. Their efforts can, and probably should, inform my campaigning. Given that the Conservatives run both Mid Suffolk and Suffolk, I look forward to holding them to account, challenging their record (or lack thereof).

The immediate issue is candidate approval. Setting up panels is complicated by the requirement to include at least one councillor, one non-councillor and one member from outside the District. Given that I may be the only Parliamentary candidate assessor in the county, and have chaired approval panels in Haringey and Southwark, I might yet find myself conscripted...

Friday, September 10, 2010

In the light of today's announcement...

... in Liberal Democrat News (see here for non-dead tree media version), the answers to the obvious questions are;

a) No comment.
b) Don't know.
c) Dedicate myself to my District Council campaign.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Seeking the approval of my peers

Saturday sees Liberal Democrats from across Suffolk gather in Henley, just north of Ipswich, for a county training day. I'll be there as part of Team Mid Suffolk (if it's good enough for our nation's capital, it's good enough for paradise), and am looking forward to discovering what is expected of me, as opposed to what I expect of myself. Add to this the presence of Keith House, who heads the Liberal Democrat administration in Eastleigh, who is expected to whip us up into a frenzy of campaigning activity (I may be exaggerating just a touch here...), and it should make for a great day.

Alongside this, Team Mid Suffolk will be having its first campaign meeting and, in conjunction with that, I have received a draft campaign plan. Curiously, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the plan drawn up by the Stowupland campaign organiser (she's very good, by the way). However, it does provide for the creation of a candidate approval panel and, if I want to be formally adopted, I'm going to have to pass an approval interview.

There is an irony here, in that I've never actually been approved to be a council candidate, be it in Brent, Southwark or Suffolk. Given that this will be my fifth candidacy, and that I've been a Party member for more than twenty-five years, it's an odd omission from the CV, but I've never fought as anything other than a paper candidate. I'm a bit more serious this time (the level of seriousness is for the residents of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter to judge, I reckon), thus the need for approval.

It won't be my first approval interview, however. I've taken part in hundreds, both at Parliamentary and Council levels, but always as an assessor. I've even chaired panels that have withdrawn approval from sitting councillors. So, it should be an interesting experience to be on the receiving end for a change. I hope that they're kind to me...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Another Liberal Democrat rebellion in the Commons

It is a sign of the lack of attention being paid to the Superannuation Bill currently on its passage through the Commons that yesterday's rebellion by four Liberal Democrat MPs appears to have gone pretty much unnoticed.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFor those of you who may not be aware of this piece of legislation (and I guess that you're probably not a civil servant), Clause 1 of this Bill would cap compensation payable under the Civil Service Compensation Scheme at a maximum of 12 months’ pay for compulsory redundancy and 15 months’ for voluntary exits. Clause 2 provides for clause 1 to expire after 12 months, unless repealed, extended or revived using order-making powers.

You would expect Labour to vote against it - after all, it was their original proposal that was struck down by the courts - but it seems to have attracted some concern on our benches too.

So, step forward Mike Hancock and Bob Russell, who clearly have their ears to the ground, or have been lobbied by the Public and Commercial Services Union (declaration of interest - I'm a member). Admittedly, they have rapidly built a reputation for themselves as serial rebels/the conscience of the Party (depending upon your personal view), but on this occasion, they weren't alone. The third and fourth men in this mini-revolt were Martin Horwood and David Ward, and today's Telegraph indicates their stance.

I'll be honest, amongst civil servants, this is an astonishingly sensitive issue, with the expectation of severe job losses over the coming year, with some very lowly-paid staff likely to be at the vanguard of these. Under the circumstances, yesterday's protest by PCS in Westminster was only the opening salvo in a campaign that will be particularly targetted at Liberal Democrat MPs.

David Ruffley MP on the road to recovery?

Following his accident in June, our local MP, David Ruffley, has been recuperating, whilst the two neighbouring MPs have been taking surgeries for him. 
Now, the East Anglian Daily Times is reporting that he is expected to return, albeit gradually, to duty, starting from next month.

I'm quite pleased to hear the news, as any constituency deserves to be properly represented in Parliament. However, I hope that David isn't rushing his return. Depression is not easily overcome, and the external pressures to return to work can be difficult to resist, especially by those with a sense of duty. One therefore presumes that the Conservative Whips will manage his return so as to ensure that he doesn't experience any setbacks on the road to a complete recovery.

The idea that Members of Parliament might be people too is, seemingly, a difficult one for the media and, regrettably, some of the public to understand. Yet, the incidence of mental health issues is likely to be similar to that of the general population, and perhaps worse, given the public nature of the job, the unsocial hours, the separation from family, just to name three factors.

We do seem to demand that our representatives are wholly without sin, so to speak, and I increasingly wonder what will happen if media pressure drives out those who would rather not have their lives picked apart for public consumption.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tube strike: thanks for nothing, Bob

Well, I made it to work eventually, despite the strike. And whilst my usual thirty minute journey took a semi-epic two and a half hours, it was at least in reasonable comfort.

Normally, I would catch any bus from Wandsworth Road to Vauxhall, switch to the Victoria line as far as Warren Street before a brief skip and a jump to my office. But without the Victoria line south of Victoria, and with Warren Street station closed, I needed to be a little more thoughtful.

My priority was to avoid having to stand so, from Vauxhall, I took route 360 to Pimlico. It's an interesting route, Elephant & Castle to the Royal Albert Hall via Vauxhall and Sloane Square, and therefore a bit obscure. It was standing room only, but short enough a journey to be bearable.

I should note that London Buses were providing quite a bit of information and, most importantly of all, managing the queues to prevent chaos. Well done, them!

The aim of my first sideways move was to get to the beginning of a bus route that runs to my office, and my target was route 24, Pimlico to Hampstead Heath. Sure enough, the stop at Claverton Street was peaceful and the bus, when it arrived, empty. So I took my seat on the top deck, at the front, opened 'Pyramids' by Terry Pratchett, and sat patiently.

The traffic was chewy, especially on the approach to Parliament Square, but I got to work in the end, even if it took an hour and a half. Oh well, better get to work...

Monday, September 06, 2010

HMRC: tax might be more taxing than you thought, Libby...

This week's disclosure that errors have been found in the PAYE records of up to six million taxpayers comes as no surprise to those of us with experience of the system. In my case, I was, many years ago, a PAYE group leader in a smallish North London office (Hendon, to be precise, covering Golders Green, Hendon and the surrounding areas).

PAYE is a rather clever system. HMRC gathers information from you and your employer, works out what your allowances are, deducts benefits-in-kind and income from other sources as appropriate, and issues a tax code to you and your employer (simple rule of thumb: take net allowances, remove the last digit, add the correct letter, and hey presto, there's your tax code*).

For most people, this is simple. If you're single, working for only one employer, and not in receipt of benefits-in-kind or making payments that attract tax relief, you code will be calculated thus;

personal allowance = £6,475
therefore tax code = 647L

Your employer takes that code and, using the tables provided, calculates what amount of income tax should be deducted. The tables are cumulative, so there's a different table for each week and each month. With computerisation, it's even easier, as there are plenty of companies willing to provide software that will do all of the calculations and prepare the end of year forms.

And this is where the pesky asterisk comes in. There are plenty of people out there whose affairs aren't as straightforward. The system was designed on the basis that people would stay in the same job for lengthy periods, and would hold down only one job. People who move from employment to self employment, or from employee to company director, complicate matters, as more information needs to be gathered, captured and reviewed. For a system that is only as reliable as the information fed into it, the greater the scope for error, misreporting or, to be blunt, non-reporting, the more errors there are likely to be.

There have been suggestions, from the likes of Libby Purves in today's Times, that the new computer system is to blame. She's right, but for all of the wrong reasons. Reconciling people’s tax after the end of the year, is a normal part of the PAYE process. But this is the first time HMRC has done it using the new NPS IT system and is doing two years at once as it was not done last year. As a result, more taxpayers are affected. The more efficient NPS automates the process – previously HMRC dealt with cases of over and under-payments one-by-one, clerically.

So, no drama, no crisis, merely the usual media failure to understand what really happens in a Government department. The great irony is that, until taxpayers contact HMRC to query the corrections, we won't know why they happened. But never let it be said that media experts are unwilling to admit to their mistakes...

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: is the Yes to AV campaign a distraction?

Given that I'm a member of the Management Board and Council of 'Unlock Democracy', this might seem like an odd question to ask. And yet, as a Liberal Democrat campaigner (never thought I'd use that phrase as a self-description but there you go...), I am caught in something of a quandary.

You see, the referendum is due to take place on 5 May next year. As are District Council elections in Mid Suffolk. Hmmm... which one is more important to me? Easy really, the District Council election, because I'd rather like to do something that might help the two thousand or so voters in my ward, whereas a 'yes' vote will make the electoral system for Parliament slightly less imperfect. It won't make a difference in Bury St Edmunds any time soon, but my active involvement in the debate is more likely to cost me votes in conservative (with a small 'c') Suffolk than gain them.

And I suspect that I won't be the only one making that calculation, especially given that a number of our district councillors are elected on local issues and knowledge, rather than on the basis of slavish devotion to their Party. It's certainly become apparent to me that getting myself known amongst the electors of Stowupland will be much more effective than just a leaflet campaign (don't worry, I keep getting leaflets out...).

There is an advantage, I suppose, in that by not campaigning for AV as a Liberal Democrat, it depoliticises that referendum. I for one can see serious problems in achieving victory if the AV campaign is seen to be a battle between political parties. Given the commonly held view of politicians and political parties, any endorsement from them is likely to be a turnoff for voters. If the electoral system in this country is broken, one senses that political parties are part of the problem, even if they might be part of the solution.

It's a pity, in truth, that as someone committed to the cause of electoral reform over many years should feel this way. However, for the first time in my political 'career', I'd actually like to win - my community means that much to me. But, if you do see a bearded man with a armful of Yes to AV leaflets in Stowupland sometime next April, it will probably be me. I just won't be wearing a rosette, that's all...

Friday, September 03, 2010

An anniversary for our libertarian friends to celebrate...

R. v. Jacob, 1996 CanLII 1119 (ON C.A.) is not, for those in the legal profession, one of those obviously seminal cases that leaps to mind. For the rest of us, this case, held in front of the Ontario Court of Appeal, was on behalf of a Canadian activist called Gwen Jacob. The prosecution was an unusual one, in that she was arrested for walking down a street in the town of Guelph topless. An indecent exposure charge, put simply. So, how did it end up before the Ontario Court of Appeal?

Curiously, legislation then in existence specifically forbade women from going topless, without referring in any way to men, i.e. the law specifically discriminated on the grounds of gender. And so, she appealed. If men were at liberty to walk the streets without a shirt on, why couldn't women? Unexpectedly, the Court of Appeal was convinced by her argument, bringing about a change in provincial law. Accordingly, should a woman wish to walk the streets topless, she is perfectly at liberty to do so.

I admit that, whilst I had heard the story before, I had assumed that it fell into the category of 'urban myth', so when the story was given another airing in a Canadian newspaper whilst I was there, I was intrigued to find that it was actually factual.

For the record, whilst the weather in Canada was mostly fine, with temperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius, I didn't notice a single woman walking topless anywhere...

And because it's Friday...

Here's the Art of Noise take on the Dragnet theme... is it really twenty-three years ago?

Maslow's hierarchy of liberal bureaucracy needs

The pyramid shown here represents Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory first published in 1943, expressing the foundations upon which a healthy, rounded personality is built. It does seem to have a degree of credibility, although the inclusion of sex at the physiological level is open to reasonable debate and argument.

One of my more endearing/maddening habits, depending on who you talk to, is that of being easily distracted. So I was intrigued to find the distracted hierarchy of needs, as inspired by Abraham Maslow.

It wouldn't be so bad, but for the fact that Ros then took great delight, at dinner that evening, of saying, "Oh look, it's a bunny rabbit!". And sure enough, I looked over my shoulder. And sure enough, there wasn't a rabbit...

* Deep sigh *

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A Presidential visit to Toronto

Whilst Ros and I were, strictly, on holiday, we were able to find time for a little Party business whilst in Canada. A meeting had been arranged with Liberal Party of Canada President, Alfred Apps, and Senator Al Eggleton, the former Mayor of Toronto, over lunch, and I was intrigued to see what would happen.

The lunch (dim sum) was extremely good, and our hosts were keen to find out how things were going following the creation of the Coalition. The politics is a matter of public record, of course, so conversation focused on the nuts and bolts of party organisation, internal communication, party management (hmmm... that's an interesting concept...) and the like.

There are many similarities in the internal organisation of the two sister parties, and given the similar electoral and political systems between the two countries, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. However, I was reminded that, as far as I can tell, we have seldom used our international links to inform our policy or organisational debates, which seems like an awful pity.

It is one of the reasons why I am thinking of standing for Federal office this year. Money is tight, politics has changed, and our Party machinery needs to draw upon all of the knowledge and wisdom that we can glean, regardless of its source.

Guido Fawkes: proving that rights don't necessarily come with responsibilities

It's been an 'interesting' day for the blogosphere, following the resignation of William Hague's Special Advisor, Christopher Myers, linked to a series of allegations. Naturally, I'm not the first to comment on this. At Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall and Iain Roberts have already made valuable contributions to debate. Elsewhere, Iain Dale has, somewhat handwringingly, claimed that today has been a bleak day for the political blogosphere. Perhaps I have a perspective that differs from others. After all, Paul Staines has been pretty vile towards my wife in the past...

Let's start with the allegations. The best way to proceed is to break them down...
  1. Was Christopher Myers in possession of sufficient skills to carry out his job?
  2. Was he appointed to that position for reasons that might represent an abuse of office?
  3. Was he involved in a sexual relationship with the person by whom he was subsequently employed?
Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy view, for what it's worth, is that conflating the three elements into one, Guido has gone beyond fair comment to, potentially, libel. I can understand why he's done it, after all, sex always attracts attention, building momentum behind an otherwise technical story about subjectives.

If doubts exist about Christopher Myers and the legitimacy of his appointment, and it wasn't an issue that was on my radar, it is perfectly within bounds for Guido to ask questions. Not very nice, perhaps, but then he never pretended to be a saint. Given the increasingly held view of public servants as being valid targets for abuse, and given the history of Special Advisors, he was rather more likely to be scrutinised than some. If there is evidence to indicate that the appointment was unmerited, then there would be legitimate questions about why he was appointed - it is public money, lest we forget.

So, why the innuendo about sexuality? Well, it's a fairly obvious inference if you're minded to reach it, and there were, it was reported, rumours of William Hague's past. It sounded viable, if hearsay and rumour have common currency with facts.

And this is where Paul Staines's status becomes an issue. He has the right to free speech, and I strongly believe that society is not free unless individuals have the right to speak their minds, regardless of the view expressed. However, with that right comes responsibility, in particular the responsibility to accept the consequences when you falsely accuse.

Paul doesn't really believe in that. By keeping his assets offshore, as suggested by Wikipedia (not necessarily the most reliable of sources), he intends to be a libel lawyer's worst nightmare. Faced with such an adversary, most of those accused will, one presumes, choose not to throw money at lawyers with little hope of recompense. Bankruptcy holds no fears - he's already been made bankrupt once - and whilst he can make a living through his blog, he has no incentive to stop.

So, on that basis, why not throw accusations of sexual malpractice into the mix, regardless of evidence, or lack thereof? In fairness, he wasn't the first to leave such an accusation hanging (warning - Daily Mail link, scroll to the end...). Think of it as Guido being appalling, but set it in the context of a media that feigns outrage with those appalling bloggers on one hand whilst using them as a source on the other, and colluding in the creation of a political culture where the notion of altruism is scorned, and human weakness exposed for the pleasure of others.

I would prefer to see the issue tested. If Guido has hard evidence to substantiate claims of a relationship, let him put them into the public domain. If not, perhaps a withdrawal and fulsome apology is called for. But it won't happen, as that is seldom the way the game is played any more. He will continue to offend most people's sense of decency, until someone decides to stop him.

Who that will be, and why, remains to be seen...

* note - I have referred to Guido and to Paul on an interchangeable basis. I trust that they don't mind...