Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hello from 2012! You guys, you're so last year...

So, Ros and I have seen in the New Year, to the sound of bhangra (you have no idea...). I have my flashing light stick as a souvenir, and Ros has an excitingly blue feather boa.

But, of course, I'm out of synch for five and a half hours because whilst here it is 2012, I'm still Regional Secretary until 5.30 a.m. local time. At least I'll be asleep when the transition actually happens.

So, let me wish you all a Happy New Year. May 2012 bring you all that you could reasonably hope for, and be a year less painful than 2011 was.

Time to wave the flashing light stick, methinks...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Arise Sir Bob, the Voice of Colchester

Long term readers of this blog will know that I am a bit of a fan of Bob Russell, our nearest Liberal Democrat MP.

And the talk here in Mumbai is of nothing else but the exciting news that, at some point in the New Year, the Queen will say, "Arise, Sir Robert" and we'll have another Liberal Democrat knight.

Bob is not 'fashionable' but he is a bloody good tribune for the people of Colchester, a patriot and a great campaigner over forty years for local residents. And for all of that, and the fact that he's a nice guy too, I couldn't think of anyone more deserving in our Parliamentary Party.

And for next time, Your Majesty, might I commend Sir Alastair Carmichael, for services to politics and Facebook?... Make him come in his Viking outfit too, he's got an enormous axe...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

2011 in review: a tale of what wasn't to be... and where we were going to be...

Released from the role of First Husband, things were going to be a bit quieter, yes? Well, no, not really. Freed from her Presidential responsibilities, Ros ran through the gears as my campaign manager, as I sought to win Stowupland ward from the evil Tories.

We'd been leafleting with increasing enthusiasm, and it was soon time to put a bureaucrat on the doorstep. And much to my surprise, I began to rather enjoy myself, uncovering a latent liberal vote dating back to the post-war years. The locals were (mostly) friendly, and I began to suspect that I might have an outside chance.

Sadly, the combination of increased turnout stemming from the AV referendum - they tended not to vote Lib Dem - and a Green candidate who attracted 15% of the vote without actually campaigning was enough to deny me by 91 votes. As Ros said, if I could achieve a 12% swing under such circumstances, I could have reasonably expected to have won in any other year.

There was no time for disappointment though, as Europe awaited. Ros and I had been elected on to the Council of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR), and our first outing was to Dresden. I freely admit that it didn't sound tremendously enticing but we discovered that Saxony was a pretty corner of Germany, and with pork and beer as key staples, the cuisine suited us too. So much so indeed, that we went back.

Ah yes, travel. I got to the Caribbean for the first time, to Jamaica. I wasn't entirely convinced, as it seems fundamentally wrong that most of the profit goes offshore, leaving the locals to do the lifting and carrying for little pay. Perhaps I need to go somewhere else...

We had liked Dresden so much that we went back for a holiday, combining it with Prague as a two-centre trip. The sun shone, the food (and the beer) were marvellous, and we discovered a whole new part of the world to intrigue Ros.

For we had discovered a degree of freedom. When Ros and I first met, the campaign for the Presidency was warming up, and with a year and a half of campaigning, followed by two years of the Presidency and another four months of a District Council campaign, we hadn't actually had a lot of 'us time'. And we were enjoying it too.

Our last trip was to Palermo for more ELDR business. It can seem a bit cliquey from the outside, as a lot of our delegates attend the annual Congress year after year. Undoubtedly, the cost is a factor, but the fact that it is a little known facet of the Party's activity doesn't help. I rather enjoy it all, as the way of doing politics is gentler, more collegiate. And despite having fought a campaign as the candidate and not just a supporter, I still don't like retail politics.

Life as a parish councillor has continued to take up more of my time. As the parish council's 'envoy to everywhere else' I discovered a thicket of committees, councils and other bodies sufficient to fascinate a bureaucrat. And it is all genuinely fascinating for a transplanted boy from the city.

And with that, I must away, as it's New Year in just over five hours. You see, we're in India, visiting family, catching some sunshine and doing some shopping. It's warm, the rupee is on its knees, and my family are their usual, gloriously bonkers, self. It's good to be home...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A new way of keeping busy... but how can I match the glamour that is Stephen Tall?

Having wound down my political activity in recent months, I do need something to keep me busy. And, on the apparent basis that the Devil makes work for idle hands, today I'm making my debut as one of the volunteer editors of Liberal Democrat Voice.

In fact, today I'm sharing duties with Paul Walter who, along with Mary Reid, will be handling Tuesdays on an alternating basis, under the close supervision of Mark Pack. In fairness, Paul has done most of the work today, and is clearly keen - this augurs well for the future.

Once we're considered ready, the three of us will be alternating in a three-week cycle, giving each of us time to commission pieces, or write them ourselves if need be - and I quite fancy making the odd contribution myself.

As Stephen Tall noted this morning, we aren't the first, with Caron Lindsay, Prateek Buch and Nick Thornsby already up and running - they're handling a day each, rather than alternating on the same day. Rather them than me, I must say...

So, what can you expect from me? Something ermine, something blue, something grey and something rural, I'd guess, reflecting my background and the circles I move in.

I hope that you like it, I've some tough acts to follow...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Sunday, December 18, 2011

No hard feelings, I trust, Lord North?

Our recent trip to Stratford was made even more interesting by our accommodation for the night, Wroxton Abbey, just outside Banbury.

The Abbey, with its eighteenth century garden, is one of the perhaps less well known stately homes but its history is an interesting one. Originally built in the Jacobean era, on the site of a monastery torn down on the instructions of Henry VIII, the house became to home of the Norths, one of whom went on to become Prime Minister.

Lord North, for it was he, is probably most famous for, let us put it tactfully, misplacing the American colonies, but his family appear to have been quite forgiving about it, as one of the family guests was none other than Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, who came to Wroxton to shoot. He slept in what is now known as the Presidential Suite, our billet for the night, and almost certainly the biggest room I've ever slept in.

And, irony of ironies, when the house became a burden too great for any descendent to bear, it was sold... to an American university, Fairleigh Dickinson which, nearly fifty years later, maintains the estate as a study abroad program base, with students from across the country coming to take advantage of the facilities and setting.

I'm sure that Lord North would have seen the funny side of it though...

The blunders of the human spine

"Good grief," you're thinking, "what's he on about this time?. Is this an obscure attempt at humour by using metaphor?".

Actually, it is pain-induced. Yesterday, whilst bringing in logs for the wood burning stove, I attempted to reach outwards and downwards for a last log and discovered the outer limit of what my back is actually capable of. It isn't that, it appears. Twenty-four hours later, after much resort to painkillers, and some rather gingerly negotiation of various parts of the house, I am capable of moving around, albeit stiffly and cautiously, although it isn't pretty.

As I have noted in the past, I have not really looked after my spine, slouching in chairs, reaching awkwardly for things rather than doing so in the approved health and safety conscious manner, and carrying more weight than is good for me, albeit less than I was carrying a year ago.

It is a dual reminder, first that I am, despite an emotional denial of the fact, getting older, and second that I really rather ought to look after myself better. A bit more weight lost would ease the pressure on my lower vertebrae, and a bit more exercise would strengthen the muscles that support it.

The problem is that, as I get older, being sedentary becomes more and more appealing. I enjoy my food and drink, and life is generally pretty good.

Oh well, life can't only be wine and roses...

Cameron offers up his Parliamentary Party as a hostage to the Media

Those of us who have, I put it politely, been about for a while, will remember the carnage that followed John Major's 'Back to Basics' campaign in the mid-nineties, as a series of hitherto anonymous Conservative MPs were outed for their less than entirely conventional view of human sexuality.

It demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that politicians are human, like everyone else. Unfortunately, with the media sub-contracted to act as moral arbiters, it was never going to end well, with effects that still impact on our politics today.

I find myself in what seems like a counter-intuitive position. Because, whilst our Conservative dancing partners normally claim to have a jump on issues of personal responsibility and freedom, this is one area where Liberal Democrats seem more comfortable with both. And whilst Liberal Democrats are not immune to personal frailty, the fact that the Party has a generally less prurient view of personal relationships and sexuality means that charges of hypocrisy in this area have been relatively few in number.

And the problem with hypocrisy in human relationships is that you become horribly exposed to a media who will never miss an opportunity to pull down an errant politician or, at least, a politician whose personal life does not meet with their moral approval.

So, David Cameron's talk of 'Christian values' will, I suspect have provoked a few groans at the breakfast tables of Conservative politicians this week, and a little rummaging in the files of our national newspapers. I'm not going to say that I look forward to the results, but I have a nasty feeling in my bones...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Measure for (somewhat sado-masochistic) Measure

It's been a day of surprises here on Planet Bureaucrat, none of which, I am delighted to say are work, or even politics, related.

Ros and I are at Wroxton College, the United Kingdom campus for Fairleigh Dickinson University, a New Jersey based institution, hosted by their Director here, Nicholas Baldwin. Our visit here was founded on an opportunity to see Shakespeare performed live, and our show 'Measure for Measure'.

I admit that, having studied Shakespeare at school, it only ever seemed to live when exclaimed, so I can't claim to be a huge fan. And when the performance began with a number of the cast in bondage outfits being whipped by others, I was not necessarily convinced that the evening was going to go well.

However, once the bondage gear had receded from the consciousness, the power of the plot, the quality of the acting and the Globe-like setting of the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon began to work their magic. Read in isolation, Shakespeare's plays require a suspension of credibility and a sense of creativity, yet performed you forget this and are drawn like a magnet to the morality of the piece.

And so it was this evening. I found myself curious to know what would happen - an advantage of not knowing the play, I guess - and enjoying the humour with which events unfolded.

It would naturally be wrong of me to reveal the plot, even though it is so well known. But, if you're in Stratford, and it's still on, I can but commend it to you. And, in any event, the Swan is a wonderful performance space...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is it REALLY necessary to be that aggressive?

Perhaps I'm getting old, or perhaps I'm just becoming a better politician, but one of the things that bothers me is the tendency of some people, predominantly men, to do politics as though it is a contact sport, all aggression and playing the man if the ball isn't convenient.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI've had an example today. A colleague, who shall remain nameless, but knows who he is, wrote an e-mail complaining about the behaviour of a third party. That complaint was made to an e-mail list including the person being complained against, in front of all of the people she will be working with in the coming months.

I responded almost immediately, explaining why I thought that such an approach was inappropriate, but it dawned on me that, perhaps, this is the sort of behaviour that discourages people from getting involved in organisations. And I admit that I find it a little depressing, especially as someone who believes that an organisation is at its most effective when everyone who can contribute is given the space to do so.

So, if you find yourself frustrated at a meeting, take a deep breath, count to ten, and ask yourself, "Is losing my temper going to help?". And then, why not calmly, and discreetly, approach the root of your problem, and find out why they are behaving in the way that they are. You may learn something. Of course, it may still mean that you have to kill them, but at least you've tried...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Another day, another lesson in Indian bureaucracy

Another day in London, dealing with my Indian visa application, having lunch with the woman I love, meeting my brother for a drink and doing 'Unlock Democracy' stuff.

Traditionally, obtaining an Indian visa has been fairly straightforward, if time consuming. You downloaded the form, or picked one up if you were lucky enough to live near a consular facility, filled it in, attached two photographs and went to the High Commission at India House. There, you were given a number which entitled you to wait in a scene from bedlam with hundreds of others, hoping that you didn't miss your number and, eventually, handing over the form, some cash (no cheques or credit cards accepted) and your photographs. You would then wait for your number to be called again, at which point your passport, containing a one page visa, could be collected before you made your escape. An early start was essential, before the queues built up too far but, if all went well, you could be out in three, maybe four hours.

Now, the task of processing applications has been contracted out, to a company called VFS Global. What this means is that you can complete your application online, and book an appointment to visit at a pre-arranged time. Or so I thought...

I had gone on line and filled out the very long, sometimes seemingly irrelevant, form, pressed submit, and then... not very much actually. You are asked to print out the form, and then led towards an appointment, where you pick a time and a location, subject to availability. There are three locations in London - one in Victoria, one on Goswell Road, on the fringes of the City of London, and the last in Southall.

So, I arrived in Victoria in good time for my noon appointment, forewarned by Ros, who had gone through the whole experience three hours earlier that I needed photographs that were two inches square rather than standard passport photograph size, ready with the right change for the handily located photo booth. The pictures taken, I joined the throng waiting for service.

There were three sets of numbers being called, one for those with appointments, one for those without, and one for those with specific requirements. Given that I had an appointment, I assumed that I would have priority. Well, not really, but I was only there for about an hour before the ten people with appointments ahead of me were dealt with.

When do I get my passport back with its new shiny visa? Don't know, but they'll e-mail me to let me know that it's available for collection. Progress...

Lunch with Ros followed. Our lifestyle keeps us apart more often than I would like, but given Ros's responsibilities, I can't grumble. They've got a new cafeteria on the Parliamentary Estate, and the food is pretty good. Not exactly cheap, but fair value and well prepared.

Next, some time with my kid brother, Kirk (the tall, dark handsome one). I try to get down to London to see my family as time permits, especially as I couldn't reasonably have been described as a dutiful son in the past. I took him to the Red Lion, just off St James's Square, and we chewed the fat for a while.

I was then left with a little time on my hands, so I went shopping, looking for some music. I also picked up a thermal long-sleeved vest, which will be handy in Finland in February.

Finally, in what turned out to be quite a busy day, I headed to Islington for a meeting of the Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy'. I have to admit that I wasn't properly prepared, to the point of being uncertain as to whether there was going to be a meeting at all. It went alright though, and I was able to make what I thought were salient contributions.

And now I'm on my way home to the country... too much London can be stressful...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Monday, December 12, 2011

Goldman Sachs' favourite taxman bids us farewell?...

It is unusual for a tax official to become the subject of widespread public opprobrium, but David Hartnett may well have set the standard by which future HM Revenue & Customs senior officials are judged. The man blamed by many of the Vodafone fiasco where, it is alleged, said multinational avoided as much as £4 billion pounds in tax liabilities, and linked to the deal whereby Goldman Sachs dodged £10 million in interest charges that other companies, in similar circumstances, were forced to settle, has become a lightning rod for political dissatisfaction with a Government Department struggling with low morale, pressure to reduce costs by 5% per annum and an increasingly complex tax code.

The announcement that he will be retiring next summer will have come as a surprise to many, including many working for HMRC itself, although the arrival of a new Chief Executive, Lin Homer, does offer a convenient window of opportunity - she will probably want to build a new team around her, and at sixty-one, Dave might not want to be a part of it.

On a personal note, and as someone extremely junior in this rather large, critically important piece of governmental architecture, I can't claim to know much about his performance. That said, his solid grounding in the technical areas of taxation always earned respect, especially amid a leadership who were usually appointed on the basis that knowing how to run an organisation is more important than knowing anything about tax. In truth, in an organisation that prides itself on its professionalism and specialist knowledge, theory is rather secondary to practice, and many of us are reassured by the notion that someone 'upstairs' actually might understand what we do.

I suspect that the history books might not be too kind to Dave, and would suggest that he will be one of the early casualties of a media that does not respect the old model of confidentiality and discretion that stood the Civil Service so well in the past. Civil servants did not take public positions, and in return, the media didn't attack them, as the Minister was responsible. The idea that a civil servant might have to publicly defend a position or an action remains something that is quite difficult to adapt to.

And so, what do we know about the new broom? A former Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council, and then Birmingham City Council, she has reached her current position via roles as Chief Executive of the UK Borders Agency and Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport. So, no obvious tax background there. Trained as a lawyer... but not a tax lawyer, as I understand it.

However, the Deputy Leader of Suffolk County Council, when she was Chief Executive, was none other than my lovely wife who, naturally, is far too discreet to say very much. But if she's from Suffolk, she can't be bad, can she...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Glory, glory, Disgruntled Radical...

I note that my gallant colleague, Disgruntled Radical (better known in this household as Young Mr Grace), is deeply unhappy about the shambles of the past few days.

But he has had some better news. Yes, you heard it here first, David has been successfully elected to be an (Extra)Ordinary Member of the Regional Executive of the East of England Liberal Democrats. I think that he will liven things up no end. Indeed, I thoroughly expect him to enjoy working with our Europhile MEP, and to make sure that we run a properly pro-European across the Region in 2014. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that, were he to essay an attempt at seeking a place on the Regional List for that election, I might well be minded to endorse him.

Luckily, the endorsement rules haven't kicked in yet, so I can't get into trouble...

Europe and the Liberal Democrats: we're at our best when we believe in something

Having just watched young Clegg on 'The Andrew Marr Show', I am much reassured. The initial reports of his response to the failure of the Brussels summit were, in the eyes of many Liberal Democrats, including this one, deeply regrettable, which only goes to show that you shouldn't necessarily believe what you read in the newspapers or see on the television news.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd I have to say, I thought that Nick did very well this morning. By admitting the truth, that the City of London is no safer now than it was before Cameron played the Conservative Party's joker, he said what most people who actually understand both the issues and the politics know, that a veto only works if it prevents something bad from happening, and that if you're not in the room when the big questions are discussed, you're not fighting for Britain's interest, you're watching as other decide your future for you. Not so much a veto as an abrogation of personal responsibility.

There are only really two options from here, one popular but wrong, one difficult but right.

If we want to protect the City of London, we need to be at the heart of the debate, or outside altogether. The Conservative Party would, I fear, given the chance, lead us out, leaving us dependent on the World Trade Organisation to protect our interests - not a happy scenario for anything smaller than a multinational. And Nick is clear, with three million jobs potentially at risk, with our influence in the world at stake, leaving Europe is not an option.

No, young Clegg did well today. It's about jobs and growth, not about machismo. It's about our long term future as a nation, not about pandering to the Daily Vile.

And perhaps, whilst we're at it, we can start talking about building the sort of democratic, accountable, transparent Europe that might prevent this sort of stupidity in future...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

So that's it then. I'll get my coat...

Executive Committee over, I'm on my way home, after a lively three hours which demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of your typical Regional Party.

We discussed the forthcoming Police Commissioner elections and, amongst the general but sometimes only vaguely directed unhappiness about how we got to where we are, we did take some steps to enable the counties to progress with any candidate selection process they might wish to initiate, and to move on providing support to them should they need it. I personally believe that the decision as to whether or not to run a candidate is best taken at the county level. However, if it is made more difficult than it might otherwise be by 'bureaucracy', we risk disenfranchising local members and activists.

Other than that, there were brief discussions on campaigning, the usual panoply of reports, plus mince pies.

And that's it, as I trudge away from the Regional Party into the icy tundra that is Suffolk. As Captain Oates so aptly put it, I may be gone some time...

The final (wipes tear from eye) report of the Regional Secretary

Since the last Executive Committee meeting, I have been concentrating on my legacy as your Regional Constitutional Monitor, sorry, Secretary.

To that end, I have revamped our website, enhancing its 'usability', making it more current and vibrant by linking it up to bloggers across the Region (and that includes you, if you blog). There is more that can be done with it, especially in terms of being a research resource, and I intend to spend more time on this over the coming months (Lloyd, I was going to mention the fact that, as you have been so kind in arranging a smooth transition, I was planning to stay on as, if you like, the mad aunt in the website attic).

I have also carried out a major reconstruction of our Constitution, providing a secure base for future Executive Committees to take the strategic view that I believe imperative for their work. The introduction of two-year terms for the Executive Committee is a first for a Regional Party, and I shall be an interested onlooker as its effects emerge.

I have also worked with both Lorna Dupré and Chris Williams, our gallant Regional Returning Officer, to deliver a set of elections that will, when finished, be rather more efficient than last year's. I should, at this point, say how much the Regional Party owes to Lorna, and to Chris, for the phenomenal amount of work they have put in, and to Tim Huggan and Ian Horner for contributing their time and energy to make sure that the ballot mailing went out as quickly as it did.

I have also successfully delivered the elections for Regional vacancies reserved for Parliamentarians and Principal Authority Councillors. In case you had missed these, the results were as follows;


There were no nominations forthcoming.


Regional Executive – Belinda Brooks-Gordon

Regional Policy Committee - Lucy Nethsingha, Andy Pellew and Anne Turrell

I probably did some other things, but they haven't come to mind as I've typed this report, so I'm guessing that they weren't interesting/important/life changing. If there was anything else that you particularly remember, do let me know – I'm getting older and my memory increasingly plays tricks on me. In fact, it reminds me of…

My other key roles have been to buttress the sanity of our Regional Chair (job done, I think), to liaise closely with our Vice Chair (that seems to have gone fairly well this year), and occasionally tell people that they can't possibly do that (I think that you'll find that Article 5, paragraph 3, sub-section iii is on my side here).

As an aside, I should note that the job of Regional Secretary in the East of England is a rather odd one, in that virtually all of the tasks defined by the Regional Constitution as the responsibility of the Secretary are currently carried out by our Regional Administrator. It does make the job rather more ethereal than actual, and can lead to a sense that one should do something if only to be seen to have something to do. Luckily, Lorna has done a superb job, often under quite trying circumstances, and I 'bequeath' her to my successor in the total confidence that the administration of the Regional Party is in the safest of hands.

Whilst I am thanking people, I should thank my fellow colleagues on the Regional Executive for their patience and good humour over the past two years. On being elected, I swore fealty until my Chair until death (it's a Regional Secretary thing, this being my second Region in which I've held the post). The fact that all five Officers saw fit to bow out at the same time should not be taken to indicate a 'Kool-Aid moment'…

Finally, you have not necessarily seen the last of this (actually not very) faceless bureaucrat. As the new Treasurer of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee, I expect to find good reasons for keeping the incoming Regional Treasurer on his toes and to ensure that you all continue to provide good value for money. I'm sure that you will.

Mark Valladares
Creeting St Peter
9 December 2011 

The beginning of the end... and on such a lovely day too!

Welcome to the 8.34 train from Stowmarket to Cambridge, as I head for the last Regional Executive meeting of the year, and indeed of my tenure as Regional Secretary.

Today, we're discussing the Police Commissioner elections, amongst other things. The initial shambles on this issue, further exacerbated by a failure of leadership on the part of the English Party, has now been replaced by a position which was exactly where I always thought we should have been, i.e. running a candidate, or not, should be a decision for local members. In Suffolk, I have been tasked with drafting a document to go to members across the county, laying out the position regarding the costs and other issues, and trying to gauge interest in being, and running, a candidate. I honestly have no idea what the outcome will be, but it seems right that we consult our members.

There is the usual plethora of reports, some of which are more interesting than others, although we appear not to have a report from our representative on the English Council Executive. One might assume from this that said body is an utter irrelevance, of no value or purpose - and I believe the latter to be true - but given that the ECE was where the Police Commissioner debate reached its nadir, it would have been nice to hear more about how they made such an utter mess of it.

Ho hum...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

'Federal Union Now', by Andrew Duff

Here's another document that I've read lately, which you might find of interest. The good news is that I can now remove it from my in-tray and file it...

The European Union must take a decisive step towards a federal economic government, with common fiscal policies and a larger budget, if it is to save the euro. Saving the euro is the precondition for the economic recovery of all EuropeTherefore a major revision of the EU treaties can no longer be avoided.

EU states which choose not to accept political union will have to be offered a new form of associate membership. At any rate, the new treaty, which will be prepared by a democratic Convention, must be allowed to enter into force before all 27 member states have completed their ratification processes.

These are the main messages of a hard-hitting new pamphlet written by Andrew Duff and published by the Federal Trust.

In Federal Union Now Duff defines what he means by a federal Europe and points out the steps needed to transform the Lisbon treaty into a more durable constitutional settlement for the EU. He argues that the current negotiations on the reform of the EU’s finances must aim to transfer items from the states’ budgets to the EU budget in the interests of efficiency savings. Such a shift in the levels of spending must be reciprocated by the creation of genuinely autonomous streams of revenue to the EU.

Duff draws a distinction between the tight coordination of national economic policies around a German agenda and that of a genuine fiscal union run by a democratic federal economic government. He strongly opposes the practice of intergovernmental cooperation outside the EU treaty framework, which has always failed in the past.

The new form of EU federal government will require the creation of an EU treasury and the integration of the presidencies of the European Commission and European Council. The author advances the European Parliament’s efforts to improve its own political legitimacy by installing a pan-European constituency for the election of a certain number of MEPs.

A veteran of the EU’s two earlier constitutional Conventions, Duff argues that comprehensive democratic reform will only be achieved through a third Convention composed of ministers, MPs and MEPs.

In a major departure from the status quo, Duff wants the new treaty to enter into force as soon as it has achieved national ratification by only four fifths of the states.

In a stark warning, Andrew Duff says that the recent EU Act of the UK parliament, which installs British referendums on all EU treaty amendment, has imposed an effective unilateral veto on Europe’s evolution towards a federal union. The author asks whether the coalition government has either the moral authority or the political will to prevent the rest of the EU from doing whatever it takes to save the euro. As a contingency plan, Duff proposes that a new category of associate membership be created to cater for the likelihood that the UK will decide not to follow, at least for now, the federalist integration of its mainland European partners. 

Andrew Duff MEP (UK/Lib Dem) is President of the Union of European Federalists and spokesman on constitutional affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). He is co-chair of the Spinelli Federalist Intergroup and the Parliament’s rapporteur on electoral reform.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

An (almost) unnoticed milestone...

Good heavens, have I really just posted my 2000th blog entry? It would appear so, having started my l'il old blog six years ago (when dinosaurs ruled the Earth).

In those relatively early days, when blogging was trendy, but not yet mainstream, it was all about opinion, and my rather gentle musings on life, the universe and bureaucracy made barely a ripple in the blogosphere. And, six years later, not much has changed in terms of the blogging. I'm still not terribly excitable, and there's still rather a lot of bureaucracy - despite my increasingly frequent chafeing about being defined as a bureaucrat, albeit it a gentle one.

On the other hand, I've got married, to the lovely Ros, moved house (twice), changed my work location (twice), run for the District Council, become a Parish Councillor and moved to a new Regional Party (and been an officer of that too). I've even tried 'micro-blogging', with my village blog. Alright, that hasn't worked, but it was worth a try.

The blog has, one might say, been a bastion of stability in a curiously unstable world.

And, curiously, life has become more reflective of the blog - gentler, more amicable. Life in my small village tends to be more my pace, much to the surprise of everyone, including Ros, and it is a never-ending source of new ideas. In turn, because I'm not rushing around like I used to in London, I have time to think.

So, the content has changed a bit, even if the style hasn't. And, of course, I've changed the design a few times, and will probably change again in due course, once I get bored and have too much time on my hands.

But now that I'm warmed up, here's to the next two thousand blog posts. You can look forward to more tales from the Parish Council, more countryside discoveries, quite a bit of travel and some 'more interesting than you might think' bureaucracy.

Now if only I could persuade Ros to start blogging again...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

I've got 'The little Liberal Book' and I know how to use it...

Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend a book launch that took place in Palermo during the ELDR Congress, that of 'The little Liberal Book: a guide for political party work'. It is exactly what it says on the tin, a nuts and bolts guide to building a political party from the grassroots up.

As someone who has rarely found himself in a successful, dynamic Local Party (Brent North, Dulwich and West Norwood and Bury St Edmunds have hardly been wildly successful in periods when I have been involved), I have found that one hurdle to success is simply not knowing what needs to be done. Or, more accurately, how it might be done. And I'm lucky. I've served at most levels of the Party bureaucracy, I know about candidate stuff, and who does what, where and when. But a guidebook never goes amiss.

The book comes in ten chapters;
  1. Why we need strong liberal parties
  2. What liberal parties have in common
  3. The role of political parties
  4. Party structures and functions
  5. Membership administration
  6. Event organisation
  7. Communication
  8. Participating in elections and campaigning
  9. Fundraising
  10. How to be in (local) parliament/government - coalition or opposition
and I'll be looking at some of them more closely over the coming weeks/months. And, you'll be intrigued to know, there's a section on how to form a coalition...

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tax and the Coalition: fairness and responsibility?

I've got rather a backlog of stuff that I wanted to cover, so for those of you who have read the booklet already, you can always find a couple of dozen leaflets to deliver...

A copy of 'Tax and the coalition: fairness and responsibility?' has been passed to me, and given my obvious interest in taxation policy (you might as well know what might be done to you, personally and professionally, before it is), I've found time to read through it. Written by Dick Newby, our Treasury Spokesperson in the Lords and a former tax policy advisor for the Inland Revenue (I knew that I liked him for a reason), the booklet looks at ways in which the tax system can be made fairer, and how tax collection can be made more effective.

There is a valid debate to be had in terms of how fair our tax system already is, and the Gini coefficient (a measure of a population's overall income inequality) for the United Kingdom  demonstrates the impact of, amongst other things, how government action has impacted on income inequality since 1961. It tells a tale of relative stability until the arrival of the Thatcher administration in 1979, when the coefficient value went from 0.25 then, to 0.37 in 1992 (the measure is on a scale between 0 (no inequality) to 1 (think Russian plutocracy). Through the Major and Blair years, it stabilised again, before resuming its upward trajectory as Blair handed over to Brown. By 2009, it stood at 0.41.

Lord Newby then goes on to look at various measures that might create a fairer taxation system, starting with adjustments to capital gains tax (linking it to income tax rates and equalising the annual tax free gain with the level of the personal allowance), inheritance tax (extending the exemption period from seven years), reviewing the tax regime for non-domiciles, and introducing a General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR).

He also supports widespread calls for a review of HM Revenue & Customs staffing cuts, and at a time when the Public and Commercial Services Union is calling for the staff losses to stop, his suggestion that "this is illogical and counter-productive' might come as a surprise to Mark Serwotka and his friends. However, it is an opinion that is much more widely held than by those in favour of a larger State. Taxation Magazine (your partner in tax law, practice and administration), for example, has run a number of campaigns calling for better staffing.

Finally, land taxation gets a look-in, with a call for site value rating. Whilst I would admit that this has been a liberal campaign over decades, it still has relevance, and even more so given the mobility of capital.

There is much worth reading in this booklet, as a means to developing a truly Liberal Democrat approach to taxation, and I would encourage those of you with an interest in the field to take a look. Indeed, I would urge those of you who wouldn't normally have an interest to read about the income generating end of an income and expenditure model.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The European Union and an elephant?

With apologies to Millennium Elephant, who really isn't going to like this at all (there is cartoon violence towards an elephant involved, albeit the wrong type of elephant), here's a video about the European Union budget and what you can do to contribute towards balancing it...

Bear in mind that it is designed for a European audience, so that the language used is a bit simplistic and the delivery a mite slow.

Small... far away...

Those of you who watched Father Ted may recall a scene where Father Ted tried to explain perspective to Father Dougal. "Small," he said, holding up a toy cow from a farmyard set, "far away.", pointing at the cows in a field outside the caravan.

My political life feels a bit like that now. As a Parish Councillor, my world is very local, taking me to Stowmarket, Claydon and, occasionally, Henley (just outside Ipswich). My new role as Local Party Treasurer may take me as far away as Bury St Edmunds, although that will be for a dinner, rather than for meetings.

However, my horizons are now slightly expanded. Yesterday, I was elected to the position of Treasurer of Suffolk's County Co-ordinating Committee. In that role, my patch runs from Lowestoft to Clare, from Newmarket to Shotley. There isn't much money involved, but the body has, potentially, a valuable role in supporting our campaigning across the county, especially for the county council elections in 2013.

So, that's the 'small'...

Beyond Suffolk, I'm still a Party delegate to the Council of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR), which took me to Dresden and Palermo this year. Next year, the mileage will be rather greater.

But, maintaining the financial theme that now seems to run through my activities, I've been nominated to serve on ELDR's Scrutiny Committee, which monitors the finances of the organisation. That doesn't mean that I've got the job yet, as I haven't been told what the process is from here - one assumes that the Bureau decide - so I may yet have other trips to make.

So, 'small', and 'far away'. Perhaps I need a model cow to remind me how to keep it all in perspective...

I don't think that I'm going to be on Tim Prater's Christmas card list...

Local Party websites, don't you just love them? Once upon a time, they were the big thing, and everybody had to have one.

But they were difficult if you didn't know much about web design, so when Prater Raines came up with a cookie cutter design, a lot of people jumped at the opportunity to climb on board. And yes, they're not exciting, but they do the job. The only catch was, and still is, you do actually have to feed them. Active campaign teams do but, here in Suffolk, we don't tend to, so we have a collection of semi-derelict websites whose sole impact is to enrich Prater Raines.

As the incoming Treasurer of my Local Party, I have concluded that we could share a website with either the District Council Group in Mid Suffolk, or with the County Council Group. We would all save money - which could be ploughed back into campaigning - and there would be more potential news sources.

However, this can be taken one step further. We have seven Local Parties and eight Council Groups, so why not bring them all under one umbrella?

At this morning's meeting of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee, I raised the suggestion, and got a very positive response. I've been asked to write a paper for our next meeting, so that it can be taken back to the various bodies for agreement. I think that the savings might pay for a County Training Day and conference, which would been a lot to us as a County team.

We'll see how it goes, but it might be a model for other counties in future.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Suffolk County Council budget - pain, pain and more pain

Part of my role as Creeting St Peter's 'envoy to the world' is to represent us at area meetings of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. Now I would be the first to admit that this does not appear to be high on the list of 'must see' events, but they are a valuable source of information. And last night's meeting was a fine example of that, as we were the rather concerned recipients of a presentation on the future finances of Suffolk County Council, fronted by the Deputy Leader of the council, Jane Storey.

In short, it is going to be pretty bloody awful, with another £50 million worth of cuts to be inflicted over the course of 2012-13 and 2013-14, and the prospect of more to follow given George Osborne's Autumn Statement earlier in the week.

There is some good news, however, in that she talked of a more holistic, long term approach. For example, we heard that the council provides carers to help people into and out of the bath if they need help. Instead, it might make more sense to build them a wet room instead, allowing them to preserve their independence and reduce the overall cost. It's a small thing, but it helps.

Turning off street lights between midnight and 5.30 a.m. also helps, saving £1 per month per street light, which certainly adds up across a county.

It will be painful, undoubtedly, and we're all going to have to get used to doing things for ourselves where we can, but rather than see the poor and the vulnerable suffer, we're just going to have to deal with it, I suspect.

Friday, November 25, 2011

ELDR Congress: adrift on a familiar sea...

It is that moment, where you find yourself alone with a glass of wine, looking out over the azure sea, when you almost feel as though you are on holiday, rather than debating war and peace, feast or famine, life or death. I tend to the view that this is a good thing, a reminder that perspective is precious, that we are not consumed with our own importance.

This morning, we have been occupied with an ELDR Council meeting, most of which was quite dull, and a debate on various resolutions. Astonishing though it might seem to Liberal Democrats, we got through thirty-two resolutions, on everything from the Debt Crisis to Prison Reform, from taxation to Iran, in just eighty-five minutes.

You see, most of the arguing goes on in working groups before hand, allowing only brief arguments on the floor of the Congress itself. Delegations then vote as steered by their leaders (well, mostly, because Linda Jack is amongst us...). I'm one of the scrutineers, tasked with counting votes from time to time. I've also been given another task, which might well be intriguing.

I've promised to report back via Liberal Democrat Voice, so I won't cover the outcomes of our deliberations. It would, however, be remiss of me not to pass on an impression.

ELDR is, in many ways, much like our own dear Liberal Democrats. There are social liberals, economic liberals and those willing to be swung by the arguments or by their own innate pragmatism. And whilst, perhaps, the balance is more in favour of the economic liberals than social ones, we act as a critical voice with a weight of votes which cannot be ignored.

However, there is a question as to whether our delegation is entirely representative. It excludes those without the means to pay for two or three nights and flights, it is predominantly white, overwhelmingly male, astonishingly middle class and almost entirely self-selecting. That is, some might suggest, an inevitability. Our Party has no funds to commit to support our delegates financially, and getting to, as an example, Palermo, is not cheap.

But if we cannot take financial steps, perhaps we need to find ways of inviting those from under-represented groups to take part in our international work.

Just a thought...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Graham Watson formally unopposed for ELDR Presidency

Nominations have closed, and I can confirm that there has not been a late challenge to Graham's candidacy.

Curiously, that doesn't mean that he has been elected. A ballot is still required as a President can only be elected if he or she achieves more than 50% of the vote. And that isn't necessarily as easy as it sounds, as I am reliably told that one unopposed candidate did lose once upon a time...

European budget: shoot the DJ?

Alright, so we're underway here in Palermo, in a room lit in blue lights a bit like a 1980's disco (if I find the glitterball, I'll let you know).

After a fiercely early start, the 32nd Congress of ELDR (European Liberal Democrats) is deep in discussion about the future of the European economy, with a rather technical presentation on global interconnectedness. Interestingly, the United Kingdom ranks 6th of the one hundred and twenty-five nations considered, although we rank behind Ireland. Even more interestingly, thirteen of the top twenty are in the European Union, and fifteen are in the European Economic Area.

The Indo-American professor, Pankaj Ghemawat, based in Barcelona, talked persuasively about the importance of migration into the EU to address the demographic timebomb that threatens the welfare system that has developed since World War II. He also noted some of the issues that inhibit intra-EU trade, relative to that within the United States.

The issues of transport, which is significantly more expensive within Europe (twelve times as much in the case of rail) are perhaps well known. However, the question of trust was not something I had previously considered, and the 'news' that levels of trust in those beyond our national borders are very low perhaps explains why companies do not pursue opportunities elsewhere.

But I ought to share the Congress logo with you. Often, these are esoteric in the extreme, but this one is worth a thousand words...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

First published elsewhere... ELDR Congress - let's hope it isn't a lemon...

For those of you who aren't Liberal Democrats (which includes my father, although he's fairly gracious about my political affinity), here is a piece published on Liberal Democrat Voice (apologies for the lack of linkage, but I can't do that when posting by e-mail from my BlackBerry)...

It's a long way from Creeting St Peter to Palermo, which partly explains why this piece comes to you from Linate Airport in Milan. But if my eight hour journey feels arduous, it is as nothing compared to the journey back to stability that is the mission of the Eurozone's finance ministers.

In the midst of this crisis, ELDR (the European Liberal Democrats) delegates from across Europe (and I'm beginning to appreciate just how far that might be) are gathering in Sicily's capital to discuss the European Union's budget for 2014-2020. I'm here because you sent me (or at least those of you who voted for me last year - molto bene, everyone).

In fairness, what has come to pass was unimaginable at the beginning of the year, and even when the ELDR Council met in May, there was little sense of the chaos to come. However, the current financial situation is likely to take up much of our time over the coming two days and will doubtless inform our debate on what the European Union should be doing in the coming years.

It's also time to elect a new President, and as already reported here, Sir Graham Watson is currently the only candidate to replace Annemie Neyts, from Open VLD (Flanders, Belgium), and assuming that an opponent hasn't emerged by this evening, the Liberal Democrat delegation will be being heavily lobbied for its significant voting strength by the various candidates for Vice President - we represent something like 12% of the available votes, and with four candidates to be elected, that really matters.

We'll also have the usual array of weird, wonderful and frankly parochial resolutions, urging ELDR to do this or that, and some fascinating seminars. And on the subject of seminars, it should be noted that it was at the equivalent event two years ago that the long-term need for recapitalisation of European banks was highlighted, and at the Dresden Council meeting in May when the junior partner in the ruling Slovak coalition announced that they would be opposing any proposal for a stabilisation fund (damn, I could have made a fortune...).

Finally, there are rumours that ELDR could be coming to a city near you soon, and I'll report back once this is confirmed. But first, we may be going somewhere that, when I first heard the news, made me exclaim, "How the hell do you get there?". It's not all glamour, this Euro stuff...

Italians - not entirely as stylish as one might think...

It's been a long, long time since I was last in Italy, more than thirty years, in fact, and one's memories do play tricks as senility sets in, but I had always had an impression that Italians are rather more stylish than the rest of us. Given my occasional tendency towards self-image doubts, that makes the prospect of a journey via Milan, Italy's style capital, slightly fraught.

However, times change, and I have to say that Linate Airport is a ghastly reminder of what flying used to be like before proper architects started designing airports. Yes, it does have the ludicrously expensive shops, but it is ugly, dirty and poorly lit, with insufficient seating, poor layout and... But I should stop there, I've said quite enough...

And, curiously, Italians aren't as interesting to look at as they once were. Admittedly, times are hard, but that effortless sense of style appears to have been lost, and instead, the people around me look like everybody else.

I fit in quite nicely...

Monday, November 21, 2011

"What do you do with a Secretary, when he stops being a Secretary?"

So, I've started the process of turning in my sheriff's badge as Regional Constitution Monitor (the actual title is Secretary, but you know what I mean). Just one more Executive Meeting to go, and a successor in place, Lloyd Harris from Dacorum, I'm already beginning to look for ways of filling my midweek evenings whilst Ros is in London running the country.

Meanwhile, my Local Party has been struggling a little. The Treasurer who, as is often the case, had his arm twisted to serve, has not exactly been on top of his game. Given that the Chair is a management accountant, this is, understandably, a mite frustrating to him, as he related to me over dinner one evening.

So I said, "Son-in-law, I'll tell you what, I'll do it myself if you really need someone.", thus breaking Valladares's First Rule of Bureaucracy - if you show any hint of willing, they will come. And so, despite being unable to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Bury St Edmunds Liberal Democrats on Friday evening, I was gloriously elected to the position of Treasurer unopposed.

And I'm already deep in thought about a four-year plan to take us through to the General Election...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy birthday, Mr Bureaucrat

Yes, another year older, and possibly another year wiser. Another year closer to death, certainly, although I like to think of that as being rather a long way off, and really not worth worrying about. That said, I don't really do birthdays, as I never know what I want, don't like having a fuss made of it (except when I unpredictably feel like it) and tend to have fairly simple needs anyway.

Fortunately, Ros is a pretty astute judge of her bureaucrat, and it was agreed that apart from the gift bit, and a nice dinner for two at home, Sunday was going to be a fairly normal day. So, I was left to sleep in for a while, before being presented with two books of railway maps - is there anything better than the prospect of travel?

We'd been away visiting my family the previous day, so food shopping was necessary, and we headed to Ipswich. My personal priority was cheese, as my lunchtime treat was to be my first cheese sandwich for five months. The cheese has been sacrificed in the cause of my diet (coming along quite nicely, thank you very much) and has been occasionally stressful. I have been known to hallucination a cheese sandwich at times, which is not something you want to witness in a grown adult.

A lovely afternoon followed, with two cheese sandwiches, a nice walk in the countryside, spotting deer and a kestrel, and some gentle pottering around before dinner. Dinner was belly pork (with crackling, naturally), roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables (apparently, they're part of a balanced diet), with a bottle of champagne to wash it gently down.

So, all in all, a pretty good day. I should thank everyone for their kind words and greetings, my family for their generous gifts, and life generally. And now, I really ought to get on with year forty-eight. Perhaps a nap first, though...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Theresa May - how likely is it that a senior civil servant takes a critical decision on their own initiative?

I am, I must confess, intrigued by the whole UK Border Force controversy. It is, in my view, a classic example of what happens when you set goals which contradict each other.

I've spent enough time at enough airports to have become a bit of a connoisseur of 'good' border controls. What I want, as a traveller, is an efficient and speedy transit through immigration, so that I can pick up my luggage and get to my final destination. If I'm in transit, it's even more essential. As a citizen, however, I want the border to be sufficiently well-policed to exclude as many 'undesirables' as possible. Quick isn't important. Thorough is.

One thing that is emphasised more and more when entering the United Kingdom is the 'customer experience' (please add the rant against the use of the word 'customer' of your choice). The key measure of this is throughput - how many people can be processed per hour. After all, do you care if the immigration officer smiles at you?

And so the news that, at times of peak flows through airports, the scale of examinations was reduced, comes as no surprise. Managers would probably be evaluated on the queues, or lack thereof, and would have an incentive to find ways to improve the statistics. On the other hand, you can't set targets for the number of people prevented from entering the country, so the stringency of checks might be degraded without risk of penalty... unless the Press find out, of course.

But it is a gamble, and civil servants aren't prone to gambling as a rule. Indeed, it seems to this state-sponsored bureaucrat that the trend is towards having your opinion validated by a senior officer just in case.

And now that Brodie Clark, the senior official at the heart of this controversy, has announced that he will be suing for constructive dismissal, one finds oneself wondering, "who did he seek authority to act from?". He will know that any such claim will have no chance unless he can prove that this was discussed further up the food chain.

So, it seems reasonable to assume that somewhere, in someone's inbox, there is a smoking e-mail. Whose that is, I suspect, is going to be a source of much discomfort in the coming days...