Sunday, July 29, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 29 - phase two over, now what?

Applications have closed, and I now have a pretty good idea as to what happens next. So far, so good. Our next task as a shortlisting committee is to decide how many we aim to shortlist and decide how to get from where we are now to what we want. We also have to decide upon a spending limit - there is a recommended amount, which I am minded to agree - and on a format for the members meeting in Cambridge, which we're working on.

So, what's next on the agenda?

There are doubtless some applicants who have either assessment days or conversion interviews outstanding - it isn't always easy to schedule them earlier - so shortlisting committees will have to choose whether or not to wait for them and, if they choose to wait, how long they wait for. I tend to the view that applicants should be given every chance if possible, but that isn't necessarily a shared view.

There isn't a tearing hurry - shortlists aren't scheduled to be published until 3 October - but there's never any point in leaving things to the last minute. Time to roundup the committee, methinks...

Note to self: don't sing in public if you can't sing, eh Mitt?

One of the benefits of being here in the US as the Presidential campaign heats up is that you get to see what the candidates are doing to each other.

So, without further ado, here's the latest Obama campaign ad...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 28 - everything's under control, time to fly.

It is traditional that, if I am involved in a European Parliamentary candidate selection, that there will be a complication. Most of the time, it has involved being somewhere a long way away when a key part of the process was scheduled.

In 1997, I missed all of the hustings, as I had booked a holiday before even being appointed as Returning Officer. In 2002, I had to approve the manifestos via a somewhat unreliable internet connection from a hotel in Buenos Aires.

In 2007, I did something different. I met Ros, and by the time we reached the shortlisting phase, we were engaged. It would be fair to say that I was a mite distracted throughout.

And so, on the day that applications for the selection closed, where was the Chair of the Shortlisting Committee? In the departure lounge at Vancouver Airport, heading for Portland, Oregon. After all, we're not scheduled to carry out shortlisting interviews until September, and everything else is the responsibility of the Returning Officer. Besides, Ros and I needed a holiday.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the sun is shining, it's pleasantly warm and, after a pleasant enough flight yesterday, we are jetlagged out of our minds - we are now eight time zones away. To come, sea otters and Alaskan ferries, a Lords reunion and a gold rush to the Yukon, some of the best craft-brewed beers and more seafood than you can shake a crab stick at. There will be politics, as we're in the US as the Presidential campaign heats up and turns nasty.

So, enjoy the Olympics, we'll be back soon...

Friday, July 27, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 27 - everything's under control, time to fly.

It is traditional that, if I am involved in a European Parliamentary candidate selection, that there will be a complication. Most of the time, it has involved being somewhere a long way away when a key part of the process was scheduled.

In 1997, I missed all of the hustings, as I had booked a holiday before even being appointed as Returning Officer. In 2002, I had to approve the manifestos via a somewhat unreliable internet connection from a hotel in Buenos Aires.

In 2007, I did something different. I met Ros, and by the time we reached the shortlisting phase, we were engaged. It would be fair to say that I was a mite distracted throughout.

And so, on the day that applications for the selection close, where is the Chair of the Shortlisting Committee? In the departure lounge at Vancouver Airport, heading for Portland, Oregon. After all, we're not scheduled to carry out shortlisting interviews until September, and everything else is the responsibility of the Returning Officer. Besides, Ros and I needed a holiday.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the sun is shining, it's pleasantly warm and, after a pleasant enough flight yesterday, we are jetlagged out of our minds - we are now eight time zones away.

To come, sea otters and Alaskan ferries, a Lords reunion and a gold rush to the Yukon, some of the best craft-brewed beers and more seafood than you can shake a crab stick at. There will be politics, as we're in the US as the Presidential campaign heats up and turns nasty.

So, enjoy the Olympics, we'll be back soon...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 15 - it's so much easier being the Chair of the Shortlisting Committee...

Five years ago, I was juggling three 'activities' at once, being Returning Officer for the South East European candidate selection, serving on the London European selection committee and... dating Ros. Yes, we'd been seeing each other for about a week by now, and I was attempting to burn the candle at both ends and the middle.

I have to admit that chairing the shortlisting committee is rather easier, as I have nothing really to do now, and all of the work is in the hands of our Returning Officer, who doesn't appear to have much to say for now.

So, we've gone to Latitude, courtesy of the BBC. And no, it isn't a freebee, as Ros is here to be on Pienaar's People, on Radio 5 Live at 7.30. Well, I suppose that it's a freebee for me, because I'm only here because Ros is. But I did navigate her here successfully...

And, unusually, the sun is shining, albeit intermittently, and Simple Minds are performing in the Obelisk Arena. I admit that I was always more of a Hue and Cry man myself, but the slightly more mature crowd appear to be enjoying themselves well enough and the mosh pit appears to be pretty packed - at least I assume it's a mosh pit, we really don't have such things at Snape for string quartets.

Interestingly, somewhere out there is Therese Coffey, the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, who is, it seems, a Simple Minds fan. I shall eschew the obvious gag... but feel free to carry on without me...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 12 - the dilemma of the level playing field

One of the key problems of European selections is, as I have already noted, the incumbency factor. The processes are designed to, as far as is possible, create a level playing field. The reality, of course, is that no such thing exists.

The profile of a sitting MEP is huge, relative to virtually any potential opponents, a point seemingly oblivious to those who design the selection process. For only someone oblivious to that inbuilt bias would restrict the ability of individual candidates to actually campaign, which has been the position in the past. Luckily, I have, in recent years, found myself in a position to try to change that, as a member of the English Candidates Committee, and I did the best that I could.

It isn't easy, and there are legitimate arguments against 'letting a thousand flowers bloom'. In the first list selection, some very clever candidates exposed gaping weaknesses in the then rules, spending unimaginable amounts of money in search of that elusive top position on the list which almost guaranteed electoral success and a ticket to Brussels. And why not? After all, it really mattered because you could actually win.

The powers that be weren't going to be fooled again, and the rules became more restrictive - no buying electoral success because that wasn't fair, was it? But in an age before Twitter and Facebook were so potentially influential, the cost of telephone calls, letters and leaflets was potentially a hurdle to candidates without means, so making it virtually impossible to use them was obviously a good thing, right? Well, no, it wasn't, was it?

The internet has changed the way we campaign, albeit more so in internal Party affairs than amongst the general public. It is free, or at worst cheap, which is good. From a Returning Officer's perspective, and in terms of control, it offers an interesting challenge, however. The old philosophy, whereby a Returning Officer acted as an all-seeing gatekeeper, becomes impossible when you can theoretically send an e-mail to 2000 or more members without recourse to him or her (usually him, in my experience, for reasons I can't begin to comprehend).

Instead, the emergence of the Returning Officer as a policeman has become desirable, whereby instead of approving everything, an arduous task at best, he or she merely deals with complaints, leaving the candidate to take responsibility for reading the rules and acting accordingly. It always puzzled me that, in a Party which believed in giving people power over their own lives, we put such restrictions on those who wish to put those principles into practice as elected politicians.

So, we'll see if our people are up to the challenge. As an optimist, I'd like to think that they are, although my experiences have demonstrated that you shouldn't presume anything. And as I won't have a disciplinary role this time, it won't be my problem anyway. Let's just say that I'm not exactly unhappy with that...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 10 - some thoughts on how winners emerge

One of the most difficult aspects of list selections is the incumbency factor, and it now acts to dissuade potential candidates from running. For, let's face it, a credible MEP has the advantage of recognition, and a profile across the Region which is, in electoral terms, worth its weight in gold. And, unless you have a similar reputation, you're going to have to go out and earn it.

Publicity is a good idea, but it's harder to get than one might think, and remember, you're trying to persuade party members, many of whom aren't terribly active. So, whilst attending a lot of events around your Region is a good thing, what you do when you meet people is key to your success.

Making friends and influencing people is the name of the game, and if you can persuade people that you are a 'good thing', you might be able to persuade them to help out with your campaign. Twenty telephone calls that they make to members on their patch is twenty calls that you don't have to make, and if someone they know tells them that you are worthy of their support, they are certainly more likely to vote for you, or at least give you a higher preference.

And in a Region like the East of England, stretching across six counties, having someone in each Local Party, or even just some of them will help. Remember, there'll be probably just one hustings, in our case at the Regional Conference, and less than 5% of the electorate will be there, and so, unless you can find some way to reach the others, the only things they'll see about you is the manifesto. Believe me, there isn't that much that you can say in a manifesto that will make you stand out from the crowd.

It does, of course, depend on the quality of your opposition, and the reason you've chosen to run, but whatever the motivation, you need a plan, and you need it now...

The heady social whirl that is the Liberal Democrats in the summer

There was a time, when I was a Regional Officer in London, when I attended a fair few Liberal Democrat social events. As the husband of the President, I attended a lot, sometimes more than one in a day.

However, now that I live full time in the country, there are less events to attend. Except that, during the summer, local branches like to hold outdoor events, so last week we were in Little Finborough for a Stowmarket Branch lunch. And no light repast either, with a proper roast lunch, desert and a cheeseboard, at the home of Bosmere's county councillor, Julia Truelove.

And despite the slightly fickle weather, everybody had a great time, although we had to leave before the tortoise hunt (it escaped, and hadn't been found yet), we did win a bottle of wine in the raffle, and I managed to get some Local Party business done.

This week's event was on Saturday in Baylham, a Central Suffolk and North Ipswich barbecue at the home of John and Kay Field. John is the county councillor for Gipping Valley, and throws a mean barbecue. He was a bit luckier with the weather, and there was an opportunity to keep up with the tennis.

Next week was supposed to include a Thedwastre branch event at Rattlesden, but sadly it has been cancelled due to the weather...

Monday, July 09, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 9 - I remember the good old days...

It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when European selections drew a crowd.

In 1997, I received a telephone call from the then Candidates Officer, Sandra Dunk, asking if I could act as a Returning Officer for the European selection, with South East England as my intended assignment. I considered the timetable and offered my apologies, as I had already booked a trip which coincided with the scheduled hustings phase. And, although I did suggest that, if nobody else could be found, I was willing to fill in, I didn't expect to be involved.

Two days later, the call came. "Yes, we do need you,", I was told, "and we'll cover the hustings for you.". Under the circumstances, how could I say no?

South East England was, to say the least, going to be a lively contest. A zipping arrangement had been mandated, whereby the list would alternate by gender, organised by means of two separate, but contemporaneous ballots. And whilst it was suggested that the choice was gender to top each regional list appeared designed to favour certain individuals, in South East England there was every likelihood of electing two MEPs. Emma Nicholson, who had recently defected from the Conservatives, was the odds-on favourite to get the female slot, but the male contest was anyone's guess.

And the organising wasn't easy. Trying to bring together three Party Regions (South East, Hants & Wight and Chiltern) and ensuring that all three felt part of the process was a challenge, especially as Chiltern was involved in the East of England selection too. But the selection committee, chaired by Lord Dholakia, gelled together, and we were ready to go. We needed to be, especially when more than seventy applications arrived.

And boy, what a contest it turned out to be. But that's a story for another day...

Creeting St Peter: culture, courtesy of the Parochial Church Council

Whilst we are small, if perfectly formed, our village is not exactly a hive of cultural activity. Yes, we do have an artist, in Isobel Clover, whose tapestries are highly regarded, but we're not on the touring schedules yet.

Let it not be said that the Parochial Church Council aren't trying though, and it was their efforts that drew Ros, her sister Ann, and I to St Peter's on Saturday evening for a concert given by Acafella, a local barber shop quartet, who performed in front of an audience of thirty or so from the village to raise funds for the maintenance of the church and its surrounds.

I happen to be rather fond of traditional barber shop, and although the performance including quite a few adaptations of popular songs, all of which were performed with enthusiasm and no little skill, I was pleased when they performed some of the more classic repertoire. They were very good nonetheless, and the first half of the concert flew by, before a light supper and drinks were served, which we ate outside in the churchyard - the rain held off - before returning for the second half.

There was a raffle first though, in which I won a bottle of wine (this appears to be becoming a habit). Luckily, we do seem to able to drink the stuff, and the fridge is designed to keep five bottles nicely chilled for consumption as required.

More singing, much applause and, before we knew it, the concert was over. Three encores were sung, and enjoyed, and it was time to go. It was a delightful evening and, apparently, we can look forward to a harp recital in October...

European Selection Diary: Day 8 - allowing myself to be distracted in, and by, Norfolk...

Even a candidate selection buff like myself has to have other things to do in life, and apart from building a mass transit system for Needham Market, and attacking the Iroquois (I'm playing Civilisation 3, for those who were wondering), Ros and I do like to get out and about at the weekend.

And so, after a late breakfast, we set off towards South Norfolk, crossing the Waveney on our way to Kirstead Hall, for a tour organised as part of the 'Invitation to View' programme. It's a programme of particular fondness for Ros, as she was involved in its launch, nearly twenty years ago in her early days as a county councillor, and she still enjoys visiting the odd property when time permits.

Kirstead Hall is owned and occupied by the Murphys, who showed us around the Tudor hall, the dovecote and the furniture restoration workshop, before giving us tea and scones. I particularly enjoyed the tour as I spent a good part of it with an orange cat over my shoulder, which can only be a good thing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in South Norfolk, more work was coming my way. I am, amongst other things, the Returning Officer for the selection of a Police and Crime Commissioner candidate for Norfolk, and Richard Carden, a figure familiar to anyone who has been involved in politics in these parts, has been organising things. This evening, he has presented me with draft documents and, on that basis, their advert will be going live this week.

And as for the European Selection? Well, our Returning Officer, Mike Thornton, is having computer trouble, but we seem to be alright still. Fingers remain well and truly crossed though...

Saturday, July 07, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 7 - Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there?

Now that I am able to sleep like a normal human being again (that is not to say that I will, but I could if I wanted to), there is a little time to reflect.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIn the past three list selections, I have been the Returning Officer, dealing with the influx of requests for application packs and the like, and so have had a pretty good idea what is happening. As Chair of the Shortlisting Committee, all I know is what our Returning Officer is willing to tell me, so I'm not as well-informed as I might otherwise wish. All I can do is wait...

However, there are things to ponder about. Will we have enough, indeed any, women candidates? Will BAME applicants emerge to take part? And how much effort should I make to do something about that?

There is a conflict of interest, in that as Chair of the Shortlisting Committee, I must remain strictly neutral. However, if I am expected to seek out women and BAME applicants, and encourage them to take part, does that not engender a sense of obligation on my part, in that, having gently twisted their arms to compete, it would be unfair to then reject them.

So, if I can't actively encourage them, what can I do? Well, having mulled over the question, I have concluded that I can ask what the relevant 'lobby groups' are doing, i.e. the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, the Campaign for Gender Balance and the Women Liberal Democrats. After all, one of their roles is to support and encourage, isn't it? And it would surely be better coming from them, I feel.

Doubtless, when this is over, there will be another round of recriminations diversity. As a shortlisting committee, we can, and will, do everything in our power to make all applicants feel comfortable. But we can't campaign for them and, unless they can beat an incumbent MEP (very unlikely), or are prominent in a Region without an incumbent, their chances of ultimate success are relatively slim.

Applicants might be better off thinking about the Shortlisting in terms of a long-term strategy. Building a campaign team and across six counties doesn't happen overnight, it takes months and indeed years of networking, building links, making friends, which you then utilise when the campaign starts. And despite the fact that I've been pointing this out for a decade, very few people appear to listen.

But, if you are interested in being a European candidate, regardless of who you are, or where you come from, do think about applying. We want the very best lists we can construct, and we want to draw on all of the talent that we know is out there. And I'm sure that I speak for the whole Region when I say that...

Friday, July 06, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 6 - and they're off...

I'm not going to say that it was pretty, but at 11.50 last night, I was satisfied that all of the paperwork was finalised, and could drain the wine glass on my desk in the knowledge that the application pack was ready to go.

There is an awful lot of paperwork for prospective applicants to read, and only two weeks to complete the application form and submit it to our Returning Officer, Mike Thornton. And, in spite of my concerns about the shortness of the application window, I am already hearing rumours of potential contenders, which bodes well.

This is, for applicants, quite a difficult exercise. In a relatively short period, a candidate needs to develop a campaigning strategy, build a team of supporters, and organise their time so as to maximise their opportunities to reach thousands of members across six counties in a Region that stretches from Cromer to Tring, and from Peterborough to Southend. Attending local events involves covering many miles, with no guarantee of success. The reward is, for most of those on the list, a position which offers no likelihood of final success, merely the satisfaction of a job well done and, perhaps, some wider exposure which might be cashed in later as other opportunities arise.

Of course, as we've discovered in this Parliament, the incumbent might stand down part way through their term, creating an opportunity for a runner-up...

Finally, a good showing might put an applicant in a better position for the next selection, establishing credibility and contacts for the next time. It is a strategy that has worked for at least three current members of the European Parliament, and it could be you (yes, you!) next time. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

So, the shortlisting committees can take a well earned breather, whilst the Returning Officers issue application packs and await completed application forms.

The contest starts here...

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Time flies by when I'm a driver of a train...

Amidst the unexpected chaos that arises when you are given a last minute vital job, I haven't had time to report on my Christmas present from Ros, which I took up on Saturday.

Ros drove us to Castle Hedingham, in North Essex, in increasingly poor conditions, for my 'Steam Train Experience' on the Colne Valley Railway and, I have to admit that, as the rain beat down ever more insistently, I was rather nervous at the prospect of attempting to drive a large metal mechanical object, especially given my lack of experience driving anything.

Luckily, we weren't alone, and I left Ros to meet friends whilst I underwent my induction into driving a steam engine. The session started with a forty-five minute course, with PowerPoint presentation, on the history and mechanics of steam locomotives, with namechecks for Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson, and quite a lot of technical detail. I hung on as best I could and, by the end of it, I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

The three trainees, Jim, Jeff and myself, were then split up - Jim and Jeff to the steam engine, and me to the signalbox, where I was introduced to Harold, the signalman. The rain had stopped, and the sun was shining by now, and Harold explained how the signalling system works on their short, but perfectly formed length of working track.

After a few demonstrations, it was my turn to operate the various levers, and I was surprised at just how heavy they are. However, I managed to operate everything in the right order to avoid a train wreck, and the logical progression of signalling appeals to my inner bureaucrat.

Next, it was time to rotate trainees, and I donned my new, suspiciously clean, overalls for my first turn on the footplate of our steam locomotive, learning the role of the fireman. My instructor, Tim, was particularly good at flicking big lumps of anthracite into just the right spots in the firebox to ensure an even burn and maximise engine performance. It isn't simply about chucking vast amounts of coal in, and the art is about maintaining a relatively thin layer of coals whilst avoiding holes in the coverage.

Another thing that I learned is that the best position for a fireman to stand is facing at right-angles to the direction of travel. This minimises the amount of movement and maximises the amount that can be shovelled from the coalbox. But be careful, everything to your left is VERY hot, so try not to fall against it.

And finally, it was time to actually drive the locomotive. Malcolm, my instructor, showed me the six things to operate, the handbrake, the steam brake, the gearstick, the regulator, something else whose name escapes me, and, best of all, the whistle. It was at this point that my lack of driving experience presented an interesting challenge. You see, most drivers are used to a fast response when braking and, as a result, leave their braking too late. I expected the braking to be far slower than it actually is, and initially ended up stopping rather sooner than I had intended.

But I grew more confident as we ran up and down the track, hitting my braking points and enjoying the sound of a steam locomotive in motion. The sun shone, and I was able to wave at Ros as we travelled. It was hugely entertaining, and Ros tells me that I was beaming away as I sped past.

All too soon, it was over though. But as I took off my overalls and headed back to my beloved Ros, it was with a real sense of achievement and satisfaction. An excellent ploughman's followed (the buffet car at the Colne Valley Railway is rather good, and very reasonably priced if you're in the area), and all in all, I would describe it as a day that I won't forget in a hurry.

So, thanks to Ros for another amazing present, and to the Colne Valley Railway for providing such a great experience.

European Selection Diary: Day 5 - no time to relax, it's later than you think...

The final day dawns before the advert goes live, and we are still to agree a Regional Profile. As Chair, my role is to produce a draft, incorporate the proposed additions and corrections, and reissue it in time to get everyone's agreement. Well, I say everyone but, at this stage, getting a majority of the Selection Committee onboard may be the best I can hope for.

I have discovered some things that I had previously been unaware of. For example, did you know that Norfolk has the only milking herd completely run by a robot? No, I didn't either.

I think that we've agreed the Selection Criteria, the application form follows from that, and apart from the fact that we haven't physically met (there simply wasn't time), I think that we're in pretty good shape. I've even found time to write a report for the Regional Executive who, conveniently, meet on Saturday, presumably in Cambridge. I won't be there.

In another of those unexpected coincidences, I am also responsible for publishing the article written by the Senior Returning Officer, Jonathan Davies, for Liberal Democrat Voice on Friday. And, whilst I have noted my concern over the two week window for applications (a mite short, perhaps?), I wasn't around when the decision was taken, so I'm not taking any responsibility for any unhappiness that follows.

So, a bit of scrabbling about still to do, but it looks as though we'll be ready, by the skin of our teeth for the starter's pistol tomorrow morning. And I'm led to believe that there are candidates already raring to go... 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 4 - sleeping is for the weak...

In forty-eight hours, we've made pretty good progress. The selection criteria are almost agreed, a draft Regional Profile has been circulated, and a vast array of papers have turned up from Party HQ in the nick of time. For me, this is pretty amazing, as I am prone to leaving things to the last moment.

The Selection Committee and Returning Officer have been hard at work, reading documents, letting me have their thoughts, and generally being great, and we're even now talking dates for the shortlisting phase.

The one members meeting (you can't call them hustings any more), will take place at the Regional Conference in Cambridge on 20 October (I think that I chair that), and I am encouraging Local Parties to organise events elsewhere to give the applicants an opportunity to meet members.

I do have some concerns, however. As the deadline for publishing the advert was missed, due to the failure to appoint a Returning Officer for South West England until very late in the day, the deadline for applications is only two weeks after the advert goes live. That does potentially mean that anyone going away on holiday will have very little time to complete their application form, and I do wonder whether or not more time could be given, especially as we have more than ten weeks to agree the final shortlist.

That may be something we need to look at in the coming week...

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Did you ever wish that someone actually listened to you?

Yesterday, our office received an unexpected visit from a senior member of HM Revenue & Customs, apparently wanting to hear our views about Pacesetter, the workflow management system that we use. Less than two hours notice was given, and we only had about twenty minutes, but it was at least an opportunity.

And so, there she was, talking to us briefly about who she was and what she did, before it was our turn. Apart from one individual's attempt to hijack the session with irrelevancies, my colleagues raised various concerns in an entirely reasonable way, issues such as deskilling, such as working to targets rather than responding to customer needs. All very courteous, all entirely constructive.

Her response? "It all seems to be working very well for you.". Cue raised eyebrows as she headed off to her next session.

Bear in mind that this is in a Government Department with desperately poor levels of staff engagement, and one realises that, regardless of how well-meaning our leaders are, unless the culture changes throughout an organisation, creating a more engaged and enthused workforce will always run into the sand.

I'm rather hoping that said senior manager won't return to this office, as I might feel obliged to be slightly less polite next time...

European Selection Diary: Day 3 - introducing Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...

So, who are these terribly important people who will be responsible for producing a shortlist of candidates for the delectation and delight of Liberal Democrat members in the East of England? And who made us king, anyway?

Like so many areas of the Party's bureaucracy, it comes down to those mad enough to volunteer, and those too slow to hide when a 'volunteer' was sought or, in particularly unfortunate instances, the person volunteered in their absence (and let that be a warning to you!). 

So, let me introduce the East of England Selection Committee, in no particular order;

Jon Whitehouse - Epping Forest Local Party, trained Returning Officer, councillor for Epping Hemnall ward on Epping Forest District Council, and a fantastic campaign organiser. I've worked with him in the past in London, and know that he knows his stuff.

Barbara Rix - Broadland Local Party, another trained Returning Officer, councillor for Buxton ward on Broadland District Council, where she won in a glorious by-election in 2009 and was re-elected last year. Some of you will know her as one of the stewards at Federal Conference. Impossible not to like.

Henry Vann - Bedford Local Party, our Parliamentary candidate for Bedford and Kempston in 2010, councillor for De Parys ward on Bedford Borough Council, active in Liberal Youth not so long ago.

Rupert Moss-Eccardt - Cambridge Local Party, known to some as 'that guy that explains Connect', active at Regional Party level.

Kate Sayer - South West Norfolk Local Party, Regional Candidates Chair, East of England, another trained Returning Officer. The person who appointed me as Chair - either a move of genius or insanity, we are yet to discover which.

We also have two reserves, Catherine Smart, the former Regional Candidates Chair, and Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne, who fought Central Suffolk and North Ipswich in 2010, so the substitute bench is a strong one.

And finally, me. I've done this before, as Returning Officer for South East England in 1997, 2002 and 2007, and as a member of London's Selection Committee in 2007. I understand the Rules, the process and the psychology of a European Selection. If it does go horribly wrong, I'll at least know why...

We also have a Returning Officer, whose job it is to manage the candidates and to ensure that we, the Selection Committee, fulfil our obligations. But more about him another day, I think...

A Conservative initiative I'm sure we can all support...

Catching up with the Sunday papers last weekend, Ros brought my attention to a story of immense personal interest, although of little to most readers.

In a 10-minute Rule Bill today, Oliver Colvile, the MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, will present the Honours (Equality of Titles for Partners) Bill, which calls for "husbands and civil partners of those receiving honours to be allowed to use equivalent honorary titles to those available to women".

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Mr. Colvile said "The current system is uneven and rather outdated.

"If you are made a peer or a knight, your wife automatically gets the title lady, but if you are gay or are a woman and become a dame your partner gets nothing.

"I just think it's an anomaly which needs to be put right.

"In a lot of marriages the other half ends up playing a very significant role in their career. I think we have got to make sure it's recognised in the same way for men and women, and in civil partnerships.

"It's important that there's equality in this things and I think this is something which needs to be sorted out."

Now, I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this. On one hand, a title really isn't obviously me, after all, I can hardly use it at work. On the other though, it does seem rather unfair that a wife gets a title, whereas a husband or civil partner doesn't.

It does appear that the Government are taking this seriously though, and I presume that it falls within the responsibilities of Lynne Featherstone, so I await events with interest...

Monday, July 02, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 2 - now that we've found love, what are we going to do?

An application pack for a European Parliamentary Selection consists of a number of elements. The Selection Rules, obviously, and an application form, of course, form part of it. However, from the perspective of the Selection Committee, the elements that require most work are the Selection Criteria and the Regional Profile.

The Selection Criteria, for those of my readers who don't get involved in the details of candidate selection, are basically a list of attributes that we, the Selection Committee, deem to be most necessary in a candidate. You will note the potential flaw here, in that a good candidate might not necessarily make a good MEP. However, that's never really proved to be a problem, and given that we've never elected more than two candidates in any European Region, one must acknowledge that nearly all of our applicants, and most of our candidates, will need campaigning skills first and foremost.

Theoretically, the criteria are used to achieve two things - to inform the candidates as to what we're looking for, and to use as a measure during the longlisting and shortlisting phases, assuming that we have either. They should be fairly standard across the English Regions, although there is scope for variation, depending on local circumstance. You might, for example, want particular knowledge of a specified policy area, or of a particular type of campaigning.

The Regional Profile is designed to inform applicants about the Region, the Regional Party and activity around it at local level. This helps applicants to campaign, by indicating informally where most members are, where we have councillors, key issues and the like.

So, we have started work on these documents as a priority. Actually, I've sent out a first draft of the Selection Criteria, in the hope that everyone will accept them, and asked for volunteers to write parts of the Regional Profile. At least this way I'll find out how engaged my fellow Selection Committee members are...

Sunday, July 01, 2012

European Selection Diary: Day 1 - what do you mean, I'm in charge?

You know how it is sometimes, when in a moment of weakness, you say, "Oh yes, I'll serve on that committee, it shouldn't take up much of time.", only to discover that there's rather more to it than meets the eye. Well, for me, it's the European Selection Committee for the East of England.

Last month, it was noted at a meeting of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee that we were supposed to nominate someone to serve on the Selection Committee, and that we hadn't had a volunteer. Noting my experience in this particular field, I let my name go forward and was promptly proposed. And then it went fairly quiet. Our Returning Officer had asked for some information about us all, some of which I was a bit bemused by, but no matter, and I assumed that all was under control. Until this afternoon, that is.

I was minding my own business at a Stowmarket Branch lunch - very nice roast lunch, with a cheeseboard, no less - when my pocket buzzed rather persistently. Yes, I know, I should have left it alone, but... I reached for my BlackBerry to find a message from our Regional Candidates Chair, Kate Sayer. It appeared that, due to a degree of confusion between various parties, the application pack for the European selection had not been prepared which, given that the advertisement will be published on Friday, presented us with a slight problem.

As the Selection Committee hasn't met, there is a degree of urgency, and it was suggested that I become Chair of the Selection Committee and, thus, responsible for dealing with the problem. Luckily, deep in the bowels of my home computer is an entire application pack for the 2007 South East England European selection (I was their Returning Officer), so the task was suddenly that little bit easier.

So, I have accepted the appointment and, unless anyone disagrees, I'd better get on with it...

Wish me luck!