Monday, September 30, 2013

George, debt, the deficit and despair...

I'm a mathematician by training. I respect numbers. And when I hear intelligent people confuse 'deficit' and 'debt', I shudder a little inwardly. I find myself thinking, "Perhaps that's why so many apparently well-off people struggle with their personal finances?". But when I see politicians, people who want to run the country, make the same mistake, in writing, I am even more troubled. Stumbling over the words 'debt' and deficit' when speaking happens - I get that.

This afternoon, my Twitter feed included this;
Deborah, or Debbie, as I called her when we were at university together, was a friend, and I follow her out of a vague sense of interest in how she's got on. She was bright, a Labour activist but not a tribal one, and was the lucky beneficiary of one of my more distracted moments as a Returning Officer - it's a long story but revolves around the fact that I calculated an STV surplus transfer incorrectly. Now, she's the Labour PPC for South Norfolk, one of neighbouring constituencies.

I politely pointed out that the debt has increased, whereas the deficit has fallen year-on-year, and studiously didn't point out that calling someone clueless whilst making such a glaring error oneself is hardly confidence inspiring. I also suggested that balancing the books had some merit, inspiring the reply;

I have to admit that I'm quite pleased that he hasn't succeeded yet, as the cuts introduced so far would have been a mere aperitif compared to what we've seen so far. However, being an inquisitive soul, I asked how she would balance the books - how much more tax, how many more cuts?...

It's just a slogan, as opposed to some actual ideas, the sort of oppositionism for its own sake that gives politicians a bad name, and it makes me just a little more depressed about the future of this country than I might already have been.

There is a legitimate debate to be had in this country about the role of government, what sort of society we live in and how to finance those activities that would go towards building it. But if our politicians are going to regurgitate clever soundbites written by others, rather than express their own thoughts, and we, the public, are going to eschew the notion of gathering data and making an objective choice based on that data, we get the body politic we deserve.

It increasingly seems that, in the search for the illusive swing voters in the key seats, the spin doctors have forgotten why most people go into politics in the first place. It isn't to be 'on message', it is to change things for the better. Regardless of political philosophy, most people in the political sphere want to do that. The machine politics drives that individuality out of too many people, making them just another grey voice in a grey, sensible suit.

It's not for me, I'm afraid...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

@MidSuffolk District Council - really that useless?

Ros approaches with a piece of paper.

"I thought that we'd paid this already.", she says, slightly irritated.

"What is it?", I ask, puzzled.

"The Garden Waste Collection Scheme renewal.", she replies, waving two pieces of paper, one of which bears a hand written note in my writing, indicating that it was paid in mid-August.

I stare at it, slightly perplexed. I then check our bank accounts, confirming that no such payment has left our bank accounts. I prepare to go back to their Customer Service Direct website to pay it again, but something tells me to check. There'll be an e-mail confirmation of the transaction, won't there?

I check my back e-mail and there, in my unfiled old e-mail folder, is an e-mail from them, confirming that, yes, I did attempt to pay, and yes, they would be processing it. How long does it take to process a payment? Is a week reasonable, or a fortnight? Perhaps, but forty-six days (and counting)?...

So, I have written a slightly annoyed e-mail to them, with a copy to my invisible District Councillor. Let's see how long it takes them to respond...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cuba: the scenic route to a market economy

A few months ago, I noted how Cuba has opened up its economy to capitalism in an unusual way, starting from the bottom by allowing individuals to operate effectively as sole traders.

France 24 reports that another step has been taken on that road this week, allowing individuals to sell agricultural produce, act as telecommunications salespeople or sell real estate (property, it seems, is not necessarily theft...), amongst eighteen professions now made legal for individuals to take up.

Raul Castro - bringing capitalism for the masses?
One of the things that I noted on my trip to Cuba in February was that there appeared to be a lot of agricultural land unworked, the reason being that the lack of fertilisers made it harder to work it effectively, especially without any personal incentive. And perhaps, if a profit motive is introduced, it might encourage people to start to grow some of the foodstuffs that Cuban consumers want.

It also potentially offers an alternative for other Caribbean nations. Anyone who visits a resort in the region will note that much of the foodstuff, even the most basic items, are shipped in, often from the United States. If Cuba were to become a breadbasket for its neighbours, it might mean that the drain of profits to developed nations might be reduced somewhat, and I believe that the potential is there.

So, good luck to the Cuban people, whose government might have found a socialist route to capitalism, albeit perhaps through necessity...

* hat-tip to Andrew Emmerson for bringing this to my attention

Monday, September 23, 2013

Published Elsewhere - Film Review: InRealLives

This post was published earlier today on Liberal Democrat Voice...

Released this week, InRealLives takes a look at how the internet has impacted upon the way we live our lives, and flags up some issues that should cause us to reflect upon questions of privacy, personal relationships and sexuality.

Director Beeban Kidron might be best known for "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" and "Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason", but here she delves into the lives of five young people as they talk variously about their use of pornography and its effect on their ability to connect emotionally, addiction to social media and computer gaming, cyber bullying and building relationships online.

Woven around these individual stories is an examination of where data is kept, how much of what we do is recorded, and the question asked is, do we have real privacy any more?

Kidron carries out the interviews off camera, allowing you to focus your whole attention on the interviewee, in their own homes, and asks the sort of questions that generate some thoughtful, and thought-provoking, answers. In doing so, she provides an insight into the impact of the internet on the next generation - just what are they doing with their smartphones all day?

The film addresses some difficult issues but also offers some optimism - I challenge anyone not to feel for Tom as he comes out on line and forms a relationship with Daniel.

All in all, this is a film for parents and grandparents who might learn why social media is so huge, and for young adults who might not entirely appreciate the loss of privacy that might ensue. Unfortunately, its 15 certificate does mean that some of those who might benefit from seeing it won't be able to do so, but nonetheless, it achieves its aim of challenging the way we see the online world with humour, honesty and integrity.

InRealLives was released on 20 September, and is produced by Dogwoof Productions.

Like Frankenstein's monster*, my village blog lurches back into life...

In 2011, I put my village blog to bed. Frankly, the hassle that I was getting from certain elements within the Parish Council meant that it just wasn't worth it. I had intended it as a means of covering village life and, almost as much as anything else, as a means of recording events - a shared diary if one will. And, if it was of use to anyone, that was all the better.

It has now dawned on me, however, that as I'm no longer a parish councillor, and therefore not covered by the somewhat absurd 'social media policy' for councillors (shorthand for "Mark, please stop writing about this"), I could resurrect it. So, I have. Think of it as a means to cover local events, debate issues of interest to the local community and to provide an insight for those of you who live in a more urban setting as to what life in a small village is like.

Yes, there will be references to the mobile library service, but I might actually do some 'proper' journalism from time to time. And with planning applications, a solar farm, issues about public transport and the never-ending entertainment that is the Parish Council, I'm sure that I can keep it ticking over.

* Many thanks to Jennie for noting that it was Frankenstein's monster who lurched, not Dr Frankenstein himself...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

In praise of... the Abbeygate Picturehouse, Bury St Edmunds

I may have remarked in the past about the difference between the cultural life of Suffolk and that of London, where I lived for so many years. In order to have one here, I have to be more organised, more disciplined, if you will, as there obviously isn't the range of opportunities so taken for granted in a big city. Luckily, as my sense of organisation or discipline is not ideal, Ros tends to step into the breach from time to time.

And so, this morning, we set off from Needham Market by train for Bury St Edmunds, to see the new release from Beeban Kidron, "InRealLives", a documentary about the internet, its effects on young people and the loss of privacy that impacts upon all of us. I'll deal with the film later though...

I'd not been to the Picturehouse before, and was surprised to find it almost lurking behind a rather attractive cafe-restaurant. We obtained our tickets from the bar, and went upstairs to what turned out to be almost a screening room rather than a 'real' cinema, seating about seventy, with plush chairs with drink holders and, between some seats, a small shelf for popcorn and the like. Establishing that, yes, you can bring beer into the cinema, I popped out for a pint of the old Cannon Brewery's Best Bitter for me, plus some sweet popcorn, before settling into my seat for the entertainment to come.

Film over, I headed downstairs to discover that the restaurant was still open, allowing us to have a late lunch and still make our train home. The sharing platter was very good, although my eye was drawn to their Sunday brunch offer of Eggs Benedict (in various styles), or open omelettes plus a ticket for the first movie showing for £13.50 (20% off for members). They even have 'build your own' burgers, with a range of carnivore (plus one vegetarian) options.

Ros and I were both impressed, and I suspect that we might be back from time to time...

Editorial: are the lights going to stay on?

This is a cross-posting from the Creeting St Peter Journal...

Last night's power cuts are a reminder as to just how dependent we are on utilities that we generally take for granted. The village's nine street lights fall into that category too, and yet their long-term future is in some doubt.

The impact of higher energy costs, combined with the relatively low efficiency of the elderly equipment, hurts the Council budget. Worse still, EU regulations on light bulbs make the required bulbs obsolete, and hard to obtain. But, more importantly, the equipment is the property of the Parish Council, meaning that the County Council has no obligation to act.

A while ago, a paper was submitted to Parish Council which raised the question of turning the lights off between midnight and 5 a.m., as is already the case across most of the county. By purchasing meters, significant savings could be achieved, and the cost of the meters recouped over a period of less than four years. Parish Council was not convinced, however, and it was decided to leave things as they were.

The subsequent electricity bill did generate a discussion on whether or not to turn off the lights altogether, but nothing came of it.

Replacing the street lights with new LED versions - hugely reduced running costs, twenty-five year guarantee, reduced light pollution - will cost about £650 per light, so what is the Parish Council going to do?

Here at the Creeting St Peter Journal, I'll be keeping an eye open when Council meets to discuss its budget for 2014/15, to see if there is a plan, either to raise the capital needed to replace the lights, or to invest in new meters which will at least buy time.

I acknowledge that, whatever happens, there will be cost implications, either in terms of an increased precept or lost services/facilities. But surely, it's better to have a plan than to cross your fingers and hope for luck...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nuclear weapons: why I might vote for an amendment that I don't agree with

Nuclear weapons? What are they good for?...

I am a relative defence hawk. Many years ago, I proposed a motion at a Young Liberal Council meeting which called for major improvements in defence procurement thus allowing the resultant savings to be spent on... more weapons. I am not a tree-hugging, cheese-eating surrender monkey. Well, I am cheese-eating, even though it is bad for my diet.

So, naturally, I'll be supporting the motion currently being proposed by my former colleague in the East of England, Julie Smith, won't I? It is, I admit, wholly reasonable, and addresses two of my concerns - support for veterans, improved procurement. But it does leave an enormous, pointy elephant - our nuclear deterrent.

You see, my viewpoint hasn't fundamentally changed. I believe that the United Kingdom should seek value in its spending, and that nuclear weapons are the very worst means of addressing the threats that we face - terrorism, cyber or physical, climate change, competition for resources. They make no meaningful contribution to our diplomatic effort.

So, I'm not minded to support the retention of a nuclear deterrent.

I am, however, minded to invest in properly equipping our armed forces, to establish them at a level that allows us to fulfil our international commitments, contribute to UN peacekeeping, and support those countries suffering from natural and other disasters. I also believe that our international aid programme acts as an adjunct to our defence strategy, addressing potential failed states and causes of support for terrorism across the globe.

The amendment allows me to trash our nuclear deterrent, but it does not actually commit to doing what I believe is necessary, and I suspect that the movers are merely making the 'right noises' in order to win over enough waverers to ensure success.

So, I agree with what the movers want initially, but not necessarily with their version of the future.

What am I to do?

It looks to me that I should vote for the amendment, and then vote down the amended motion. It is a gesture, possibly a futile one, but it expresses a view of a strong nation playing its part in maintaining our collective security.

I can't imaginably be on the winning side here, but I can at least be true to my beliefs...

Monday, September 16, 2013

What if I want a Stronger Society in a Fairer Economy?

The Conference slogan, "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" is the on-message mantra of choice for the go-getting Liberal Democrat this week. Luckily, I'm not go-getting any more - was I ever? - so don't have to be quite so faithful to the 'line'.

I think that it was Simon Hoggett who suggested that you should reverse a slogan to measure its worth...

"Weaker Economy, More Unfair Society"

No, doesn't really appeal, does it?

But, whilst I gently poke fun at my Party, there is a point, indeed points, to be made.

I find myself wondering what a stronger economy looks like. Bigger GDP? Greater growth? In a world where emerging economies demand greater equity, wouldn't a sustainable economy be a stronger one? Might not sustainable levels of public spending make for a stronger, more resilient economy?

And as for a fairer society - and I must declare my sense of frustration over the casual abuse of the word 'fairer' - what does that mean and towards whom is it directed? Is taking a position supported by the majority 'fair'? And if so, what does that mean for minority members of our community?

A fairer economy (and that's still the sort of bastard phrase that might appeal to any weasel in a storm) might ensure that people are rewarded on the basis of genuine risk-taking and/or effort, might redistribute on the basis of genuine need. It might, whisper it quietly, punish the malevolent, the feckless and the corrupt.

A stronger society might, for example, engender greater personal involvement in one's community, encourage pride in that community, celebrate the achievements of its members. It implies a tangible change in the way we interact as individuals and within our wider community.

However, the people who write our slogans don't consult me, and they may possibly be a wee bit more qualified than I am, so...

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Financial Transaction Tax standing on platform 4 is delayed, due to a technical fault...

The news that the main legal advisors to EU finance ministers have concluded that the Commission's plan for a financial transaction tax infringes EU treaties is a blow for those who feel that it offered a relatively painless means to balance state budgets, whilst providing a disincentive against short-termism in the financial markets.

And it's been a good week for those who doubt the wisdom of EU intervention in the financial sector (I'm pretty certain that George Osborne is delighted).

The Advocate-General to the European Court of Justice has indicated agreement with the United Kingdom's position that the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) should be stripped of its power to ban short selling in emergencies, and it is apparent, according to the Financial Times, that Brussels will abandon any thoughts of handing direct oversight of Libor to ESMA.

I think, on the whole, that this is for the best, as it demonstrates that building alliances and using the existing framework and treaties can be effective, something that the British public need to know. It also strengthens the hand of pro-European Conservatives in arguing that an exit is not in Britain's interests.

However, it does mean that it is the task of the Coalition Government to develop a regulatory framework for our financial sector which protects the state, supports innovation and rewards sustainable practices. I have a funny feeling that, politically at least, George may yet wish that he'd left it to Europe...

Friday, September 13, 2013

'Bedroom Tax' - a good concept ruined by rotten politics

Whilst admiring the chutzpah of Michael Green Grant Shapps criticising a United Nations official for an inaccurate report, there is a danger of losing sight of the fact that Raquel Rolnik appears to make some interesting points in her report. And, regardless of your stance on whether or not it is appropriate for the UN to be examining a matter of internal state policy, it is intriguing to see what others make of our national choices.

For, even amongst my fellow Liberal Democrats, the idea that those in social housing should be charged a premium for occupying a property larger than their needs might indicate is a difficult one. So, when I admit to appreciating the concept, I do have an obligation to explain why.

I observe the long waiting lists for social housing with increasing despair. Families and individuals who lack stability in their lives tend do experience worse outcomes than the rest of us, bringing costs both in terms of personal loss and the implied need for intervention by state agencies. The most obvious, and rather attractive, option is to build more social housing, but when one sees the passion with which people, Liberal Democrats included, oppose the reality of major homebuilding, that begins to look like a long-term game plan, rather than a quick win.

An easier short term contribution is to make better use of the available housing stock. And that, for me, is where the concept of sticks and carrots comes in.

It strikes me as reasonable if, where someone is occupying a property larger than they need, that they pay a premium. However, they should have a real opportunity to downsize and not be punished because there isn't one. For that is where the current regime goes wrong.  The long-term failure to build sufficient housing, be it public or private, has created huge shortages of smaller properties, especially in villages like mine. Accordingly, there is no real choice, and the levy is, effectively, punitive.

I don't believe that people should be punished for having to rely on social housing. Indeed, I would have no fundamental objection to seeing opportunities to take up social housing be extended to a far broader range of potential tenants - it would create a better social mix and address the crisis brought about by the emerging ghettos of low achievement and aspiration that so concerned Caroline Flint when she was Housing Minister.

It's something that Liberal Democrats could, and should, lead on...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Travelling in style, Belgian style

I do like a good tram, and Brussels is an excellent place to find one.

Here's a shot of the interior of one of the new pre-Metro trams, which I took the opportunity to ride this afternoon. What it demonstrates is that you can build a public service vehicle which is efficient and stylish.

Compare and contrast with my friends at Greater Anglia, who continue to struggle with aged, decrepit rolling stock and poor infrastructure.

Depressing, really...

A slight detour on the road to Utopia...

I have, it might appear, taken a rather wrong turning en route to Glasgow. The beer is trappist, the time zone one ahead, although there may be more Liberal Democrats within a five mile radius than might be the case in my beloved Creeting St Peter.

I do have a good reason to be in Brussels though, in that I'm here to lend my intellectual weight to the Financial Advisory Committee of ALDE, Europe's liberal umbrella party. I've read my papers, submitted my thoughts on the ethics of political fundraising, mulled over accounts (I knew that the bookkeeping course would come in handy!) and puzzled over possible membership fee structures, so I'm ready to go.

There is a side benefit, in that I am obliged to spend an evening here, which means that I must eat good food and drink even better beer. Don't worry though, gentle reader, as I am bearing my heavy burden with as much equanimity as I can muster. Hell, there are people far worse off...

It does mean that I have to travel directly to Glasgow tomorrow afternoon, but the time zone change is in my favour.

But for the time being, I must leave you. My Rochefort 8 is calling, the sun has come out, and the busker across the square is surprisingly good...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Remind me about this Twitter thing again...

As the Liberal Democrat Voice Awards ceremony draws rapidly closer, my mind is drawn to the question of what makes an effective user of Twitter.

Now I've had a Twitter account for a while, which I use to broadcast my increasingly infrequent blog postings and, from time to time, respond to something on my timeline that intrigues me. Mostly, I use it to receive information from organisations that I interact with (local council, Greater Anglia, the Party, local Liberal Democrats) and things I have an interest in. But I'm not what you'd call terribly active.

My life is not especially interesting, my opinions neither radical or unique, and I find it difficult to exchange views in 140 characters or less - I find soundbites to be a bit unsatisfying. I don't do public displays of passion, nor am I prone to extremes - life is too complex for that.

So, can I use Twitter more effectively? Can I, for example, entertain? Educate?

* wanders off to reflect *

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

More adventures in moderation...

And so I'm the new Readers' Editor for Liberal Democrat Voice, a fine body of men and women - an interesting challenge indeed, and one that may, or may not, keep me busy.

What has become immediately obvious is the dilemma of balancing the desires of those who lean towards freedom against those who lean towards community. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in that there is a 'sweet spot' around which most can coalesce. The catch? The people who are most removed from that sweet spot are often the most challenging towards that consensus.

They aren't necessarily difficult, although they can be, and they can be the catalyst for improvements in the way things are done, if they are constructive in their criticism. Admittedly, the less constructive actions can also inspire change, not always of the type intended by the indivdual concerned...

I'm looking at the way Liberal Democrat Voice handles such knotty issues and it strikes me that there are three things to be balanced;

1. How to manage the site so as to ensure that the volunteer team enjoy running it - there's no point in taking the pleasure out of it or you risk not having a site at all.

2. Transparency - people need to know where the red lines are, and should have a broad degree of confidence that they will be consistently applied.

3. Inclusivity - people should be able to feel that they will be treated with respect by other participants.

So, how might that work?

That, I suspect, is the catch. Yes, I have some thoughts on the subject, but they aren't fully formed or, for that matter, necessarily the best. Therefore, I'm going to address the problem in bits, inviting our readers to give me the benefit of their thoughts and expertise, and then talk the results out with the team.

I'm just stepping outside. I may be gone some time...