Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Vote Mark Valladares for ALDE Council Delegation

I'm also running for re-election to the Party's delegation to ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe) Council...

It’s been twenty-five years since I first got involved in international politics - the Berlin Wall was still standing when I started! Four years ago, you were kind enough to elect me to the ELDR Council Delegation. And, as I had promised, I have continued to report back as best I can, using my blog, and Liberal Democrat Voice, ( to do so.

ELDR may now be ALDE, but my approach to the role hasn’t changed, so that members can find out what is happening amongst the European liberal family.

Still there, still working hard...

Since my re-election two years ago, I have, amongst other things;
  • Ÿserved as co-Returning Officer for ALDE’s internal elections
  • Ÿworking with our sister parties to reach consensus on policy issues,
  • Ÿsuggested ways of making ALDE more accessible to smaller parties in more difficult political environments, and;
  • developed an ethical framework for ALDE’s fundraising as a member of its Financial Advisory Committee
The expertise I’ve gained in political administration - I’ve held most posts possible at Local Party level, and been Regional Secretary in two Regions - has been valuable when analysing accounts and considering how best to organise activity, and I’d really like another two years to continue doing so on your behalf.

Away from European politics, I am a professional administrator and, in what spare time remains, Treasurer of my Local Party (Mid Suffolk). I blog at, where you can find out more about me, or, if you have any questions, please e-mail me at markv233[at]aol[dot]com.

Vote Mark Valladares for International Relations Committee!

It is that time when ballot papers start to hit doormats and inboxes, and whilst you're probably inundated with people seeking your support, I hope that you'll find time for another supplicant... 

Twenty-five years ago, I found myself in a hotel in Aarhus, Denmark, attending a seminar on youth culture, my first international event as a Liberal Democrat.

I was hooked and, within the year, I had been elected as the International Officer of Liberal Youth’s forebears. I travelled the world, or at least Europe, and enjoyed nearly every minute of it. But life got in the way, as it usually does, and I had to focus on my career and my family rather than on politics.

Luckily, I then found myself involved in the international wing of the US Democratic Party, and got a birds-eye view of politics US-style over a five-year period covering the second Clinton administration, including volunteering at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Since then, I have become involved in our European work as an ALDE Council delegate and learned a great deal about international relations, and how political parties in different countries work, and now, I would like to apply some of that knowledge as a member of the International Relations Committee.

It isn’t just about meeting and greeting foreign dignitaries, it’s about suggesting policy to our Foreign Affairs teams in Parliament, organising our input into Liberal International and ALDE and so much more. I think that my background in international politics, combined with the work I have done in various organisational roles for the party, will enable me to make a valuable contribution to the work of the committee.

I’m not your usual suspect - I don’t live in London, I’m from a mixed British/Indian background, and I report back what I do as a committee member. If that appeals to you, then please give me your first preference, or as high a preference as you can otherwise.

You can find out more about me via my blog, or e-mail me at markv233[at]aol[dot]com.

Monday, October 27, 2014

And at the end of it all, I'll be at home...

So, I have made it to London City Airport after a day of taxis, trains, a tram and an Embraer 190SR. It has been fun, especially the train rides and, whilst the last leg of my trip involves Abellio Greater Anglia, it has been worth the effort.

The Eurostar Italia service from Rome to Milan was very efficient, even at 291km/h, with a welcome glass of prosecco, a small but perfect sweet treat and surprisingly good espresso, but the Swiss Railways EC316 was a step up in terms of sheer enjoyment.

The veal schnitzel Zürich style was served with spätzel and a rich cream sauce, and accompanied by a merlot from Ticino, we wound our way up through Chiasso, Lugano and Bellinzona before tunnelling through the Alps and gliding back down into German Switzerland. The train glides through the curves as lakes, mountains and waterfalls compete for your attention. There were even cows with bells at their necks - I find that strangely reassuring somehow.

We had made most of the journey thus far in sunshine, but it was decidedly gloomier north of the Alps. Despite that, there was still plenty to look at as we skirted lakes and weaved through towns. And, at precisely 16.28, as scheduled, we pulled into Zürich's Hauptbahnhof.

I had planned to take the S-Bahn to the airport but, as I reached the station building, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a tram with Zürich Flughafen on the destination board. Time to go, I thought, bought myself a ticket and settled down for a gentle forty-minute ride.

I'm still not a big fan of airports, but I will say this for Zürich, it is easy to get to, with intercity trains, S-Bahn, buses and trams all connected up - so very Swiss and thus so very efficient. Of course, I did a little shopping - that seems to be what airports are for these days - some chocolate for Ros and I, and a bottle of cherry eau de vie for those cold winter evenings.

And now, I guess, I ought to head for home. Lisbon (again) next, then Tallinn. Where next after that, I wonder...

#goingtheprettywayhome - more adventures by train...

Flying is all very well - efficient, direct for the most part, functional - but, in truth, short haul air travel is about as exciting and glamorous as an average morning commute. And so, given half a chance, I will seek more inspiring ways home.

Today, I am on my way from Rome to mid-Suffolk so, naturally, I should be on my way to Fiumicino for my flight. Instead, I am on the Frecciarossa to Milan...

It's very nice here. The welcome glass of prosecco is a plus and there's some pretty scenery outside - hilltop towns, fields full of sheep and general pleasantness. Meanwhile, Milan is getting closer at about 240 km/h. This is, you might say, not the classic Greater Anglia experience...

And, of course, there are direct flights to London City from Milan. Which is possibly why I'm booked onto a connecting Euro City train to Zurich...

I am, I admit, fortunate in many ways. I have, due to my working a arrangements, time enough to travel and, whilst I am hardly rich, I do have sufficient resources to travel in relative comfort. And, given that I am not getting any younger - an odd, yet frequently used phrase - it would be a pity not to take such opportunities when they arise.

So, glass of prosecco in hand, Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine on the headphones, I head from the passion of Mediterranean Europe to the cool efficiency of the Swiss Confederation. I'll see you on the other side...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A little night music... the Liberal connection

I did promise one more go at Psalm 122, and whilst Purcell was all well and good, Edwardian England required something a bit bolder, a bit more splendid. And Hubert Parry was just the man to produce it...

You may recognise a few of the flourishes that appear in his perhaps more famous work, the setting of William Blake's "Jerusalem".

I suppose that, in a properly diverse world, it will never be sung at Federal Conference again, which to the mind of someone who looks back with some nostalgia at the old Liberal Party, is a pity, as it does stir the blood...

And where, exactly, was the cat? I like cats...

To London on Wednesday for a social occasion, as the Parliamentary Party in the Lords, newly buttressed by its new members, was invited with significant others, spouses, grandchildren etc. to 10 Downing Street by someone described as the Deputy Prime Minister but who I tend to think of as 'that nice young man who was so impressive when I was his Returning Officer in 1997'.

I don't come into London so much these days - ghastly place, crowded with expensive beer, where you can only get decent cheese at Borough Market (and have you seen the prices?) and where people seem to think that standing right in front of the doors when you're trying to get off of a tube train is so obviously clever (I increasingly have to resist the urge to wave a walking stick at them angrily, even though I don't possess one... yet). But the prospect of meeting some old friends and, just possibly, some celebrity glitter, was enough to lure me onto a Greater Anglia train.

Sadly, Freya was off somewhere - she probably isn't Liberal Democrat friendly - but it was a fun evening anyway. There are no pictures - mobile phones are taken from you at the entrance - and you are pretty well supervised but the chance to catch up with the Family, as I lovingly think of them, made the effort well worth it.

The 'perfectly charming young man' spoke to an audience who were respectful in the way that grandparents can be towards great-nephews and the like sometimes but were rather more there to catch up with old friends, check out the soft furnishings and mark the nibbles for quality and quantity. And for the spouses, it's a chance to catch up, ask after each other's grandchildren and what they've been up to since last we met. It is surprisingly gemütlich, for want of a better word.

But, just as we were talking about quilting and swapping stories about late, lamented colleagues, it was time to be herded gently back towards Whitehall and back to our normal lives.

I'm sorry I missed you, Freya. Maybe next time?...

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A little night music... take two.

Yesterday, I brought you Monteverdi's version of Psalm 122, and wasn't it good? The words may not have been terribly familiar to you, especially given that it was in Latin - and no, I don't speak Latin either, it not having been a core subject at my North London comprehensive school.

Ironically, in English, they are rather more familiar, although not in their most famous setting for more than sixty years now, for Psalm 122 has been sung at the entrance of the monarch at every British coronation since that of Charles I in 1626. So, here is Ian Esswood, counter-tenor, singing Henry Purcell's 1685 version...

But I'm not entirely done with this theme yet, as there is a liberal twist to follow...

I, candidate, who are about to place myself in the hands of Federal Conference delegates, salute you

It is that time again that comes around every two years when I take a deep breath, fill in a nomination form, agonise over the drafting of a manifesto and file it all in the hope that enough friends, colleagues and complete strangers will see it within themselves to put their faith in a mildly bemused bureaucrat to perform some service or another to the Party.

Historically, I ran for things that no sane person did too willingly - I served five terms as a Regional Secretary and was opposed just once - but now find myself wanting the sorts of roles that others, often more assertive than I, want too. Self-promotion does not come easy, which given the successful career that my father has built in the advertising industry, is perhaps counter-intuitive. But, being a nice person is not enough, I need to give people reason to vote for me over the other guys/girls/sea otters.

And so a Valladares manifesto goes through a number of iterations, filtered through the eyes of people better at this sort of thing than I am - Ros, for example - until a document exists that reflects me well enough. I then file it with the Returning Officer and wait.

Campaigning is not easy - you have no access to the electoral register and must rely on the network of friends and acquaintances, of contacts made through years of Returning Officer gigs, committee meetings and those small acts of kindness that are hopefully remembered when the manifesto booklet is studied. My blog helps, as does my reportage on ALDE activities for Liberal Democrat Voice, as I seek to report back on my activities as one of the Party's representatives. I have, radically, done things, and so have a record to run on.

It is, nonetheless, with a sense of trepidation that I await the verdict of the electorate, especially as I would really like to win - ALDE has been a valuable experience personally and, I like to think, I have played a part in helping it to work effectively and in its policy making, seeking compromises that bring different sister parties together in establishing a shared, liberal vision for Europe.

No doubt my opponents will all want to win too, and will offer up their skills, knowledge and experience. I hope some of them win too, just not so many of them that I don't...

Dwelling on an imagined past - a bureaucrat on the shore

At some point, way back in my family's history, someone important boarded a wooden sailing ship somewhere in Portugal and set off into, if not the unknown, something a bit riskier than a trip along the coast. They probably weren't historically important - indeed, I have no idea who they were or whether or not they even existed - but if they did, they are likely to have had a not insignificant role in the life of this rural, liberal bureaucrat.

That's a bit cryptic, I guess, so perhaps a little context is in order.

My father's family is from the Catholic, East Indian community of what is now Mumbai, but which was, until 1662, a Portuguese colony consisting of seven or so swampy islands inhabited by fishing communities. It was sufficiently important to have at least one church, however, and there has been one on the site of the Valladares family parish of St Michael's since 1534. Naturally, being a prosletising faith, especially in that era, the colonists sought to convert the locals, aided and abetted by Jesuit missionaries.

They were clearly successful, for when the British decided that Bombay was to be the commercial capital of Western India, a relatively well-educated Catholic community was ready and willing to fit in, one that my ancestors were part of.

Yes, the connection is a bit tenuous but a logical one nonetheless, and it for that reason that I always feel a curious sense of wistfulness when in Lisbon, where Ros and I were the weekend before last. Ros was there to work, naturally, whilst I was... well, just there, really, tagging along for the ride.

And, although I hadn't been there for some years, Lisbon feels comfortable. I can walk the streets and absorb the atmosphere of city life, ride the wonderful rickety trams as they make their switchback journeys up to the castle and the Alfama district, I can slip discreetly into the great São and light candles for my late grandmother and for my father in the hopes of preserving his health and strength, I can eat bacalhau and drink some of the fantastic and relatively unknown wines from the north of the country. It seems like the sort of lifestyle I could have handled had life turned out differently.

But enough mawkishness.

One of the advantages of this trip was that I got to scope out the city in preparation for my return visit in less than four weeks, for the ALDE Congress is taking place there next month and, as an elected member of the ALDE Council, I am expected to attend. It is, I admit, not an onerous responsibility given my relationship with the city. I've found a hotel that works, restaurants worthy of repeat custom and have a good idea as to how the public transport system works. I even know where the sea otters are...

There is, however, the small matter of a trip to the Eternal City to deal with first...

Friday, October 24, 2014

A little night music...

I have always had a fondness for classical music and, thanks to a former neighbour, Ian Harwood, I discovered a previously untapped love of (relatively) early music. Ian was a lutenist, and an inspiration to many in the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. And it was his passion for the work of the likes of Henry Purcell that acted as a bridge from there to the works of one of music's great pioneers, Claudio Monteverdi.

And so, as a distraction from the rather chaotic, often unnecessarily harsh world of politics, I offer you L'Arpegiatta, performing the Vespro della Beata Vergine - Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.

At 24:15, you'll find Psalm 122: Laetatus sum, which some Catholic readers in particular might be familiar with. Have a listen, I'll be back tomorrow with another take on it...

It's time for another absurd microstate... Welcome to country number 56, the Vatican City

I find myself, slightly unexpectedly, in Rome this weekend.

I have, curiously, never here before, and whilst I only have two days to look around, I intend to 'collect' another of the great Catholic sites, the Vatican - I've already been to Lourdes and Jerusalem (I've walked the Stations of the Cross). For a self-described failed Catholic - I feel vaguely guilty about it but not actually guilty enough to do anything - I've been in a surprising number of Catholic Churches across the globe, and what sort of liberal bureaucrat could miss the home of the world's greatest religious bureaucracy?

And yes, I guess the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and gelato will all put in an appearance before Sunday, when my time here comes to an end.

For on Monday, I have a plane to catch... in Zurich. It's a long story...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sometimes, the art of good bureaucracy is broadly defining just what isn't there...

Today has been, in turns, frustrating and mildly exhilarating (actually, can you be mildly exhilarated?). Frustrating because, courtesy of Liberal Democrat Voice, I have been reminded that younger people can be reactionary, ageist and intolerant just as convincingly as older people. I've also spent forty-five minutes waiting for British Airways to answer what seemed, on the face of it, to be a pretty simple request, only for it to be made to appear like the height of optimism.

On the other hand, people close to me have had good news regarding their careers and, perhaps most surprisingly, I appear to finally have a grasp on my new(ish) job.

It would be harsh to say that I haven't been entirely happy in my current role. Bemused and slightly unsettled, yes, unhappy, no. After many years of bureaucracy in an environment where certainty is hard-wired into process, and backed up with legislation, I had grown deeply comfortable with the idea that, confronted with a new situation, I could come up with a definitive answer. As a liberal bureaucrat, that feels right, in that a rules-based environment is one in which good administration can flourish, as long as those rules have built-in safeguards and offer everyone equality before the law.

My new job, however, which I can't actually talk about, is more of an evaluating one. I am presented with a lot of data, and a range of operational tools with which to analyse it. It may, or may not be, complete, it may, or may not be, accurate. There is, if you like, uncertainty - definitely not in my comfort zone.

And so, it has been necessary to adapt. That's easier said than done - I'm not as young as I was, and increasingly set in my slightly idiosyncratic ways, and I respond less well to direct philosophical challenges than perhaps I once did. It has not come easily. The challenge, if you like, has been to put it into a context which sits comfortably and yet allows me to be as effective as I can be.

But, this week, things have fallen into place. In our half-yearly performance assessment, my manager declared her puzzlement that I see my work as a logic problem, feeling as she does that there doesn't have to be an exact answer - often, there can't be. What you can achieve, she believes, is a position where you have an argument that stands up to rigorous, independent scrutiny if necessary.

That makes sense, I think, but appals my inner control freak. And so, I have dwelt on what she said, and carried out some analysis on some of the data sets requiring my attention as a means of developing a modus operandi that sits more comfortably. Interestingly, I'm not sure that I agree exactly with her analysis, but have realised that there is a way in which I can achieve a similar result.

You see, if I can establish all of the areas of certainty, I can then define the area of uncertainty in terms of a series of expressed doubts, which can then be queried by means of interrogation and, if necessary, testing of hypotheses. There is, if you like, an internal logic which might not provide for exactitude, but does produce an 'exactly about' outcome which feels fair and reasonable.

It was, if you like, that light bulb moment, a realisation that this feels right and good and philosophically sound, not something that most people would associate with bureaucracy, but then, perhaps, I'm not your typical bureaucrat...

Thursday, October 09, 2014

A different take on the Shipping Forecast...

Ah yes, the Shipping Forecast, a boon to mariners of all sorts, and a curiously beguiling element of the Test Match Special experience on Radio 4 - listeners on long wave have the commentary interrupted for it occasionally.

Ros and I have, as part of our routine, the occasional dinner at the Pier Hotel, Harwich - Ros has business in the town in her role as a member of the Board of the Harwich Haven Authority. One evening, I had retired to use the facilities and, whilst in there, was surprised to hear a voice, even though there was nobody in there.

Listening more closely, it appeared to be the Shipping Forecast, which seemed appropriate, given that Harwich is very much a naval town. But then I listened more closely...

And so, courtesy of Brian Perkins, here is Les Barker's version of "The Shipping Forecast", from a 4-CD set entitled "Guide Cats for the Blind". Take it away, Brian...

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Is understanding the implications of coalition really that difficult?

There are moments when, as someone who places quite a lot of faith in the basic decency and common sense of the British public, I get a bit depressed. Today saw an example of the sort of seemingly wilful blindness that makes our politics so frustrating.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceA commenter on Liberal Democrat Voice, who shall remain nameless, but is a supporter of a political party beginning with L but without a D in it, was raging against the Party for the bedroom tax and the reduction in the top rate of tax to 45%. Liberal Democrats will, he claimed, get wiped out because there are so many people who won't forgive us for enabling the Conservatives to do these things.

One finds oneself wondering what his response will be if Labour have to go into a coalition in order to form a government. Will he expect them to deliver all of their programme, regardless of the view of any junior partner, or will he be comfortable with a degree of compromise in order to deliver key planks of the manifesto? Clearly, he is of the 'no compromise' school of politics, and perhaps he is lucky enough not to have ever been in a position where political compromises have to be made.

I don't like a number of things that Conservatives have wanted to do in government. However, in order that we might do some of the things that we believe are right for the country, we have to let them do likewise, otherwise nothing gets done at all. And, some of the things that Conservatives have required in exchange for taking the working poor out of income tax, long-term pension reform, the Pupil Premium and action on climate change are pretty stupid, or delivered by means that are almost catastrophically inept - the bedroom tax, a cap on net migration, free schools, to name but three. But, if they don't get those, we don't get our stuff.

It is, if you like, a business arrangement.

"But,", I hear my Labour supporting commenter cry, "if you hadn't allowed them to form a government, they couldn't have done all of those terrible things!". And, I must admit, that is true. At least, they wouldn't have been able to do them yet. My Labour friend would have then expected Liberal Democrats to vote down a Queen's Speech, in which the Conservatives would have outlined their plans, even though there was no alternative platform on offer. The result, another General Election, the result of which would have been what exactly?

Labour certainly couldn't have formed a majority administration. They would have had to outline how they were going to address the deficit, or hope that nobody really did, in which case why would those voters who had deserted them return? The Conservatives might have taken some seats from the Liberal Democrats, campaigning on the basis that the country needs a majority government, so wavering Lib Dems should switch to them instead. And, as a better funded party, they might have gained a majority - that would have been a far more likely outcome, although not a guaranteed one.

And, with a majority, you now know what you would have got. Not pretty, eh?

There are, of course, a whole series of counterfactuals, any of which might have come to pass in a second 2010 election, all of them less likely than an outcome where the Conservatives had a majority or were the largest party.

For Labour, it is easy. They will probably never know what it is like to be the junior partner in a coalition at Westminster, or indeed, in Edinburgh or Cardiff. They will expect to dominate any coalition arrangement. But if their members, activists and supporters are incapable of accepting that a third party might have an option other than a partnership with Labour, or that a junior partner might have a wishlist of its own that doesn't sit entirely comfortably with Labour policy, then finding a dancing partner after an inconclusive 2015 General Election might be surprisingly difficult...

Monday, October 06, 2014

"Don't let's be beastly to the Tories"

One of the rather depressing aspects of this political conference season is the general unpleasantness with which senior party figures attack their political rivals. You would never guess, would you, that a General Election is just seven months away...

When Noel Coward sang "Don't let's be beastly to the Germans", he was, of course, being ironic, attacking those who wanted to go easy on the defeated Germans after World War II. And I don't particularly want to go easy on the Conservatives - I'm not one, I don't want to be one, and I don't agree with the basic philosophy of conservatism. However, I dimly recall that my party has been in coalition with them for the past four years, and so I do wonder whether there is any point to the rudeness that has been so commonplace over the past few days.

Yes, I acknowledge that the Conservatives have been pretty unpleasant about us over the past week or so - they don't like us, I understand that - but that is rather their problem than ours. We are a barrier between what they can do and what they would like to do. And yes, they might benefit from a little reflection on why they didn't get a majority given the absence of a credible right-wing alternative in 2010, but it would go against the generality of Conservatism thinking for them to do so. They believe that they should exercise power, after all.

We are, however, supposed to be different - more cerebral, more contemplative, believers in a new style of politics that is collaborative and pluralist. Abusing one's opponents makes us just like them.

A new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats saying that, whilst we have worked with the Conservatives since 2010 because we felt that it was what the country had voted for, and that we were able to agree a programme of action with them that allowed us to achieve some of our long-term aims for our country, we have ideas of our own and intend to campaign upon them.

A new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats treat our opponents with respect on the grounds that, regardless of whether or not we agree with them on a particular issue, we respect their right to hold that stance and disagree with it because of X, or Y. Sometimes, we might agree with it because of Z.

And, perhaps most importantly, given the growing disconnect between party politics and the public at large, a new style of politics would see Liberal Democrats encouraging voters to engage with them, and to challenge all politicians to explain what they would do and why they deserved positive support, rather than engender fear or loathing, as is so often the case now.

Liberal Democrats are at their best when they campaign positively, emphasising hope over fear, treating voters like adults. In 2010, we attracted support by being positive and, whilst 2015 is likely to be rather less uplifting, if we are to rebuild, we need to remember what it was like to stand on a doorstep, leaflet in hand, knowing that we were a bit different.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A reminder of what we have to look forward to, after winter has passed...

This is Woodbridge, looking upstream from the riverbank, on a sunny Sunday morning. And, as summer has turned to autumn, and winter approaches, it's nice to know that there will be something to look forward to as spring returns...

Sweden: and if you thought being the junior partner in a coalition was bad here...

I may have noted, if only on my Twitter feed, that Ros and I had recently found ourselves in Stockholm as a General Election campaign for the Riksdag was underway. The ruling four-party centre-right coalition consisting of the Moderates, the Liberal People's Party (Folkpartiet), the Centre Party (Centerpartiet) and the Christian Democrats were up against a centre-left coalition consisting of the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Feminist Alternative and the Left Party, with the ultra-nationalist and generally beyond the pale Swedish Democrats as an increasingly prominent repository for protest votes.

The election finally took place on 14 September and produced an astonishingly inconclusive result;
  • Social Democrats - 113 seats (+1)
  • Moderates - 84 seats (-23)
  • Swedish Democrats - 49 seats (+29)
  • Greens - 25 seats (no change)
  • Centre Party - 22 seats (-1)
  • Left Party - 21 seats (+2)
  • Liberal People's Party - 19 seats (-5)
  • Christian Democrats - 16 seats (-3)

The outgoing Coalition were left with 141 seats, the opposition from the left 159 seats, and with 175 needed to gain a majority and the Swedish Democrats ruled out by everyone else, it was time to negotiate.

The Social Democrats reached out to the Centre Party and the Liberal People's Party without success, and concluded that the Left Party was simply unviable as a partner in government. And so, on Friday, Social Democrat leader, Stefan Lofven, announced the formation of an administration consisting of just his party and the Greens, holding just 138 seats, with 211 opposition representatives.

The Greens have never been in government before, the Social Democrats have never been in coalition and, in order to win votes, they will need to win over other parties. Anything that attracts the Left will probably repel the two liberal parties, and vice versa.

Life is going to be very interesting in the coming months, I suspect...

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Congratulations to Jonathan Calder, double Auld Johnstons all round!

The news that Jonathan Calder has won the Liberal Democrat Voice 'Blog of the Year' contest has reached Creeting St Peter and it is all the more welcome for being thoroughly hard-earned.

I have, in the past, written of the sheer quality and diversity of his writing, and my vague suspicion that the character that is Lord Bonkers has rather overshadowed his other work. He has, over the years, gathered more bridesmaid outfits than one might believe credible.

There is a dark side to this success, however, in that the history of the award does not bode well for the survival of the blog - most winners end up drifting away either from the Party, or blogging, or in some cases, both.

I can only express a wish that you keep up the good work... and enjoy your turn judging next year's award nominees...

Liberal Democrats, candidates and diversity (part 2) - why do so few people apply to be Parliamentary candidates?

Yesterday, I took a look back at some of what has happened over the past decade. Today, I want to start to explore some of the general barriers that prevent many perfectly capable people from playing an active role in national politics.

Let's start at the beginning (as Julie Andrews put it, a very good place to start). To be a Parliamentary candidate, one rather needs to be a member of a political party - the almost total lack of success of independents since the introduction of universal suffrage (and political parties were relatively loosely affiliated until the mid-nineteenth century) demonstrates only too powerfully that, if you want to be an MP, you need friends, supporters and, most importantly, a structure which makes use of resources effectively.

There was a time when people joined political parties in large numbers. In the 1950’s, Conservative Party membership peaked at nearly 3,000,000, whilst Labour Party membership was just over 1,000,000. Liberal Party membership data appears only to go back to the beginning of the sixties, but at that time, the Party had a membership in excess of 250,000. Many more people were at least affiliated to a political movement, regardless of the level of their active involvement and, theoretically, the pool of potential candidates was much larger.

Those membership figures have declined so dramatically over the subsequent half-century that, if replicated in most other volunteer-based organisations, the word ‘crisis’ would barely cover it. Conservative Party membership is now about 134,000 – down more than 95% from its peak – and Labour claim 190,000 – down more than 80% - whilst the Liberal Democrats claim about 45,000 – down more than 80% as well.

So, a much smaller pool of potential candidates is one reason why ‘ordinary’ people don’t enter Parliament – ‘ordinary’ people don’t join political parties any more.

Being a Parliamentary candidate is resource intensive. Attending meetings, campaigning, organising, developing strategy – all of these things take time, and in our increasingly hectic world, many people are time poor or. With both elements of a couple now working in most cases, all of the other stuff that needs to get done, childcare, housework, shopping, for example, falls more equally than it did in the fifties, when a wife was far more likely to be at home to do all of those things, and there is far less time to do it all.

At the end of a long day, the idea of going out to meet strangers, some of whom are likely to be less than entirely welcoming, and persuade them to vote for you is a tough sell. And, as membership levels drop, your party has less support to offer, so you’ll be doing more and more of yourself.

Increasingly, the expectation is that candidates will be more and more full-time as a campaign approaches, which means giving up income, if you are lucky enough to be self-employed, or perhaps your job, if it is impossible to combine extensive campaigning with it. That means a significant drop in household income, which may require you to have significant savings to tide you over, or for your partner to earn enough to tide you both over, or the accrual of debt. I know of candidates who have taken years to repair their finances after an intensive campaign to win a Parliamentary seat.

I remember one former MP remarking that, before he won his seat, he had spent over £30,000 of his own money campaigning, and that he didn’t think that he was alone in that regard. Travelling the country to approval and selection meetings, attending training sessions and party conferences, buying clothes that make you look the part – the public can be so shallow like that – none of these come cheap, and that’s before you become the candidate for a winnable seat.

There aren’t many 'ordinary' people who have the means, let alone the will, to spend that much money just to create the possibility of becoming an MP – how many people do you know who have that much money to hand, and how representative of the wider community are they likely to be?

And, if you belong to a political party which is less likely to have safe seats, the risk/reward calculation is even less promising...

Friday, October 03, 2014

Apparently, most highflyers in the private sector don’t think of themselves as monkeys…

On Tuesday, I wrote here about the issue of public sector pay in the light of George Osborne’s announcement inflicting further pay restraint in the sector. And so, it was with interest that I read in The Times of the appointment of a Chief Executive for the Civil Service, John Manzoni, described as a Whitehall insider. Manzoni is the Head of the Major Projects Authority, having taken up that role nine months ago following a spell as Chief Executive of a Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy Inc. Hardly an insider, I would suggest.

In July, following the decision to separate Sir Bob Kerslake from his job, David Cameron announced that he wanted someone with substantial experience of running a big private-sector organisation but, as the summer progressed, it became clear that very few business leaders were interested in the job.

Might the salary, a relatively meagre £190,000 per annum, have been a factor in their disinterest?...

Random walrus corner...

Handsome devil, isn't he?
It isn't often that walruses are in the news, so the coverage of large gatherings of walruses on the shores of Alaska has been very interesting, even if the news is somewhat troubling.
Climate change means that the icefloes which walruses use to raise their young and to rest between clam-digging expeditions have not formed this year, and so beaches are the only alternative. And they do so in huge groups, which seems a bit unlikely when you consider the number of likely enemies they would have onshore.
According to the Guardian, walruses are rather skittish - at least, as skittish as a creature weighing up to two tonnes with long, curved tusks can be.
Let's hope that this ends well, because whilst walruses are never going to get as much attention as pandas, whales or tigers, they are amazing creatures with personality...

Liberal Democrats, candidates and diversity (part 1) - a look back over my shoulder

It's been about a decade since I returned to what I would describe as active involvement within the Liberal Democrats after a partly, but not wholly, self-imposed exile, and one of the common threads in that time has been the issue of diversity, especially in relation to Parliamentary candidacy. This can be broken into two parts - gender and ethnicity.

In some ways, gender has been easier to deal with, even if the results have not reflected the efforts made. All of the data that I saw in my time as a member of the English Candidates Committee indicated that, the rate at which women were approved and selected was broadly reflective of the rate at which they applied. Indeed, women appeared slightly more likely to succeed in getting approved, and marginally more successful at getting selected, than their male counterparts. It just appeared that, for reasons that have never become clear to me, that they weren't able to get through the one process that the Party doesn't control, i.e. the electorate.

In 2010, a number of excellent women candidates were selected to contest either top target seats or held seats where a male incumbent had chosen to retire.  And, had they been elected, the gender balance of the Commons Parliamentary Party would have been radically better than it now is.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, has proved to be more difficult. Given that the gender split amongst the population at large is broadly even everywhere, getting the processes right should mean that the outcome is broadly reflective of the community in the most simplistic sense. However, ethnicity is not homogeneous, nor are BAME communities evenly spread across the country. There isn't even a satisfactory definition of BAME that, in process terms, you can comfortably rely upon.

In Brent North, where I grew up, the various South Asian communities form nearly half of the population and Brent as a whole is a white minority borough. You might reasonably expect BAME candidates to be prominent and highly likely to be selected and elected. I now live in Bury St Edmunds, with a BAME population nearer 2%. If you believe that politics should reflect the community, then having one BAME district councillor might be a reasonable statistical outcome.

Therefore, if you want to take affirmative action, the nature of that action might be different in London than it might be in Suffolk. And yet, the Party's first effort at affirmative action, for the European Parliamentary selections in 2012, offered up the blunt instrument of a guaranteed place on the list in every Region. Worse still, it offered the illusionary benefit of being selected to be a candidate whilst offering no guarantee that any such candidate could be elected.

History shows that, even if you were top of your Regional list, you weren't going to get elected given the catastrophe that was the Liberal Democrat result in 2014, but even if our vote had trebled, it isn't clear to me that any BAME candidate would have been elected anyway. One might have given respectable marks for trying, but I would have failed the initiative for proportionality, process and outcome.

So, what are the problems, and are there any possible solutions out there?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Walrus in the mist - a day at the spa

I am, I admit, whatever the opposite of svelte is. Despite some vaguely good intentions, I am slightly too fond of beer, cheese and pork, and not fond enough of energetic pursuits.

This has not, over the years, distracted me from the serious business of enjoyment, and I am rather keen on being pampered from time to time, something I discovered on a trip to New Zealand about a decade ago. A day of zorbing in the morning, and the spa in the afternoon was just the thing for a recovering bureaucrat, and since then, if the opportunity arises, I am quite happy to surrender to the tender mercies of a good masseuse, or wallow in spa pools.

And so, I've spent today at the Aqua Sana spa at Centre Parcs, Elveden Forest, in west Suffolk, courtesy of a generous parental gift. I can relax in a comfy lounger, spend a few minutes in various scented steam rooms, differing in fragrance, temperature or humidity, or enjoy the powerful water jets in the hydrotherapy pool, or drink wine and eat healthy salads (perhaps not, now I think about it).

I brought the iPad so that I could write should I so fancy - I think more clearly when I am relaxed and undistracted - and have drafted some thoughts for another day. It is all rather peaceful and not terribly hard work.

Ah well though, back to the grind...

Arron Banks: is it really a good idea to insult former donors when they defect?

So, a former Conservative Party donor leaves the Party to join UKIP and, on hearing a senior figure in his former party say that he hasn't heard of him, decides to give not the £100,000 he originally intended to give, but £1,000,000 instead. Odd, really, on a whole range of levels.

It seems like a curiously unclassy response from William Hague, until you consider that it is entirely possible that he hadn't heard of him at all, especially if the amount was given locally or through a third party, as it seems the bulk of it was. However, the evidence appears to support the notion that Arron Banks had given a sum which, to most people, would be quite a lot of money, even if it wasn't as significant as Nigel Farage and UKIP claim it was.

It is noticeable that Mr Banks has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives or giving them money, in the event that their views mirror his in the future, so that his sense of insult has hurt them now and, possibly, in the future.

But, I suppose, it might make a few Conservative donors wonder how valued they really are if donations and long-term loans totalling £100,000 elicit a response of "who's he?" from a senior party figure. Instead, how much would it have hurt to say something along the lines of, "I didn't know Mr Banks personally, and I'm not aware as to exactly how much he has given in the past, but I would like to thank him for that support and hope that he might be able to return to the Conservatives in the future."?

Of course, it's your fault that politics is the preserve of lying toerags...

That is, I admit, a controversial statement. And, not unreasonably, you would expect me to have a justification for making it. It's just that the comment isn't intended for you, gentle reader.

You see, by the very fact that you're reading this, it is likely that you engage with, and take part in, our political system - most readers have come to this blog via the Liberal Democrat blog aggregator run by one of politics' unsung heroes, Ryan Cullen, who created it and manages it to this day. Some of you come via Twitter - all posts here are 'advertised' on my Twitter feed - and others because, occasionally someone out there likes something I have written and transmits it on to their audience (it is appreciated, so that you know).

It's everyone else that I'm a bit critical of. Yes, everyone is to blame, if you want me to be entirely honest. Politicians who make claims in the almost certain knowledge that, whilst they may be what you want, may not be possible, or even sensible, journalists who distort the agenda, misrepresent what has been said, wilfully set politicians and sections of the community against each other and can't be bothered to do even basic research before making claims, and members of the public who say one thing and vote for another.

A few days ago, I wrote asking why anyone would want to be a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate and a comment was posted, noting that ordinary people were, effectively, excluded from the political structures at national level, if you like, that ordinary people cannot become MPs.

This is true, to a degree, but it has nearly always been true. Does anyone remember a golden era when 'normal' people (whatever that means) were massively represented in Parliament? When the Labour Representation Committee was formed, vast numbers of ordinary people didn't even have the right to vote. and, until MPs started to be paid a salary, it was only the independently wealthy and those who had someone to support them, who could even consider doing it. Now, when even significant numbers of Labour front benchers are millionaires, can it be said that ordinary people get a look in?

Once upon a time, ordinary people joined political parties, were part of the process by which candidates were selected, had direct access to politicians to some extent. Now, they don't join, and the field of potential parliamentary candidates, and therefore MPs, is so much smaller. Someone claimed recently that more people go dogging in this country than are members of a political party, and whilst I am sceptical about the accuracy of that claim, the fact that it could be made and many would ask, "can that be true?", with genuine doubt, should worry all of us.

Assuming that only members of political parties are likely to become MPs, the chance of a random person becoming an MP is already less than 1%, before you start to rule out those political party members who join for social reasons, or are ineligible to run, or even have no interest in being a candidate at any level, let alone Westminster. It is, a very small, almost self-selecting field and, if you aren't a member of a party, you have conceded the field to them, effectively. And, many of you tell me, they're lying toerags. Well, you left them there...

So, I ought to examine some of the issues surrounding this, because it seems harsh to blame you and then walk away...

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"Hey, mister, wanna buy a prepaid benefits card?"

The announcement at the Conservative Party Conference by Iain Duncan Smith that he is planning to initiate a pilot scheme whereby prepaid cards are given to benefit claimants instead of money is one of those slightly uncomfortable proposals that make me think, "On one hand...".

The idea that the prepaid cards could only be used for a restricted range of purchases is superficially appealing, especially if you are the sort of person who believes that people should be appropriately grateful for what they receive. Such a person, and there are many of them out there, would claim that the purpose of welfare benefits is to pay for "essentials", whatever that might mean. They might go on to mutter their discontent over those whose benefit payments appear to be converted into profit for the pub trade.

And there is a legitimate, if difficult, debate to be had here - what do we believe a benefits system is for? What level of provision are we trying to achieve, and do the recipients of that provision have some obligations in return?

So, when Iain Duncan-Smith says;
I have long believed that where parents have fallen into a damaging spiral – drug or alcohol addiction, even problem debt, or more – we need to find ways to safeguard them – and more importantly, their families, their children, ensuring their basic needs are met.
he sounds reasonable, indeed caring. The catch is that his aim is to reduce the social security bill, and he gives the impression that he doesn't care much about the impact of his decisions. Indeed, he often finds ways of taking quite good ideas and finding ways of making them punitive.

This is not necessarily one of those good ideas though, and other, more knowledgeable people than I have pointed out issues relating to technology and cost and inconvenience to retailers and their customers, not to mention the likely impact on market stalls or rural claimants. And, of course, that is before you turn to the moral and ethical implications of deciding what is appropriate to people for them.
As Liberal Democrats, we need to be extremely cautious about this. Finding new ways of targetting financial support more efficiently and preventing the emergence of perverse disincentives to seek paid work are inevitable if we are to get the best use out of government spending, yet stigmatising the poor and the vulnerable any more than their status already does runs contrary to our belief that preserving the dignity of human beings is part of ensuring that they are not enslaved by conformity or poverty.
Trusting the majority of people to act responsibly is surely the right thing to do, and restricting their freedom through state action is hardly encouraging anything other than increasingly resigned dependence on others to run their lives.
And, on the whole, when the technological and moral complexities of any course of Government action suggest that something is both difficult to deliver and unlikely to have much, if any, positive impact, my feeling is that it isn't worth doing at all.
Unless, of course, your aim is to make a gesture. You wouldn't do that, would you Mr Duncan-Smith?...

Needham Market 4 Brightlingsea Regent 1 - the hot streak continues...

It's been an exciting first two months of the season for supporters of our local Ryman League Division 1 North football team, Needham Market FC. Taking advantage of some decent conditions for the sort of flowing football they like to play, they had won ten out of twelve in the league, and won three FA Cup ties into the bargain, coming into last night's home game with league newcomers Brightlingsea Regent, and only being kept out of first place on goal difference by Harlow Town.

The form line was slightly tricky, in that the visitors had been knocked out of the FA Cup by London Tigers, who had then been brushed aside fairly easily by Needham on Saturday. And yet, Brightlingsea had then drawn with the league leaders, so perhaps the two teams were more evenly matched than might have been predicted.

Needham Market kicked off, wearing their usual red, with Brightlingsea Regent in their change strip of mauve shirts with black trim, black shorts and black socks - their goalkeeper's pink shirt accessorising nicely with his central defenders. And, for fifteen minutes or so, it was pretty even, with the visitors playing some neat football. But it was that man again, Sam Newson, heading in from a corner to put the hosts in front.

18' - Needham Market 1 Brightlingsea Regent 0

The home team could relax a little and began to dominate proceedings, eventually pressurising the Regent goalkeeper into muffing a clearance and giving Needham an unexpected shot at an open goal, albeit from distance. His luck was in though, as the attempt rebounded off a post and away to safety.

With the news that Harlow were unexpectedly losing at Wroxham, the Marketman continued to take the game to Brightlingsea and it wasn't much of a surprise when, following a neat turn, Sam Newson made it two.

36' - Needham Market 2 Brightlingsea Regent 0

There was still time for Sam Newson who hit the post with a chip over the keeper following a bravely won 50:50 ball by Lemell Howells, making his first start for the club, but Harlow had equalised at Wroxham. Needham were still top of the table though, if things stayed as they were.

At half-time, it all looked pretty comfortable, but then, I had thought that on Saturday...

The second half started relatively quietly, with most of the action at the Brightlingsea end, until under pressure from Lemell Howell, Brightlingsea conceded a soft throw-in on their right flank. Quick movement saw the ball reach Luke Ingram on the right-hand edge of their penalty area with time and space, and he found the net with a low shot.

63' - Needham Market 3 Brightlingsea Regent 0

Unfortunately, Harlow almost simultaneously took the lead at Wroxham and thus were, for the time being, back on top of the table. Time to bring on some fresh legs, decided manager, Mark Morsley, and Ingram, Howell and Newson were all withdrawn, with Clarke, Crisp and Cunningham coming on in an evident bid to improve the goal difference position.

However, after a goalmouth scramble in the Needham box, the referee blew for a penalty and beckoned Ian Westlake for what didn't seem likely to be a friendly chat and a request for an autograph. The red card was shown, and Needham were down to ten men. Brightlingsea skipper Josh Gould stepped up to take the penalty, and put it away comfortably.

76' - Needham Market 3 Brightlingsea Regent 1

Were we to see another ten minutes like we did on Saturday? No, as the Marketmen looked just as threatening with ten men as they had with eleven, calm in defence, incisive in attack. And when Ryan Crisp received the ball on the halfway line, held it up nicely and then took on the defence, allowing George Clarke to get up in support, his subsequent neat pass sat up invitingly for Clarke to crash one into the net.

87' - Needham Market 4 Brightlingsea Regent 1

There was still time for Crisp to make and miss a good opening before the final whistle, but Needham were home safely for another win and three valuable points in their quest for promotion. Brightlingsea weren't a bad side, perhaps lacking penetration a little - they've only scored more than one goal in a league game twice in their first thirteen games - but if they can adjust to the higher skill levels required, they should be alright this season.

And so, Needham stay level on points with Harlow Town at the top of the table, with a goal difference of +17 to Harlow's +18. Next up for the Marketmen, Romford away, whilst Harlow entertain AFC Sudbury. Perhaps our local rivals can do us a favour...